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Pluggin’ Away

by Steve LaCerra • in
  • On the Digital Edge
  • September 2018
• Created: September 14, 2018

The Bright (and Dark) Side of Software Plug-ins

Being a live sound engineer in the 21st century is a beautiful thing. The tools at our disposal are fantastic. Audio networking is a reality, loudspeaker and power amp technology is growing by leaps and bounds, and digital console technology has matured to the point where digital desks are reliable, easy to use (usually), and packed full of features we only dreamed of 20 years ago.

‡‡         The Good

Many digital desks also offer the ability to use third-party plug-ins for processing, so we’re no longer locked in to the compressor or reverb that comes onboard; we can buy emulations of just about any piece of gear imaginable ranging from a Fairchild limiter to a vintage dbx 160 to an EMT 140 plate reverb — some of which would be all but impossible to take on the road.

However, there may come a point where these software toys become a distraction and get in the way of our ability to work efficiently. Sometimes there are too many choices and not enough time to dive into all of them. It’s very easy to look at a new plug-in from your favorite manufacturer and think “that’s exactly what I need.” Sometimes it is exactly what you need, but some of the time it’s more about the instant gratification. “I can put the XYZ Drum Re-Combobulator on my tom tracks and they’ll instantly sound fantastic.” Maybe that’s true but let’s hope that the drummer has taken time to make sure their kit sounds good. If it doesn’t, there ain’t no plug-in in the world gonna save yer butt. If the kit does sound good, you probably won’t need to EQ the living daylights out of the tom mics anyway.

‡‡         The Bad

Regardless, there’s a huge temptation to “collect” plug-ins but I find this a little silly. I buy a plug-in when I can’t do something I want to do using the tools I already have. I don’t feel a need for 25 varieties of EQ; when we mix on analog desks there is one EQ, and you can’t change the vintage or the number of bands. The EQ on some older desks didn’t sound that great, so maybe moving or changing the microphone was a better idea, but we survived and thrived. Many engineers from the analog days “played” those consoles like a musical instrument, learning the ins and outs of their EQ and developing an uncanny ability to make the most of it.

I’m not going to give you a “boo hoo hoo, the analog days are gone,” but there’s value in really knowing what an audio tool can do. Take, for example, EQ plug-ins. Right now, I “own” about ten EQ plug-ins [I put the word “own” in quotes because using a plug-in is contingent upon variables such as operating system, software revisions and copy protection schemes — any of which can go south and make a plug-in inoperable]. One of these EQs was purchased because it was on sale and I was curious. So far, I have found it to be absolutely useless, especially compared to the other EQ plug-ins already in my arsenal. How did I arrive at that conclusion? I tried it on a wide variety of sources ranging from acoustic guitar to drums to bass and horns. Similarly, when I was an audio pup and discovered dbx’s original 160/161 compressor, I tried it on every source I could find. One hundred and fifty years later, that’s how I know that if I want to smack the pants out of a sound, the dbx 160 VU (plug-in or hardware) is a good choice. Subtle compression? Maybe not so much.

‡‡         The Ugly (Do Some Homework)

One way not to get bogged down and overwhelmed with an abundance of plug-ins is to really dig in and try the ones you already have on a wide variety of instruments. That’s the only way you’ll know that a certain EQ sounds really smooth on the hi-hat, or that you can use a certain compressor on a lead vocal without making it sound like it’s compressed.

If this sounds like a lot of work, it is. You’ll need to make some time either at home or at a sound check to experiment. For example, try a compressor with a ratio of 3:1 and then set the threshold so that you get about 6 to 8 dB of compression. Listen to what it does to a kick drum or electric bass. Then change the attack time and listen to how the compressor reacts. Changing the attack time on certain compressors can have an effect similar to changing the threshold, where all of a sudden the comp grabs hold of your sound and wrestles it into submission. You know that bypass button? Click it and listen for the difference. Does the bottom-end change? Does the top-end get dull? You’d be surprised at how many compressors change the timbre of the bottom-end on a bass, not to mention how changing the attack time can emphasize (or de-emphasize) the sound of fingers or a pick on the strings.

When you’re becoming familiar with an EQ, concentrate on one band at a time. Crank the gain up around 10 or 12 dB. Don’t look at the curve — it’ll only scare you. Then sweep the frequency control. Due to the high gain you just dialed in, you’ll easily be able to hear what the EQ is doing and how it sounds when you sweep the frequency. This is easier to hear than using a cut. When you find the frequency you’re listening for, you can moderate the boost or apply a cut. Reach for the bandwidth control next, and you may want to bring back that big boost to more easily hear the effect of the bandwidth control.

One of the things I like to do when I’m learning a new reverb (or delay) is route a kick drum into it. Kick drum is the acid test for reverb — if a kick sounds good in a particular reverb, you can be fairly confident that other instruments will sound good. Listen to what happens to the bottom-end of the kick. Does the bottom end roll around uncontrollably? That could be due to excessive reverb time, or you may need to apply a low-cut filter. Does the top-end get sizzly and splashy? You may need to roll off the high-frequency response or change the damping factor. Does the reverb “chatter?” Ugh. Try another plug-in.

‡‡         The Payoff

Such adjustments are easily made once you know what to listen for, and when you understand what each parameter can do to the sound. It’s a bit of an investment in time and effort, but you’ll yield the rewards in the long run.

Steve “Woody” La Cerra is the tour manager and front of house engineer for Blue Öyster Cult.

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