Audio Plugins overview
Before we get to the plugins….
I’m assuming that if you’re reading this, you’re likely to be a newcomer to digital audio, so I’ll start with the broad view.
If you’re just beginning this journey, the world of audio recording can seem very bewildering, so I’ll start the basic tools that you'll need.
I realise that I’m probably stating the obvious here, but aside from microphones instruments and cables, the basic tool that you’ll need to record and manipulate audio in the modern age is a computer. So which computer platform should you choose, Windows or Apple?
Apple. A simple answer, and not one born out of any snobbery, zeitgeist, elitism (and no, I don’t work for Apple). Modern Windows computers are very powerful machines, way more than capable of helping you produce your magnum opus, but in my experience, music at its best is a collaborative activity. You may well (=are likely to!) find that once you start creating your work, you’ll want to involve other people to help you realise it - other musicians, arrangers, producers, mixers. 99% of them will be using Macs, so it would be as well to start off inside an operating system that translates easily to your compadres. It’s a no-brainer.
As far as which Mac you need, you’ll have to decide how mobile you need to be. If you’re going to be a road warrior, a MacBook Pro is for you. If you’re looking for a more static ‘studio’ rig, then I think a Mac Pro is the natural choice. Personally, I wouldn’t go the iMac route - fabulous as they are - for the simple reason of keeping any fan noise down. Your MacPro can live in a (ventilated!) cupboard cabled out to screens, so you’ll be noise free. Don’t rush out and spend all of your money on that shiny brand new MacPro though – read on, as there are other things that you’ll need. Instead, I would strongly recommend a second-hand, Mac Pro – why drive the new car out of the showroom and feel your wallet shrink? You’ll also need….
An audio interface
Well, you will if you want to get audio in and out of your computer.
The tech standard of interfaces these days is very high, so you can get a lot of bang for your buck. Before you even go to look, it’s crucial to decide how much I/O (ins and outs) that you’ll need. If you’re primarily working alone, that may not be very many, so you won’t need a massive (and way more expensive) track count. Start small I/O-wise, and look for the best spec you can afford. You’ll also need…
A DAW is a Digital Audio Workstation. Fancy name, much simpler if you think of it as your mixing desk and tape machine all rolled into an app. There are many DAWS to choose from – read my brief guide here.
So where does a plugin…..plug in?
Audio plugins are a self-contained apps that are hosted inside your DAW, designed to sculpt, enhance, mangle and hone your audio in whichever way you see fit. A plugin instrument can generate sound (or play back sample libraries). All in all, plugins are extremely powerful tools.
There have been several different proprietary plugin formats over the years, but in 2021, plugins are available in three different formats – VST, AU and AAX. The type you will be using will be dictated by your DAW of choice. Aside from DAW specific plugins, most third-party developers will supply plugins in all three formats.
The picture above is the mixer page of my DAW (Logic Pro). The plugins are the rectangular cream-coloured blocks two thirds of the way up. Each is performing a specific task on its associated audio track.
Which plugins should I plug in?
There are thousands of available audio plugins out there, some paid, some free, some bundled with your DAW of choice. You can spend a lot of ££ on plugins, but don’t necessarily have to.
Having said that - not all plugins are equal. I’ve spent more on plugins in the last 20 years than on computers, phones, iPads and all associated apps put together. Some paid (third party) plugins just sound better than their DAW bundled counterparts. Also, some specialised plugins are unique, and only exist in their paid versions – a good example being Izotope’s excellent RX restoration software. It costs an eyewatering £865 for the Pro suite at time of writing, but is indispensable to me, and nothing else even remotely does what it offers.
As with everything else in life, decide on what you really need before being persuaded to part with cash – and always try the bundled or free ones first.
The following is an overview of the different plugin types and roles. There’s so much out there that this will of necessity be simplified and generalised. I’ve included an example picture of each type – the left hand one will be a bundled Logic Pro plugin, and the right one a paid for third party offering.
Logic Pro Vintage B3 (left), Native Instruments Kontakt (right)
They make noise! Just plug in a midi controller and you can have pianos, hammonds, synths, sound libraries, drums – virtually anything. Some are sample based (necessitating more hard disc space), and some are sound generators.
Logic Pro Tape Delay (left), Soundtoys EchoBoy (right)
Delays, echoes and repeats.
Logic Pro Distortion (left) Soundtoys Decapitator (right)
From light overdrive to pure filth – anything from introducing subtle musical harmonics to destroying sound, and lots in between.
Logic Pro Compressor (left), UAD Fairchild 670 Legacy (right)
Compressors and limiters are used to reduce ‘dynamic range’ — i.e., the difference between softer and louder sounds. Using compression can make your tracks sound more polished by controlling maximum levels and maintaining higher average loudness. They can also squash your tracks into mundanity if overused!
Logic Pro Vintage Tube EQ (left), FabFilter Pro-Q3 (right)
EQs are for tone shaping (ducking or boosting specific frequency ranges).
Logic Pro AutoFilter (left), FabFilter Saturn 2 (right)
Filters can alter the tone and timbre of an audio signal for both corrective and creative reasons. At the most basic level, an audio filter emphasizes or suppresses frequencies above or below a certain cutoff frequency and can be used dynamically.
Logic Pro Direction Mixer (left), BX Control 2 (right)
Stereo trickery. Can be used to narrow or widen the stereo picture and play with phase.
Logic Pro Scanner Vibrato (left), Soundtoys Tremolator (right)
Flanger, tremelo, vibrato, chorus etc. Put simply, modulation adds movement to your audio.
Logic Pro Phat FX (left), Slate Digital Virtual Mix Rack (right)
A multi-effects plugin is essentially a rack of plug ins that can be set up as a chain, all rolled into one handy plugin.
Logic Pro Pitch Correction (left), Celemony Melodyne (right)
For changing the pitch of audio, from transposition to fixing sloppy pitching to total sound mangling.
Logic Pro ChromaVerb (left), Liquidsonics Seventh Heaven (right)
Reverb is space (man). From tiny slappy rooms to cathedrals. Like compressors – use with care, or else everything will sound like it was recorded underwater.
Logic Pro Loudness Meter (left), Waves WLM Meter (right)
A metering plugin displays given aspects of the audio signal visually.
Logic Pro Gain (left), HOFA 4U ProjectTime (right)
It’s what it says on the tin – utility. A plethora of mundane jobs are covered. In the above example, the Logic one on the left is a simple overall volume and phase control, The HOFA one on the right will clock up the total time you spend on a project. Probably too much time.
Logic Pro Exciter (left), Izotope RX 8 Spectral De-noise (right)
All of the many plugins that don’t fit into other categories.
Using your plugins
Somebody once said ‘a good producer can make good music with mediocre plugins and a mediocre producer makes mediocre music with the best plugins.’ A wise woman. All of the best studio engineers that I’ve worked with over the years operate on a ‘shit in, shit out’ basis. Capture the best possible performance on the best possible gear to the best of your abilities before you go near a plugin. We’ve all gotten a bit too used to the ‘fix it in the mix’ ethic, and you can, of course, fix a lot of things with plugins, but as a general rule the better you can get the raw material, the better the end product will be. Silk purse/ pigs ear etc.
Some basic tips
1. What’s that spinning beach ball?
As computers have got ever more powerful, so the capability of using a huge number of plugins has increased. Be aware, however, that some will eat your CPU more than others. Generally, virtual instruments and reverbs are the hungriest. Most DAWS have a CPU meter – keep an eye on it!
2. I think I've eaten too many plugins...
Plugin bloat is a very common problem. One keeps trying new ones, and before long your DAW is starting up with 800 of the feckers….then slowing down. Cull your plugins regularly and limit your choice – always remember that limitation is often a good thing. Everyone wants two or three (or more) of the plugin types listed above for the simple reason that they have different sonic capabilities and ‘flavours. However, too much choice slows workflow, and you can too easily find yourself disappear down the rabbit hole of comparing compressors instead of making music. I know I have.
3. You can't see music
You may think you can, but you can’t. The sophisticated GUIs (‘Graphical User Interfaces’) of today’s plugins can seduce you into thinking that something sounds better than it actually does because there’s a vintage VU meter popping about. It may look uber cool, but listen with your ears, not your eyes.
4. As used by 'DJ Tools' at Abbey Road
‘This is an exact emulation of the EQ used on Gilmour’s guitar solo on The Wall – it’s gonna make me sound the same! Right?’
Wrong, obviously. See point 3. Listen with your ears.
5. Reset the Preset
Most Daws have a huge number of channel strip presets available. Six plugins in a row guaranteed to make your vocal sound great. Right? Sometimes, possibly, but often not. All audio is different, and will react in different ways. By all means try them, if not just for ideas of what chains to experiment with, but back to point 3 again ‘listen with your….’ Etc. You get the point.
I often find preset chains are quite over the top, a bit like synth presets. (‘Who the hell programmed this and called it Nirvana Soup?’’)
Individual plugin presets can often be a good starting point, but don’t be afraid to tweak. Ears ears ears.
6. Use sends
A common ‘mistake’ is only using plugins as inserts, and not sends. An obvious example could be a room reverb – you may want this as a common effect on different elements in your mix, so set it up on a separate bus send at 100% wet, then send various elements to it. Apart from anything, your computer will thank you for not having the same room reverb on 12 different tracks.
7. Turn everything off
While you’re working, every so often, disable all plugins on a source and sequentially switch them back on. It’s good practice – we can all suffer from the ‘frog in heating water’ thing, and just get used to something that may well be over processed. You’ll be surprised how many times the original sounds better!
One last thing: please don’t use cracked software. We’ve all gotten used to free (or nearly free) software, but these deep deep apps take a lot of work for the girls and boys who make them to develop and maintain. They have to eat too. Besides, cracked software is unsupported and could fall over at any point. Probably just before you put that vital mix down….