Narrow Down Your Plugin Needs

So Many Plugins

Brand new plugins… promotional sales on plugins… they are SO tempting. But do you really need that new compressor plugin that just dropped?

In order to assess which plugin types are lacking in your toolbox, i recommend making a spreadsheet of all the plugins you own by category. You might discover, as i did, that you have such a vast variety of compressor options to choose from, it’s likely that you won’t benefit a whole lot from purchasing any more of them. You also might discover, like me, that you’re somewhat lacking in gate plugins, and could indeed benefit from picking up a few new models. Etc…

Once you list all the plugins you own by type, you might realize “hey, i could really use some more reverb plugins”, or whatever.

For me, once i had completed this process, it made it way easier to ignore tempting deals on things i really don’t need. That sweet new channel strip plugin? Looks awesome! However, it won’t add anything i can’t already do… so… no, thanks. I now have an extremely clear idea of which plugins i desire the most, and so upcoming purchases are likely to be more practical and deliberate — as opposed to spontaneous and emotional.

Keep in mind that some plugins have functions that cover multiple categories. For example, an EQ plugin with a limiter included might add a tally mark to both the EQ and the Limiter categories in your spreadsheet. Plugins which have more than one distinct mode might count for multiple (i.e. a gate plugin with 5 distinct gating models might count as 5 gates, each ideal for a different track type).

Plugin Categories?

Feel free to make up your own, of course, but here’s the ones i have eventually settled on for use in my (now-evolved) “Elemental Mixing” spreadsheet (as mentioned in the AfroDjMac Music Production Podcast episode i appeared in):

Preamp / Console
Enhancuration
Cut Filtering
Equalization
Gating & Noise Reduction
Transients / Multiband
Compression
Limiting
StereoMod
Delay
Reverb
Space
Balance / Fader
Analysis

About: Categories

Preamp / Console
Preamp plugins are usually the first plugin in a chain, serving the exact same purpose as analog preamps are: to boost the initial signal with a bit of analog color. Certain special-purpose effects (such as pitch tuning) might be best placed  before the preamp, since they work better the fewer harmonics are present in a signal.
Console plugins are usually the final stage of an effects chain (even after the limiter), “barely liminal”, to add a touch of analog nonlinearity. Placing different console types on different tracks in a mix seems to help subtly de-mask individual instruments against each other, also helping to prevent an overly clean, “too-digital” end result.

Enhancuration
Covering both the realms of saturation and other “enhancer” type effects (including such toys as exciters, sonic maximizers, character enhancers, etc), this category is meant for injecting mojo into tracks, when desired. Probably the easiest category to accidentally overdo.

Cut Filtering
For low cuts and high cuts, essential tools for every track. Often an EQ plugin (or other plugins) include these functions, so additional dedicated filter plugins are not needed. Should all tracks always have low and high cuts applied? Not always. Analyze tracks and test options in a mix to see how much excessive low and high end there is, and whether curtailing them actually helps or not.
Extreme low end energy, below say 10-20Hz (aka DC offset), is almost always worth trimming when it doesn’t naturally slope down, because frequencies that slow just eat up headroom without providing any sonic benefit. Some processors (such as compression) can actually add some DC offset, so it can at times be useful to insert multiple DC filters at various points in a signal chain. When working at high sample rates, it can likewise be useful to insert ultrasonic filtering to avoid high-end aliasing artifacts.
I like using different cutoff points for different tracks, usually, but note that using different cutoff points or slopes for correlated or partially-correlated audio parts (for example, multi-miked recordings) may result in phase wonkiness, and so in those cases it’s usually best to filter them as a group.
Usually, cut filters are placed near the beginning of an effects chain, but it’s not at all uncommon to need to utilize them later on in the chain instead or as well.

Equalization
Pretty essential for each track. Different types of equalizers might work better for different types of tracks. Experiment. Linear phase EQ? I like it for when needing to EQ parallel chains / aux returns for tight phase response when summed with the original, especially for reverb or heavy compression sends, as the pre-ringing naturally blends with the upswelling.

Gating & Noise Reduction
The purpose here is for attenuating background noise, usually. For any home-recorded material, gates and noise reduction can be extremely valuable. Gates can also be used as expanders, to enhance dynamics when doing so would be beneficial for ideal track dynamics (which can be fairly often, i’ve found).
This is probably the category that moves its position the most often, as it is very context-dependent. Sometimes gating or noise reduction is called for at the very beginning of a track, sometimes after the cut filtering, and/or sometimes later in the track (for example in a heavy guitar chain to attenuate distorted amp noise).
Useful Link: A Pragmatic Guide to Ableton’s Gate.

Transients / Multiband
I put transient shapers, de-essers and multiband compressors all in this category, as they all serve similar functions for me during mixing. For example, say i’m working with a vocal track that has a nasty resonance at 6kHz. I could use a de-esser or a multiband dynamics processor to selectively compress that frequency. Or perhaps a transient shaper might help smooth out the part where it peaks more-than-usual. Likewise, say i have a snare drum i’d like to cut through a bit more, tone-wise, but don’t have much excess headroom to waste; using one of these tools to selectively boost certain moments, while avoiding others, might help.

Compression
Yeah, compression! Do you even… —yes, of course you do. My advice: don’t ever use compression “just because”. Assess first (with both analysis plugins and with your ears) whether you think a track would benefit from it. Also, loudness-match the before-and-after, to really hear if it’s beneficial. “Over-compression”? It’s all context-dependent. Super polite, careful compression can be awesome for mastering, but on the other hand if applied “perfectly” to every track, is more likely to just flatten out the unique character and vibe of a mix. So don’t be afraid to push the squish just to test it out, and use compression based on how it makes you feel.

Limiting
Does every track need a limiter? Not usually. But having a limiter on a track, rather than on the 2buss (master channel) can be super helpful at times. For example, say i’m mixing a song and it’s peaking out too much a bit at a certain spot. I could limit the whole mix, but that would push all instruments down. It might be better to find exactly which track in the mix is causing that peaking, and limit only that track, keeping all other dynamics intact. Then, the 2buss limiter won’t have to work as hard.

StereoMod
Includes chorus, phaser, tremolo, etc as well as width enhancement.
This is probably the category of effects that i use the least, as most tracks won’t need anything like this and i find that over-using them can lead to various problems. Lots of instruments, such as rendered synth patch lines and guitar recorded thru a pedal board will already be including the intended modulation effects, and adding more can just be overkill. But touches here and there can help to give an ITB mix a more “analog” vibe.
Since these type of effects can often alter the resultant phase contour, whenever i use something of the sort i make sure to analyze the phase to confirm it isn’t going out-of-whack. On the flipside, however, i do at times use these sorts of effects to intentionally alter the phase—applied precisely, alongside analysis. For instance, one of my external analog chains always returns a signal that is delayed and somewhat out-of-phase when blended with the original, so when using that chain in-parallel, some careful modulation can help to move it back “in-phase”.

Delay
Delay is cool, delay is fun, there are tons of delay plugins and they all sound different. I like to use Ableton Racks to separate a signal into “clean” vs “delayed” chains so that i can apply additional effects to the “delay-only” signal (without having to muck about with auxiliary sends, etc.)

Reverb
This category is for algorithmic reverb, specifically — as convolution reverb belongs in a separate cetegory. Why? Becuase i tend to use them diffrenetly, and for different purposes. In addition to textural results, reverbs can often have the effect of reducing transient poke and increasing density (like compressors tend to) so keep in mind that a heavily reverberated audio part might not need the same amount of dynamic treatment as a totally dry signal.
A cool trick is to use envelope followers to make a custom “dyamic reverb” which has parameters that react to the input signal. It’s particularly useful for if you want to reverb to bloom during quiet moments and duck out of the way during louder moments.

Space
Usually convolution, sometimes spatial placement-type effects as well (like binaural panning, for example). Why have this as a distinct category in addition to Reverb? I will often use both: the space effects to “place the sound in an environment”, with a touch of algorithmic reverb added to give it a bit of movement and life… since convolution—while highly realistic—can tend to sound a bit “cold” on its own.

Balance / Fader
Controlling the ultimate level of the track chain as well as adjusting the stereo field. Technical, boring, and useful for balance and gainstaging.

Analysis
So i went full-on nerd and compared the relative loudness ranges and targets of all my analyzer plugins, applying each one to the ideal track type based on the analysis algorithms and the visual results. For example, track types i want generally louder, like a lead vocal, use anlyzers that show a relatively loud level as the target, and vice-versa for quieter instruments. So all i need to do for basic gainstaging is look at the meter that loads for each template. When i tweak effects for that track, i’ll keep its analyzer open to make sure i don’t fall prey to the “loudness illusion”, keeping the output levels generally the same. Once i’m done with the “first pass” of gainstaging and basic tweaking of all tracks, i usually leave the anlyzers off from that point on, because it’s more about the sum than the individual parts. Each template rack uses a different analyzer which helps them to feel unique.
But what if i want to compare different tracks? For a consistent metering that is identical for all, i can just glance at the DAW’s built-in metering… or temporarily solo a track to be inspected by my ever-present HOFA IQ Analyser which resides on the 2buss.

The Missing Categories
You might notice that i don’t include “distortion and degradation” or “glitch” as a categories. Why? These are not effects i’m likely to use on most tracks when mixing. Overt distortions are generally used in guitar amp chains (another whole topic) and glitch effects i generally use for sound design (a whole ‘nother topic).

To hear more about my Elemental Mixing Templates, feel free to check out Episode 13 of AfroDJMac’s Music Production Podcast wherein i talked about it. A link to the current, maintained spreadsheet is in the show notes. Keep in mind… the templates have evolved quite a bit since the podcast aired!

A vital tip is that the template racks are saved with all devices OFF by default, which preserves CPU and begins with a neutral, clean source. Processors are switched on and adjusted as-needed. Also, there is no decree setting the default decisions in concrete; they are just starting choices.
So don’t think that just because there are so many effects per chain, that i’m actually using all or even most of them when i drop the racks in. Generally, less than half the effects are enabled at mixdown, some of the effects have been swapped for others, some new effects have been dropped in, and every single parameter value and automation move is intentional.

Should You Use These Exact Categories?
No, i don’t think you should. You should make your own set of categories for your own spreadsheet, based on the way you think about these processes and how you use them in your own workflows. For example, i doubt most people would categorize de-essers alongside transient shapers asnd multiband dynamics the way i have. Maybe for you it makes more sense to group transient shapers with compressors, gates and limiters, as they all affect the dynamics of a signal.

The best i can hope for is that my description of how i categorize effects leads to some useful insights for you, and inspires you to take stock of the tools you have, and perhaps to use some that have been collecting dust on the shelf for eons in a fresh mix.

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