By now you probably have a load of plugins, be they TDM, VST, RTAS, AU, DX or whatever, but how do you know which one to use on what track?
Today, we are spoiled by the power and diversity of free plugins, to say nothing of all the payware ones screaming at you from every music store shelf, forum post and magazine! I mean “spoiled” in every sense of the word. If you are old enough to remember life before the internots, you probably remember, every once in a great while, bringing home a new pedal for your guitar, or a new eq for your cassette multitrack, or a new drum for your drumset. Whatever this new thing was, it cost you dearly and it was special!
The new thing became the star of your personal stage. You would twist its every knob, or tune its every wrinkle, you’d hit it every which way you could, you’d bang on it, wrangle it, stretch it, squeeze it, overuse it, underuse it, and basically learn everything about it. You’d learn what it could do. You’d learn what it was meant to do. You’d learn how to use it to do things it wasn’t meant to do.
As the novelty started to wear off and your senses returned, you started looking for ways to actually use it in your music. Chances are, it could only hold one setting, without you having to stop the show and mess with it. This led you to compromise its setup to work for a wide range of things. It also taught you what specific settings did what to the music, and what changing it to the compromise setting would do. You probably remembered the specific settings for times when setup interruptions were not an issue, like when recording. Compromise after compromise tweak, you felt the frustration of not being able to have two of the things magically be able to switch in realtime, so that you could keep the exact settings you wanted regardless of which song or part it was.
The most important thing to take from all this is: You KNEW exactly what you were looking for and how to find it. You KNEW it when you heard it
Now, take a look at your plugin list. Pick one at random. You HAD to have that one right? You searched all over the net for reviews on it, read about it, knew you had to add it to your collection.
But, how well do you REALLY know that plugin?
Hell with that, how well do you even know what that type of plugin even does?
Even further into the land of improbability, how well do you know what that type of plugin does to your MUSIC?
And if you haven’t fallen off the track into woo woo land yet, how well do you know what that specific plugin does to your MUSIC?
Chances are, not even close to an iota of a fraction of a percentage of how well you knew that guitar pedal, or whatever you were so intimately familiar with, back when that device cost you some serious blood, sweat and tears.
And still you wonder why you can’t get that sound in your head to come out of your speakers?
Oh wait, what? You don’t even have the sound in your head yet?
Well, well, well. That’s two big fat snake eyes you are rolling on your mix. So lets look at what you can do about it.
I like to divide plugins into roughly two categories. Note well that a single plugin can fall into both, depending on the situation, but generally they are suited for one or the other. The categories are: predictive and reactive
Knowing when to use which type gets you quite far on the road to a happy song.
Before we go on, I’d like to make a note, that seems to fly right under most peoples’ RADAR. The stock plugins, plus the automation of just about any DAW can make nearly any kind of sound modification you can find in the plugin world.
So why pick any plugin over any other?
What the hell is the point of this article?
Getting the result you want, in a timely manner, makes a happy you, and a very happy song. It still might take six months to mix that magnum opus, but not much time is wasted chasing your tail if you pick right.
I generally put a plugin in the predictive category if its got a pretty much WYSIWYG user interface. Especially if its got extremely detailed meters, that are in the correct context for what the plugin is meant to do.
Izotope’s Ozone or Reaper’s ReaGate, ReaComp and ReaEQ are great examples of predictive plugins
I generally use a predictive plugin like this
- Listen to the sound I have
- Compare it with the sound in my head
- Figure out what the difference between 1 and 2 are
- Apply that difference to the settings on the plugin’s GUI
- go back to step one and repeat until 1 and 2 are the same
This can take quite a bit of tweaking, but its important to remember to fail fast. If it seems that the plugin in question cannot make up the difference, get rid of it and try a different one, or try a different technique (even if that means rerecording the part).
Being able to make a good guess on what the settings will be, and for that matter, knowing if this plugin can even do what you want, is a matter of experience. LOTS of it. If you were as familiar with this plugin as that hard won guitar pedal from years gone by, it would be an instinctual process, and the answers would come to you almost immediately.
A reactive plugin is a different beast (even though it may be the same plugin) from the predictive plugins.
I like to think of reactive plugins as exploratory or creative. Reactive plugins tend to have less specific metering than a predictive plugin, and often have knobs or detentes to keep you from really micro-fine tuning a setting. Often, fine tuning is available, but is not the immediate focus or prerogative of the plugin’s GUI
A good example of this would be Stillwell Audio’s Rocket or Vibe EQ plugins.
These plugins can quickly and easily help you find what sort of sound you WANT to hear in your head, in those times when you still aren’t sure just where you are going with the song. They’re also really good, and fast, at figuring out which sort of plugin you need to get the sound in your head into the sound in the speakers. These plugins tend to have a range that is quick to jump through possibilities, giving you a good idea of how far this particular plugin family will take you, and sometimes even give you knew ideas for sounds you hadn’t though of before.
I tend to use reactive plugins in a much more musical and organic way than predictive plugins. They tend to force me to focus on the effect the plugin has on the song more than the particular track I’m working on. If I’ve really hit a roadblock on the sound of a mix, you can bet I’ll pop in a reactive plugin to noodle my way out
So what’s the point of all this rambling?
- Its pretty damn important to be able to hear the final song in your head, BEFORE you touch a single knob. Oxymoronically, Its just as important to spin all the knobs (whether it be at mix time, or recording time, or maybe even songwriting time) BEFORE you commit to a sound in your head. No matter how crazy it seems, there’s a way to satisfy both of these concepts.
- Know which plugins (or which way to use which plugins) are predictive and which plugins are reactive
- Know when to use predictive plugins and when to use reactive plugins (hint, use reactive plugins especially when you don’t have the sound in your head, and especially more when you can’t get that sound in your head to come out of your speakers
- Fail FAST
- Above all, GET FAMILIAR WITH YOUR PLUGINS!