A Complete Guide to Plug-Ins For Your Home Studio

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A Complete Guide to Plug-Ins For Your Home Studio

In the May issue of Performer, I wrote about analog tape machine plug-ins. This month we’re going to focus on plug ins for home studio owners.

A home studio can be a million dollar facility owned by a rock star, trust fund kid, etc, or a laptop-based system in a spare room owned by the average musician with a dream. If you have a million dollar studio, you probably have a million plug-ins!

If you own a home studio using a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) or are ready to upgrade from GarageBand, you’ll want to know about plug-ins – specifically, which ones will help you the most when getting started.

WHAT ARE PLUG-INS?

Plug-ins are software additions for your DAW to enhance the sound of your recorded audio tracks and are “inserted” on a channel in the mix window of your DAW program. This is similar to an outboard rack mounted compressor or EQ that is inserted on an analog mixing console channel, bus, or master output.

When you purchase DAW software for your home studio, the developer usually includes a few basic plug-ins. Typically these are compressors, equalizers, reverbs, delays, virtual synths, etc. These are usually very basic, but they’re still powerful.

FORMATS & COMPATIBILITY

Most DAWs and associated plug-ins run on a Mac or PC and are cross platform compatible these days. Your DAW software will require your third party plug-ins to be in a certain format, usually AAX, VST, RTAS, or AU.

If you are using onboard RAM for Digital Signal Processing (DSP), plug-ins are limited by your computer’s processing power. If you are using an outboard DSP processor (PCI card, Firewire or Thunderbolt unit), you can scale your system to do much more processing. Be careful that you don’t get carried away by going plug-in crazy!

If you have a home studio, focus on making music and keeping things simple. You don’t always need the latest greatest Plutonium Bundle with a zillion plug-ins!

PRACTICAL USES

Think of plug-ins as virtual outboard rack gear. They can also be virtual synthesizers, guitar amps, or guitar pedals. If you have a MIDI/USB keyboard controller, you can use a virtual synthesizer plug-in on the track that you are recording to and change the sounds at any time. If you have an electric guitar or bass, you can record it cleanly (dry) through a direct box and add a virtual amplifier and stomp boxes when you mix. This leaves your options open during mixdown.

COSTS

The cost of plug-ins versus owning the real thing is substantial. Imagine using a plug-in that emulates the sound of a $5,000 vintage compressor. The plug-in version may only cost you around $100. You can use that compressor on multiple channels as a plug-in. Now, imagine the cost (and electric bill) of owning even one, or try 24 of those compressors! It would be impractical, even for the largest world-class professional studio!

When I started working in my home studio over 30 years ago, I was “plugging in” guitar pedal compressors, overdriven cassette tape machines, and wah wah pedals into my 4-track TASCAM cassette deck!

Today, at the studio where I work in Connecticut, Dirt Floor, we are running a 32-channel Pro Tools HD System and have over 300+ different plug-ins by many different manufacturers. With so many choices, it’s easy to get lost in all of the different options, but really we only use about 10% of them on a daily basis.

RECOMMENDATIONS

A tried-and-true piece of equipment (microphone, outboard rack gear, or plug-in) shows up in every recording studio in the world and has become industry standard for a reason.

As a home studio owner, you need to watch your budget on plug-ins, and just about everything else for that matter! I tend to use plug-ins that are modeled after hardware units, because I know the settings on the plug in will give me about a 99% accurate representation of the hardware counterpart that it’s emulating.

My favorite “go-to” plug-ins are the Focusrite ISA 110/130 (EQ/Compressor), the Waves Puigchild (Fairchild Compressor), Sound Toys “EchoBoy” (delay/echo), and the Universal Audio Studer A-800 (analog tape emulation). These show up in all of my sessions.

When you find a plug-in that works for you, start building presets to save time and speed up your workflow. You’ll eventually end up with a handful of useful plug-ins that will become your “go-to” ones as well.

There are a lot of plug-ins that are available for free. Just Google “free audio plug-ins” and see what you can find. Make sure they are compatible with your DAW before you download them.

Some plug-ins require an iLok USB hardware dongle or require a challenge-response code via an Internet connection. Most manufacturers give you a two week trial period to test drive their plug-ins or allow you to use the plug-in for a certain amount of time in your session before it goes into bypass mode.

Having a home studio allows you more time to be creative and try things out without having to watch the clock. So, put an amplifier plug-in on a vocal or a radical EQ or compressor on the drums. Get creative, dig in, and try something different because you can always “undo” it if you don’t like it!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Steve Wytas is the Chief Engineer at Dirt Floor in Haddam, CT and owner of Audio 911, LLC. He has been involved in recording since he received a Radio Shack cassette recorder at the age of 10. Visit www.dirtfloor.com or www.audio911.com

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