In this article, we will discus the pros and cons of recording live versus applying software plug-ins during post-production. And who knows, we might even discover a method that satisfies both sides of the aisle…[Editor’s note – read Part 1 here]
Best of Both Worlds?
So let’s say you have a sound dialed in on your rig that you are pretty happy with, but you’d like to hedge your bets. You’re afraid that you might not like the direction you went in when you get to the mix down stage. Wishy-washy huh? Well, you can take the best of both worlds route. “What’s that?” you say? “I can have my cake and eat it, too?” Isn’t life grand? Not so fast.
You will first need something to split your signal. The poor man’s method is a simple 1/4” mono “Y” cable that plugs into the output of your instrument. From here you send one signal to your pedalboard/amp to get mic’d and the other signal straight to the console. The preferred choice over a Y cable costs a bit more, though. A passive splitter like the P-Split by Lehle ($169) looks like an indestructible metal guitar stompbox and uses high-end transformers to split the signals into two 1/4” outputs. Now I hear some of you audiophiles complaining, “But that means the dry signal is still unbalanced!” You are correct, so a compromise might be the DI20 by Behringer ($25), which although not built as sturdy as the Lehle, uses active circuitry and can handle both 1/4” and XLR inputs and outputs, giving you a 1/4” output for your amp and an XLR output for your interface/console. Continue reading →
If you’re a musician that “plugs in,” then you know that the sound you hear coming out of your amp can either inspire you or make you want to hang up your guitar or bass in disgust. And yeah, this article is mainly written for electric guitarists and bassists because so much of these instruments’ sonic character is attained through amps, amp modeling and effects. You know what I’m talking about – there’s a thrill of getting that perfect tone – when it’s right, you just can’t stop playing. In this article, we will discus the pros and cons of recording live versus applying software plug-ins during post-production. And who knows, we might even discover a method that satisfies both sides of the aisle…
CAPTURING THE LIVE PERFORMANCE
We are so lucky now to be living in a time when amp modeling has really hit its stride and when digital effects are plentiful and cheap. In the 1980s, you’d be lucky to find an amp with anything more than spring reverb built in. Today many amp manufacturers like Vox, Fender and Line 6, just to name a few, include amp modeling circuitry and a host of digital effects like chorus, flange, echo, delay and reverb. Or you can use your favorite amp with a pedalboard to get virtually unlimited sounds. So the question that comes up all the time in the studio is: “Should I record with my effects or dry and add the effects later?”
Camel Audio makes the most useful plugins and sample libraries on the market, equally suited to studio and bedroom producers in their quality and flexibility. Their compressor/distortion plugin CamelCrusher and the Alchemy Player are both free via their website, and are a great introduction to Camel Audio’s offerings. Camel effects plug-ins can be used to subtly make your music shine or used heavily to open up worlds of sound that aren’t accessible with traditional hardware. CamelPhat adds warmth and presence by combining multiple filters, FX, a compressor, and layering four different types of distortion into a tweakable tone factory. CamelSpace takes any sound and chops it into evolving rhythmic textures. Alchemy is an all-in-one synthesizer, endlessly customizable and with dozens of sound libraries available to suit any sound or project. Camel Audio was founded in Edinburgh, UK, and is run by musicians. They are in constant contact with their customers and are always listening for what their community needs and wants. Continue reading →
Dave Smith is your greatest influence whose name you don’t know. Since 1977, his work has opened up new frontiers in music technology and created entire industries based around his designs. He is known as the “Father of MIDI,” released the first polyphonic and programmable synthesizer (the Prophet-5) as well as the first multi-timbral synthesizer, and developed the first software synthesizer in 1994. After years of working in the new frontiers of software synthesis, Smith returned to the world of hardware and founded DSI, quickly becoming known for Continue reading →
What’s the best way to record and mix electric and acoustic guitars? We have found that there is no “one way” to do anything in the studio, but here are some tried and true methods that are usually good places to start. One thing we have learned over the years is that a cheap electric guitar can sound great but an acoustic guitar is an entirely different beast. There’s no covering up for a crappy acoustic. No amount of processing and/or mic placement can make up for the lack of depth and soul that a well-crafted guitar like a Taylor or Martin exudes.
In Part 1, we covered mic placement, fattening up your tone, recording dry and with reverb, double tracking rhythm parts and panning guitars in the mix. Part 2 continues below. Continue reading →
Started in 2007 by two musicians who wanted digital gear that sounded as good as the analog they couldn’t afford, G-Sonique has dedicated themselves to making incredible software that makes creating great music easier and more affordable. Their digital instruments, FX, and sample packs are used by producers and DJs all over the world. Though mostly used by dance producers, their VSTs (especially the mixing and mastering effects) sound better and cost less than most other plug-ins available. “We try to make products that are either completely original or that are not available with good sound quality, enough controls or for a fair price,” explains co-founder Marian Brezovan, adding that they are in constant contact with musicians and engineers, trying to find out what’s missing and needed from the modern studio and encourage current or potential users to contact them with ideas for new plugins.
If you want your recording to sound good you need a good preamp, preferably old and with tubes. The problem is that most are either broken, owned by someone else, or worth more money than your car. G-Sonique decided to create the ultimate tube emulator based on a collection of ’60s analog machines and, after much sweat, tape, and tears, came out with the Twisthead VS-206. The Twisthead brings back the magic (and voodoo) to analog recording, behaving non-linearly and sometimes a little unexpectedly. Turning up the input drive not only pushes the sound up but also affects reaction values across all parameters. Warmth, tube harmonics, saturation drive, boost, brilliance, and EQ all get separate knobs surrounding a VU meter on a weathered metal surface. The Twisthead loves dirty guitars, heavy drums, and big synths. It is ideal for live or electronic production, ready to add vacuum fatness and warmth to any sound put through its ever glowing tube.
Bob Ludwig, while technically needing no introduction, will still get one here. Why? Because the man deserves it for all the amazing work he’s done in the field of mastering. As one of the top mastering engineers in the world, his skills have been in demand for decades, starting with his work at Sterling Sound, then Masterdisk and later with his own company, Gateway Mastering in Portland, Maine. Even if his name isn’t familiar to you (and as a musician, you should be embarrassed if this is the case), just flip open the liner notes to some of your favorite albums. Ludwig has mastered countless classics from independent bands to superstars, including Jimi Hendrix, Megadeth, Metallica, Nirvana, The Strokes, Queen, U2, Guns N’ Roses, Tool, Bryan Ferry, Tori Amos, Bonnie Raitt, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Radiohead, Steely Dan and more.
He has also occasionally undertaken long projects, such as remastering the entire back catalogues of Rush, Dire Straits, Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Rolling Stones.
We recently had the pleasure to speak with Ludwig about the current state of mastering, the loudness wars, how musicians should approach the process, and where the art form is headed as it relates to digital releases.
Can you give us a brief background on your career?
Well, I graduated from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY. I have a bachelor’s and a master’s degree and I used to be the principal trumpet player with the Utica Symphony Orchestra when I was there. I went to work recording with Phil Ramone, who got me into the industry. He was my mentor and I learned the art of mastering there, and then went on to be the first employee for Sterling Sound when they opened their doors. I worked there for seven years and then made a lateral move to Masterdisk in New York. At one time Sterling and Masterdisk were owned by the same public company, so I just switched tabs there at one point. I spent a long time there and then in ’92 I decided I was going to start my own place, which was Gateway Mastering Studios up here in Portland. We opened our studios in January of 1993.
Can you explain what exactly mastering adds to the process after the tracks are mixed and recorded?
Mastering is the final creative step in the record making process. You do the recording, you do the mix down – sometimes using the best mixers in the world, sometimes using your friend who just bought Pro Tools because you don’t have any budget. The purpose of mastering is to maximize the amount musicality that’s kind of inherent in the tape that’s been mixed. We work with some of the greatest mixers on the planet, guys like Kevin Killen, Michael Brauer, the list goes on and on – who are already really great and fortunately for us, when a mix is so finely honed, if we do even just the smallest amount to it, it sounds like we’ve done a lot because the mix is so finely balanced that just doing a little thing really can be the icing on the cake. But a lot of DIY people who are just getting into this – mixing is a very, very difficult thing to do right, which is why there are only a handful of mixers on the planet that actually get a percentage of royalties for it. When someone is doing that at home, sometimes a good mastering studio can really make the difference between a record that sounds like you did it in your basement, and something that sounds commercially viable. We can usually turn a piece of dog meat into something that’s at least OK sounding.
Let’s use that example. What specific things do you add to a poorly mixed home recording project or even a well-mixed DIY project in the mastering stage?
Well, having heard tens of thousands of recordings and having mastered them, I have a great wealth of knowledge as to what constitutes a good-sounding record. When I hear a raw tape, in my head I can envision how it ought to sound and then I know what knobs to move in my studio to make it sound like it does in my head. We have many different kinds of equalizers, some in the analog domain, some of which are solid state, some of which are tube, some of which are used for very broad strokes, some of which are extremely transparent-sounding and are used for more surgical touch ups. And we have a whole plethora of digital domain equalizers that also have a lot of characteristics, some of them try to emulate tube gear and some of them try to be as absolutely perfect as possible. They all have their different sound and they all have their different uses. And we have compressors – both analog domain compressors and digital domain compressors – they all sound different from one another. There are very few pieces of gear that sound exactly like another piece of gear. A good mastering engineer knows what all these different tools sound like, so when I hear something in my head – it might even be a piece of gear I haven’t even used in a year – and I’ll say, ‘Well, this thing is going to be just right for this. I just know it.’ And I’ll dig it out of the closet and hook it up and put it on. Nine times out of ten, I’m right.
Would you say that EQ and compression are the two most common tools that you are applying to a record at that stage in the game?
And level adjustment, definitely level adjustment as well. There are so many other things that we do now, you know. There’s reverb, which is not used very often, but the times you do need it, it’s pretty essential. There’s adding spaciousness or narrowing the sound stage, there’s tape simulators now. Some people feel that going to tape doesn’t buy you anything anymore so you can just put up a tape simulator now. Which may or may not be true depending on what it is [laughs].
I’ve heard some good ones. Universal Audio makes a pretty nice tape simulator.
Yep. And then a lot of producers still do mix actual tape. We have many different kinds of tape playback machines and different kinds of heads, all of which have different sounds to them – solid state playback, tube playback, quarter inch, half inch, one inch stereo, 8-channel analog, 8-track or 2-inch tape – we can cover it all.
Speaking of formats, are there any different steps in your mastering process when it comes to a band releasing a 12-inch version of their album compared to releasing a CD of their album?
If the guys who are mixing it have given us high-resolution digital, which is anything more than 44 kHz, 16-bit – we usually like to master in as high as resolution as possible.
So are you talking like 24-bit, 96 kHz?
Yeah, that’s very common, or on rare occasions 192 kHz. If we master in that high resolution format, then when it comes to doing vinyl, we like to supply that 96k, 24-bit file to cut from because the vinyl has another octave that the CD doesn’t have, let alone the download [laughs], and a well-cut and well-replicated vinyl disc can truly sound better than the CD version of the same material.
Do you even want to comment on mastering for MP3 or is that a touchy subject? Because let’s face it: a lot of our bands are probably going to be sending digital tracks to their fans on the email list or posting them online. And those have to sound good as well.
Yeah, and Apple has a new initiative out right now called “Mastering for iTunes.” And that’s a new process that Apple has, that instead of ripping from a 16-bit CD, you use the high-resolution digital file as your source. Apple has a sample rate converter built into the OS X that if you know how to get to it, it’s a very high quality sample rate converter. And you can take the 96k file and make a 44.1 file of it and the act of making the finals from the 24-bit source creates a much better sounding source than the 16-bit rips do. And then there’s the second thing they have – it turns out that the AAC encoder that Apple uses is a 32-bit floating point encoder so it can use those bits 17-24. And then there’s another step in the process when you are mastering especially for iTunes that looks at any clipping that was created in the act of making the AAC encode.
So will that actually look for distortion?
Yeah. If you have a PCM 96/24 file that has no digital overs on it or clips where it’s exceeding digital zero, the active AAC encoding can actually create some clips where none existed before if that thing is at a very high level, which most pop [records] are. This piece of software they have will let you know – you can take that 24-bit master you’re using for the encode and you can lower the levels, say half a dB or 7/10 of a dB, and you can re-measure it and you can actually get rid of all those clips. And the difference between a hot pop record that’s just ripped from the CD vs. one that’s gone through this extra care – the difference is audible even on laptop speakers.
I know there’s been a lot made against the “loudness wars,” and you had a very interesting process with the last Guns N’ Roses record. Would you mind recapping a little bit of what happened there?
Yeah, that was great. You know most producers are just totally paranoid about their record not being loud enough or if somebody put something on shuffle mode that theirs won’t be as loud as anything else. The really delusional people think that a louder record sounds louder on the radio, which is absolutely not true. But anyway, a lot of producers feel that way. But Axl Rose was mixing the record with Caram Costanzo, so they did these really good mixes, in my opinion, and Axl had taken it to five different mastering engineers before he got to me. All those people just wanted to make it like other loud records and I was totally willing to have it contain all the dynamics of his mix. So we mastered it that way – I mean there was plenty to do as far as level balancing and EQ and bringing out certain lines that were lost in the mixes. But it creates a record where you can have all these layered guitars and you can hear the differences between them all. And then the vocals can come in and sit on top of all layering and there is still plenty of room for them. What a concept!
Well, music is all about dynamics and I think a lot of that is lost in modern recording. We’ve heard a lot of complaints about recent CDs carrying that “remastered” tag, when all that means is they’ve made it louder.
Yeah, it’s true and it’s really a shame. It tends to squeeze out the dynamics already in the music.
Do you have any tips for the home recorder or independent bands during the tracking phase or the mixing phase? Something that can help them best prepare their tracks for when they deliver it to a mastering studio?
When you’re mixing, one of the most difficult things to do and get right is the vocal. Most engineers don’t pay quite enough attention to the vocal, where some lines are easily heard and then other words will get lost here or there. It’s really important to get that right, since the vocal for most pop records sells the record. So it’s always helpful once you’ve created that vocal line to print another one with the vocal up a half or even maybe 1 dB, so that when it gets to mastering, if the act of mastering needs more vocals still you’ll have the mix right there with it. Another big thing for young engineers who are starting out is…you know they’ll get a magazine probably like Performer or one of these review magazines, where every week it seems like there’s a hundred new plug-ins – a new engineer can get really overwhelmed by that. My suggestion is buy just a few well-recognized plug-ins to start, like some of the Universal Audio ones or the Manley Massive Passive EQ, or the Massenburg EQ or the Sonnox Oxford EQ – you know, some really well-respected plug-ins, and just spend a long time learning those really well.
So, learn fewer plug-ins well as opposed to being overwhelmed with all the different options out there?
Instead of trying to keep up with all the latest and greatest. Believe me, I can tell you hardly ever is there a ‘latest and greatest’ that came out that week [laughs]. There might be a different or cheaper one – it’s not the latest and greatest. For instance, get to know the difference between a linear phase equalizer and IIR [filters and equalizers]. And as I said, they’re all not built the same. It’s very difficult to make a very good sounding digital equalizer. If you stick with the ones that are really well-regarded and learn them very well, that will go a long way towards making a better mix.
You’ve mastered countless records – you said in the thousands. Could you name some of your favorites?
Certainly anything Bruce Springsteen has ever done [laughs]. I’ve done pretty much his whole catalog. All the Rush records that I did. I see that they are going through another round remastering the Rolling Stones records…
Again? Didn’t they just do high-res DSD remasters of those not too long ago?
They did Exile and also Some Girls, or something like that.
Okay, so those are the later Virgin years, I guess.
Right. I’m very proud of the ones I did and apparently a lot of people believe that those are still worth having. And you know all those Rolling Stones ones I did for ABKCO are on Super Audio CD. Both the versions that I did in the ’90s and ABKCO – I’m very proud of all those.
The Black And Blue CD, in particular, sounds amazing.
Yeah, it’s so hard – when I first started as a kid I mastered Led Zeppelin 2 and Houses of the Holy. I never dreamt that all these years later they’d still be keeping young bands off the radio!
Admittedly, it can be a struggle to stay up-to-date on the current state of affairs in the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) market. As I write this, my Pro Tools rig is now two major releases behind, and there are rumors floating around that Apple may discontinue its Mac Pro line, a decision that would affect just about every major recording studio I’ve ever set foot in, but I digress…
On to the software! This quick guide is meant to serve as a primer for those of you looking to get your feet wet in the digital recording world.
Shortly after Avid completely re-branded their entire product line (aka – killed the DigiDesign brand name), they released Pro Tools 9 in late 2010. This October, at AES 2011 in New York City, Avid announced Pro Tools 10. Pro Tools 9 brought about some major changes for the industry-leading DAW, and less than a year later, in what has been perhaps Avid’s shortest major release cycle, Pro Tools 10 has arrived.
On to the specs. In my opinion, Pro Tools disappoints here, considering it’s the most expensive DAW reviewed. Want more than 96 tracks of simultaneous playback or more than 32 channels of I/O? You need to upgrade to their new HDX system. While many hobbyists may not even come close to reaching these limits, they are the poorest compared to other, less expensive DAWs.
I still see Pro Tools as being the only real solution for those who work out of multiple studios; however, there are other DAWs that are starting to encroach on Avid’s (once unique) feature-set.
The main draw to Pro Tools is that it’s the industry leader. Period. Walk into any major recording studio and chances are they have a Pro Tools rig. Attend any major music/audio school for recording and chances are they will teach you on Pro Tools. So there is the benefit of knowing the Pro Tools system, but its price may be a limiting factor for some home recorders.
Whenever I think of Roland, I typically think of their outstanding keyboard line and the Jazz Chorus amp, not software. However, Roland’s DAW offering from their Cakewalk brand is no slouch. The specs on Sonar are great, with unlimited track counts and a handful of unique features such as ProChannel, which is essentially a channel strip that offers basic effects (EQ, compression, tube saturation) on every track. Sonar comes with a decent collection of instruments and some nice plug-ins, such as native pitch correction. However, Sonar is Windows only.
To date, I’ve met just one musician who takes himself seriously and works on Windows machines: Four Tet. Maybe there is a large market for Windows-based digital studios I’ve yet to find? Please, enlighten me.
What I find unique about Logic is not a particular feature, but how I hear other people talk about the software. It is the only DAW I hear being referred to as “for musicians,” or “musician friendly.” Undoubtedly, I think some of that sentiment comes from the fact that Logic comes bundled with an utterly massive collection of instruments (1,000) and loops (20,000), but I also think it has to do with the product being made by Apple. Apple’s offerings are inarguably more intuitive/user-friendly than their counterparts; that experience has clearly made its way into their DAW software.
Also included with the Logic Studio bundle are an Amp Designer and Pedalboard maker, with a decent collection of 25 amps, 25 cabinets, and numerous effects. MainStage 2 is also included, which is designed for live use. MainStage offers on-the-fly looping and playback, and most importantly, a customizable UI. Aside from Pro Tools, Logic is the only other DAW reviewed that has a hard track limit, but with a maximum 255 audio and 255 instrument tracks allowed, I think most users will be just fine.
I originally became interested in Reaper after seeing the artist Tycho perform a few months back. At his shows, Tycho always projects full-screen animations, and I was able to catch a glimpse of his dock and saw he was running Reaper live.
What I like about Reaper is that there is only one version. Pro Tools has HDX, MP, and SE; Logic has Express and Pro, and so on. There is just one Reaper.
On paper, Reaper’s specs win hands-down. Reaper offers unlimited track counts across the board and support for just about every plug-in format imaginable. Reaper even states that it will support any sampling rate, which seems to suggest that if someone can make a box that can record higher than 192kHz, then Reaper will be able to handle it. Perhaps the most interesting feature of Reaper is its plug-in scripting engine. Yes, you can build and edit plug-ins right in the DAW.
Reaper feels very “Linux-like” to me in their branding and positioning. They don’t do any marketing or advertising, and they have what I think is a very awesome pricing model. There are two licenses – an individual license and a commercial one. If you are using the software for personal use, or you are using it as a business but earn less than $20,000 annually, you can buy the $60 individual license. Otherwise, the $225 commercial license is for you. Both licenses are full and restriction-free.
A lot of musicians first get into Cubase due to the software commonly being bundled with audio interfaces. I find most Cubase users to be extremely loyal to their DAW, and with good reason.
Steinberg actually invented VST plug-ins nearly 15 years ago, and they’ve been quick to integrate the virtual instrument standard ever since. Cubase is a fairly straightforward DAW with some slick new features in its latest versions, including a custom vocal editor called VariAudio, which is very similar in nature to Melodyne. Cubase comes with solid specs (unlimited tracks and I/O) plus a decent suite of plug-ins and instruments.
Every DAW on the market today comes with a ton of plug-ins, virtual instruments, built-in quantization, pretty meters, etc. What matters most is that the person using it is actually comfortable with the program. I’ve heard amazing records mixed in Pro Tools, amazing records mixed in Logic, amazing records mastered in Sonar, and so forth. Picking the right DAW for your needs will require you to evaluate the right mixture of specs, price, features and user interface design that works best. Download free trials, use the software, and see what you like. The choice is yours.
Pro Tools automation is setup like a lot of large format console automations. The basic operation, including modes such as Read, Write, Latch and Touch are uniquely similar. However, one thing that is not similar is the ease of automation. Automation is anything that is “written,” manually or in real-time, and then read back following the automated settings. For example, say you want certain guitar sounds to pan across speakers at given points during a song. You can “record” the panning movements for playback during the mixing sessions, thus preserving your settings. Some of the most commonly used settings for automating within the Pro Tools system, during a tracking or mixing session, include Volume, Mute, Solo, Aux and Channel Sends, and Panning. A short visit to the “automation preferences” tab will help with efficiency when writing data. So taking a few minutes to setup these up will save time in the end.
GETTING SET UP
The Automation Preferences, will be found in the Setup Menu > Preferences > Mix Tab Automation. First is the Smoothing Function. This will come into play when automation is written. It will be recorded, as a series of small moves causing a stair stepping effect, which will generate the smoothing function. Its job is to intelligently fix this by providing the user with a closer representation of the fader moves.
There are a few automation settings that can have great impact on the system’s overall performance during recording and playback. These can be found in the “Preferences” section. They are as follows:
Automation Thinning – Reduces the overall number of breakpoints, which in turn will help with system performance.
Smooth and Thin after Pass -This will automatically react by the degree that is set in the “preferences.” This can be set to “no smooth and thin” or “some smooth and thin.” By default, this will be set to “some smooth and thin” for new sessions. If this is set to none, it can always be added on an as-needed basis if the system’s performance is lacking due to the automation data. Common signs of this are: insufficient memory errors and buffer speed problems.
Auto Match Time – Is the amount of time that the fader will take to return to read status.
Automation Follows Edit – When disabled, automation events will not be affected by edits to audio. When it is enabled, the automation events will be affected by edits to audio.
Automation Safe -Suspends the automation from recording for the selected track. In the “edit window” the user will find the “viewing options.” By default, it will be set to waveform. However this can be switched to “each to track,” which will show the automation play list. By holding the “option key” and selecting what will be viewed, this will change the setting to affect all tracks on a session-wide basis. Once this “view setting” has been selected, the automation can be written with the pencil tool. Clicking will add a breakpoint, while deleting can be accomplished by holding “option” while clicking on the breakpoint (or by highlighting it with the selector tool and punching the delete key). Once the breakpoint has been applied, it can be moved with grabber tool to add or reduce the amount of the automated setting being manipulated. The breakpoints can also be deleted the same way, but by instead holding “option” and clicking the breakpoint with the pencil tool.
The “automation enable window” will control what automation is running and can be written during playback. This is also where all automation can be suspended. Individual tracks can be suspended – by command-clicking for Mac or control-clicking for Windows – the name in the track name box. To be noted is that suspending automation in the edit window will affect any tracks assigned to groups. To bypass the group, hold control while adjusting the automation; this will suspend the track of choice. If all the tracks are “globally suspended,” then the tracks will act as if they are in “off mode” regardless of their setting (read, write, touch, etc). In “off mode,” the system will ignore all Pro Tools written data, although all other MIDI controller data will be sent as normal. Off mode will turn off all automatable parameters, including: Volume, Pan, Mute, Send Volume, Send Pan and Plug-In controls.
Read mode will (still) be used for playback, once the data has been written in one of the other modes. Write Mode will write automation from the point the playback starts until the point at which the playback stops. This is where the “After Write Pass Switch” can be manipulated to adjust the Latch, Touch or to remain in Write mode. Touch Mode writes automation while the fader is being touched on a controller or while the fader is clicked with mouse. The fader will stay in Write mode until it is released, at which point the fader will return to the previously written data placeholder. These read functions can be set in the “Preferences” tab under the “Auto Match” and “Touch Timeout” settings. Latch Mode will work in the same way as touch mode, except when it is released it will stay at that position and continue writing until playback is stopped.
PLUG-IN AUTOMATION BASICS
Plug-in Automation is where things get more interesting, with most parameters on a plug-in being automatable. Some examples include setting the EQ, compression changes, creating filter sweeps, making reverbs slightly different for verse and chorus, etc. To put automation to work in these scenarios, clutch the command + option + control keys while clicking on the parameter that will be automated, and select “enable.” The parameter will be changed to a different color to indicate that it is enabled for automation. A second option would be to click the automation enable button. This option will open the Plug-in Automation window, which will provide a list of all automatable parameters. To enable the plug-in controls, select the control to be manipulated and then click the “add” button. At this point the automatable parameters will become viewable as a choice in the edit window. To remove any parameter not needed for session automation, click the remove button. Once you have written automation data for the plug-in, selecting the “safe” button in the top of the plug-in window can protect the automation for the track. Instruments will be enabled and automatable in the same way as other plug-ins such as EQ, Compression and Limiters.
While automation can save time and give the ability to get creative with processing and effects, it can also lead to an oversaturated mix. Just because something is automatable doesn’t always mean it should be. Again, think about the “big picture” and consider automation as a single part in the complete mixing spectrum. Just as too many tracks can cause clutter, so can too much automation.
Plug-ins are basically small programs that work within your audio software, such as Pro Tools or Logic, and provide you with a multitude of real-time audio processing and effects. The availability of plug-ins in the marketplace is dizzying, with many only a download away from being in your system. For this guide, we’ve concentrated on the traditional audio processing effects as opposed to the virtual synths and drum programming modules. We love those, too, but they deserve their own guide.
There are several formats and your system and software will dictate which ones you can use. Most of the more popular ones come in multiple formats and real time processing is a must have, so the real questions are, “What formats should I be seeking out and how much do I have to invest?” For the time being, there is little hope of a unified standard, so it’s best to know your formats.
RTAS – Real-Time Audio Suite
RTAS is Avid’s proprietary format and is available on Macs and PCs. There are many to choose from due to the widespread adoption of Pro Tools. Very few are free or cheap – some are even over $1,000! But as with Apple products, developers must be approved and thus plug-ins are more stable, and there are plenty at the $99 price point worth getting. You can use a wrapper or converter program to convert VST plug-ins to RTAS format for use in Pro Tools. Beware of destabilizing your computer, as independent developers may not have a proper uninstall option and you could end up with issues. Pro Tools also comes with free plug-ins (such as The Bomb Factory BF76 compressor and several great stock effects), which are quite good – especially when used quickly on-the-fly to get the sound under control.
VST – Virtual Studio Technology
VST was created by Steinberg and is available on Macs and PCs and is compatible with Cubase, Logic and other programs. This format is open source has been around long enough to have many free and affordable options available. There are just as many great choices in VST as there are in RTAS. However, be careful of what you install, as a rogue script could compromise your system’s stability.
TDM (Time Division Multiplexing)
This is for Pro Tools systems that have built in hardware. Though more expensive, these utilize hardware such as PCI cards which house the DSP so your CPU is not pulling all the weight. One mix with 40 tracks, all with audio processing, and you will probably bog down the system. This is a better design, which offloads the work to the card rather than your system, as opposed to RTAS and VST, which run “native” on your computer’s system.
Sonar, REAPER, Acid Pro and others use this format, but its Windows-only status can be a big downside for Mac-based studios. There are many available plug-ins in this format, and some good free ones depending on your needs. Originally, Microsoft developed DirectX for games and other multimedia.
AU – Audio Unit
Apple’s plug-in architecture is similar to VST, and there are several wrappers out there to translate VST to AU (such as FXpansion and Symbiosis). Some come already built in to Apple’s OS, but there are plenty of robust choices available (though not as many as an open source ecosystem can provide for). GarageBand, Logic Pro, Digital Performer and REAPER can use this format.
MAS (MOTU Audio System)
Digital Performer’s format designed by Mark of the Unicorn (MOTU) and is only for the Mac. Performer can also utilize AU plug-ins.
Here is a cross section of some of our favorite plug-ins:
Pod Farm 2.5
Cost: $99 [VST/RTAS/AU]
Upgrading to POD Farm 2.5 is free for owners of POD Farm 2. This is made by Line 6, who has built their name by pioneering amp modeling, which is built into live guitar amplifiers and desktop PODs. Their amps sound great live, but we were curious if the sound quality would translate well under the higher audio requirements of recording. It does stand up well in the mix if you tweak it properly and start with a good source. Pod Farm 2.5 offers the essential effects for guitar, bass and vocals while the more expensive Platinum version offers a much greater set of options. One really cool feature is being able to use an AB router and run separate signal routes in a very user-friendly interface. You can also hook up your Line 6 devices and use them as long as they have a model pack. Also, they offer 64-bit support for software such as Cubase5, Sonar 8x and X1, and Logic 9.2.
WAVES-Renaissance Reverb Native
Cost: $49 [VST/RTAS/AU]
This affordable plug-in comes with 12 different reverbs and so many variables it is infinitely tweakable and with graphical controls (you just grab a node and drag it to increase the reverb tail or to dip the midrange EQ). It lists many different basic reverb types from Room, Plate, Reverse, Gated and more. If you just want to add some space on the fly, then use something like the stock reverb in Pro Tools, but once you get more towards a finished mix, you will want something you can have full control over. Although this one comes at a bargain, Waves plug-ins can be on the more expensive side but really give you what you pay for. Their design team just does it better and you can rest assured you will be getting a high quality plug-in every time.
AmpliTube 3 Live
Cost: $299 [VST/RTAS/AU]
A multitude of vintage amp simulators with EQ, presence, cabinet and mic modeling, swells, rotary speakers, delays – basically the works for guitar and bass. You can also add a series of pedal effects (stomp mode) including a tuner, delay chorus, tremolo, wah, etc. As a guitar player, you can’t just write off great tube and solid state amps and pre amps and a real mic’d-up cabinet, but using plug-ins gives you the ability to tweak all the way through to the final mixing stage and provides for great convenience. Also for home studios, you may not be able to rock in the wee hours of the night, whereas with headphones and modeling software, you can turn up to 11 anytime you want. You can even use MIDI control for automation of real time controls. The visual setup is just like a pedal board, and in amp mode it shows you what looks like an amp head, making the guitar player comfie with the setup and making it very easy to use. One trick is to record a clean guitar and then process it with AmpliTube, tweaking as you go and deciding later in the mix which effects work best.
Antares Auto-Tune EVO Native
Cost: $199 [VST/RTAS/AU]
Once you get it right, it can be a wonderful tool that can either be used as a noticeable effect (T-Pain, for example) or used more transparently to correct pitch and make your vocal more pleasing to the ear without sounding computer-like. The “retune speed” and “humanize” controls allow for flexibility over how it tunes your audio. You do have to have some idea of keys and scales, but at least a starting key and some time for trial and error can get you to a desired result. Some other auto-tunes may be more automatic but will likely afford you less control. Use with care or not at all, please.
Bomb Factory BF76 Peak Limiter
Cost: Free with Pro Tools [RTAS, TDM]
The Bomb Factory BF76 plug-in is modeled after the world-class classic 1176 Peak Limiter that so many studios have used over the years. We love the way it expands on an otherwise dull bass sound. Typically digital versions of classic hardware can’t replace the old boxes, but this is one example of a company truly capturing the character of the box in the software version.
FXpansion has created a VST to RTAS converter. You may run into compatibility issues now and again, however don’t expect all VSTs to work as RTAS plug-ins through this or any other converter/wrapper. But if you end up migrating systems to more robust software or are working out of different studios, you may find this a lifesaver when you want that favorite “go-to” plug-in, only to find it was designed for a different platform.
Depending on your system and DAW, there is no reason not to dive into the world of plug-ins and start tweaking away. Many great options (some affordable, some more expensive) are only a click away and can expand your recording capabilities beyond your imagination. So with that, we’ll shut up and let you get back to twisting those virtual knobs.