To Plugin, or not to Plugin
By Dave Swallow
The following is an article written by Focal Press author and Live Audio Engineer Dave Swallow for Lighting and Sound International magazine. Dave has a monthly column called Mix Position where he chronicles his wild and witty adventures as a Live Audio Engineer. The following article was published in the April 2012 issue.
You can find all of Dave’s articles and much more on his new website: http://www.dave-swallow.com/
The perfectly practical and perplexingly paramount planet of plugins permeates this month’s post. I get asked, far too often, about plugins. Which do I like? What would I recommend? Which is the best EQ/Dynamic/Betterizer plugin for a vocal? Is there a plugin that can make the kick drum sound big and full, with all the subtleties and intricate detail of a Dali?
In a search for sonic perfection we have once again stumbled aboard the technology boat and set sail down the Missisonic River. Personally, I’d prefer to pluck my eyelashes out with the aid of a leather-clad terminator than actually entertain the question, but I do try to at least help. I think it’s about time to lay my stall out . . .
Last summer, hidden away in an eerily vampiric Romanian forest, I attended a new festival. At FOH was a pair of Avid Profiles. The chap using the console next to mine was having problems loading his show. I was too busy not really caring and trying to mix to pay any attention to what was going on, but the constant jabbering was slightly off-putting. A radio call through to his production manager swiftly followed: “Yeah, this console only has two mix engines, I need five. Over!”
You’d think the fellow was mixing two philharmonic orchestras and a jazz fusion samba band with that much DSP. In fact, he was not – just the classic American three-piece. Some squawks came through from the other end: “Copy that. I’ll try! Over!”
Then followed more complaints about the need for as many mix engines as possible, and a look across at me. “How can these people run such a shambles of a PA firm?” deflected off my poor, unsympathetic ears. Behind my courteous grimace, I wondered if all this DSP was hiding an inability to actually mix a show. In the end, turning off the majority of plugins helped the console to load his show. My platinum rule when using this desk is to use the standard plugin set – this way you’ll hardly ever be caught out.
One of the first audio jobs I had was working for a local PA firm in sunny Southend-on-Sea. We had an Acoustic Sound Systems PA, a crackly Soundcraft 500b, and a Crown amp that weighed more than a battle cruiser. It sounded good, but like anything, it was only as strong as its weakest link. Adding a lovely tube compressor would be wasted because its full potential would never be realised: the marginal difference it might have made would probably not have been worth the investment. I thought about the smallness of the room, the accuracy of the equipment, and more importantly the accuracy of the band that were playing. Would a tube compressor help in any way? My governor wasn’t convinced, and that was good enough for me.
These days things have moved on: our equipment has become more refined and extravagant new features once again lay waste to another function for which we used to use our heads. Plugins are like other pieces of outboard equipment, with two vital differences: cost, and the ability to use them more than once at a time.
Once upon a time, we would sparingly use our outboard or have racks and racks of the stuff: these days it is possible to carry all your outboard in a conveniently light laptop case. We also understood that putting something in the way of the signal path would have an effect on the signal itself, and not always in a positive fashion. There seems to be a growing belief that just because we don’t have a physical device inserted, the signal is now immune to the problem of signal degradation. Two words: Error correction. No digital system is infallible, and the more maths in the algorithm, the more there is to go wrong – and how much does that affect the sound? Keeping everything simple, I believe, will lead to much better quality of sound. This goes for analogue systems too.
I also believe that there are some preconceptions about the quality of the plugins based on the quality of the graphics on the packaging: we suppose that if the graphics look good then the maker must have spent lots of time making sure that the sonic quality is just as good. Surely they wouldn’t make it look really good just to be able to sell it! Of course, many of you will disagree and find my lack of faith disturbing, but, dear reader, I can assure you that my cynicism may be only partially misplaced.
I see, far more often than is desirable, the head of the sound engineer buried in the screen of the console. Now, I’ve been down this slippery slope before, and I shall be careful about what I say next. He or she may be playing with the plugin, or more likely, trying to work out how the blasted thing works.
Advancements in technology are fine, as long as they are coupled with well-thought- through discipline on how to use such a thing. The questions we should be asking are probably internal ones such as: “Do I really need all this processing?”
Using better mic techniques, keeping things out of the signal path, and good old fashioned talent, will help your mixes become legendary.
Dave Swallow is Mixing Engineer, Live and Studio Audio Engineer, Tour Manager and Tour Consultant who has toured extensively in Europe, North America, South America, Australia and Japan. He has mixed and supervised countless sessions, including Itunes, Aol, Yahoo, BBC, and B-side cuts. His live TV appearances include Jay Leno, Saturday Night Live, Dave Letterman, Austin City Limits, Conan O’Brien, Regis & Kelly, VH1, Later with Jools Holland, Brit Awards, Live at Abbey Road, BBC One Sessions, Parkinson, Friday Night Project, Album Chart Show, E4, Taratata, New Pop, Jonathan Ross, Alan Carr, Top of The Pops, CD:UK, T4, Davina, and Mobo Awards. Recently Dave won the Live Sound Engineer of the Year award at the 2011 Audio Pro International Awards in association with NAMM. He is also the author of Live Audio, a book published by Focal Press.