Audio plugins are where most of the magic happens in mixing, and using them well is essential to good mixes. They are the secret keys that unlock the door to becoming a better recording engineer.
There are plugins for EQ, compression, limiting, reverb, and much more. We’re going to have a look at what they are, what they do, why we use them, and how to use audio effects to make our music better.
What audio plugins do
Audio processing plugins work on a simple premise.
The result is different than the input, and hopefully it’s better. :)
Let’s look at a quick example you are probably familiar with, then at some ways you might use plugins in your mixing.
Think about the distorted electric guitar. That is not a natural electric guitar sound - it’s distorted from it’s original. That’s the key - the effects box (a hardware version of audio plugins) takes the guitar sound, distorts the sound, and feeds it out the other end.
Whenever you hear a song or movie where suddently it sounds like they’re talking on the phone (muffled or tinny) - they are using an EQ plugin to strip away parts of the original and mimic a phone sound.
A reverb plugin tries to make the input sound like it is in a certain kind of room, like a theater, cathedral, small room, or a bathtub. Sometimes on a movie or song it sounds like the singer or instrument is in a different room than where they actually are (in the movie) - this happens by using a reverb effect plugin.
Why bother with plugins?
Learning all about these things is hard work, so why should we even bother learning about audio plugins? It’s a fair question, and I have a few reasons why I think you should know about them.
They make the sound better
This is the basic reason you are reading this - to make your sound better, right? This is where audio plugins do their work. When you learn to use them beneficially, you can make it better. Your mixing will be so much better. Your music will sound like music (instead of a bad try). You’ll have confidence to do new things. You’ll feel good about yourself as a recording engineer.
OK, you get the picture. There is no excuse for not learning how to maximize your resources in recording and mixing. Audio plugins are tools, and some of your best, so use them well.
You can take something bad and make it good
For those of us who don’t get a good track the first time, audio processing gives us the tools to make it right. Let’s face it - no one is perfect. I’ll be the first to admit it. But here’s my secret - plugins are where I make up for it. If anything that I produce sounds good, it’s not necessarily because I’m a good engineer. It’s because I spent enough of time working with my EQ, compression, and reverb to make it better.
The only caveat here is mud - you can’t polish mud. You can sculpt mud. You can even sprinkle glitter on it. But you can’t polish mud.
That said, I’ve done some amazing things with audio processing - I’ve taken some music that I thought was mud and polished it up to something nice. That is the power of audio plugins.
Aren’t plugins for amateurs?
In choral and classical music, sometimes you see in the CD liner notes the fact that there was no audio processing on that recording. It basically went from microphone straight to CD.
This is admirable, if you can do it. But the people who do it have many years of experience. It requires that you do all your “mixing” when before you put the track down - by choosing the best set of mics, and placing them exactly. That is no small feat.
In my opinion, if you have tools (audio plugins), why not use them? Don’t overuse them, but make use of what you have. If it helps the sound, use it. If it doesn’t, please don’t.
After all, the sound is the final arbiter. All mixing and recording results in a finished product. Your goal as recording engineer is to make that sound as good as you can.
Kinds of plugins
Alright, now the fun part - we’ll look at what kinds of plugins are out there. I’ll split them up into two groups for easy thinking.
These are the core of the whole plugin world. They do the brunt work. Start here, before getting distracted by shiny objects (specialty plugins). They are:
EQ divides the sound spectrum into frequency bands (groups), and works with them individually to change the character of the sound. To find out more, move on to the EQ page, or see some detailed info on parametric EQ or graphic EQ.
Compression is a way to manage the dynamic range of the music. In other words, you can tame down some of the loud parts, boost everything, and thus bring up the quiet parts in relation to the loud. See the compression page for more (soon to come).
We mentioned reverb before, earlier on this page - it is a way to put the signal into a different room. For instance, a choral recording often benefits from a small touch of reverb added to what is on the track (this depends on how much is already present). More on reverb coming soon.
I would put all other audio plugins into this category. Why? Because they are all additions to the essentials - just work through EQ, compression, and reverb first before cracking out these.
They are all helpful, handy, and useful, but will not substitute for the essentials. They are often more complex - a multi-band compressor is somewhat between an EQ and a regular compressor. A de-esser is a kind of narrow, one band compressor. An exciter has few controls (probably just a more/less knob), but works behind the scenes with EQ type things.
Don’t let them distract you from the core audio processors.
Having said that, let’s talk about bundles.
Audio plugin bundles
For audio software plugins, a bundle is a very common way of packaging different plugins together, giving a nice kit. Waves is a company that I use, and they do primarily bundles. Check out their Gold bundle, and their Platinum bundle, which I use.
I recommend buying plugins in bundles to save money and expand your collection before actually needing them.
Hardware or software
Whenever I talk about audio plugins on this page, I mean software plugins most of the time.
Why? Because most people in the home recording world work with computers for our recording. Software plugins are more flexible:
In short - software audio plugins are best for most people.
After that whirlwind tour of audio plugins for mixing, first take a deep breath. Now get started! I spent hours with EQ before getting to be even close to proficient. It’s a learning exercise. Start by picking up an EQ plugin that probably came with your computer recording software. Experiment with it, and kick your mixing into the next gear.