Using Plugins for Professional Sounding Audio
Bring your audio up to professional spec before you burn that CD
by Rich the Tweak
OK class, your assignment for today is to put your 2 favorite commercial cds in the cd player along with your cd you have made. Now take out a sheet of paper and write down the differences you hear between a polished commercial track and yours. If you are a beginner to the craft this is an easy assignment--there may be so many differences that you might not know where to start. For the advanced home producer/engineer you may already be very close. Now it's time to take it the final mile. Here's my list of issues with my audio (see I get to participate in this too).
The reason why I made you do this little exercise was to give you a sense if what corrective actions you might take to get your tracks up to commercial speed. The correct use of audio plugins provides for solutions, at least partially, to all of the issues above. Naturally, if your other recording gear is not up to speed, or if your tracks were not recorded well in the first place you will have some trouble. The best plugins in the world will not fix a harsh sounding digital/analog converter (though they will still dramatically improve the output). And of course, bad material, off key vocals and poor performance is a show-stopper no matter what you do. Don't think just because a pro studio has great gear that they don't have to deal with the same problems we've listed above. They do! The difference is they have tools to fix them and know how to fix them. Every studio deals with off key vocals, 60hz hum, trouble getting the snare to sit right, getting the bass so it sounds good on a boom box as well as a high end audiophile system. You might be surprised to discover (given you have decent mics and preamps and a nice audio interface) that their source material is not that much better than yours. They just know what and when to tweak, and when not to tweak. The one plugin you see to the left, the Waves C4 MultiBand Compressor, can a a long way to correcting nearly all of the above problems. But before we get into that, lets cover the basics for the newbies.
All About Plugins
The audio goes "through" the plugin depends on where they are placed in your mixer. There are basically 3 types of plugins. 1. Track based 2. Bus based. 3. Mix based
A track based plugin is an insert that affects only that track. Plugins that should be used on every track individually are compressors (and on tracks that must be as loud as possible, a limiter). If necessary, you may want to add a noise gate, eq, and delay, chorusing or flanging to a track. Vocal tracks may benefit from exciters, de-essers and tuning plugins. Guitars should have their processing at the track level.
A bus based plugin is one that you want to apply to more than one track, but not the entire mix. The typical candidates at this level are reverbs. You may need more than one. Having different tracks go through the same reverb is tried and true studio technique to give the impression the performers are actually playing in the same room. It's also critical for setting the front/back depth perspective of your soundstage. For creative tweaking, there's no end to the things you can do with sends and returns in the virtual environment of the sequencer.
A Mix or Master based plugin goes as an insert to your master out--its the last step in the chain before the final print and all of the audio goes through it. These plugins are the ones that are most critical to the "overall sound" of the final product. And it is here where we can solve many of the problems listed in our above exercise.
Plugin formats. There are several plugin formats which include VST, DirectX, RTAS, TDM, AudioSuite and MAS. We are only going to talk about the 1st two types, which are the most popular and found on many PC sequencers. First, you should check to see which format plugins your sequencer supports. Cubase, for example, supports VST plugins. Cakewalk, with its reliance on the Windows MME, relies on Direct X. Logic supports both VST and Direct X. Sometimes you can, with the addition of a "wrapper" plugin, use DX plugins in a VST based application and vice versa. But you should always check that out first. The cool thing about plugins is that they work in all compatible audio applications you have on your system. For example, if you get a quality DX plugin for Logic, you can also use it in ACID, SoundForge, Vegas. You can use the VST plugins that come with Cubase in other VST applications like Wavelab and even in Logic. You simply copy the plugin folder called "VstPlugins" from your Cubase directory to your Logic directory. Logic's plugins, however, cannot be moved to Cubase as they are part of logic itself which uses a proprietary format. Yet regardless of the format of the plugin, they are all used in the same ways, on tracks, busses, and master outs.
Free plugins A very cool thing going on is the availability of free, good sounding plugins on the internet. This is particularly the case with VST plugins. At the end of the article I'll post some links to the places where the good ones are. Yet free plugins should be used with caution. They may crash your sequencer or make it unstable. I personally will not use them. It's just not worth it to add a questionable device to an application that has to work in real time.
The best plugins The best plugins are not cheap. They don't sound cheap either. One secret the people in large expensive studios have over you is they too use plugins, sometimes the same ones you already have in your sequencer. Yet you will also find the top plugins in their arsenal. The quality of a high end plugin can indeed match the quality of its hardware counterpart.
Wave Native Gold Mini Review
There are probably more studios relying on the Waves L1 Ultra Maximizer and C4 Multiband than they care to admit. The difference these can make on ones music is outstanding. Want to hear the difference it can make? Download the demo from Waves. It's fully functional for 14 days so you can actually use it to master some songs courtesy of Waves. If you are like me, the question might not be if you can afford it, it might be can you afford not to have it.
It took me a long time to warm up to the Waves products for a couple of reasons. They are expensive, and every time I'd look at the back of the box I'd see plugins I already had. Lessee, I have my multiband compressor, my reverb, my gate, my multi-tap :) After all, it all sounds the same, Right? Wrong! It took me less than 10 seconds of running my audio through a TrueVerb, a Renaissance EQ or a Ultra Maximizer to become a total evangelical convert. Your talking to a guy who has all the sonic foundry plugins, all the Logic plugins, and many of the Cakewalk and Steinberg plugs. What sets the waves plugins apart from the rest is not only it's stunning graphics and and outstanding ease of use, but their unbelievable audio quality. The audio comes out of the oven warm, supple and professionally smooth. You really have to hear it.
My mixes are louder, clearer, with better bass, better transients. I've spent nearly a week just getting acquainted, bouncing old songs from DAT into the computer and then processing them. In about two minutes I can get dramatic improvements, just by chaining the 10 band parametric, if needed the Renaissance Bass, the C4 multiband, sometimes the stereo imager, and finally the L1 Ultra Maximizer. If you had a good mix to begin with, you'll find it easy to make it outstanding. Even if you had a just an old recording from cassette, you'll be surprised to find dynamics and nuances that were deeply buried in the original. The 10 band is so precise you can cut away damaged frequencies surgically, something that my hardware 31 band is supposed to do, but can't, not like this! The L1 Ultramaximer works so well with Logic that the peak meters match exactly. That is, if the L1 says it will limit at -.01 db that's exactly where Logic's meter pegs, ditto for bouncing to DAT. The result is increased resolution you can hear. Better tracking, better bouncing and a better mixdown.
Each plugin comes with a .pdf and paper manual so you can learn how the experts use these. I'm also getting awesome results editing samples in SoundForge with them, discovering new ways to polish sounds that eclipses differences between my studio and the big studios downtown. One cool thing is the 10 band parametric. Not only can you eq your sample exactly the way you like, you can create a different eq for the left and right side, and level each side so they peak exactly at 0db. And you can give your samples as much high end as you want, and surprisingly, the results are not harsh or strident. This allows one to make the perfect sample. It's good magic.
A final note, their is a "public beta" of the Waveshell that allows you to run the Waves plugs in your VstPlugins folder, so Cubase users can now use Waves. This too is great because VST plugins pass on automation parameters to host sequencers that support this. This is an important feature for those considering using a Logic Control or Houston Controller. Imagine, fully automated Waves processors just like the guys with massive Pro Tools setups. While that technology isn't here yet, it will be soon. Buy running the Waveshell, I have the plugins in both my VST and Direct X directories.
It's hard to fathom through Wave's product line because some of their packs contain the same plugins, and nobody wants to buy them twice. The Native Power Pack, for example, contains the basic plugins which are also in the Native Gold version. Then there is The Renaissance Collection Native. The three plugins (Renaissance Reverb, Compressor and EQ) in this collection are already included in the Gold version. But then there is the Renaissance Collection TWO which has 3 new plugins (the Renaissance Bass, Vox and De-esser) that are not in the Native Gold pack or the Power Pack. Confused yet? Let me end the confusion for you. To have the complete collection you need both the Gold Native and Renaissance Collection 2. One reason you may want to go Gold is that neither the Power Pack or either of the Renaissance Collections has the C4 Multiband compressor and IMO that one is essential (which costs $400 purchased separately in their online store), nor do they the "FX" plugins like the Enigma, Mondo Mod and Ultra Pitch and the MetaFlanger. You can always upgrade to the gold version on their website, yet it may make sense to just simply get the Gold Native bundle and later on get the R2 collection. My advice is to download the demo of all their plugins and run it two weeks. You'll know which ones you need after that--probably all of them! Here's an independent review of Waves from Mix Magazine. I give the Waves plugins a big thumbs up and bestow up it the coveted Tweak's Pick award.
A less expensive, yet complete software mastering system is iZotope's Ozone. Ozone comes in the form of a direct x plugin. But it's much more than a single plugin, it's like getting an entire mastering suite in one single interface. You get a paragraghic equalizer which has an excellent real time spectrum analyser; a mastering reverb; multiband compressor; multiband harmonic exciter; multiband stereo imager and finally, a loudness maximizer.
You can chain these up however you like. The bands are moveable, just like on the expensive hardware multibands. One advantage of having all these in one plugin is you can bypass all these functions at once, or quickly bypass only certain ones. This saves time (and wear and tear on your ears) and lets you make the instant comparisons you need to do when mastering. You'll have a hard time finding plugins that can do multiband imaging and exciting anywhere (you won't find them in the Waves set, for example) and the way these work in concert with the multiband compressors is awesome. One cool thing I was able to do with the imager was to widen the midrange yet leave the bass alone where it was distinct, front and center--try that with your garden variety stereo imager. Also the mastering reverb is truly a godsend, just a little touch goes a long way. I like how you can easily set it to a narrow bandwidth so you get depth exactly where you want it and not where you don't want it. The Loudness Maximizer gives predictable results every time. It has a "brickwall" limiter much like the Waves L1 that lets you jam audio into every nook and cranny of the audio bandwidth if you desire. there's also a "soft limiting" option that is perfect for when you want to exploit the full dynamic range of the audio bandwidth, with quiet sections as well as loud bombasts.
I tried Ozone with Logic 5 and Vegas with excellent, glitch-free results. I also found the spectrum display to be great at helping isolate system noise coming into my audio interface--stuff you can't hear unless you crank the gain. Mastering is an art that takes practice, but with Ozone, it's easy to get experience under your belt fast. Check it out for yourself and download the demo. Also check out the Guide to Mastering with Ozone, which contains a gold mine of tips on mastering that will help with whatever system you use. Tweak gives Ozone two strong thumbs up. Get more info on Ozone.
PSP Audio's Vintage Warmer Another processing Plugin that can make dramatic improvement to your mixes is the PSP Vintage Warmer. The plugin operates like a vintage compressor that optimizes the bass and treble range of your music. It also is able to give a very authentic emulation of tape saturation. As you see from the pic, it has some nice looking (and accurate) Vu meters. I was able to dramatically improve any mix I threw at it, giving it stronger bass and shiny vocals, a warm sounding top end. The sound is reminiscent of super quality analog recordings to reel to reel or vinyl. While it's very subjective, I found I could achieve results where the audio totally locked in a beautiful organic whole with a wonderful sheen. You can only get the Vintage Warmer from their site and there is a demo you can download and try. I have used it with Logic 4.8 and 5, SoundForge5 and Vegas 3 with no problems. Dx and VST version included. PSP Audio
Universal Audio UAD-1 Universal Audio is a name that goes way back into audio history. Two legendary products are UREI/Universal Audio 1176 Compressor Limiter and the revered LA-2A Leveling Amplifier. The sons of the late Bill Putman, who designed the 1176 and LA-2a, have rekindled the company. You can read more about the story. Working from their father's original schematics, they built a hardware re-issue of these classic compressors and then took it one step further. A PCi DSP card that fits right in the computer to power the digital equivalents of vintage greatness. Its distributed by Mackie and is called the UAD-1 Powered DSP Card. You can read more about this set of plugins at Mackie's page. Compatible with sequencers that run VST Plugins.
Ohm Force Ohm Force has some good effect plugins that are unusual and easy on the wallet. ($10 bucks ea. for their standard versions) For the money they are truly delightful. My favorite is Hematohm which is hard to describe other than its a combination delay, lfo envelope follower. It can shift frequencies in real time and is very smooth. The outcome is bizarre. You can emulate vocoders (though it is not a vocoder) and do wild, contorted, evil things with vocals, or silly things, depending on your mood. The other two OhmForce offerings are the OhmBoyz Delay, a severely mutatable multitap delay with a resonant filter that can go on for hours if you let it, constantly changing your content. Heavy tweaker's heaven here. Finally there is Predatohm, perhaps the ultimate distortion plugin in my arsenal. Predatohm is sort of like a multi band feedback generator. Run a wimp 808 kit though it and you'll be able to unlock tons of DnB secrets. I like them. I recommend the VST Versions of the OhmForce Plugins and to forego the funky skins and get the classic skins. Sure the funky ones look cool but after a while I get tired of the huge screen to OhmBoyz delay and just want to turn the knobs. You can obtain OhmForce products only at their website which is at www.ohmforce.com
Prosoniq. I don't have the whole Prosoniq line, which includes the famous Orange Vocoder, among others. In fact I only have one of their plugins, but I love it dearly. That's Pi-Warp, which is sort of like a ring modulator, pitch shifter and reverb rolled in one. It wickedly distorts vocals and create great machine like voices. Also love it for running pads through it to get a really spacey otherworldly hues. Check it out at Prosoniq
Wrapping Up (sic) for now.. Of course there's tons of other plugins available. I don't have them all, so there is no way this can be considered a comprehensive review. This article just touches on one that I know and like. The point is that plugins can dramatically alter your sound for the better and if you haven't explored this aspect of your digital audio sequencer you are truly missing out. The Holy Grail of Audio is not as far from your studio as you might think. With quality plugins like Waves, you can jump to the top of the class and deliver some outstanding audio.
Best of Luck in your studio enterprise,
Rich the Tweak
Plugin makers may contact me if they want to be considered for review here.