Using Plugin Processors for Professional Sounding Audio
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Using Plugin Processors
for Professional Sound

Bring your audio up to professional spec before you burn that CD

by Rich the Tweak

IK Multimedia T-RackS Mastering Plug-In (Macintosh and Windows)

 

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).

 

My list of issues: Issues Novices Typically Face
Excessive bass at times, some inconsistency

Not as smooth as commercial Mixes, especially in the mid range

Not as punchy as commercial music

Inconsistent imaging between different songs and sometimes in the same song

Doesn't sound as good in the car as it does on studio monitors

Vocals not as clear or sweet

Mid range is harsher, more grainy

Image is neither as wide or as 3 dimensional as some commercial mixes

 

Not as loud as commercial tracks even though it was compressed

Track is noisy, harsh, hurts ears at high volumes

Weak Bass, weak kick, disappearing kick, or it's too boomy and it drowns the rest out.

Drums can't drive the track unless they are too loud

One dimensional, flat sound, even though instruments were panned

Everything runs together into a mushy, indistinct, sound

Unintelligible, buried vocals

Sounds "way different" on the car, boomy bass, no presence, muffled

Balance between channels if off and it changes throughout the song

 

The reason why I made you do this little exercise was to give you a sense of 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.  Lets cover the basics for the Newbies.

 

What is a plugin?  A plugin is a small computer program which fits into the virtual mixer in your sequencer. Plugins typically model themselves after  hardware rack units used in professional studios.  For example there are plugins for effects boxes, such as reverbs and delays, effects pedals, like guitar distortion, flange and chorus, and for mixing and mastering processors such as compressors, limiters, exciters, sub bass enhancers, stereo imagers and many more. In the virtual studio of the sequencer, the plugin effectively replaces these hardware boxes with their software equivalents.

 

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. The plugin goes on the audio channel itself, so all audio leaving that channel is effected.  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. These use the sends on your virtual mixer. You create a bus and use the send on each channel to route audio to it.  The typical plugins for busses 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.  But as you get started, just use standard reverb and delay as your bus based plugins.

A Mastering 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.

 

tweakspeakImportant Tip: If you feel like you have no idea where to put all these plugins, use the above be your guide.  Now think.  Do you want the effect to affect only the one track?  Then use the plugin as an insert. Do you want many tracks to go through the same effect?  Then create a bus-based plugin.  Generally, we leave mastering plugins alone till after we finish the stereo mix, but these can come in handy on groups of tracks.  They are also good for one-offs to cd and mp3 while the work is in progress.

 

Plugin formats.  There are several plugin formats which include VST, DirectX, Core Audio, RTAS, TDM, AudioSuite, and MAS.  .  First, you should note which format plugins your sequencer supports.  Cubase, for example, supports VST plugins.  Cakewalk and Sonar rely on Direct X or VST. (Note that it seems to me Direct X is gradually being phased out).  Logic PC supports both VST and Direct X. Logic Mac only supports Audio Units. Digital Performer supports MAS. RTAS, TDM and Audiosuite are formats used by various Digidesign products. Sometimes you can, with the addition of a "wrapper" plugin, use other formats in your sequencer. 

A 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 Sonar, 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 PC.  You simply copy the plugin folder called "VstPlugins" from your Cubase directory to your Logic directory.  Yet regardless of the format of the plugin, they are all used in the same ways, on tracks, busses, and master outs.

Free plugins   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. 

 

Plugin Bundles

Antares

antaresYou know the sound.  Everyone's doing it.  Vocals are repitched and flattened to musical notes.  Though Antares is not the only software plugin maker that can get this effect, it often gets credit for it.  There is also Celemony's Melodyne Plugin and Waves Tune Native plugin.  Before you spring though, make sure you don't already have one of these.  Logic has a pretty capable pitch correction tool, and Cubase just added a new feature to Cubase 5 (full version) called VariPitch. 

Yet the Antares AutoTune Vocal Studio looks like their most ambitious bundle yet.  It includes Auto Tune Evo and Avox Evo, that includes the Vocal Toolkit which now includes Harmony Engine Evo.  Whew!  You'll need to have an iLok for authorizartion.

iLok

Antares Auto-Tune Vocal Studio Pitch Correcting Software (Mac and Windows)

Auto-Tune Vocal Studio Native and Auto-Tune Vocal Studio TDM combine Auto-Tune Evo, the worldwide standard in professional pitch correction, with AVOX Evo, the latest generation of the Antares Vocal Toolkit (now including Harmony Engine Evo). Together, they provide a comprehensive suite of tools for producing world-class vocal tracks.autotune


 

There are two major plugin bundle makers.  Universal Audio and Waves.  Both a famous in the studio world and make a complete set of plugin audio processors that would take a roomful of expensive gear.  There is a disadvantage to buying bundles.  Sometimes you buy plugins you will never use, because they come in the bundle.  Both companies let you buy smaller bundles then upgrade your set by adding individual plugins later, but this method quickly becomes more expensive. I have both the Waves Platinum Bundle and the equivalent of the UAD Ultra Pak with a few extras added in.  I used the Waves bundle when making my sample cd roms and they were extremely helpful tweaking my samples in Sound Forge.  I have the UAD bundle installed on my Mac and I use them in every production, even though I have all the Logic plugins and many Native Instruments processors also in my Mac's arsenal.  Overkill?  Yes. You don't need as many as I have. 

 

Universal Audio

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.   The UAD-1 plugins require a hardware card that fits in your computer.  These come in PCI, PCIe formats.  Make sure you get the right one!

Some of Universal audio's plugins are computer models of actual hardware audio processors.  That is what makes them so valued.  Many people say they have a hard time telling the difference between the plugin and the actual hardware.  Units like the Pultec EQ, Fairchild, Roland Space Echo actually exist in the real world. 
 

Universal Audio UAD2 Solo Flexi DSP Card (Macintosh and Windows)

2.5X the DSP power of UAD1. Includes UA Mix Essentials II and UAD $500 Voucher. PCIe card.

Universal Audio UAD2 Solo Laptop Card (Macintosh and Windows)


Tweak: I believe the UAD plugins are the best a home studio enthusiast should go for. I advise to carefully consider which bundle to go for.   note that there are many combinations that at first are quite confusing.  Fiirst is a matter of how many processors are on the card--one, two, or four.  The more processors, the more plugins you can run.  Then there is a matter of which plugins come with each bundle.  The "Flexi" bundle gives you the basic " mix essentials" and a voucher to buy the ones you want.  Other bundles, like the "Nevana" are designed to emulate a classic Never console.

How much power do you need? Well, for me the solo card is just fine as it is 2.5 times the power of my previous UAD-1 card. I also use a lot of Logic plugins. But if you have big mixes and want to use UAD exclusively on every track you are going to need more than the solo.   

Be careful to buy the right UAD pak for your computer.  For example, the Mac Pro has to use a set with a PCIe card; most PCs can use a PCI card. 

Hardware Supported Plugins
 

Hardware supported plugins require the hardware be present to run. They also take strain off the CPU by doing the processing in hardware, hence there is less of a drain on the computer for processing audio in real time. Also the hardware prevents piracy, so the developer is able to get a return for their efforts.

The UAD bundles only get you started.  Once you get a card and the basic plugins installed you'll open an account at UA where you can buy more plugins ala carte or can take advantage of their special offers which change every month or so.  Its a great idea to go there ahead of time to see how much the plugins you think you want will cost to get a full idea of what you are getting in to. 

Some of my favorite UAD plugins:

 

pultec

Pultec

fairchild

Fairchild

precision limiter

Precision Limiter

lprecision eq

Precision EQ

 

 

Waves Musicians II Native Plug-In Bundle (Macintosh and Windows)
The Musicians bundle II carries on the tradition of affordable tools that offer the clarity and intuitive control expected from Waves. Create tracks with presence, punch, and unique sonic signature. The Musicians II bundle features two signature Waves processors found on countless hit releases; Renaissance Compressor and Renaissance EQ. Add to that, two great delay and ambience tools, SuperTap and Doubler, and you are ready to create sounds with unique sonic distinction. Use these award-winning tools that have shaped the sound of many hit mixes, to create your next hit.

Waves Native Silver Bundle (Windows and Macintosh)
Introducing Waves Silver, an affordable new collection designed with personal production studios in mind. With reverb, compression, equalization, level maximization, and more, Silver features 16 essential plug-ins that will take your music to the pro level. Now, you can join the ranks of the engineers and producers that count on Waves Gold, Platinum, Diamond, and Mercury to deliver hit after hit after hit.

Waves Native Gold Bundle (Windows and Macintosh)
Gold brings a wealth of signal processing power to your studio, geared toward tracking, mixing, and mastering. The Gold Bundle now includes Waves Tune LT, IR-L Convolution Reverb and Doubler as well as many of Waves most sought after processors. With dynamics processing equalization, reverb and more, Waves Gold Bundle is a great introduction to the power of Waves.

Waves Masters Bundle Native Version (Windows and Macintosh)
The highest quality standard for purist mastering on full range mixes. Innovative linear phase EQ and Multiband introduce no phase distortion. Includes award-winning L2 Ultramaximizer.

Waves Native Platinum Bundle (Macintosh and Windows)
Platinum is an extraordinary collection of signal processing tools. From dynamics, equalization, and reverb to pitch correction, spatial imaging, and beyond, Platinum is ideal for tracking, mixing, mastering, and sound design. Now including MaxxVolume, Waves Tune LT, L3 Ultramaximizer, L3-LL Ultramaximizer, and IR-L Convolution Reverb, as well as all the plug-ins found in Waves Gold, Masters, and Renaissance Maxx bundles, Platinum is a powerful production arsenal for any studio.

Waves Native JJP Software Plugin Bundle
The Fairchild 670, the Pultec EQP-1A, and the Pultec MEQ-5 are among the most sought-after pieces of gear in audio history. Jack Joseph Puig is among the most sought-after producers and mixing engineers in the music industry. When JJP requires the perfect sound, he turns to these studio legends. Now, Waves has precision-modeled these rare pieces and captured every detail of their rich harmonic complexity in one bundle.

Waves Native API Collection Plugin Bundle (Macintosh and Windows)
Developed in association with Automated Processes Incorporated, the API Collection features four precision processors based on renowned API modules: the 550A 3-Band Equalizer, the 550B 4-Band Equalizer, the 560 Graphic Equalizer, and the 2500 Stereo Compressor.

Waves SSL 4000 Collection Native
The SSL 4000 Collection includes four meticulously modeled plug-ins based on the legendary SSL 4000 Series: the SSL E-Channel, the SSL G-Master Buss Compressor, the SSL G-Equalizer and the all-new G-Channel.

Waves Tune Native Pitch Correction Software (Macintosh and Windows)
The singer has just wrapped up an amazing take. The phrasing, the emotion, the delivery, it’s all there. But there are notes you’d like to change, and others that need to be fixed. You need perfect pitch transformation. You need precision realtime editing capabilities. You need Waves Tune.

 

Like the UAD, Waves has its bundles all at different price points.  But with Waves, the larger bundles include the smaller bundles.  For example, the Mercury bundle includes the Platinum bundle, which includes the Masters, Gold and Silver Bundles.

With Waves, as with UAD, you can buy more "add on" bundles or upgrades at their online store.  A good way to start a Waves collection is with the Silver or Gold bundle.  Upgrade to Platinum later if you like them.  More recently Waves has added some specialty plugins like the JJP bundle or the pitch correction plugin.

As with UA's stuff, you want to research before you buy.  Make sure you read the terms of the Waves Update Plan on their site.

Waves plugins require authorization via iLok, which allows you to use your plugins on a different computer.  This may be advantageous over the UAD card based system, which is harder to move.

Some of my favorite Waves Plugins:

 

large product image

Linear Phase multiband

large product imagelarge product image

Renaissance Channel  and     L3 Ultrmaximizer

large product image

Wave's PuidChild 670 (aka Fairchild)


Waves

My older review of Waves Platinum (before I got the UAD)

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 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.

Free Plugins

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.

 

iZotope's Ozone Mastering System

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 analyzer; a mastering reverb; multiband compressor; multiband harmonic exciter; multiband stereo imager and finally, a loudness maximizer.  ozone

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've tried Ozone with Logic 5 (PC) as well as Logic 7 (Mac) 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.  Tweak gives Ozone two strong thumbs up.   Get more info on Ozone. 

IK Multimedia

IK Multimedia has long been the provider on the less expensive side of the plugin makers. 

IK Multimedia Classik Studio Reverb and T-RackS Bundle
IK Multimedia's knows that nothing matters most than the final mix. The Classik Studio Reverb and T-RackS plug-ins are world-renowed effects that can help you meet the toughest mixes in the face and wallop them. Bundling them together both complements your studio and your budget. Get your bundle today!

IK Multimedia T-RackS Deluxe Mastering Plug-In (Macintosh and Windows)

 
large product image

Cleansers
 

Cleansers? Yep. Audio can get dirty. Hum from unbalanced lines, ambient noise picked up from mics, hiss from old tapes, scratches on vinyl, and clicks and pops, radio frequency interference from poorly configured soundcards can all conspire to ruin your beautiful sounding tracks. Naturally, the real solution is never to incur these maladies in the first place, but often we don't have that option when we are working for clients, or when grandma wants your second cousin's 4th grade acapella cleaned up. As usual you can pay a little or pay a lot for restoration software, and there is no guarantee they will be able to fix everything. But they will help.

iZotope RXiZotope RX is the most complete audio restoration product on the market. This standalone application combats a range of audio problems via innovative restoration modules, detailed analysis tools and time-saving workflow features. Ideal for archiving, recording, mastering, broadcasting, podcasting, video production and forensics.

Bias makes a PC/Mac entry level plugin called Sound Soap. I have that one, and it is good if used in moderation. Bias also makes a full-scale version called SoundSoap pro.

Leave it to Waves to chart the high end here with the Waves Native Restoration Bundle.

For those who work on Sound Forge you might want to check out their Noise Reduction 2 plugin.

All of the 'cleansers" are going to take practice to perfect.  Its very easy to mess up your files so you want to have backups before you begin. 
 

 

 

Convolution Reverbs
 

One of the more recent entries into the Plugin Scene are convolutuon reverbs. This differ from typical reverb plugins as they use mathematical models of characteristics of different spaces to create their effect. The result is a much more realistic reverberant output that can exceed the quality one can achieve in the best hardware reverb boxes. The drawback to convolution reverbs is the immense hit on the CPU. Even today's fastest computers can't do too many of these in real time.

One of the first was Sony's Acoustic Mirror, which is now bundled in Sound Forge. Emagic then launched Space Designer and eventually bundled it into Apple's Logic. Waves released the IR1 Convolution reverb and recently the IRL Convolution Reverb ("L" is for "light")

 More cool stuff

Izotope Spectron Spectral FX Processing Plug-In
Spectron is the newest must-have tool for sound designers. It offers limitless spectral processing housed inside a powerful interface which lets the user control entire groups of frequency bands with virtually limitless options for sweeping and triggering. By chaining effects including morphing, panning, delay, and filtering. It's almost impossible not to find a unique sound with Spectron.

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

 


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Superior Drummer
My Favorite Vintage Soft Synhts
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Albino 3
Intakt
Guru Review
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Massive
FM7 and FM8
NI's Komplete Bundle
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Are Hardware Samplers Obsolete?
MOTU MX4
Absynth
Antares Filter
Logic's EXS24 Sampler
Kore
Kore 2 Review
Kontakt
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Waves Gold and Platinum
Software Plugins Price List

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Diderot (1713 - 1784)
 

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