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Plug-in or No?

(and how do I assign them?)

by Phil Gates

Iím sure that by now if youíve been recording music on your computer, or even been talking about it with friends or colleagues, youíve probably come across the term "Plug-In". Usually in a sentence like "Man, youíve got to get the "XYZ" Plug-In, and put it on your vocals. Itís soooo cool!"

So what are these Plug-ins and how are Plug-ins going to help you? Are Plug-ins going to help you? And do you really need to get Plug-ins?

A little History first:

If you were to have a large frame console (mixing board) with a TT (telephone type) patchbay, or even a smaller Mackie 1604 mixer, both are going to have a way to insert something into the signal path of a particular channel. In the case of that channel being a vocal track, that something could be a compressor, or an equalizer. Maybe even a reverb or delay.

To do this on a large frame console you would use one end of a patch cable to "Plug-In" to an insert point on the patchbay, the other end to the point on the patchbay where the compressor was connected to, then a second patch cable from the output of the compressor connector point on the patchbay back into a channel return patch point. To do the same on a Mackie, or many other smaller mixers the idea is to use an "insert cable" which is typically a cable with a stereo 1/4" connector on one end, going to two mono 1/4" connectors on the other end. One of those mono connectors representing the "tip" of the stereo connector, the other mono connector representing the "ring" of the stereo connector. All three connectors are sharing the same ground. The mixer has one connector plug built in on each channel labeled "insert" or "injection". This connector has the ability to "send" out the signal on the associated channel, as well as receive it back in the same jack.

The stereo end of the cable would connect to this plug on the mixer, then the mono connector representing the "tip" would go to the "in" of the compressor, and the mono connector representing the "ring" would connect to the "out" of the compressor.

At this point, you would have effectively "plugged-in" the compressor to your vocal track. Yes? Great! So the next time youíre in the world mixing and need to connect stuff analog, youíll know how. All of the previous examples are replicated in a very easy fashion when it comes to using Plug-ins in music software. In most DAWís (Digital Audio Workstations), choosing a Plug-in is really as simple as a click of the mouse, and a choice from a pull down menu to select a Plug-in.

There are Plug-ins for virtually everything from simple EQís to complex EQís, compressors, noise gates, reverbs, delays, stereo imaging, guitar amp simulators, chorus effects, pitch correction, you name it.

Most DAWís come with a compliment of their own Plug-ins to use, and there are truly boat-loads of third party Plug-ins available. Some are made purely for software, like Emagic Logicís "Space Designer" or "Fat EQ". Another group is the "T-Racks" software, and "Amplitube". Others are taken from specific pieces of hardware. Such as a Universal Audio 1176 compressor, or George Massenburg EQ. Or the famous Antares Auto-Tune.

Choosing Plug-ins is about the same process as choosing any other piece of gear in your studio. While software Plug-ins may be less expensive than their hardware counterparts, they can be costly just the same. Many manufacturers have "demo" or "trial" versions of their software for free download. Which is a pretty good deal. So check them out! See what they do for you, or not. Keep in mind that Plug-ins are very flexible, and you can store your own patches in them. Which can be very time-saving. Iím not always a big fan of the factory patches though.

Then thereís the concern of memory. Some Plug-ins can eat-up a ton of your RAM. Thereís no real scale for that, but big reverbs are big eaters! Using too many Plug-Ins can cause trouble. That situation can slow down your computer to the point that the music wonít even play. So be somewhat conservative with plug-in use.

Having the use of Plug-ins can really be fun and help your mix. I tend to use a mix of the compliment that comes with the software, and third party software.

In most DAWís thereís an insert box on your mixer page for each channel. You can select your Plug-ins from there. So letís go practical for a second: say youíre screen looks like this (Fig. 1)

And you want to add a touch of reverb to the drums for a more live feel. You would click and hold on one of the "Inserts" Boxes on the drum track to see a menu like this: (Fig. 2)

You can select from this menu at any point. Iíve chosen the Platinum Verb. Once you select it, the screen for that particular Plug-in will pop-up (Fig. 3)

After you get done making the adjustments to that Plug-In, you can close the pop-up window to get back to my regular mixer screen (Fig 4) Notice the little blue box now on the drum channel that says Pt-Verb now. This allows you to "at-a-glance" see what Plug-Ins you have assigned to any particular track.

By clicking on that blue box (or any other that you may have assigned), the pop-up box will come back up to make more adjustments. Itís even possible on most programs to have multiple pop-up windows, which is very handy when adjusting say compressors & gates on the same channel.

Again, you can save my settings for your own library of favorite effects settings to use on any other track, or any other song!(Fig. 5)

While other software screens may be a little different, the concept is exactly the same. Click on the insert box, select the insert from the pull down menu, adjust the parameters to taste, and save them if you like. Even if you donít save the settings as your own patch, those settings are stored with the song. Itís just very nice to have your favorite reverbs, delays, compressor settings, noise gate settings and others for your own voice and instruments that you use often, or other band members, etc.

So I suggest you try Plug-Ins out. Many can enhance your mix, and many are just plain tools of the trade. Use them to build a great mix for your music!


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