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How To Use Dynamics Processors As Creative Effects

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It's quite likely that most of you have read plenty of tutorials on dynamics processing. Most them tell us that we can use dynamics processors to tame our mixes and create a more balanced sound. Although this is true, if we push things a little we can also use them as creative effects.

In this tutorial we'll take a look at using various dynamics processors as effects and how we can transform these everyday workhorses into interesting creative tools.

Step 1 - Super Heavy Compression

Compressors have to be the most commonly used dynamics processor out there. We use them to tame our vocals, add cohesion to drum loops and even make our masters more uniform. What many of us don' realise is that pushing a compressor to it's limit can produce some pretty aggressive effects.

Any compressor can be pushed to produce these pressurised, full on effects but the best tool for the job has to be some kind of vintage hardware emulation. Not many DAWs come bundled with these plug-ins so, for the the best results you might want to turn to a third party product here.

A great example of a compressor that has been used for extreme effects over the years is the Universal Audio 1176. This compressor has been used to spice up tracks since it's release in 1966.

This device has been emulated in software form by quite a few manufacturers since and should be pretty easy to get hold of. Waves, UAD, Bomb Factory and I.K. Multimedia have all created excellent digital versions.

The real trick here is to use the input level to drive the compressor hard by doing this you can induce huge amounts of gain reduction and an incredibly reduced dynamic range. Feeding vintage compressors in this way can also introduce a subtle overload which results in saturation and interesting harmonics.

Things get really exciting when you use the 1176's 'All Button Mode' or 'Brit Mode' as some like to call it. When all four ratio buttons are depressed the compressor goes into some kind of overdrive mode and kicks out very extreme levels of compression. The result is a wildly compressed sound rarely heard elsewhere.

An untreated drum loop

The same loop treated with the 'All button' Brit mode from the 1176

Other compressors can be persuaded into creating these effects and when applied to drums, synths lines, vocals or even effects you can create a really edgy sound full of attitude. Try it with yourself with any retro compressor emulation.

Step 2 - Pushing Your Transient Designer

I've written a few tutorials on using transient designers in your mix and always suggest using caution if you want to produce transparent results. Today I am going to suggest you throw caution to the wind and turn everything up to 11!

The majority of transient designer plug-ins are extremely simple devices with only a few controls to worry about and this makes them perfect for creating quick effects patches with. You can try this with pretty much any transient design plug-in, like SPL's Transient Designer, Logic's Enveloper or Native Instrument's new Transient Master.

I find that by simply pushing the sustain control to the max you instantly get an 'in your face' over processed effect that can work amazingly well on guitars and vocals. Every nuance of a recording can be brought to the forefront with this method.

Pushing the attack control to 100% can also give you an extremely percussive sound but be sure to double this up with a limiter as you might find the peaks in your new effected signal can be enough to destroy your monitors!

Another dry loop

And now treated with a maxxed out SPL

Step 3 - Getting Clever With Your Gates

Gate plug-ins on one hand can do a pretty mundane job, ensuring that no noise it present in your recordings. On the other hand they can produce all sorts of creative effects. Good to know they are not just a one trick pony.

One great way to use gates as an effect is to set the the threshold to an unusually high level. This lets only the peaks of your audio through and can create an interesting choppy effect. This works very well with drum and groove based loops and when combined with a short release and some stereo delay, you can end up with a really useable rhythmical effect.

Our drum loop is gated and treated with delay

I also like to use my gates in conjunction with side chaining to create more rhythmical effects. Some may turn to dedicated sequenced gate plug-ins for this task but as long as your gate accepts a side chain input it can be used for this effect.

Simply set the side chain input to a programmed percussive element. You can use anything from a percussion loop to a one shot sample here, as long as it is pretty clearly defined and is a tight pattern you should be fine. Experimentation is the key with this you can always change this source sound later so don't worry if your first selection doesn't work.

Now feed the gate with some sustained audio, a string or pad sequence will work very nicely here but you can also get good results with vocals and FX. With your new sound running through the gate start to adjust the the threshold until you hear your side chain input acting on your new audio.

By altering the threshold amount you can decide how much or how little the side chain takes effect and therefore how much of your audio is gated. You will need to fine tune the release time here but I find that the attack can be left at more or less it's lowest setting.

The side gated string plays back alone

Now try combining the resulting rhythmical output with other effects such as distortion, filters and stereo delay. You'll be surprised at how great your boring old gate plug-in can sound with a few tweaks.

The string with the drums that are triggering the gate.

Step 4 - Multi-Band Magic

Multi-band processors a perfect for homing in on problem frequencies in your mix and either cutting or boosting them. They often work better than a vanilla EQ due to the fact that they are essentially dynamics plug-ins.

Multi-band compressors for example, are often used in mastering to tweak problems in a mix because they are able to do so whilst achieving a highly transparent, uncoloured result. The fact that these processors can home in on specific frequencies with such precision also means they can produce really interesting effects.

You can actually convince your multi band compressor it's a filter bank if you set it up correctly. The trick here is to use very narrow bands, usually in mixing or mastering we would use wider bands to avoid coloration. By setting the bands to a narrow selection we will create an extreme boost or cut in a very small area.

Now set up an extreme compression setting on each band that you have used. These bands can then be swept using automation. The compression effect will act almost like a notch filter but with a more dynamic sound. This is well worth a try as the effects can be quite unusual.

Step 5 - Super Hot Limiters

As we have already discovered extreme compression can work very well as an effect and essentially a limiter is just a compressor with an extreme ratio (usually over 10:1) and a definite output level. With this in mind our maximisers and brick-wall limiters can be used to create even more extreme dynamic effects.

Try grabbing one key element of your track and copying it to a fresh track. Then apply a brick wall mastering limiter and push it to it's max. This should result in your audio being processed to the point where it has basically no dynamic range and is super loud. I wouldn't advise doing this with more than one element in your mix as you will rob your project of all dynamics but it can work pretty well as a spot effect.

This noisy, smashed audio can then be filtered and panned and treat like a sound bed. Even when turned down this audio will be heard as special effect in your mix. I like to use this technique to create fills or alternative sections in a track. Try it yourself and see what you can do with some super limited audio.

Step 6 - Using Parallel Processing

All of these effects I have described can get pretty intense and often they maybe a little much to use in the mix in their undiluted state. If you find that you just want a touch of the effect on a certain channel or in a specific portion of your track, you could use parallel processing to mix in exactly the right amount of your new sound.

Parallel processing basically involved sending all your sounds to one dry group and also to a secondary group that houses your heavily effected sound. The effected sub group can then be mixed under your dry group. This way you get all the attitude of your new processed audio and the original dynamics of the untreated mix. Simple.

You may find that some of the plug-ins you use for these effects actually have a built in mix control. If you find you have this feature available you can create a quick parallel mix using it. This can help you avoid the slightly more time consuming task of setting up a traditional parallel bus.

So whichever technique you choose to try just remember you are not constrained by the usual mix 'rules' here and I would strongly advise you to push things as hard as you can in these creative sessions. Good luck!

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