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The Perfect Production Tool Kit Part 1 – Choosing The Essential Processors

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With so much choice in the world of plug-ins and software instruments building the perfect collection of virtual devices can be quite a challenge. Whether you are a beginner or seasoned pro it can really pay to think about your collection of software carefully and ultimately run a tight focused system.

Also available in this series:

  1. The Perfect Production Tool Kit Part 1 – Choosing The Essential Processors
  2. The Perfect Production Tool Kit Part 2 - Essential Studio Kit
  3. The Perfect Production Tool Kit Part 3 - Choosing Your DAW

The trick here is to break your software down into categories and focus on the essentials. With a simplified collection you should know exactly which tool to reach for in any situation. At the end of the day isn't this what being a good engineer is all about?

Here we look at the different processors you'll need to complete a typical mix. Regardless of the style of music you are creating these essential tools should see you through most mix sessions.

Step 1: Choosing Your DAW

Obviously you are not going to get very far in mixing a track these days without a solid DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). In fact, some of the most common questions I get asked involve DAW selection.

People will ask things like “Which is the bet application for making Drum and Bass?” or “I'm into Rock and want to know the best DAW for mixing guitar”. My response to these questions is more or less always the same and it usually goes some thing like “It really doesn't matter which one you choose!”

Of course I'm not saying there is no difference between the different DAWs on the market today, in fat some of them display massive differences in both there features and operation but essentially they all do the same job.

There was a time when I might of suggested specific programs for creating specific types of music but now I honestly believe it's a pretty level playing field. So my advice here would be to try as many different DAWs as you can get your hands on and choose the one you feel most comfortable with.

You'll be spending hours in this environment and you should enjoy using it. You also need to be happy with the tools a DAW supplies and although all the major players give you very similar processors and instruments these days, the difference in the actual plug-in interfaces maybe enough to sway you.

A Project being completed in Logic Pro.

Whether you settle for Cubase, Record, Logic, Pro Tools or Ableton Live you will suddenly be in possession of not just a powerful piece of music production software but also a number of bundled plug-ins and interments.

Some mix work in Cubase 6.

Now, although these included virtual devices are fine it's more than likely you will want to delve in to the world of third party plug-ins. When you decide to make this leap it's worth making carefully considered decisions based on what you actually need for you mixes.
This process should include splitting the required processors into groups and thats what we'll do next.

Step 2: The Right Dynamics Processors for the Job

Dynamics control and processing is arguably the most important part of any mix and therefore should be right at the top of the list when you start shopping for plug-ins. Now there are literally thousands of great software compressors to choose from and they vary in price from absolutely free to extortionate!

With this in mind I would suggest buying one really excellent all rounder as opposed to many different dynamics processors that have a very individual sound or purpose. For example I would recommend starting out with one compressor that is capable of producing a number of different styles of processing and becoming intimately familiar with it.

An excellent example of a plug-in with this sort of flexibility is Fabfilter's Pro C. It is capable of everything from transparent to vintage compressor models and presents it's parameter in a very clear manner. On top of this the Pro C is able to accept side chain input when used in compatible DAWs.

Fabfilter's Pro C doing it's thing.

Of course if you don't like the idea of an all in one processor you can opt for a few separate plug-ins to represent both modern, transparent processing and more colourful, vintage compression. Softube's excellent CL-1B compressor is perfect for creating retro compression effects. This could then be coupled with one of your DAWs more transparent compressors to complete the picture without breaking the bank.

The more coloured CL-1B in action.

Step 3: Essential Equalisation

When it comes to equalisation we are again faced with two main choices, do we go for the slick, transparent digital model or the warmer, coloured analog replication. They both have their place in the mix and two much of one or the other will give you a pretty one dimensional sound. It's always a good idea to mix these styles of processing.

So you might want to think about having at least two solid EQs that you are familiar with and that you can reach for any time in the mix process. As with most things in life you more often than not get what you pay for here. The super clean Sonnox equaliser and the warm and fuzzy Waves PuigTec EQs would be the perfect combo purchase but the whole thing would put you back about £400 (at £200 a piece).

The Waves PuigTec EQ is an excellent vintage emulation.

Whether you have these resources or not I would strongly advise picking one or two EQ plug-ins and sticking to them. As with many of these processors your much better off knowing one plug-in very well rather than not understanding 100!

With this in mind (and without wanting to sound like too much of a Fabfilter fanboy!), you could do a lot worse than opt for the Fabfilter Pro Q. This is an awesome, clean EQ with a great display and built in analyser. It's good value for money and blows most DAW bundled EQ plugs out of the water.

Fabfilter's Pro Q offers a much cleaner sound.

Step 4: Choosing Your Spatial Effects

So here I would recommend one solid Delay unit and one Reverb. With one of each you should be abel to cover most bases. This luckily is one area where plug-ins include with DAWs have really improved.

Most DAWs now feature really useable stereo delay lines and this usually means you don;t have to go looking for a third party alternative. In some applications you may even see more creative delay plug-ins that go well above and beyond the call of duty... Logic Pro's 'Delay Designer' for example may be the only delay plug-in you'll ever need and then some!

The fully featured Delay Designer in Logic.

It's much the same story with Reverb plug-ins. There seems to have been some sort of competition emerge between the DAW manufacturers in this area over recent years and this has resulted in some truly studio grade Reverb processors being produced.

Logic's Space Designer, Cubase's Reverence and Record's R7000 are all great examples of how far DAW bundled reverbs have come. These plug-ins will do an excellent job of giving you all the space you need in your mix.

Record's RV7000 is excellent for a bundled DAW reverb.

If you feel you still want something a little more premium and are feeling flush, then you could splash the cash on the excellent Lexicon PCM native reverb package but with only a little change from £1000 it's not cheap. Saying that the PCM package probably represents the best software reverb ever made.

One of the very powerful PCM native reverbs.

If budget is more of an issue, you may be better off opting for something like IK Multimedia's CSR reverb package. At a much more respectable £150 this could be a great alternative to your DAWs plug-ins.

Step 5: The Modulation Effects You'll Need

Moving onto other basic effects processors you'll need we come to modulation based effects. These in their very essence are pretty basic processors and I usually find that the Chorus, Flanger and Phaser effects included with your DAW often get the job done.

Logic's basic Chorus plug-in.

It's a good idea to get really well acquainted with your basic Chorus to start with, then the more complex plug-ins should fall nicely into place. If you look at Cubase, Logic's or Ableton Live's modulation plug-ins they are all very closely related and just increase slightly in complexity.

And the slightly more complex Phaser

Step 6: Special Effects and Enhancers

In my past tutorials and articles I've made it pretty clear I'm not a huge fan of enhancers and special effects processing. Of course there is a time and place for it but it's so often used to the detriment of a good mix.

Saying that there are some plug-ins in this category that when used with caution can be a really valuable addition to any producers tool kit. It's worth checking out enhancement plug-ins from the more reputable companies with tried and tested algorithms and tech.

The SPL Vitalizer.

If you are not aware of this sort of processor head over to BBE's site and check out the Sonic Sweet ... Suite! This collection includes emulations of every piece of hardware BBE has produced in one form or another. And also take a look at SPL's excellent Vitalizer plug-in as this can work wonders on a mix in with the right approach.

A shot of BBE's various software enhancers.

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