As Dan, Russ and James have submitted their plug-in chains for vocals I thought I’d get in on the act. I’m in a different position to the others as I come from a teaching background and as a result a huge amount of my work has been using the stock Avid Plug-ins. While any decent teaching studio always has a generous provision of Avid and third party plug-ins I’ve always avoided using them in teaching unless necessary as I’ve always been aware that attitudes amongst students towards software theft (I won’t call it piracy, that sounds too romantic) are often unquestioning and if I do anything to reinforce the idea that results depend on tools rather than skills then I’d be passing over a valuable opportunity to educate and influence the behaviour of a great many aspiring engineers. If I can get better results using EQ III, Dynamics III and Dverb than an unethical student with thousands of pounds worth of stolen plug-ins then the way to get your mix sounding professional is probably more complicated than calling up presets on some premium plug-ins. It’s the decisions you make, not the tools you choose which make the difference.
I don’t have a template but my approach stays much the same - this is typical:
1. McDSP F202
As a high pass filter. This could just as easily be the EQ III HPF but I’ve always liked the F202 because of the peak feature, allowing you to put a resonant bump just above the corner frequency. I don’t do it often but its nice that it's there.
2. A Compressor
I don’t have a “regular” compressor. If pushed I’d have to say Pro Compressor but I, like most people I suspect, have too many compressors and it might be the pang of guilt I feel knowing that I have compressors which I don’t use enough often means I tinker at the compression stage. If I’m in a hurry Pro Compressor will do anything I need but I do like to play at this stage. I’m a fan of using a low threshold, soft knee compressor in combination with a high ratio, high threshold on vocals, nothing new but still useful sometimes. Multiple stages of light compression can be much easier on the ear than stamping on it.
3. Avid 7 band EQ III
I love this EQ. I’ve never taken to the EQ section of the Avid Channel Strip and unlike Dynamics III the 7 band EQ III remains very useable. The reason I use it even when more glamorous alternatives are available is because of the band-pass feature which remains my preferred method for finding and checking problem frequencies. Often this plug-in is bypassed once the desired frequency has been verified and the actual processing might be done by another plug in but just as often the humble EQ III remains in place. Often I find myself dragging an EQ III from track to track when tidying up a session with corrective EQ. I wish PT was smart enough to automatically substitute the appropriate plug-in when the channel numbers don’t match when dragging plug-ins around a session.
4. McDSP AE400
Corrective EQ. While I’m often happy to leave my 7 band EQ III on EQ duties I have become a huge fan of dynamic EQ and AE400 is the best I’ve used. Used as a static EQ it’s perfect for corrective duties, it lacks filters and shelving EQ but for typical corrective use it's all there. The selectivity offered by dynamic EQ, being able without lots of tedious automation, to only EQ the problems and to leave the audio untouched the rest of the time make this a go-to choice for audio with issues.
5 Broad Brush EQ
Corrective EQ is about workflow for me - Does the plug-in help me identify the problem and make the decision which needs making? I’ve been a longtime fan of hardware EQ for the broad brush “make it sound nicer” kind of processing. Almost any quality hardware EQ just seems to work better in this role than a plug in and I’m not sure how much of that judgement is about the sound. The experience of using hardware EQ is definitely important too. Some plug-in EQs have some of that hardware "thing”. Too many to mention here but the first plug-in I found which had it was the SSL channel EQ from Waves. The Waves SSL collection is the only Waves product I own, it was bought specifically for the EQ, though I later discovered the bus compressor. Another notable example would be the Waves V EQ. There are plenty of character EQs which could be used instead in this role but since my review of the Kush Clariphonic I've been especially keen on that. I’ve always wished that Avid would complete the Pro series plug-ins with a Pro EQ.
No Set Formula
I don’t have a set way of approaching a voice in a mix but I do have broad principles I follow. I tend to compress then EQ, but not always. I avoid autotune and de-essers when I can because that way lies madness… Am I the only person who hears autotune artefacts, bypasses the tuning and can still hear them? I like simplicity - I approve of simple tools like Vocal Rider but the power of plug-ins like Vitamin scares me. I’ve used the Sonnox Dynamics plug in just for the warmth control before, just like people running audio through a Fairchild or LA2a with no gain reduction. The McDSP ML4000 does a fine job when you want a fizzy, pop vocal and I have to mention Kush audio's UBK1 which I love but always go too far when I use. I've described it in the past as being like a two-stroke motorbike: It encourages you to misbehave! Time based effects are essential and I always set up send/return loops, even when only one track is using the effect (pedantic, but true) and my vocals nearly always have some delay on them as well as reverb, either echo or slap, often cross routed with the reverb via the auxes.
What About UAD?
You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned any UAD plug-ins in spite of being in the middle of the A-Z of UAD. I’m deliberately limiting myself to just native plug-ins because I’m relatively new to UAD and I really haven’t used many more than the plug-ins I’ve reviewed so far (many wouldn’t believe me but its true!).