I read with interest Russ' article on his most used free plugin and it inspired to take a fresh look at the free Pro Tools plugin list. I then took a look at what plugins I have installed on my Pro Tools system, how much they cost and which ones I use the most and it dawned on me that I don't have a single free third party plugin installed.
Why Not Use Free Plugins?
In post production, especially for TV, it is often the case that you have to dig a session out of the archives from some time ago and be able to play it exactly as it was. Recently I had to re-visit a session from eighteen months ago. That wasn't so bad as the original session was created in Pro Tools 11HD and I am now running Pro Tools 12HD. However there have been times with other projects I've have needed to work on that started out life on Pro Tools 10HD, that used RTAS plugins.
A Lack Of Space
I'd already been burnt before, when I went from Pro Tools 10 to Pro Tools 11 as Avid dropped RTAS plug-ins before all the developers had written AAX64 versions. In my case it was my beloved TL Space IR reverb that came with the Complete Production Toolkit. I'd gone over to Pro Tools 11HD fairly early on, but then shortly afterwards had to revisit a project which had the TL Space plugin. I had to roll back to my Pro Tools 10 install, which in my case was just swapping over the system SSD (I didn't do a co-install, for reasons too long to go into here). However, Pro Tools 10 on Windows wasn't compatible with my shiny new BlackMagic video interface, so I had to reconfigure my entire video playback rig just for this update.
Going Way Way Back..
As recently as six months ago, I had to work on a project that had originated on Pro Tools 9, and had several free plugins involved. Unfortunately one of them hadn't made the leap to AAX64, so I ended up having to reverse engineer the effect that the sound editor had used. This all cost time and effort.
If your main source of income is your studio, and that studio is based around "in the box" technology such as Pro Tools, you need as much certainty as you can get about the longevity of the plugins you use, and the likelihood of the developer remaining in business, before you commit to using that plugin in your day to day workflow. Having to hunt around for plugins that you don't have or have to reverse engineer, costs time and therefore money.
So What's In Stock?
In a standard install of Pro Tools, Avid include a variety of "stock" plugins. These include EQ's, Dynamics, Delays, Pitch & Time and Reverbs, to name a few.
If I absolutely had to, I could mix a show using just the stock plugins. It would be a lot more work, but it's totally feasible. The main thing that's missing is loudness metering (but as shown in our free Pro Tools plug-in list, there's a free plugin for that, if you can't afford the brilliant but cheap PPMulatorXL).
Because quite often my sessions have to go back and forth between other facilities, I try and stick to stock plugins as much as possible. I have had lots of issues moving third party plugins between different versions of Pro Tools or even different versions of host operating system.
A lot of the stock Pro Tools plugins are also available as real time plugins on Avid Media Composer. This means that the plugin settings and automation come across via an AAF, which is great as it avoids having to deal with rendered in effects. Even the Air plugins are available in Media Composer, as I found out on a recent job. I use this facility on every trailer that I mix. It allows the editor to start crafting the sound the way they want it, without locking me in to it.
To paraphrase the song,
It ain't what you've got, it's the way that you use it.
Back in the early nineties, I worked for a small independent facility, which had the following hardware plugin equivalents....
- Malcolm Toft MTA980 console with 4-band EQ on each channel, no built in dynamics
- 1 x Urei 565 "Little Dipper" EQ, Mono
- 1 x Yamaha DEQ5 Stereo digital graphic EQ
- 1 x Dolby Cat43 noise reduction, Mono
- 1 x Yamaha SPX1000 Stereo Reverb / FX
- 1 x Yamaha SPX90 Reverb / FX (mono in, stereo out)
- 2 x Klark Technic DN500 Stereo Comp / Lim / Exp
Using this modest rig we mixed hours of TV and even feature films. As has been said before, if you can't achieve the balance you want, it's more likely to be about your mixing skills than the plugins you're using.
So let's have a look at the stock plugins I use the most.
EQ III - 7 Band
When you read what I have to say, bear in mind that I started in the glorious world of analogue, without any automation. So for me, I still find any flexible EQ plugin amazing, but for post production, focus more on its effectiveness as a problem solving tool than as a "musical" shaping EQ. Given that it gives you a 5 band parametric EQ, with shelf filters on the HF and LF, plus high and low pass / notch filters, on paper it's already comparatively very powerful and versatile. In practice I've found it to be very effective - not especially warm, but still accurate and a very useful tool. I rarely have to go to a third party plugin, and use it in pretty much every session I do.
The Dynamics III plug-in comes in three variants - a compressor/limiter, an expander/gate, and a de-esser. Whilst I'm not a huge fan of the compressor/limiter, finding it very harsh and hard work to get set up sounding nice. However, I use the De-Esser in virtually every session, because as a de-esser it does what it says on the tin, with simple controls and a low processor impact user interface. I acknowledge that it is not the best sounding de-esser in the world but it's still perfectly good enough if you don't have the FabFilter Pro DS to hand. As with every plugin, it's important not to "over cook" the De-Esser settings. Get it to where you think it's right, then ease off the processing a notch.
I will sometimes fall back to the Expander/Gate for extra noise reduction duties. The Expander/Gate is also a case of having to set it very carefully to get optimum results, and it's very easy to overdo it, but you can achieve very good results if you get it right.
Since moving to AAX64, I've noticed a vast improvement in the sound of Maxim. For me the RTAS/TDM Maxim was very crunchy and not at all transparent, whereas the AAX64 version is much warmer and comes very close to my third party favourite, the Waves L3-LL. While it won't help you hit any loudness targets, it's very good for fattening up your mixes, especially for applications like mobile devices. It has look-ahead processing, colour histogram visual feedback and works as well on a channel insert as it does on a buss.
On first glance, D-Verb seems to be a very basic reverb plugin. In reality though in post production you don't tend to use a huge variety of reverbs - it quite often boils down to big room, small room and slap/tannoy effects. D-Verb has seven algorithms and all the basic controls you need to manipulate the sound, such as pre-delay and filters. There aren't any pretty pictures, and if you're using it for music you need to be aware of the odd detune effect on long reverbs with the Hall algorithm, but that aside, it's a good all-round workhorse. I've mixed many hours of TV drama using D-Verb for my Foley and FX, although I do tend to go for third party plugins for ADR matching. That's not to say it's impossible with D-Verb, it just takes a lot longer.
Don't Write Off Stock Plugins
Or that could read, "well they're bundled in, so they can't be any good surely?"
Well, no. I've noticed a great improvement in the sound of the stock plugins since Avid moved to AAX64 and Pro Tools itself moved to floating point mixing. Stock plugins take a lot more to sound rough or crunchy than they used to.
In our industry especially, we are often guilty of writing off the latest version of something, be it an operating system, native processing or a plugin, based on our early experiences.
Even if you're totally wedded to your expensive third party plugins, I'd seriously suggest taking another look at what's on offer now. You may be pleasantly surprised...