Comparing Audio Plugins for Mixing

For mix engineers, there are a range of plugins available for controlling and manipulating sounds, to help make the job easier. Each plugin varies in functionality so for budding audio engineers, developing an understanding of audio fundamentals is the key to being able to use a plugin to improve your mix.  

Nick Riley, Audio Engineer for Musician Meg Mac, here delves into the world of plugins to compare and find the best fit for your mix. 

At the end of the day, we are always going to need hardware to record acoustic sound, be it a voice, a rock band or an orchestra. Audio hardware such as a microphone, a pre-amp, converter and a computer are your modern day starting point. Once the sound is recorded, there is then a range of software tools available to manipulate the sound. Software ‘Plugins’ run within your recording software and provide a convenient and cost effective way to manipulate your recorded audio. For mixing and mastering engineers these tools are incredibly useful providing you have a grasp of the fundamentals of audio.

When it comes to audio software and plugins there are various developers in the marketplace. Universal Audio, Waves, Native Instruments and Slate Digital are a few brands that are at the forefront of audio processing software. Universal and Waves are household names when it comes to audio plugins and those who are active in the audio industry would already be well acquainted with these brands. Depending on the brand and the plugin, the functionality is also going to change. 

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Since the introduction of computers into recording studios, one of the goals has been to create plugins that look like a piece of outboard hardware. It is arguable that the original reason for modelling these units in such a way was to allow engineers an easy transition into the digital world of mixing by giving them familiar tools.
Typically these are iconic units that were manufactured throughout the evolution of modern sound recording such as the 1176 – a classic compressor originally manufactured by UREI. This has been used on countless recordings since its release in 1968 and is still highly regarded today. While there have been many different developers to model this piece of hardware, not all plugins sound exactly like the original unit. Some examples include, Bomb Factory-76, Waves CLA-76 and Cakewalk Sonor PC76.

The current version from Universal Audio sounds and looks almost exactly as the same as hardware. 

It is often considered the closest sounding emulation to the original hardware, which is fitting as Universal Audio owned UREI during the years of its conception. Contrasting and comparing these different versions is something that is done in studio classes at JMC. This is done with the intention of training students ears to understand the different characteristics of each one.

The audio industry is now well past the transition from analogue into software oriented studios. There are many plugins with a different approach. Advances in software programming means that plugins can be designed in their own right, without the need for using analogue outboard as a reference point.
For example, earlier this year Waves released Parallel Particles, which was developed with Grammy Award-winning Producer Andrew Scheps. This plugin does not mimic a piece of hardware. 

Instead, it provides 4 sonic textures that you can turn up or ‘dial in’ to your audio. These are designed to incorporate the sound of parallel mixing without having to know how to set this up manually in a mix session. However, the fundamentals of this mixing technique are still important.

Multiple processes are carried out simultaneously such as EQ, compression and harmonic synthesis to shape the tone of your sound. Sonically descriptive terms can be turned up to achieve that particular aesthetic. These terms are more vague and generalised descriptions of the resulting sound. It is not uncommon to see parameters for things like ‘bite’, ‘air’ or ‘crunch’ rather than technically accurate audio terms. The idea is to give users simple-to-use tools that control multiple parameters on one knob or a single fader. This streamlines mixing, but in turn forces the user to trust their ears more. A solid understanding of audio fundamentals will mean that any potential compromises in the resulting sound are noticed. 
Other plugins that use a similar approach are the Pumper from Waves and the Transient Master by Native Instruments.

The Pumper is part of the One Knob Series which offers precisely that. The plugin gives the user the ability to incorporate side-chain-compression into their mix with the use of one control. It offers a much quicker workflow than using a standard compressor, which is typically how this effect is achieved. However, using a compressor can give you more precise control and fine-tuned result. Once again, the user still needs understand the end goal regardless of the tools being used. 


Transient Master achieves similar results to a typical compressor – controlling the envelope and dynamics of a sound. However, the available parameters are once again describing the sonic results rather than specific values or ratios.  


Finally, an emulation plugin designed by Waves – the SSL Buss Compressor.


Opinion is divided amongst users as to how accurately it mimics the sound of the hardware compressor, but its functionality is identical to the hardware. 

Each plugin varies in functionality with different strengths in terms of what sounds they are used to control. Knowing how each of the parameters affects the way that the plugin processes sound is essential. With this in mind, the core knowledge of how sound can be manipulated is key. Regardless of what tool you are using, the most important thing is to know what aspects of the sound are being affected. The ability to identify particular characteristics in a sound is the difference between an audio enthusiast and an audio professional. This fundamental knowledge will allow you to operate any piece of software proficiently.

These fundamentals and mechanics of audio are explored at JMC Academy to give students a professional attitude towards sound production. 

Find out more about studying Audio Engineering at JMC Academy

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