The order of your plugins matters. Knowing how plugins affect your sound can help you to shape audio and troubleshoot problems. Below I'll explain my preferred plugin processing order, why it's in the order it is, and I’ll also provide a list of recommended plugins for each category. This list is meant as a general guideline and experimentation is always encouraged. Not all steps are needed for every sound you work on; let your ears determine when a sound requires processing.
WARNING: This workflow works best with source material that you're already content with. If you're working on an element that still requires sound design, and there are blatant "issues" with it (such as resonant frequencies), you would want to address those issues before continuing forward. Things like pitch correction should be applied at the beginning of this process as well. This workflow is intended as a way to enhance your material, not save it from disaster. It's also important to note that this workflow is to be used as a starting point, and should absolutely be modified in order to accommodate the needs of the material you're working with. If that means swapping the order of these devices, taking away certain ones, or adding additional ones, go for it!
Saturation can help generate additional harmonics within certain frequency ranges. Applying saturation applies a combination of distortion and compression. This causes signal to fill more of the audio spectrum making it sound fuller, akin to BOLDING text. Engineers commonly saturate audio when they want to thicken it up so that it punches through the mix. Saturation works well on busses to help glue sounds together, and it can also make sounds appear louder. Tube, tape, and digital saturation all have their own sound and can each be achieved through various plugins and/or hardware units.
You'll notice that reductive EQ is placed after saturation in this list. If the signal you're working with needs frequencies attenuated, you're not ready to apply this workflow yet. Deal with issues first, and enhance your material with this workflow afterwards. I recommend checking out the following saturators:
- Fabfilter Saturn
- Soundtoys Decapitator
- iZotope Trash 2
- Dada Life Sausage Fattener
- Studer A800
- Ampex ATR-102
2. Reductive EQ
Once a sound is thickened with saturation, it's best to remove any part of the signal that you don't like, or know will cause masking issues when played with other sounds. While some frequency overlap can be beneficial to a mix, be weary of potential phase issues with sounds that occupy the same frequency range. Phase issues can be identified through a vectorscope and stereo correlation meter. Ultimately, your ears are the best tool for identifying what sounds good. Checking your mix in mono, as thats how your song will playback on a number of systems. Reductive EQ is often a utilitarian task; you can use a stock EQ for the most part unless special processing is desired.
There are different types of EQs. Dynamic EQs apply gain attenuation based on the level of a band's incoming audio signal; they are threshold level dependent devices. A de-esser is a dynamic EQ that responds to transients around 5-8kHz. With Frequency tracking EQs, the curve follows the fundamental frequency of a monophonic instrument such as a bassline. Sound Radix Surfer EQ is an example of this. Static EQs are perhaps the most basic type of EQ and apply gain attenuation to the band you've selected regardless of the band's input level. I recommend the follow EQs for gain reduction purposes:
- Fabfilter Pro-Q 3
- McDSP Ae400 Active EQ
- Manley Massive Passive
- iZotope Vintage EQ
- Brainworx Digital V3
- oeksound Soothe
- Sound Radix Surfer EQ
- WavesFactory TrackSpacer
After a sound has been thickened and its unwanted frequencies attenuated, it can be compressed in various ways to control its dynamic range. Compression reduces the dynamic range of a signal and it’s one of the most powerful tools at your disposal. It should normally be used after frequencies are removed to prevent transient frequencies triggering the compressor. Compression is an art that can take years to fully grasp and utilize properly. Experimenting with different compressors and manipulating their settings is the best way to learn how they work.
Sidechain compression reduces the level of an audio signal based off an external input. Sidechain compression can be used to make space for competing elements, such as a kick drum playing at the same time as a bassline. The compressor will duck the sub out of the way when the kick plays. Sidechain compression can subtly make elements flow with the groove of the track, or be used with extreme settings to infuse rhythms in otherwise static, sustained elements. I recommend the following compressors:
- Fabfilter Pro-C 2
- Fabfilter Pro-MB
- Universal Audio 1176
- Teletronix LA-2A
- Tube Tech CL1b
- Fairchild 660/670
- Vertigo VSC2 (Buss Compressor)
- SSL G (Buss Compressor)
- Manley Variable MU (Buss Compressor)
- Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor (Buss Compressor)
4. Additive EQ
Sometimes you want to highlight a certain frequency range after you’ve compressed a signal; additive EQ can often be the answer. Although stock EQs and 'surgical' EQs work fine for boosting frequencies, this is typically where “character enhancing” EQs are chosen for their unique tonal quality. Dynamic and frequency tracking EQs can be useful for emphasizing certain elements. I recommend the following EQs for additive purposes:
Once an ideal dynamic range and frequency balance has been obtained, it becomes a good time to add effects. This step is usually last because effects will sound drastically different once you process them (which isn’t always a bad thing, just something to keep in mind). For example, if a reverb is placed before a compressor, the reverb gets compressed along with the original signal. This can work in certain situations, but its generally easier to manage effects in parallel than in series. Two of the most common types of effects are delays and reverbs. They help create a sense of space which provides a home for all of the elements of your track to live in.
As mentioned before, you should experiment with this workflow and modify it to suit your material. If you decide you want to put Glitch 2 right before your compressor, and you think it sounds good, go for it. This list is a platform to jump off of, not something to hang from. Be creative and trust your ears! I recommend checking out the following effect plugins:
Limiters are useful for ensuring that a signal doesn't exceed digital maximum amplitude (0dbFS) and for setting output gain levels. You've probably been told that you should be limiting your master track, but did you know that you can limit your groups (busses) as well? When limiting your groups, you'll want to apply very gentle gain reduction, with only the loudest passages of your song triggering the limiter. This can help tighten up your groups and make mixing the levels of your groups together a little bit easier. I highly recommend the following limiters: