Professional Sound - Indepth

Why I've Embraced Plug-Ins

By Jay Lefebvre

Lately, I’ve been using plug-ins… a lot.

I’m a 41-year-old composer-producer and I started working in recording studios right at the end of the 1990s, slightly before the “switch” to the new digital technologies. I’ve recorded with a 24-track Studer A827 alongside the Voyetra Gold sequencer, linked to Roland S-760 samplers with external SCSI drives and that was the bomb! That lasted for a while and then DAWs allowed for digital recording. Really, it wasn’t all that great in the beginning, but that’s a whole other story.

So, I’ve been using plug-ins the last few years on almost everything. I mostly do analog recording on mono sources (vocals, acoustic guitar, bass, shaker, tambourine, etc.) but then after that, my chain is plug-ins pretty much all the way.

You sometimes hear things like, “Plug-ins are cool but nothing like the real thing.” That’s okay – then keep using what sounds good to you; we are all masters of our own destiny. But for myself, I find I’m quicker and more efficient when I’m creating and use plug-ins for my synths, my loops, my “fake” drums, and my FX on vocals, guitars, and others. Even when I’m mixing, I find plug-ins help the flow and creativity – the “mix instinct” – kick in when you need to keep going for hours. Often, I even keep most of the settings from the “creative” sessions because today’s reality is we’re all kind of mixing as we go on the productions we do.

I’ve been using Waves plug-ins since the early 2000s but I was still using mostly analog preamps and compressors to record. But then I came across the Universal Audio stuff and bought my first Apollo Quad Silver interface. (I think it was mid-2012.) The Unison technology (preamp, EQ, and compressor emulations at recording) really took the industry by storm and changed the game. Recalling settings on different recording sessions by saving the preset to match the vocal chain instantly is amazing. So, it made perfect sense to change, switch, combine, and start merging my systems to a more hybrid plug-in setup. I even sold some of my analog gear (not all) that was sitting there collecting dust.

I don’t bash on any analog gear whatsoever. I’ve tried and I own many preamps from several companies and find most of them fantastic. Also, if you want to record multiple sources (drums, string section, choir, full bands), it would be hard to consider doing that from a home studio setup. To me, that’s where bigger, older analog studios with lots of preamps, microphones, and cool toys are really the go-to place.

So, find what works best for you in your workflow and maximize your productions and mixes. I think I’ve finally found what I’m looking for. Here’s what you will always find in my sessions:

Waves: Center, C4 multiband compressor & F6 floating-band dynamic EQ

I usually use Center on the synth, clap, and/or acoustic guitar aux to spread the stereo factor, and mostly to get rid of the unnecessary middle signal to keep room for the vocals, bass, kick, and snare. I use C4 on bass to isolate compression on low frequencies and on vocals to contain that mid-range. The F6 is so I can smartly automate EQ changes in verses and choruses when the vocal gets higher and the voice gets thinner. I can reinsert or dip less on those low frequencies that I might not want for the verse.

Universal Audio: Neve 1073, LA-2A, Pultec EQP-1A, Fender 55 Tweed Deluxe & EMT-140

UA’s Unison preamp technology is fantastic. Tracking through a Neve 1073, a Pultec EQP-1A, and an LA-2A compressor is golden and it works every time! When I get tracks from the outside, I can also sort of “reamp” and get instant results by enabling the 1073 preamp and activating the EQ section. Tracking with the Fender amp on clean textures, and even some slightly dirty country riffs and leads, is all music to my ears! Oh man, that EMT-140 on vocals… mmm.

Soundtoys: Echoboy, Decapitator & Little Plate

I simply cannot mix without Echoboy on a lot of sources. Aux 1 has the Radio VOX preset to gently spread the vocals, aux 2 is 1/4-1/8D on the “ClassicAnalogDelay” preset, and aux 3 has the “EdgyVocalSlap” to get that more lo-fi quick delay on some key parts throughout the song. I use Decapitator for some distortion on bass or vocals, side chain, on an aux, or even directly with a low percent of affected signal on the track. Little Plate sounds great and I use it on secondary parts directly on the track to put perspective in the mix. To me, it’s the best light CPU usage reverb ever.

FabFilter: Pro-L2 (Limiter)

I’ve seen a few guys using this plug-in at the end of the mastering chain. It is comprehensive, flexible, and gives instant results. That limiter is always on my main vocals, backing vocals, and master bus for sure. I can adjust the input for saturation, or simply change the output without affecting the
treatment or original sound.

Jay Lefebvre is a Quebec-based composer, producer, and engineer who has worked with Roch Voisine, Bastian Baker, Simple Plan, Robby Johnson, Forever Gentlemen, Eva Avila, Andee, and many more. He also owns the audio-video production company Melophonix.

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