How and when to use software plug-ins, as an alternative to outboard hardware, is a subject that producer Mick Glossop has frequently addressed in a series of informal seminars organised by the UK’s Music Producers Guild. Here he shares his findings with RPM…
RPM: Is it either/or in every case?
MG: “There are pieces of hardware that haven’t been emulated, and there are several plug-ins that only exist as plug-ins, but with regards to the most famous and popular products you have a choice. There are some I would never hesitate to use – like the Universal Audio emulations – but I still think that overall there is no area in which the plug-ins have superceded the pieces of hardware they emulate. I really don’t mean that as a matter of principle; it’s just that there is something about the hardware originals that I always prefer.”
UA has unique access to its own hardware legacy…
“True, but UA also does other models from outside its range, like dbx, Manley, SPL’s Transient Design compressor and others, the Precision Buss Compressor, all sorts. I’d have no reservations about using those, just as I wouldn’t regarding the Waves plug-ins.”
Which software-only products have caught your ear?
“Paul Frindle’s Digital Spectrum Mapper, a very complex – although easy to use – multiband dynamic equalizer. It’s a way of controlling the frequency spectrum of a signal, and there’s simply no hardware version. If the tone of a vocal changes dramatically, and you want to achieve much greater uniformity, you often find that one EQ won’t work for the whole vocal. You have to split the vocal into two or three channels, and use multiband EQ and compression. With Paul’s DSM, you can set it to even out all those dynamics changes automatically.”
Are there any ‘plug-in only’ techniques?
“A lot of dynamics plug-ins have a ‘look-ahead’ feature. There’s no time delay while they work out the signal. They pre-empt the dynamic changes, especially with regards to compression, which is a purely digital innovation. That creates a strong argument for using the plug-ins over hardware.”
And simply superceding complex analogue processes in general?
“I do remember Portishead mastering to vinyl, pressing it and then sampling that! Plus, of course, you can run the signals out to tape and back again. But for most people tape and vinyl emulation software is good enough, quite apart from being 100 times cheaper and easier.”
What’s the best way to approach the whole question?
“It’s not what the plug-ins can do, nor what the hardware can do. It’s what the session needs: what the vocal needs, the guitar needs, all according to the performance. Sonically, the ultimate is still mixing on an analogue desk with hardware outboard! I mixed an album that way for Paul Carrack recently at Air Studio 2, which I hadn’t done for ages, and it was great fun, easier to do and sounded better than any other way of doing it…”