Less is more; part 4 – Can you buy a mixing magic bullet?

finger on a tablet computer screenI posted a short series of articles on the blog recently loosely connected around a ‘less is more’ theme….  the idea being that getting great results within an iOS-based music production system doesn’t always require an extensive – or expensive – list of equipment. As I mentioned in the most recent of those articles, I had a few other ideas around which I thought I could explore that theme a bit further….  so, as I’m travelling away from the Music Blog HQ at present, and had a little traveling downtime, I thought I’d take the chance to share one of those….

If only I had….

Gear lust, Gear Acquisition Syndrome (GAS) or app addiction….. whatever the platform you choose to make the heart of your personal recording system, once you get hooked on this activity – whether you are just starting as a hobby or already at the serious ‘this is my livelihood’ stage – spending as much time working out what’s currently at the top of you ‘most wanted’ equipment list as you do actually making some music is a situation it’s all too easy to find yourself sucked into.

Of course, websites like the Music App Blog – and all those other music technology websites and magazines – are part of the problem here. In doing our best to put the best of the latest in front of our audience, we don’t do anything very much for your self-discipline (sorry!). And, in the world of iOS music making, while the various bits of hardware required (the iPad, mics, audio interfaces, keyboard, etc.) can be just as expensive as in a more conventional desktop-based recording system, the software – our iOS music apps – is generally not; the temptation to grab the most recent releases is all too easy to give in too.

One common (clichéd?) aspect of this gear lust is a desire (acknowledged or not) for that one piece of kit (hardware or software) that is going to transform your music productions from (for example) being just ‘OK’ to some sort of ‘stellar’ status; we want the magic bullet.

OK, most of us appreciate that, when it comes to something as complex as, for example, mixing, there is no such thing as a magic bullet that, in an instant (and with a single flex of a credit card), is going to solve any problems you perceive with your own mixes and transform them into chart-ready super-tunes. Even so, it’s still flippin’ difficult not to think ‘if only I had a copy of XYZ’ every time a new wonder virtual instrument or plugin is launched. Need to create a better mix? Well, wouldn’t it be great if, as the saying goes, ‘there’s an app for that’….?

Too much choice?

The gear lust operates at all sorts of levels though and, even if most of us don’t believe in a single magic bullet in software, it is perhaps easier to believe in the concept that there is a better EQ, or reverb, or delay or compressor – perhaps the four cornerstone effects that are used to build any mix – that we could be using rather than those we currently own. Despite having more miles on my own personal recording clock than I care to remember, this is still something that I regularly find myself susceptible to.

The consequence is that I own a fairly healthy (or maybe that should be unhealthy?) number of boutique plugins over and above the sizeable collection of similar plugins that comes bundled with my desktop DAW/sequencer of choice (Cubase) and a positive shed-load of iOS effects apps that I can insert into my iOS DAW/sequencer of choice (Cubasis) via IAA or AU on my iPad.

There is a ‘less is more’ discussion to be had here and I’d have to admit that I have more of these conventional audio processors – EQ and compression, for example – than I actually need. And maybe having too much choice just slows my workflow down?

Good, better, best?

Trying to justify all these choices would, of course, be easier to do if the performance of these additional 3rd party purchases was better than the standard plugins bundled with my desktop or iOS DAW. So is it?

Well, in my other regular writing gig, I’ve just finished doing a Cubase workshop for SOS that is focussed on the various compressor plugins included by Steinberg as part of the package (it ought to appear in the magazine in a few weeks time). This included a comparison between these ‘stock’ plugins and a couple of the more popular 3rd party compressors that lots of desktop musicians probably also have access to. As part of this workshop I did some very simple (and totally subjective) audio comparisons between these various compressor plugins when used for a range of routine tasks with the idea of trying to see (hear) the differences between their performance.

And, the differences between the unglamorous bundled compressors and the more esoteric 3rd party ones? Well, for the most routine of compression tasks, it was (to my ears anyway) very small. Even when each compressor was pushed a little harder, I’m still not sure that I could have identified each of them in a blind listening test. The upside of this though is that even the most basic stock compressor plugin was more than up to the task of dealing with routine compression duties on an individual track such as a guitar, bass or vocal.

This wasn’t anything like an exhaustive test though and there were all sorts of more complex compression tasks (mix buss compression or parallel compression duties for example) where these 3rd party plugins might have shown a clearer edge. But, if the audio differences are pretty subtle for basic compression duties, do I really need these plugins at all?

KISS

Both of the 3rd party plugin compressors I used in my little experiment were modelled on ‘classic’ (and very expensive) hardware compressors; the LA-2A and 1176. If you have used these (or similar) 3rd party emulations based upon either of these compressors (or even used the original hardware versions), you will be aware that both feature a very simple control set with some fixed choices over compression ratios and just a couple of knobs to adjust. And, while I was perhaps less than convinced that the plugin versions bought any great benefits in sound when used for routine compression of individual instruments, I felt the control sets did.

The key thing I found when using both of these plugins (and I presume would apply with the original hardware also?) was just how easy (=quick and efficient) they are to use. Once dialled in to the sound you are after, they may not sound so much different from any other compressor plugin, but dialing in that sound in the first place is almost mindlessly easy. Whatever clever stuff is going on under the hood (in both the original hardware and the way the software models that hardware), with just a couple of knobs to use, it is actually very difficult to go too far wrong. The ‘keep it simple, stupid’ mantra works pretty well here.

Decisions, decisions….

Despite perhaps a tinge of disappointment that my more esoteric compressor plugins didn’t blow the stock Cubase compressors more obviously out of the water, after thinking about this KISS lesson for a while, I did wonder whether that facet of these specific compressors was actually just as valuable as their sound.

Even assuming you have written a great song and then made great recordings of great performances, building a great mix is still a challenging task. If we accept for a moment that there is no mixing magic bullet – no single plugin or ‘trick’ that’s going to make the perfect mix for us – then what we are faced with is using our own judgement to deal with things such as EQ, level, pan, compression, reverb, delay and a bunch of other elements for each track within our mix. In short, we have to make lots and lots (and lots!) of small, individual, decisions about these things for each track in the hope that, in the end, the sum of those decisions is a great mix.

So, if there is such a thing as a ‘magic bullet’, then perhaps it is not a piece of equipment; it’s a skill…. The skill to get as many of those individual decisions ‘right’ as you can and to reduce the number you get ‘wrong’. Of course, what constitutes ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in a process that is only part science and quite a lot creative art, is another matter, but developing a skill requires practice. In other words, providing you are capable of a bit of self-analysis, the more you mix, the better you are going to get at mixing.

And how does this relate to my boutique 3rd party compressor plugins? Well, it comes back to the beautifully simplistic design of the control set and the fact that it makes it easy to dial in an appropriate compression result with a minimum of fuss; in short, for that specific decision, the plugin is making it easier to get it right. And, when applied across maybe 20 or 30 tracks in a mix, that’s actually a lot of ‘right’ decisions; the results ought to be cumulative.

Well used tool

I’m referencing a specific example here….  and based upon a couple of my favourite 3rd party desktop compressor plugins…. but there is a general point here that applies across any aspect of the mixing process and whether you happen to be working on a desktop system, with iOS, or even with a dedicated hardware-based multi-track system. If you are super-familiar with the tools you are using, and if their interfaces are designed to help you get to a good result more easily, the odds are you will improve your chances of getting decisions right. Do that, and repeat it more times than not, and a better mix ought to be delivered.

So, while you most certainly should be exploring new tools to add to your recording kit list, it doesn’t need to always be something that is more powerful, or has a sound that is massively better, than something you already own; it could also be something that is simplY more intuitive to use and makes decision making easier. Interfaces – software or hardware – are therefore an important part of the gear search.

And while a simplified interface is one possibility, if your own favourite compressor plugin has more controls than a next generation space shuttle, but you know it inside out because of repeated use, then that’s also a factor in your workflow. If that well used tool gets you to ‘right’ in an efficient fashion, then stick with it until you find an alternative tool that also gets you to ‘right’ but either faster or better.

And for iOS?

This message applies just as much to iOS recording as it does to the desktop; keep it simple, use familiar tools with an interface you find intuitive (by design or by regular use) and make it easy for yourself to get as many small decisions right as you possibly can.

There is a catch with iOS though; in the absence of an AU version of your favourite 3rd party compressor or EQ app, you only get one instance of it in any one project. Yes, you can stick with the stock processors built into your DAW/sequencer of choice (and hopefully they will do a very respectable job) but, until we see AU take a firmer hold, we are somewhat limited in our ability to use what might be our preferred choice if that choice happens to be produced by another developer. This is another reason why we need AU to be a success under iOS. Fingers crossed….

Finally, having done this compressor comparison experiment on my desktop system, I’m now quite keen to do the same thing on my iOS system. Just how does the stock compressor within Cubasis compare to some of the excellent 3rd party apps that also offer compression? I’ve put this little exercise on my ‘to do’ list so watch this space and, hopefully, I’ll get to it at some stage over the next couple of weeks.

Until then, keep looking at all those shiny new toys and don’t feel guilty about it. You can justify your gear lust because you are looking for a tool to replace whatever you currently use for any specific task but where the new tool makes it easier to get to the sound you want even if the sound itself is not so different (although, hopefully, it has an edge in that department also). No, it won’t be a magic bullet….  but that doesn’t mean it can’t make a difference, even if that difference is of the ‘small but cumulative’ variety. Here’s to making more ‘right’ decisions and, slowly but surely, building a better mix….

 

PS I’m writing this article while away from Music App Blog HQ….  so apologies for the ‘all text’ format. I will, on return, add a few pretty pictures to help the flow :-)

 

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    Comments

    1. Thanks John. Good article. I would be very interested in the results of the iOS experiment; especially if you could include harmonicdog’s MultitrackDAW. This is still my favourite recording app.

    2. Spent Saturday night mixing a six track home recording of my friend with guitars and vocals in Multitrack Daw. Very impressed with the results with such a small selection of options. All the effects in Multitrack sound great to my ears and my friend was very happy with the mix. It also sounded great coming straight out of the iPhone 6 speakers so that’s a good sign I suppose. Long story short, made me a big believer in KISS and using as few tools as possible.

    3. Michael Izzi says:

      Thanks for the great series of articles on this topic John!

      Not sure if you mentioned this…
      What’s a good MIDI controller (preferably bus powered) to use with these synth apps (like Moog’s Model 15). One with controllers, sliders, knobs, etc…?

      Many thanks! ;)

    4. Getting new gear is cool, just make sure you sell the gear you’re not using or purchased and NEVER used!
      LOL,
      I’ve been a firm believer in Harmonic Dog, even though I’ve bit the Auria, Meteor, Music Studio, Hokusai, GB, etc etc apples!
      Harmonic Dog got it right! For the iOS format/limitations anything else is overkill.
      A simple capture device with ez instant gratification marries well with iOS. Anything else resorts to the serious horsepower of the desktop.
      I’d like to believe more fully in iOS studio, but until Apple opens up and let’s me share my recording to an external drive NOT THE CLOUD (that’s a cardinal sin folks) I just can’t take it for more than a toy.
      Don’t get me wrong, there’s some very coolness from the developer world, but Apple thought process is
      the bottleneck IMHO.
      Now as one of my favorite instructors likes to say…
      I’m going to go finger my surfaces 8D

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