How To Quickly Audition New Plugins
Plugins – it seems every week there is a wave of new and exciting plugins released to producers. It’s true that using the right tools can make producing music more enjoyable, and help you make better sounding music. This post is very technical, but by the end of this you’ll know how to quickly audition new plugins and find the best way to use them.
With each new tool comes a learning process, and some plugins are more straightforward than others. As an audio engineer I often assume that music producers of all experiences know exactly how to use their tools, but during a recent coaching session I realized that this is not always the case.
For many music producers, finding a new plugin is a trip, a quest for the next great tool.
This post is very technical, but by the end of this you’ll know how to quickly audition new plugins and find the best way to use them.
What are some of the problems with learning something new?
- Lack of patience: We all have busy lives and when you finally have the time to sit to make music, you often don’t want to dedicate time learning the science of sound, you just want to rock out and have fun.
- Preset limitation syndrome: Some plugins aren’t very well laid out, and their knobs might have been labeled in counter-intuitive way. In that case, I’ve seen people only using presets to get their way through.
- Lack of knowledge: I’ve seen people getting lost while learning how compression works, what the attack vs release means, and often listening to bad advice from the internet.
There are a many ways to audition your new tools, but what’s the best way to find out how a plugin really works?
Through years of exploring plugins, I’ve found the best way to learn what a plugin can do for you is to use it in test environment before using on a serious project.
1. Create an Ableton Lab Project. I’ve said this many times before but it’s really helpful to create and use a dummy project where you conduct all your experiments. When it comes to exploring new plugins, synth or techniques you’ve learned from a video. This will a testing ground where things can safely go wrong, and it also can be the nursery for your next great ideas.
2. Import specific ‘dummy’ sounds. You’ll need to equip yourself with specific types of different sounds to see what your new acquisition can do for you.
My selection will include these sounds/loops:
1. 2 bar percussive loop. I’m talking about something fairly busy like kick-clap-hihats.
2. 2 bar hi hat loop. This is an important one. Hi hats are very sharp which often makes it easy to hear the new effect.
3. 1 bar bass loop. A simple low bass with maybe 2 notes. Simple.
4. 1 to 4 bar Pads loop. This is to have something with a long sustain to easily hear what happens with a specific effect on something long.
5. Give full attention to specific details. This is where you need to be really attentive and undisturbed, especially when you first try this technique.
- Texture change. This is the first thing I listen for. Some plugins, by their simple presence turned on will change the sound somehow. With your eyes closed listen to how the sound changes simply by turning the plugin on and off.
- The length of effect. Is it short or long?
- Volume change. Is it altering the loudness of the sounds?
- Movement. Is it producing movement somehow?
- Dynamics. Do the sounds appear to be more flat or popping out? This means the dynamics might have been affected.
- Record the experiment’s results.
- Always use a limiter on the master to avoid your ears bleeding after something goes crazy.
Lastly, once you’ve got your testing ground project ready, I’ll now describe my own audition/exploration technique. This is quite easy to apply and will forever be useful. If you can map your knobs/faders to a controller this will be a real advantage. Ableton’s Push is also great for this.
- Play one of the loops to be tested.
- Chose a knob to start with, dial this knob at its minimum. Make a mental sonic image of your sound.
- Put the knob at it’s maxed level (the completely opposite of where it was). Did something happen? What was the noticeable change?
- Gradually bring it to the middle, where it’s exactly sitting in the 50%
- Repeat this with all knobs but explore leaving some at 50%, others at 25% and see what happens. Sometimes you need a combination of 2-3 knobs adjusted to really see something happening.
- Once you’ve found something interesting, change the loop to see how it behaves on something else.
- Try randomizing the knobs with Max4Live’s randomizer. This can also bring fun results.
As I said at the beginning there is no shortage of new tools available to producers, yet finding the right plugins for you will be a process of trial and experimentation. The process of learning something new and auditioning your plugins can be really fun and will hopefully make you a better producer.