This may come off as a rant by someone brought up on analog equipment. If that’s the case, I apologize in advance!

Over the past five years (or so), I’ve seen a worrying trend with plug-ins.

Here’s an example.

Last summer I was FOH tech for a medium-sized festival in Chicago. We had an Avid SC48 at FOH, driving a Nexo Geo-T system with Lake processing (as usual, I was working with Gand Concert Sound). A band’s engineer arrived at FOH at the beginning of his band’s changeover/line check time. No introductions, no handshakes, just “What plug-ins do you have?” When I told him what was on the desk, he said they simply wouldn’t do since updated Waves plug-ins were released a few days earlier. OK, I can see how this is going to go…

To his credit, he came prepared. He had the new versions of the plugins on a memory stick and set to work loading them onto the console. The problem was that he had so many plug-ins he “absolutely needed” that they took the entire changeover time to load! No time for a line check and very little time for me to ensure we had him soft-patched correctly.

The first thing I noticed when I opened up PA was that the noise floor had risen considerably (it now sounded like a noise generator was running at a low level). I had a quick peak at what he had going on in his file and he had as many plug-ins inserted as the SC-48 allows (that’s quite a few plug-ins).

Once the band was rolling and dialed in, the engineer proceeded to spend the rest of the set fine-tuning all the plug-ins, not once looking up from the screen. Needless to say the show sounded mediocre, at best.

The next band also had an engineer. He came up to me just before the changeover and said he didn’t have a file and to just soft patch into the festy file I’ve been using and he’d work off of that. After he got things sorted on stage, he returned to FOH, did a quick line check and gave me the thumbs up that all was OK.

About three songs into the set the engineer taps me on the shoulder and motions for me to come look at the console. He shows me that he is using no plug-ins (not even a compressor or gate). He’s just using channel EQ and a proper gain structure. Unsurprisingly, the noise floor was back down to an imperceptible level and the band sounded great! It was the best sounding band of the entire festival.

No my good sir, I salute you!

OK… here’s another example. A couple years ago I was FOH tech at a different Chicago-based festival (again an Avid desk through a Nexo PA with Gand Concert Sound). As a changeover began, the next band’s FOH engineer came up and introduced himself,  said he didn’t have a show file, gave me the input list and asked if I could build up a simple starting point for him while he sorted things out on stage. Sure, not a problem.

While the band’s engineer was on stage, I set to work labeling up his inputs and outputs and soft patching to our festy-patch. I set up two reverbs, one for vocals and one for snare, and a mono delay for vocals. Other than that I set up high-pass filters how I’d usually have them and did some very light EQ on a few channels, based on what I’d been using thus far that day. As the mics/instruments were patched on stage, I listened through headphones to ensure we were getting a clean signal. With that completed, I waited for the band’s engineer to return to FOH for the line check.

When he returned, he quickly went through line check and then had about 5 minutes before showtime to sort out everything else. He checked the plug-ins page and immediately lost his mind and went off on me for not setting up “tube compressors on all the vocals.” Not wanting to get into an argument, I said sorry and took a step back, indicating for him to get on with setting up whatever he thinks constitutes a “simple starting point”.

As with the engineer from the first example, this guy spent the entire set dialing in plug-ins, not once looking up from the screen. The mix was unimpressive.

Notice a pattern here…?

I know I’m a bit strange in my mixing methods (but I know I’m not alone). I’m very much a minimalist. I believe in properly setting gain structure, carefully EQing each input channel (but not over-doing it) and only using compressors/gates/effects when needed. I listen first and add effects only if necessary.

This is how I was taught to mix (thanks to the Gand guys at the time: Adam Rosenthal, Rob Laseau, Joe Perona, Tim Swan, Gary Gand). Less is more. It has always worked for me.

Stewie has also been helpful

So… back to plug-ins (and the point!).

Presumably you get into live sound to make things sound good, right? Then why do I see so many engineers with their faces buried in computer screens playing with plug-ins for entire shows? Such engineers (in my experience) rarely produce a good mix. The reason is simple: they’re not really listening to the show! Why not stop what you’re doing, take a step back, and listen to what the band’s doing (often closing your eyes reveals a surprising amount)?

Last summer when I was on a gig, I kept track of how many times an engineer looked up from the console screen during their band’s set (each set was around 45 minutes). One day there were about 10 bands on and 8 of them had engineers. The first five engineers didn’t look up once. The sixth engineer, though, spent most of the set watching the band (and got off the riser to have a listen in the crowd… I know, crazy!). I’ll let you guess who had the best sounding mix.

I don’t want to bash plug-ins. There are some great ones out there, designed by some excellent engineers. My point is that just because a console has the capability to use X number of plug-ins doesn’t mean you have to use that many. Be sensible.

Maybe this is the difference between those of us who were brought up using analog gear and those brought up using digital gear. When using analog, you have clear limits. Typically you have 8 comps, 8 gates and a few effects in your rack. You have to patch them in manually and often have to spend time troubleshooting. All this can be done with a two clicks of the mouse/taps on the desk with digital systems. Or maybe this is me getting gradually closer to the age where everything I say begins with “Back in my day…”

So next time you go to insert a bunch of plug-ins, ask yourself if they’re actually going to make the mix sound better. Will the audience notice? If the answer is no (or a weak maybe) then forget about it and get back to paying attention to what the band is doing!

Just some food for thought.