Part II of " Can I Get A Plug-In"
Stack up the plug ins and let me count the ways of destruction.
It happens all the time when modeling software comes around or a new computer plug-in is all the rage and people tell me, “I had this and that and three instances of an EQ on this channel.” And then, of course, it’s like slicing up your music a hundred times and reassembling it in real time and creating a new pile of numbers.
There's digital errors, of course, and people put a lot of faith in "digital," which rivals the scariest of cult followers. Sometimes it’s better, and sometimes it's worse with offline processing. Sometimes the worse actually makes an improvement on your work. The computer can "inject noise" when it gets too hard for it to keep up. Do you actually think there is Artificial Intelligence in the processing created by an audiophile that will do the work for you and care where the math is crunched? Do I really have definitive proof? We have our ears as the most sensitive testing tool. Its more sensitive than the MD5 Checksum apparently. I mean, our ears are better than the academics people fight with when we say we can hear copies of digital files even when done with the most "perfect" digital copies. I can get into more of why and theory, but I have kind of hit that one on previous blog entries.
The point is: The faith that the plug-ins will keep your original source material as their most important priority is a very scary place to put your faith. You have to listen. You have to know what sounds good, too. Those two statements are hard to know and do if you have been brought up in an "only computers" recording era.
Having work in pre-production to the end product, I get chances to see mixes in various stages. Knowing your plug-ins and what they do is key (and yes, I'm getting into production, not mastering). Many times, if an engineer takes off a “warming device” (distortion creator) and some of the EQ, it will sound better. Other times, it's much better because mixing is a totally different beast with colors you are using. In mastering, if a good mix comes in and you slap something that is a plug-in on top, it's more than likely going to degrade some definition.
It’s important as mastering engineers to know why something is sounding the way it is, and what we can do to give the client the best-sounding end product and get them where they want to be. It's not all up to us unless someone really asks for our help in pushing certain limits.
I have had clients in the last months say, " I like my mixes, keep them close," and the same producer tell me on the next project, "Look, I need some help on these to really bring out ____." Those are very important things to tell your mastering engineer or important to address as a mastering engineer. Nothing should be out of the job description unless it's not possible to do. You may actually have to employ a plug-in, is what I am saying, but most of the time, I don't need to open that drop-down menu of degradation!
It’s like a game of inches, too. If you cut a ton of corners, the master suffers. If you cannot cut a master CD at 1x realtime? Well, you’re not as good sounding as if you could cut it at 1x. If you are dragging and dropping and copying all the time, the master files or clients files change sound. Your dither is being done at the wrong stage? You’re running a change in the computer instead of re-running the song live? That’s a corner cut, too. I just read that some like to take a native sampling rate and up-sample it when they master. I cannot find a reason why I would want to change a file for any reason unless there was some 96k plug-in that needed to be applied as such for a particular reason. Making a change in a file will make a change in its sound. It's bad enough that one has to sometimes import something, right?
It’s universal; for instance, when you see a snazzy new plug-in, the oohs and ahhs happen. If you really try going another route without it and you can achieve the same desired energy organically (I’ll call it that), most of the time you’re much happier listening to the song. It’s the client, of course, that is your biggest priority. If you (the client) come in with a quest for fire, I will attempt to set the house on fire and burn it down. If you are looking for a balance of quality, well, I can do that, too. But the real question and confusion lies in where the line of quality takes a drop. Where is the desired end result, and where is the compromise?
Those truths about processes can only be truly uncovered when you do a blind-type test with more than three people as subjects (in our case, we have eight or more engineers that will do the tests) to see if we’re all hearing the same degradations or changes. We’ve had people march in here trying to say they have software that can bring back the resolution lost from an MP3. Look, we gave it a fair listen because they were nice.
It’s all about weighing the pros and cons. Is it really better or are we missing information now and it’s perceptively better at first but in the long run have we robbed ourselves? It’s a tough subject to tackle, because I don’t want to sound like a guy that hates computers and "big technology" with some sort of preexisting angle. I would hope to think of it as a healthy yardstick I keep between me and whatever is introduced.
But if a product declaration sounds too good to be true? It probably is
I WILL be talking about the thing you feel has been talked about too much: Apple, MP3, Codec and why you know intuitively when something is better and you don't have to be an audiophile to know it. If you don't, why, you should be outraged.