The Hideaway Studio – Minneapolis, MN
Every time you see a picture of a professional recording studio there is the mixing console and then there are racks and racks of what seem to be complicated devices – it all looks like a spaceship to most. So what do all these devices do? What purpose do they serve? The answer is signal processing, all kinds of it really. They can be compressors, limiters, equalizers, harmonic exciters, gates, reverbs and so on.
Thanks to the amazing technological development of the last thirty years all these signal processing tools can now run inside a DAW like Pro Tools as applications called plug-ins. There are several different formats for plug-ins similar to how there are different formats for digital music. Maybe you have heard about VST or RTAS or if you are a Logic user, about AU. These formats are platform dependent – they all work with the DAW they were designed for. Pro Tools 12.5 uses AAX plug-ins.
Check out the Tier-based plugins provide directly by Avid here.
Where to Start?
There is a plethora of plug-ins out there today, so many in fact that most beginners just do not know what to grab first. There are signal processing plug-ins and then there are virtual instrument plug-ins. There are hardware emulation plug-ins and then there are innovative plug-ins that combine all sorts of features that original hardware could not perform. A good place to start for people that are just beginning their journey are the native plug-ins within Pro Tools, the ones that ship together with the software. They cover all the necessities for MIDI productions, recording, basic mixing and mastering.
RAM and CPU
Keep in mind that these applications take up RAM and processing power in order to perform the calculations necessary for signal processing. Some plugins take less resources to function and some more, depending on the complexity of the math that needs to be done.
For example reverb plug-ins have to calculate how a certain sound would reflect in a room that has some given parameters by calculating all the bounces off the walls and then adding those calculations in real time so you can hear the reverb as you were in that room. That is an immense amount of calculation. Most systems can take a lot but try to research the limitations of your system before going too crazy with intense resource-consuming plugins.
Tier-Based Pro Tools Plugins
Avid provides bundles for plugins that will save you money and time. These are known as Tier Cards. Avid provides 3 tiers, i.e. Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3. The details of each of the tiers and which plugins you can choose from are summarized below:
- Tier 1 allows you to choose one from these must-have plugins: Pro Expander, Reel Tape Saturation, Tel-Ray Variable Delay, or Voce Bundle.
- Tier 2 includes high-quality plugins and you can choose one: Classic Compressors Bundle, Focusrite d2/d3, Impact, JOEMEEK Bundle, Moogerfooger Bundle, Pro Limiter, Pro Multiband Dynamics, Pro Subharmonic, Pultec Bundle, Reel Tape Suite, Reverb One, ReVibe II, Smack, or SoundReplacer.
- Tier 3 includes premium plugins which you can choose just one: Aphex Aural Exciter and Big Bottom Pro Bundle, Eleven, Heat AAX DSP, Space, and X-Form.
What Are Some of the Best Plugins for Pro Tools?
So you played around with the plugins that come bundled with Pro Tools (or decided to get a Tier card) and now you feel you would like to try out some other third party products. Where do you start? Let’s take a look at some of the the bes signal processing plugins for Pro Tools out there.
This one falls in the innovative category. It was designed for the best possible sound quality and it adds no coloration what so ever to the signal that is passing through. It is a surgical tool with 24 EQ bands that can either operate on stereo signals or left/ right channels separately. Zero latency, linear phase and it also includes a real time spectrum analyzer so you have a visual cue to work with. These specs only touch the tip of the iceberg on what this amazing tool can do.
This is actually a bundle of three plug-in recreations of the same hardware equalizer, the infamous EQP-1A. You can use these three EQ’s separately as they each have subtly different sonic characteristics. Inside the bundle you will find the EQP-1A (the closest model to the original hardware EQ), the MEQ-5 and the HLF-3C. It is beyond the scope of this article to get into the specs of each but it is important to remember that these plug-ins are designed to imprint that vintage sound to your signal by recreating the artifacts produced by analogue circuitry.
Not many have heard about this plug-in as it isn’t produced by some huge audio software company. In fact it’s just one guy that makes and distributes this amazing compressor. What makes it special is that even though this is just one plug-in it has three selectable “characters” or “skins”. Basically it is three compressors in one. The plug-in is a sort of a time traveller through the history of tube compressors each skin embodying the best features of multiple hardware compressors. Besides the usual parameters such as threshold and make up gain the user gets control over the amount of analogue coloration imprinted on the signal via the “timbre” and “drive” parameters. It also sports a side chain filter and a mix control. And the best part is that it is cheap to buy.
This is another emulation of a famous hardware tube compressor the Teletronix LA-2A. This is a compressor with a slow attack very much suitable for tracks that have slow dynamic transitions. It does wonders on vocal tracks that have no drastic transients. It is remarkably easy to use as it only has two controls – gain and peak reduction, or threshold and gain reduction if that makes more sense for you – so I am sure you will never get lost with this one.
I am sure you have all heard about this one. This plug-in is best known for its pitch correction abilities. You can set it on automatic mode which detects incoming pitch and adjusts it to the closes step of a user-defined scale. When selecting the graphic mode the user can dive in and bend the pitch up or down with amazing flexibility. While most people think about Auto-Tune like something that distorts the natural pitch of the voice, the latest edition of the program(Auto-Tune 8) sounds incredibly natural with the all new flex-tune feature that creates smooth transitions between pitch steps.
Hands down, this is one of the coolest delay plug-ins out there. You can set two distinct delay times for each stereo channel, set individual feedback, high-pass and low-pass filters and you can quantize the repetitions with “groove” and “feel” parameters. As if that wasn’t enough, the guys from Soundtoys added this Rhythm Echo mode in which you can decide where the repetitions will occur much like you would do with a 16 step sequencer. The plug-in also lets the user add harmonic content via a “saturation” parameter that helps nailing that vintage sound.
If you are looking for a stereo widening effect, this is the tool for you. Using delay and pitch modulation Doubler lets the user shape the timbre of the doubling in very creative ways. It works great on monophonic tracks such as vocals but some even use it on whole mixes to get that shimmery, chorusing effect. It allows for controlling up to four voices independently and you can get some pretty crazy harmonizing and tuning effects out of it.
This is a tape emulation plug-in modelled after a vintage 1/4″ reel-to-reel machine. It lets the user control tape speed, bias, flux, wow & flutter, noise parameters and as a plus you can use the “feedback” and “delay” controls for some cool slap-back delay. When used on the master fader channel it really brings warmth and saturation to mixes and is a wonderful solution for those moments when things sound a bit sterile and you want to spice the mix up.
This last one is a distortion plug-in. It has an amazing sound that can make very interesting enhancements by adding harmonic distortion. With the “saturation” control, the user sends the signal into the virtual tube stages of the plug-in and with the “harmonics” control the user can mix in the amount of harmonic distortion to be added the signal. The tube sound this device puts out is just so magical on vocal and instrument tracks. Even subtle settings with this plug-in go a long way in the mixing process.
I recommend trying all the above mentioned plug-ins, they are some of the best plugins for Pro Tools. Always try out the demo versions before going out and actually buying a plug-in. Try it out on sessions you are familiar with to be sure that the sound and features it gives you will make the investment worth it.
Also, always look at what other plugins similar to the one you are interested in are out there on the market and compare them before making an acquisition. One last thing to keep in mind is always learn to use your plugins; some take longer than others but if you do not spend the quality time needed to properly master a plug-in you will never get the most out of it.