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Plugins and control surfaces

There are two very important things according to plugins. One is obviously how you like the sound of it, the other is how easy, convenient is to use it. The first goes without further comment. Read about it, download the demo, test it, and if you really like what it does, buy it. I could go into details (again), but in my opinion it’s pretty straightforward, because if you happen to dislike the plugin sonically, there’s no question, you won’t ever use it. So let’s assume we found our plugin and bought it.

Here’s come the second really important point, the ease of use.

Graphical User interface

The very first thing we see is the “face” of the plugin. It can be simple or artistic, or it may depict some vintage gear. The main point is how much do you like it? I know it’s strange to read this about plugins, but think about it for a moment. If you like the look of it, it’s more likely you’ll use it, your brain’s going to remember all the important controls and their exact position. And be honest, we all like a nice GUI, after all we stare at it for long hours on a typical mix session.

Just a very short personal note on this. While I really like these shinny, beautiful GUIs, I think sometimes plugin manufacturers should spend more time on usability and easy of use than graphics.

Technical issues

We cannot avoid some technical stuff when we try to find our trusty tools.

Obviously it’s very important to check if the plugin is available in the format our DAW support. In my case it’s AAX Native and it’s a bonus if AAX DSP also supported. I don’t want to derail my own post, but this DSP thing might need a bit of explanation. Although today’s computers are immensely powerful, in post production there are serious reasons why we like to have the DSP option. One, that is most mentioned on the online forums is latency. Namely when you have a full mix and need to record some overdub with the full mix still going intact, you might end up with latency issues with a Native only system. If your session is not so huge, then it wont’ be a problem.

For a quick example I just describe the last feature film score mix I did. I tested this on both Native and DSP systems, and believe me, a very, very powerful Native system would choke under the burden of this session:

  • 280 tracks
  • approx. 1000 plugins inserted
  • almost all HDX2 DSP was used up
  • 38% of a 6 core trashcan MacPro used up
  • session had a 1.5 hour-long HD video

Although I haven’t tested this, but using Native system only would be very demanding with a session like this.

Stability

This is a big one for me. It can be a world class plugin, but if the company behind it has a bad support, or the plugin constantly crash the DAW, I won’t use it.

I’ve found that some companies are much better at making efficient, stable plugins than others.

Other important consideration is how good is the plugin when it comes to automation. In the post audio world we heavily rely on automation, so plugins need to be 100% reliable. Otherwise you never know what really happens, and every bounce can be different, defective. On certain things you might spot the difference, but in a heavy mix it takes more time to find what causes the strange feeling that something is off. In a big supersession it can take forever to check every automated plugin.

Control surfaces

The last point is how the plugin maps on surface. Some would say that you can adjust the parameters with a mouse, which is true in essence, but when you have a huge mix, you need to have a more tactile control in front of you. To be honest, in 2015 it’s still surprising to me that many plugins simply not, or not well mapped to surfaces.

One particular example is Slate Digital plugins. I love some of their stuff, but the mapping is just unusable. Let’s take their Mixrack as the example. It is a very versatile tool as you can change the order of the processors, but if you look at the surface, you’ll see this:

mixrack s6 map

So, instead of clear parameters, you see this hodgepodge of letters and parameters. Obviously if you use different chains, the letters corresponds to completely different parameters. It’s not simply inconvenient, it’s unusable.

It’s a known issue at Slate, I’ve even emailed them, but their response was far from promising. They simply stated they know about the issue but have no solution right now. That’s it.

I know some would say it is because Slate has some competing product with the Raven, but I think any pro audio company who really thinking in long term should take this issue very seriously. I travel a lot, work a lot in different studios and controllers are everywhere. From the small few fader unit through the Artist series up to the fancy Avid S6.