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Pro Tools #10: Plugins On da Cheap


Welcome to Pro Tools on da cheap - I’m in no way an expert, and what follows is just “what works for me”. Have I missed something, made a glaring error, or flown in the face of common wisdom? By all means, post a (hopefully polite and cheery) comment and join the discussion.

You know what it’s like to walk into a music store and check out the recording room, right? All those shiny metal faces, tucked into rows and rows of equipment racks, lights blinking, meters bouncing. The smell of new, warm electronics. And, oh, so pricey! A so-so compressor (that will certainly get the job done and teach you just what compression is, but not make your hair stand on end) is two hundred bucks, and over there, behind the locked glass display case, is a vintage Neve EQ (or a Pultec Preamp or an Eventide Harmonizer or, or, or…) They don’t even bother putting price tags on those: “If ya gotta ask…”

You know by now that you can get a lot of the sound and functionality of many hardware processors by using plugins. You also know that Pro Tools ships with a decent stack of ‘em. You’ve probably been having fun monkeying with them on your mixes.

And you may also be aware that there’s a big, big market of crazed scientists studying the crazy old vintage gear - the stuff that the Beatles, Elvis, Pink Floyd made masterpieces on - and trying to replicate it digitally. And then charging a fortune for it.

Still, good plugins are an amazing value compared to a hardware piece that “does the same thing” (or at least comes close). And hey, if you’re reading this, you probably have no clue as to how a Manley compares to an LA2A, right? 

patch-bayMore groovy facts concerning the plugins vs. hardware question:

There’s no noisy cables interconnecting them. No patch bays to deal with. And you can buy just ONE compressor or EQ and use it on several tracks, at the same time. Just try buying six Chandler EQs. You can automate every knob and slider across a mix. And compared to hardware, they’re CHEAP.

And, best of all, most of ‘em you can TRY FOR FREE - that’s right, most developer web sites have a download section. The freebies will be crippled in some way - they’ll add a click or hiss or something every x-seconds, or they’ll cease to function after a certain time period (which is much nicer as you won’t be distracted by some noise).


When people talk abut preamps, compressors, and EQs, you’ll hear a lot of talk about “color”. Nobody can quite say what it is (and if a vintage EQ adds color, does that mean everything else is black and white?) but you can do some experimenting:

Record a track with some good detail, say a nice vocal or acoustic guitar. Maybe grab some drum loops, too.

Now, go find some crazy vintage EQ demo plugins.  Here are some demos you can try:

McDSP Retro EQ

Pultec Bundle

Abbey Road Brilliance Pack

Massey VT3

Now, try to get similar EQ results with each plugin. say, boost the highs to hear a bit more “crispness” in a vocal. How different do they sound? Which sound great, which don’t work? Then try ‘em on a drum loop, on a bass guitar, etc… 

Maybe you’ll see why pro studios have such mountains of gear (and plugins).  An experienced engineer will hear a part and say, “Ahhh, the so-and-so Eq is just made for this!” We mortals don’t have that luxury, and most of us have to choose our purchases carefully.

And the thing about plugins that really ‘color” a sound - in some cases, you’ll end up “coloring” all your tracks the same way. So to get started… start with some basics.


Cool. But since Pro Tools shipps with a nice array of plugs, what should you add first? Again, this will veer into maddening controversy, but here’s my .02 (and to quote the late & great Mark Sandman, “you get what you pay for”)


If you like ambience, you may find your existing reverb is a weak, weak link. In that case, get straight over to 112db and pickup a download of REDLINE REVERB. It’s an amazing tool - you can do subtle effects, or go so crazy it makes this plugin like a musical instrument all its own. It’s lush, warm, thick and ultra-controllable. $169 bucks, and as of now, on sale. Do check it out, I am in love with it.

I’m going to leave list mode for a moment here. There’s one plugin company you’ve got to know about - world class plugins for dirt, dirt cheap - and demos that are free, and only mildly crippled (like, no saving of your settings between sessions). From $69 - $89 a pop, you can get a set of really fine plugins. Steve Massey’s Massey Plugins should really be your first look.



The Massey CT-4 is a world-class performer, an award winner, it sounds great and uses little CPU.


Also, the L2007 MASTERING LIMITER is a phenomenal, amazing final sweetener for your mix, and is capable of making your songs incredibly LOUD if you’re so inclined. Also amazing on drum room mics.



The VT-3 EQ is a simple “console” style EQ - just three bands, not even swept mids. But it’s got a nice clean sound, takes next to no CPU and sounds really sweet. A simple tool, but super-useful.



Steve Massey has a fuzz-box emulator on his site, which I haven’t tried. He also has the more subtle TAPE HEAD, which adds gentle - to - gutsy harmonic distortion. Now, why would you want that? Well, maybe because many of us grew up with music that was recorded and mixed on analog gear (much of which adds some almost inaudible “musical” distortion). Just download it and try it. Dial in just a touch on a vocal or acoustic guitar that’s not cutting it, or on a high hat, snare or drum overhead. It’s gorgeous, and insanely powerful in a subtle way.

It’s not for making Merle Haggard sound like Van Halen - again, it’s subtle, but can do amazing things to instruments that seem a little “lost”.



Digidesign ships some very useful delays with Pro Tools, and this one is more specialized. It’s doesn’t do crazy stereo ping-pong stuff, or have phase and negative feedback controls. What it does do - remarkably well - is emulate the sound of several styles of old-school tape delays. If you came of age in the world of cheap digital effects, you’ll turn up your nose at this one. If you’ve over owned (in descending order of fidelity but ascending order of just-plain-funkiness) a Roland Space Echo, a Maestro Echoplex, or (gasp - my very first delay!) one of those Univox tape echo units - you’ll be all over this. You see children, back in the day when presidents were white and every war was really against the damn Russkies, echo and delay effects were hard to come by and really meant a lot to us old codgers when we were young-punk guitarists in the garage.

And the thing is, if you like to really hear that repeat of a delay on a vocal, that huge-yet-clear sound, the TD5 has some special mojo - it’s got a gooey way of sort of melting into a sound. Just try it on a guitar solo.


small_hcompThere’s just a world of plugins out there. I’d take a look at Waves, as many of theirs are pro studio mainstays, and many are pretty affordable. For example, their H-comp looks like a really promising “do it all” compression box, and it’s $200.


Ahh, mixing. Mixing is the art of taking all the tracks you’ve recorded and blending them into one cohesive whole. When it works, (and when lots - or all - of those tracks are you) it’s a mindblower, a magical “something so much greater than the sum of its parts” experience. Learning it is frustrating and never ending (I still suck at it if you ask me).

There’s tons of advice right here on the internets - for instance, Gear Slutz has been hosting an amazing forum with famous engineers.

And then there’s Mr. Charles Dye. Even if you don’t like Ricky Martin, you should visit his site - the man is on a mission to help us all mix better.

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