There are so many aspects to professional music production and the importance of music plug-ins (audio effects) should never be underestimated. With the right plugin arsenal, producers and mix engineers can shape and sculpt the way a song or instrumental is perceived.
Here is an overview of the most commonly used audio effects for music production. In future articles, we will provide more detailed tutorials to each specific audio effect.
Equalization a tool is used to boost or reduce or increase varying points of a frequency signal. Whenever there is a source of sound (e.g. when vocalists sing), the sound projects its own range, which sits on the frequency spectrum. Each sound may have attributes that sit differently on the spectrum.
Using an equalization tool, a producer or sound engineer can essentially control or shape the high, mid and low-frequency points by reducing or increasing them. The more advanced equalizer tools can control more frequency points.
Compression & limiting
These are used when signal volumes exceed a certain level. Compression is a reduction tool that controls in the range of a signal such that the sound source in question does not exceed a predetermined threshold. The higher signal levels are then dropped in gain compared to lower-level signals thus creating a more even signal level across the entire sound source.
Limiting is a tool used much like compression but in an extreme form used for a different purpose.
Expansion gates & noise gates
Expansion gates and noise gates are the flip sides to compression and limiter plug-ins discussed above.
Through the use of an expansion gate, the music producer can essentially increase a signal’s dynamic range. As a result, higher-level signals stay the same or slightly changed and the lower level signals are reduced – thus creating a larger volume range.
Think of expansion as the opposite of compression.
Noise gating is an extreme method of expansion gating. All signals under a certain threshold are either eliminated entirely or at least heavily reduced. This means only higher level signals are heard and background noise is silenced based off a trigger. The trigger is often another signal, perhaps a kick or high hat.
Reverberation, usually shortened to reverb, is the plug-in tool that controls the sound reflections you can artificially create to suit the effect you may have in mind.
The best way to imagine reverb is to imagine the effect of clapping in a room. The immediate sound that lingers because of the specific acoustics of the room is the reverb.
Music producers and song mixers use a reverb plug-in to create different spaces in the mix, which can either replicate or emphasize the ambience of a type of room they want to convey the sound is being performed in. E.g. hall, small room, large room or even stadium!
The concept of a delay is a simple one to grasp: the audio signal is closely followed by a somewhat delayed exact repeat. Depending on the music producers’ vision for the song, delay time could vary between milliseconds to several seconds.
The delay effect used on a sound can open many doors to what is possible, such as mixing it with reverb, chorus, phasing and much more.
This tool uses an algorithm that generates short delays of the sound signal and plays them at a slightly delayed time and with slightly altered pitch creating a thickening of the instrument source, which is why it is referred to as a chorus.
The plug-in then uses an oscillator to modulate the short delay time or pitch alteration speeds.
It is often used on a vocal, guitar and synthesiser to give the sound more density in the mix.
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Phasing & flanging
Phasing, also known as phase shifting, creates a kind of whooshing effect used often in music production to make a sound source stand out. This effect is achieved by mixing an original signal with a generated alternate version of itself that has been modulated with various evenly spaced peaks constantly moving within the frequency spectrum.
Flanging uses the same modular process, however, its peaks are spaced out in a way that the notes relate to each other harmonically.
Auto-tune created the first vocal tuning plugin in 1997. Used mostly for mixing vocals and backing vocals however can realistically be used for any instrument that plays monophonically. Read more here on how to use auto-tune.
This tool allows the mixing engineer to carefully go through each note graphically and amend it accordingly to the composed melody.
Subtlety is key here, as the listener should not be able to tell if the vocal has been mechanically tuned or not. It is certainly something of an art form.
Plug-ins are the digitalization of hardware audio effects in music production studios, which have been adapted over the years to join the digital age. This makes it amazingly easy to access and store a massive range of these tools to be readily available through our DAWs when called upon during the acts of mix and mastering.
Music producers and mix engineers will make use of all sorts of plug-in tools to process the creative ideas they have in mind to suit the direction of the overall sound. The number of plug-ins used may vary depending on the genre of music they work on or perhaps how much work needs to be done on the track they are currently mixing.
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