Always in Record, Part 8

Options Paralysis

This is the eighth installment in guest blogger Ryan Hewitt’s series on recording. Today Ryan wonders if having all those plugins is too much of a good thing. If you missed his last post on “mixing meditation,” you can read it here.

Ryan Hewitt

Photo by Art Penhallow

I wish there was a way to randomly shuffle which plugins are available to me on any given day. There are just too many options available to a mixer these days! I mean it’s awesome to have so many toys to play with, but man, the amount of time I used to spend debating which EQ to use is just ridiculous. It’s complete options paralysis!

Is this EQ really going to make my mix that much better than if I use that one? How many plugins is too many? How many is enough? When we mixed on consoles, we used the EQ in the desk nearly all the time and it was almost always fine for the job. Was it the greatest EQ ever invented? Probably not, in most cases. If the EQ didn’t cut it, we could use one of the EQs in the rack. And of course I could only use each one ONCE! But somehow we not only survived, but we made great records this way.

Now extrapolate this decision time to cover choices for compression, saturation, reverb, delay and so on, and we’ve committed a lot of time to decisions that may or may not really matter in the end. Mixing on a console, we had a few of each to use, so we used them appropriately, sparingly, and creatively out of necessity. Now we can just slap a million instances of every unit ever modeled on every track whenever we feel like it. We are getting spoiled and sidetracked!

I recently did a mix where I put the UAD SSL Channel Strip on every channel as a starting point, and treated the process like I was mixing on a desk. I used the SSL channel as I would on the console: dug right into the EQ without thinking about numbers, bumped the compressors like I used to do, used the built-in filters and sometimes the gates. I used a few extra EQs where I needed them (APIs, Pultecs, etc.), some compressors where they sounded good, and my usual complement of effects and parallel compression as I used to do on a console and still use in my hybrid setup. Not only was it easier to stay focused on the mix, but it sounded better, maybe because I used less to achieve more, maybe because there was cohesion in using the same EQ more often.

As an assistant I used to watch engineers like Elliot Scheiner, Bruce Swedien and Jim Scott do entire mixes using only the EQs and compressors in the desk, with maybe a couple of outboard compressors for the vocals. Add a couple delays, a couple of reverbs, maybe a parallel compression bus, and away they would go. The mixes sounded so clear and beautiful. Just stunning. I’ve also witnessed the opposite from mixers like Michael Brauer and Bob Power who used loads of specialized processing to make their mixes pop. But still… They used what they had on hand.

There’s certainly no one answer to a great mix, but I’m starting to feel like having too many choices can be detrimental to getting there efficiently. I think it would be fun to have limits as to what I get to use on a given mix. Be forced to keep it slightly simpler and be more creative with what I’m given. Actually use plugins that are lurking around not getting attention. Stock plugins that come with your DAW or UAD card can be incredible and are so often overlooked because they don’t have the flash of the fancy looking stuff. How ’bout those plugs that we bought years ago or got for free that we never got around to trying? I’m certainly guilty of this…

Now I can’t complain too much to have all this great technology at my fingertips, because it gives us so much power to mix in the box, but I feel that so often we focus on the gear more than we focus on the music! All I am advocating for is deeper listening and making more musical decisions. Make the technology work for you, not the other way around.

Always in record.


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