Taking a more creative approach to FX routing can bring new life to an otherwise tired collection of plug-ins. Mark Cousins explores this sonic route…
In the search for music perfection, most of us look for the ‘killer plug-in’ that makes everything sound good – whether it’s some form of magical compressor, the ultimate reverb, or a boutique EQ. In truth, though, it’s often where and how we use our plug-ins that transforms an ordinary mix into something truly exceptional.
Rather than simply inserting one plug-in after another, isn’t it about time you thought more about the routing and ordering of your plug-ins? Indeed, look more inquisitively at the signal path in your mix – using inserts, busses and a combination of both parallel and serial processing – and you may find that your music becomes all the better for it.
Most plug-ins tend to get placed into a channel’s insert path using the ever-expanding series of slots just beneath the Input assignment. From an operational standpoint, this approach makes sense, especially in respect to tagging an instrument with its own combination of plug-ins.
What you see, therefore, is a simple serial signal path where one plug-in’s output flows into the next plug-in’s input. The effect of the processing is cumulative, with each plug-in adding to the overall effect achieved.
Even in this simple setup, it’s worth remembering that the order of the plug-ins has a big effect on the result achieved. Place a reverb halfway down the insert path, for example, and every plug-in after will affect both the dry signal and the reverberated.
Likewise, EQ before compression (rather than after) can affect how a compressor behaves, especially when large amounts of boost are used. Ultimately, none of this wrong (indeed, it might well be the effect that you’re after), but it’s important to remember some alternative approaches.
The second most common way of using plug-ins is with a buss send combined with a separate auxiliary channel. Typically speaking, the use of buss sends/aux channels is primarily reserved for ambience effects like reverb or delay, with the main advantage being that any number of channels can be routed through to the effect, with an individual buss send pot controlling the respective level.
What we’ve described here is an example of a parallel routing, with the reverb or delay running in tandem with the main channel fader.
A key advantage of parallel processing is that we can create some further distinction between where and how signals get processed. In the reverb example, plug-ins on our channel insert path only affect the dry signal, whereas plug-ins on the reverb’s aux fader only process the reverb tail. An equalizer after the reverb, therefore, can be used to colour the timbre of the reverb without having any effect on the main signal that’s on the channel path.
Having understood the principle differences between serial and parallel processing, therefore, let’s start to imagine the myriad of ways plug-ins can be applied.
Firstly, it isn’t the case that aux channels are only for reverb and delay. Plug-ins like compression and distortion work particularly well in a parallel setup, using the return level (on the aux fader) to set a balance between processed and unprocessed signal.
You can also achieve some interesting results placing a filter (either low or high-pass) on the aux channel ahead of the compression or distortion, so that the ‘mojo’ enhancement is only applied to a specific frequency band.
If you’re using parallel processing a lot, it’s well worth noting the routing options both in respect of channels and aux faders. Rather than using a buss send, you can route one or more channels directly through to a buss using the channel’s output assignment. What’s particularly interesting, though, is that any number of aux channels can be set to the same buss assignment, letting you create multiple paths running at the same time.
In the walkthroughs, we’ll see how we can use this feature to create a parallel guitar amplifier configuration – whereby a single input source is routed to two parallel aux channels, each with their own FX path and guitar amplifier.
In effect, the setup mimics the sound of splitting a guitar and sending it through two separate amps in the same room, each with a slightly different FX chain and amplifier settings.
This parallel configuration is impossible to create using Amp Designer and Pedalboard alone, and, thanks to the routing (rather than simply duplicating a pre-recorded audio track) it’s possible to be played through ‘live’.
Rather than thinking of plug-ins as ‘cumulative’ processing, therefore, start to think about how they might individual contribute to the overall sound, and how they might want to interact with one another.
For example, do you want to compress the sound of the reverb? Do you want the delay taps with or without reverb on them? Often these small but important decisions can have a big effect on the effectiveness of your mix and, more specifically, the distinction you create between instruments and sonic features in your soundstage.
Obviously, the walkthroughs here only begin to scratch the surface of a more creative approach to FX routing. Each plug-in in Logic brings new possibilities in both parallel and serial operation, so it’s well worth contrasting the use of plug-ins applied across channel inserts with an approach that incorporates elements of parallel processing using the aux channels.
Most importantly, you may well find that some of your most neglected plug-ins gain a new lease of life used in a more creative way, often creating effects that you didn’t think possible.
Focus On Decluttering Your Mixer
If you’re working on a laptop it’s increasingly easy for Logic Pro X’s mixer to engulf your screen, blocking your view of the all-important arrangement window. One solution is to par down some of the additional graphic elements and make the mixer closer to what it was in Logic Pro 9.
On the whole, I prefer a mixer without Gain Reduction meters (especially if you’re using lots of third party compressors), EQ thumbnails, MIDI effects and Track Icons. You can find all of these options under the Mixer’s local menu View > Channel Strip Components, as well as the option View > Hide Legend that removes the function labels on the left-hand side of the mixer.
This tutorial is endorsed by Point Blank. With courses in London, online and now in LA, Point Blank is the Global Music School. You can study sound to picture on their Music Production Diploma courses, with pro industry tutors.