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Are Plug-ins Losing Their Potency?

Published February 2015
By Paul White

Over the past few years, top audio professionals have been warning of a global music-quality crisis caused by the indiscriminate use of audio processing plug-ins. So prevalent has the use of these tools become that many of today’s mixes have built up a resistance; they are so broken that none of the current plug-ins are able to cure their ills. Why is this happening? It’s perhaps best if we look at a couple of specific examples.

In the early days of recording, there was very little signal processing of any kind available, so performances were captured pretty much as they were, and if a mistake was made they’d do it all again until they got it right. Singers developed good mic technique in order to keep their vocal level reasonably consistent, and of course they had to sing in tune. Drummers had to play in time, instruments had to be properly tuned and it was necessary for all the performers to be able to play the whole piece from start to finish with no mistakes. Then somebody invented the compressor, which tempted some singers to become a little less careful with their mic technique. Now that they had the compressor to even out the levels for them, why worry too much?

Jump forward a few decades and a seismology specialist thought of a way to use his knowledge of vibration and waveform analysis to apply real-time pitch-correction. This gave us the original Antares Auto-Tune box and later plug-in versions, along with a host of competitors. And so a significant proportion of vocalists and sound engineers adopted a ‘let’s fix it in the mix’ attitude towards vocal perfection, rather than insisting on getting it right at the start. Next Melodyne came along and gave us even more pitch-correction power, along with the ability to adjust note timing. Meanwhile, DAWs were offering quantisation for audio as well as MIDI, so it became possible to beat a recalcitrant mix into submission, even if the timing of the original performance was a touch shaky in parts.

Sadly, such is the reliance on these tools that some people actually believe that plug-ins can fix pretty much anything. This means that an original performance that would never have passed muster back in the day is now often deemed OK to work on. The danger is that the deterioration in the captured audio quality will escalate faster than the plug-in designers’ ability to create tools to fix things, and that’s where we risk being overrun by MRSA, or Mix Resistant Substandard Audio.

The only solution is to try to get back to having more healthy mixes that don’t need extreme processing to bring them back up to standard. That means paying more attention to room acoustics, mic placement and the source performances, so that fewer plug-ins are required. Only then will plug-ins retain their long-term potency.

Paul White Editor In Chief

Published February 2015