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A Modest Proposal

Published April 2013
By Paul White

When it comes to plug-ins, there are certain manufacturers who insist on absolute authenticity in all things. On one level, this is commendable, but on another it can be frustrating. Take compressors, for example: not all classic compressors had side-chain access points, but they'd be so much more flexible if they had. The same thinking applies to side-chain filtering, as it's quite often desirable to make compressors more responsive to some parts of the frequency spectrum than others.

Yet another production technique enjoying a resurgence in interest is parallel compression — no rock or dance mix would feel quite complete without, it as Hugh Robjohns' detailed article in our February 2013 issue explains. Yes, you can feed a 'normal' compressor from an aux send and, providing your DAW offers sample-accurate plug-in delay compensation, it will work just fine. However, parallel compression is much simpler to arrange if the compressor itself is equipped with a wet/dry mix control.

In the world of hardware, many old classic units have been modified to add features such as those outlined above, and have been transformed into more usable tools as a consequence. Sadly, such modifications also tend to detract from the resale value of vintage gear. That leaves the owners with a tough choice: do I want a piece of kit that's worth a lot of money or do I want something that's more useful in its modified form? But would adding these 'missing' mods to software plug-ins de-value them in the same way? I don't think it would, if it was handled in the right way.

I can see the attraction in knowing that a plug-in has been designed to emulate the original hardware in great detail, with nothing added and nothing taken away, and we don't need to give that up if the plug-in is designed to default to an exact emulation mode. My suggestion, which I think would be technically and psychologically acceptable both to designers and to end users, is simply to add one new button, called something like 'Mod Kit', to the plug-in interface. In the case of compressors, this would add side-chain input, side-chain filtering, a mix control, and perhaps an M/S function on stereo models. In fact, the designers might even enjoy modelling specific mods that are known to work well.

This concept doesn't extend only to compressors: I've often thought that some of the passive equalisers, where the bands interact in ways that aren't always obvious, would benefit from an EQ curve display. But the designers tell us that equalisers such as the classic Pultec didn't have a display, therefore the plug-in emulation shouldn't have one either. Personally, I think an EQ curve display for some of those weird and wonderful equalisers could prove very educational. Again, such features could easily be hidden, to be called up only by those who want them, as could an M/S option for stereo equalisers. I'm sure that many of the plug-in emulations out there could be made far more usable as creative tools if more designers accepted that mods are OK, as long as you can switch them off and hide them if you want to keep everything true to the original hardware. Surely, unlike modifying vintage originals, this kind of plug-in mod can only add value, not take it away.

Paul White Editor In Chief  

Published April 2013