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Preset In Our Ways

Leader By Paul White
Published December 2003

Our Studio SOS visits have been a lot of fun so far, and I hope that the results of last month's Reader Survey don't 'vote it out of the house', otherwise I'll have to buy my own chocolate biscuits! Those we visit generally tell us that they've learned something useful (of course they might just be being polite), but we learn a lot from the experience too, and I'm beginning to wonder if some hardware and software manufacturers mightn't be partially to blame for some of the problems we encounter. For example, one recurring theme is an otherwise perfectly acceptable recording that has been compromised by over-processing, and you only have to look at the gear people are using to see why.

Paul White circa 2002.Today, just about every recording workstation and software sequencer comes stuffed full of effects and processors, each accompanied by a library of presets. While I can appreciate the benefits of some preset effects, I really worry when I see people using a compressor preset on vocals simply because the patch is called 'Vocal Compressor'.

What's more, many of those who are new to using signal processing don't realise that even if a compressor plug-in happens to come with a suitable set of presets, it is still vital to adjust the threshold control, because the 'correct setting' is dependent on the level and dynamics of the audio track.

It's not just the makers of plug-ins who are to blame — I've come across numerous hardware recording workstations with built-in compressors which don't provide a gain-reduction meter. This is simply not acceptable, as even an experienced engineer needs to know how much gain reduction is taking place, especially after a long day in the studio when one's hearing may not be at its best.

I have the same problem with EQ presets. If all male singers sounded exactly the same, then perhaps an off-the-shelf 'Male EQ' setting would be appropriate, but in my experience every voice is different and has to be treated accordingly. It's no wonder so few people really get to grips with processing when manufacturers insist on dumbing down their products with instant-gratification presets, most of which are entirely useless.

If presets are bad news, then the way in which some digital mixers and workstations handle their effects and processors is even worse. As well as offering presets, many stick their signal processors (dynamics, EQ and so on) in the same library as their effects (delays, reverb, pitch-shifting) and call everything an 'effect'. As regular readers will know, effects can be used both in mixer inserts and in an aux send/return loop, but under normal circumstances, processors are used only in insert points. When everything is lumped together in one library, and when the system happily allows you to route your aux send via an EQ or gate and then directly back into the aux returns, it's no wonder that some users get confused when the sound comes out completely wrong.

I'd like to suggest that those who are new to effects and processors should take the time to explore what all the parameters on their compressors and equalisers do so that they can set them up properly, but also to record everything without any processing at all so they can return to a clean slate if things come unstuck. Even during mixing, processing should usually be kept to a minimum, and if you find you need to use lots of EQ on a particular sound, think about the way you recorded it to see if you can get closer to your ideal sound at source.

There are no real short cuts to success, but if you're looking for one button to make it all sound better, may I suggest Bypass?

Paul White Editor In Chief

Published December 2003