A little over three years ago, I wrote a leader column pointing out the pitfalls of relying on plug-in presets, especially in the case of processing plug-ins. While effect presets such as delay or reverb can be very useful, and software instrument presets are invaluable to many, I still shudder when I see presets for compression or EQ. These are tools used for shaping sound, and for them to work correctly, you first have to know what that sound is and what needs to be done to it. As I also pointed out back then, a compressor preset is virtually useless without further adjustment, as its threshold setting makes assumptions about both the recorded level and the dynamics of the signal being processed. Hugh and I never cease to be amazed at the number of times we encounter compressor presets on our Studio SOS missions. Often the user has put them in just because it seems like the right thing to do. More often than not, their signal level doesn't even reach the threshold, so the plug-in isn't actually doing anything at all! Indeed, if you leave a decent amount of headroom when you record, as we invariably advise, the chances are that a typical compressor plug-in preset will have its threshold set way too high. At the very least, you'd think a compressor preset would load with a flashing arrow pointing at the threshold control, along with a message saying 'You'll still need to adjust this!'.
Perhaps the reason why I keep returning to the subject of presets is that it almost seems as though some DAW manufacturers are determined to undermine our efforts to pass on good working practices. For example, if you call up a software instrument preset in Logic, the chances are that it will come up with a couple of processing plug-ins already inserted on its channel strip, often with a reverb plug-in shoved on the end. This may make a musically pleasing sound, but it isn't always the best way to achieve it; and in any event, it's somebody else's idea of a good sound, not yours. The preset designer has no idea what else will be playing in your mix.
Used with care, plug-ins are truly wonderful things, but, again referring back to previous Studio SOS missions, there have been numerous occasions where we've been asked to take a look at a mix, then when the reader returns from making coffee they ask what we've done, as everything now sounds somehow better. Our answer is that we've just bypassed all the plug-ins to see what the source material sounds like — always our first step — and in a surprising number of cases, the mix sounds better for it. In most instances, there's nothing wrong with the plug-ins themselves, it's just that they've been used somewhat over-zealously, and very often you'll find that presets are designed to make a very audible difference, when what you actually need is something far more subtle.
I'm all in favour of making the process of recording and mixing a little easier, but sometimes you just have to accept that taking the time to learn how these things work and how to apply them almost always produces better results than simply loading up presets with suitably impressive titles.
Paul White Editor In Chief