I don’t get to use hardware very much these days and while that’s a pity, I do love a bit of outboard, it is a testament to the fact that software is very, very good these days. While some people will insist that I must be deranged to say such a thing, I really believe that the experience of using hardware, the limitations and the effect it has on workflow is far more significant than the sound (I can hear the screams of “Heretic!” as I type…).
An important difference between the attitudes people seem to have to software vs hardware is that while we demand endless flexibility from plug-ins we are often happy to have a piece of hardware which does one thing well, sits on the mix bus and gets used on everything. Are there any plugins which are like this? Character plug-ins which make everything sound better all the time? I think there are. Here are five plug-ins which I think come close to being that elusive “betterizer”.
Kush Audio Clariphonic MkII
This parallel equaliser is made for the mix bus. This boost-only EQ doesn’t offer any information on frequencies or gain. Instead, it offers two “engines”: Focus and Clarity, which offer boost-only control of the midrange and high frequencies.
This is one of those plug-ins which can brighten without harshness and can out-Pultec and Pultec.
There aren't many plug-ins which defy explanation but Inflator is one which comes close. Designed to increase apparent loudness, Inflator achieves this without use of compression or limiting - an apparently contradictory statement. The simple interface doesn't hint towards the power of this plug-in to achieve the apparently impossible: To make signals louder without turning them up!
I've always wondered exactly how this plug-in works. The manual hints towards some mathematical voodoo - Apparently relative probabilities of higher sample levels resulting in an increase in average modulation densities.
When I asked Sonnox how it works they confirmed what I had suspected all along. It actually is magic!
Softube Drawmer S73
The S73 is a multi-band compressor which neatly bypasses my biggest issue with multi-band compressors - infinite choice. The ability to dial up one of the presets, dial in an amount, blend wet against dry and move on is just brilliant. If you like, you can stack more than one S73 with a different preset on each, something I’ve done before.
If you want to know what your favourite preset is doing “under the hood” then get a copy of the Softube Drawmer 1973. The S73 presets are available in this fully tweakable version and although I have both, I tend to use the S73 more than I use the 1973.
Most issues at the mix stage are simple to fix once you’ve correctly identified what the problem is - that's the bit which takes the skill. There are some issues which aren’t simple to fix and while we all understand that in something as complicated as music there will be some signals which, when mixed together, play nice and others which will, to varying degrees, cancel against each other, we've never previously had the tools to do much about it. Worst of all, these issues change with the music making them un-fixable using conventional tools.
That's exactly what Pi is designed to fix. While it’s not a plug-in which sits on the master bus, an instantiation is needed on the source tracks, its effect happens at the summing point so I think it more than qualifies for this list.
Plugin Alliance Vertigo VSM-3
So many of the classic boxes we hear about on the mix busses of big-name mix engineers are there for colour. The number of times I hear reference to a Fairchild being used with its threshold at zero is proof if it were needed, that a little bit of the right distortion can do wonders for a track.
There are a few plug-ins I’ve used in this application but the one which has caught my attention most recently is the VSM-3. The ability to filter the signal being fed to each of the two, very different, harmonic generator sections and the ability to process in stereo or M/S make this one of those processes which can do the really subtle stuff brilliantly.
UPDATED - Process Audio Sugar
Since this article was written the most significant new addition which “just makes it sound better” has to be Sugar. This absolutely fits the brief as a plug-in which can take good material and make it better. As well as the sound, particular praise has to go to the UI which helps the user make good decisions based on simple yes/no decisions.
One of the biggest pitfalls of using bus processing, particularly things which offer any kind of “more of everything” process is the danger of going too far. The central master control allows a proportional adjustment of the whole process so once you have tweaked to your satisfaction it is easy to check your processing by dialling it in and out in one operation. We love Sugar!
What Are Your “Betterizer” Plug-ins?
What plug-ins live on your master bus? Use the comments section below to tell us your list.