The Wonderful World of Plugins
Yay! Another plugin release – Whoopi!… If you get a regular feed from KVR Audio, or subscribe to any audio publication for any length of time, you’ll know the feeling… another (virtual) 1176, another LA2A, another console modelled after the one the John Lennon once wiped a booger on back in 1965. Enough already! We DON’T CARE! We just want stuff that WORKS!
Why stuff WORKS
Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s 2014, & we’ve entered a new (digital) age of audio. So why are the classic designs still so revered? Well, they sounded great no doubt, but one very significant reason for their enduring popularity was inextricably tied to their ubiquity. Every major studio had an 1176, an LA2A, a U47, a pair of NS10s – thus, every engineer who came through became intimately familiar with their functionality, their strengths, their weaknesses – so much so that using them became second nature. The barrier between wanting a sound & achieving it seemingly disappeared – the familiarity bred, not contempt , but a completely intuitive approach where “thinking” disappeared & just became “doing” – with fast and often spectacular results.
Why Fabfilter is Fabulous
It seems the good people at Fabfilter have learned the real lesson from audio history. Real engineers don’t want fancy photo-realistic faceplates and a whole lot of high-handed marketing baloney. They just want stuff that works, and works fast. We no longer live in a world of Bakelite knobs and glowing glass tubes – our world is one of touch screens, of instant visual feedback. The iPad/iPhone paradigm is a good example. Why is it so insanely popular? It’s completely intuitive – You see it, you touch it, you get a result. This is how the GUI on Fabfilter stuff is configured, and it’s one of the big reasons why I love their Pro MB plugin.
What is the Pro MB?
Simply put, the Fabfilter Pro MB is a Multiband Compressor/Expander with the potential to create 6 bands of compression/expansion. BIG DEAL! Nothing new there… True enough. What is new is the way this thing is configured, the feature set that is included, and how incredibly simple and intuitive it is to use. More on that later…
Installation & Authorization
Being the custodian of literally hundreds of plugins, nothing frustrates me more than having to go through a complicated, convoluted install and registration process. No such frustration here: Fabfilter’s website is very clearly laid out. Once purchased, you simply log into your account where you are linked to the download page. There, it’s a matter of choosing your computer platform & downloading.
Download was very fast, and installation was positively light-speed. Authorizing was just a matter of copying and pasting a code issued from the website into the plugin window when the plugin is first launched – so easy and completely painless.
The first thing that struck me when opening the User Interface of the Pro MB was the super-clean, uncluttered, modern layout. All you basically see is a clean spectrum analyser with a prominent yellow line running right across at the 0dB point. Run some audio through it, and you can see a very detailed visual representation of the frequency response.
However, as soon as your mouse hovers over the yellow line, a potential frequency band appears, spanning a default width across the spectrum. Click on the yellow line at any point and your band is inserted. Simultaneously, a floating control panel for the band in question appears, with all the usual compressor controls (ratio, threshold, attack, release) plus some additional goodies are revealed. These include a choice between compression & expansion modes, a variable “knee” setting and a “look-ahead” function. There is also a “Range” function to limit the amount of compression or expansion you wish to take place.
But wait! There’s more! Clicking on the “Expert” tab to the right of the controls reveals further functionality. The first is a mysteriously titled “Band/Free” toggle. Thanks to the incredible “We’ve thought of everything, so you don’t have to (think, that is)” design ethic of Fabfilter, the mysteries of this control were quickly revealed to me by simply hovering my mouse over it. Up in the top right hand corner of the GUI an explanation appeared, telling me that this allowed me to choose whether the gain reduction/expansion could be triggered from either the full range of the selected frequency range (“Band”), or from a completely different side-chain signal . (“Free”) When “Free” is selected, a appropriately coloured line appears across the bottom of the frequency graph, with handles on either end for defining the low & high pass points of the side-chain. Yes, these guys have thought of everything!
Moving on down in the “Expert” tab we have the option to choose the source signal for the side-chain, either internal or external. This is another incredibly useful feature, which I love. Speaking of which, the final control in the “Expert” tab is “Stereo Link”. This is basically a “Mid/Side” control for each band – to quote the manual: “The Stereo Link slider sets the amount of stereo linking for the trigger input signal, and also selects between normal stereo processing or mid-only/side-only processing. The first half of the slider range sets stereo linking from 0% (fully unlinked, channels operate independently) up to 100% (fully linked, resulting in the same gain reduction for both channels). By dragging the slider further, the band will eventually process only the mid-signal (mono content of the processed audio), or only the side-signal (stereo content of the processed audio). Using the small Stereo Link Mode button at the right bottom of the Stereo Link slider, you can toggle between the two.”
Now, keep in mind, these are all the controls that appear as you select each band – so the total number of adjustable parameters is quite mind boggling if you use all 6 bands…which reminds me…
Band(s) On the Run
A Huge part of the usability of the MB Pro is the way the multi-band functionality is implemented. Not only can you choose to use as few bands as you want, you can set up the crossover points just by clicking on the edge of each band & moving it left or right. Because the default algorithm used is neither the phase shifting “minimum phase” or the cpu heavy, pre-ringing “linear phase”, but rather Fabfilter’s unique Dynamic Phase, using very steep slopes at the crossover points is not an issue, and the steepness of the crossover frequency can be intuitively controlled just by clicking on the line at the intersection of two frequency bands. The Dynamic Phase algorithm also means that, where no processing is taking place, no change occurs in the fundamental tone of the audio passing through. In other words, it only does what you tell it to do – nothing more, nothing less.
Controls-wise, there are probably quite a few things I haven’t touched on here, but in practical terms that would probably not be possible or interesting.
“The simple things yah see are all complicated…”
When I first cracked this plugin open, I wrote down my first impressions on using it: To quote – “Super-Intuitive, very visual, a complete problem-solver”. My impressions have not changed one bit since that time. Such is its’ intuitiveness, not once have I even looked at the user’s manual (apart from looking for a quick explanation of the mid-side functionality for the purposes of this article).
The visual aspect of the plugin is HUGE. Seeing a representation of what the controls are actually doing to the audio passing through it in real time means you don’t have to second-guess yourself. As much as a legion of “Ol’ Golden Ears” will pay lip service to that hoary old chestnut – “trusting your ears” – I’d bet my bottom dollar each and every one of them has spent significant quantities of time tweaking the compression or eq on the wrong channel of their console while squinting to hear the “changes”. Here, the yellow line across the center of the graphic display becomes animated once the plugin is working, indicating which areas of the frequency spectrum are being processed… you can see the expansion pulling out all the subsonic junk; you can see where the fundamental frequency of kick is – You can hone right in on those frequencies that define the attack of the snare…. and most importantly, your ears quickly confirm whether you are heading in the right direction or not.
In fact, the Pro MB was so easy to use, I didn’t even once bother searching through the presets – there is certainly an excellent variety available, right from individual sources like drums , bass and guitars through to mastering settings, and even experimental sound-mangling.
Hearing is believing:
To put a twist on a well used phrase, in the audio world, no matter how clever the GUI is, the results are what really matters. With that in mind, I conducted an experiment of sorts. I decided to see how far I could take the Pro MB in a real life mix situation.
I had a fairly basic drum recording from a recent session – Just Kick, Snare, Rack Tom, Floor Tom, Overheads and a room Mic. The recording was live, so you’ll hear a little bleed. The room was small, cramped and very dead-sounding. It was on-site in the band’s rehearsal room, so monitoring was only possible through headphones, and setup time was minimal.
My first instinct was to try to restore some life to the overheads. Here was how they sounded raw:
They just didn’t capture much in the way of transient information. The other issue was that the drummer really slams the ride cymbal in this section, so boosting the attack portion of the drums in the high mids brought with it a whole lot of undesirable “csssshhhh, chssshhh” (for want of a better word).
Processing them through the Pro MB, I managed to use the side chain function to trigger expansion in the around 2.8k only when the kick & snare hit. I also used the mid-side function to ensure that the expansion only took place in the centre, leaving the cymbals on the edges of the stereo spectrum alone. Enabling a fast attack & release meant that I captured only the transient. This meant that I was able to avoid a big wash of unpleasantness from the cymbals getting caught up in my scheme. Here are the overheads solo’d:
The kick & snare both needed the usual brightening & tightening up in the low mids & lows that is typical on most close-miked sources. Here they are raw:
Kick / Snare Unprocessed
This was a breeze to do with the Pro MB – using compression for the bands I wanted to subdue, and expansion for the areas I wanted to emphasize. The results were actually pretty impressive:
Kick Snare Processed
The Toms were a similar story in their raw state:
I applied the same basic approach with Pro MB for the toms as I did with the kick & snare:
The room mic was really just some glue for the kit – in its’ raw state, more of a closet than a room:
With Pro MB, I managed to subdue the cymbals & low-end subsonic rubbish quite effectively using downwards expansion, & bring out some of the “meat” in the snare using upwards expansion. Again, it was very easy to single out the stuff that was good & enhance it because of the visual nature of Pro MB. Not a pretty sound on its’ own, but it works to give some glue and a bit of gritty realism to the kit – here it is:
So, to show the contrast of what I started with, here are the raw tracks combined without any Pro MB processing:
…& here are the “Pro MB-ized” drums:
As I was so easily, quickly and intuitively shaping the kick and snare tones in this little example, it struck me that it might just be possible to do an entire mix using just this plugin… I mean… it compresses, it expands, it equalises, it side-chains and it “mid-sides” to boot – what else do you really need? It is light on CPU and it can be used in both mixing and mastering. About the only trick it doesn’t do is saturation – but there is no shortage of that available these days.
To limit the role of the Pro MB to only a problem-solving plugin really doesn’t do it justice, in my opinion. It is an extremely versatile and has many, many more cards up its’ sleeve.
Considering that multi-band compression has garnered somewhat of a “hands-off” reputation in general, what really captured my imagination was just how incredibly intuitive and easy to use it is. If you know the basics of how to use a compressor and how to use an equalizer, then using the MB Pro will be a walk in the park.
The plugins I keep returning to are the ones that enable me to achieve the sounds I hear in my head without having to wade through complex manuals and subsequently cripple my creative impulses and workflow. This plugin will likely prove to be one of my “goto” plugins in the future. I’m extremely impressed – kudos, Fabfilter!