Every plugin has a downside?

Yesterday I read the article ‘Hard Truths: Every Plugin Has a Downside’ that was published on LANDR.

I asked myself: are these really Hard Truths like the writer Michael Hahn claims?

More harm than good

Michael summarises his point at the beginning of the blogpost:

My hard truth for today? EQ, compression and other types of mix processing can do more harm than good—in fact, using no processing at all often sounds better.

It’s like the old saying I mentioned 2 days ago: “you can’t fix it in the mix.” Which was mostly true back in the day but today I think it is the other way around: in digital we can fix things that was not possible before. With way more precision we are able to fix things. We can do it all in post in my opinion. For example when recording acoustic sounds. We can record as flat as possible, without a compressor and without an EQ. And this is how we can get great guitar tones nowadays: record the straight unaffected sound of your guitar into the DAW and use amp and speaker simulations in post.

Phase shift with EQ

Michael shows us that an EQ introduces phase shift. He does this by showing on video how two channels playing a perfect sine-wave won’t perfectly nullify when the phase is flipped on one channel and a filter/EQ is applied to the channel. Even when the EQ is set to a frequency which is outside of the frequency range of the sine wave.

The video shows us exactly what an EQ should do. Most EQs are phase shifting EQs. There’s an alternative though: Lineair Phase EQ. But that’s not a perfect solution it’s simply another choice which might get the job done in certain situations.

So is an EQ bad because it introduces phase “errors”? I would definitely say no. The problem is the nullify test Michael did. There are a lot of situations where things won’t nullify but still sound exactly the same. Two tracks with a one sample offset won’t nullify but soloed on their own they are exactly the same. Only in combination there is a change. A change which is so small no one on this planet is able to detect it and which should never be a problem. So this nullify test proves us nothing new. Using EQ is a safe and proven method to improve your sound. And not using EQ when the signal sounds dull definitely won’t help the listener.

The solution to all this: use and trust your ears.

Nonlinearities and saturation

In the second part of his blogpost Michael mentions the side effects when using saturation plugins. For example when overtones go over the sample rate threshold and will result in aliasing. These non-harmonic overtones are for many people an issue. I agree, harmonic overtones sound more musical because they are basic multiplications of the peak frequencies. In the same way as the natural overtones which instruments produce.

But I should also mention that aliasing is not always a problem. It can have a ring modulator-like effect. And it’s often considered a nice side effect in situations where people are aiming for the sound of old samplers. And in a lot of situations you won’t mention them. They are buried in the mix and might even add a little bit of Good Tension 🙂

But thanks to anti-aliasing filters and oversampling techniques we can keep these errors out of our signal.

Bottom line, again: trust your ears. And remember that something that might not look good on a spectrum analyser might sound totally cool. Don’t trust your eyes, but trust your ears.

Conclusion

Michael’s advice comes down to this:

The less processing you can do the better. And getting it right at the source rings true no matter what genre of music you make.

I beg to differ. When adding like 8 EQs to one channel no bad voodoo is happening. It won’t sound like you just added a phaser. It won’t make the signal go out of sync. It simply sounds perfectly fine.

It’s a good time to be thankful. For the fantastic plugins that can make our music sound better than ever before. Dig the total control which was not possible years ago. We’re writing history here, we’re innovating sound. We’re innovating music.

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One Response to Every plugin has a downside?

  1. Donald Avera April 8, 2020 at 2:44 pm #

    Does anyone else find it odd that Michael’s article was published on the LANDR website? I mean LANDR: the platform that seems hell bent on destroying the dynamics of any material it touches. The irony certainly wasn’t lost on me.

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