In an earlier series, I wrote about the power of gain staging to structure your mix and shape your sound. I wanted to touch on that again and lay out a plugin chain that recreates an analog workflow. In short, it looks like this:
You can use any of your favorite plugins for this, but below I’ll go through the ones I like and how I’m using them to shape the mix. (Note that I'm using this chain on each individual channel as well as the master bus.)
Clipper // TDR Limiter 6 ($60)
DAWs work in 32-bit floating point resolution, which means they’ll let you get away with murder as far as gain-staging goes. Placing a clipper first in the chain simulates how analog gear responds to peaks; come in too hot and it shaves them right off.
Keep in mind that if you’re gain-staging properly, you should only be clipping off a peak or two across the whole song; this is just a safety to catch the big spikes. Vocals and sustained instruments shouldn’t be anywhere close to clipping; as such, I only use this on percussive tracks such as drums & slapped bass.
Limiter 6 is an incredible plugin, and a full-fledged mastering tool in its own right. Here, I’m just using one of its modules to clip off incoming peaks. You can tune it to focus on LF & HF content, and you can set a soft or a hard knee as desired; I usually set it to a -6dB threshold with a 2db knee.
VU Meter // Klanghelm VUMT ($25)
A VU (or PPM) meter is the next step in the path. It has zero impact on the audio, but it’s a powerful tool to gain-stage your mix via the clip gain (before it hits any plugins). I wrote pretty extensively on using meters to gain-stage vocals & drums, so you can check out those posts for more. Here, I’ll just say that VUMT is an incredible plugin, and it should be in everyone’s DAW.
Tape Machine // U-He Satin ($130)
Tape, glorious tape! For all that’s been said in praise of the stuff, if you're gain-staging correctly it’s pretty subtle on individual tracks; this is an element that begins to show its character once it’s stacked across the mix. Depending on the tape & speed, it can add low end, enhance the highs, roll off the air, and add some gentle saturation & mix glue.
There’s no lack of tape emulations on the market right now; Waves, Slate and CDS are all great options. But I wanted DSP (not convolution), and I love how Satin lets you get under the hood; you can tweak every possible setting while viewing the sonic impact on the analyzer. It’s also got the incredibly useful feature of groups; you can create one machine for your master, one for your drum tracks, one for your instrument tracks, and change them all with one knob. It’s a powerful tool for hearing how your changes impact several tracks at once.
Console // Klanghelm SDRR ($25)
The clipper recreates the headroom of a console, and the meters recreate the visuals; in this stage, we’re recreating the tone. Vintage consoles add some subtle distortion to the mix as audio passes through their transformers & amps; like tape it’s hard to notice on a per-track basis, but it adds up across the mix.
There aren’t a lot of plugins that can do convincing saturation; SDRR is one of the few pieces of software that’s gotten high praise from the analog crowd. And it’s much more than just a console emulator; it has several other modes that can create some pretty drastic distortion effects. But for this use, I’m putting it in desk mode and leaving the drive control very low (1-2) with drift at 100% to add just the slightest touch of warmth. If a track needs heavier saturation down the road, I may come back to this stage and crank up the drive for effect; for now, we’re keeping it subtle.
From there you can add your EQ, compressor, and effects and begin mixing as usual. Whenever I’m looking for an analog vibe, I set up this chain on all my tracks before I start any mixing (that way I’m not compensating for any changes in tone down the line). And there you have it; a plugin chain that recreates the analog signal flow and adds some subtle warmth & saturation across the entire mix.