This tip seems rather obvious. But it’s really amazing how our perceptions can be influenced by what we see. A number of years ago I was working in Oceanway LA Studio One. This is one of the legendary studios in the world, designed by the legendary Bill Putman.
Oceanway had one of the greatest mic collections on the planet, and one of the first Focusrite Consoles in the U.S. I was recording some of the best musicians in the city and believe me, if you couldn’t get at least decent sounds in such a circumstance you had real problems!
That day I brought a number of outboard mic preamps which were sitting alongside the console. Now I certainly didn’t need them. The console’s mic preamps were fantastic. But I was considering purchasing some, so I was giving them a test to see how they fared against Rupert’s latest creation.
The band played down a take and things were sounding pretty good. Although most of the mics were going through the Focusrite, a few were going through the gear I brought in. On first playback the guys came in and noticed the large pile of mic preamps. “What is all that?” the drummer asked. I told him what they were and why they were there. As the playback began the drummer looked at the mic preamps, up to the speakers, back and forth a few times. He nodded in approval and said, “YEAH! Sounds great!” Now this was a very famous and seasoned studio musician who worked with some of the greatest artists and engineers in the world. Frankly I was surprised at what I saw him doing. Clearly a large part of his impression was not what he heard, but what he saw. Back in those days the large racks of outboard gear were a bit of a rarity so it was rather impressive seeing that extra stuff piled in the room. I got many kudos that day and some more gigs. So from then on I always brought as much extra gear as I could! And yeah, I kept my mouth shut when the drummer gave the compliment. If he thought I was especially brilliant for bringing that gear in, who am I to say he was wrong?
Fast forward to the DAW age. A plugin creator can make a plugin GUI look any way he or she chooses. No longer are we bound to physical knobs, transformers and the like which caused certain gear to have been made the shape and size it was. A GUI is only made for the movements of a mouse. So as plugins began to be created, I found it interesting to see what plugin designers chose to do.
George Massenburg made one of the best GUI for an equalizer in my opinion. It really makes much more sense than a recreation of a physical knobs. It’s clean, simple, and easy to use. Just push up or pull down. Nothing sexy with that. And while not visually beautiful, it does the job very well. Colin McDowell at MdDSP did a very similar thing. Again, not sexy, but works great.
Many other plugin designers however have chosen vintage looks, especially when attempting to replicate a vintage piece of gear. I don’t fault them for that, except when the controls don’t work well and a game of cat and mouse begins in the attempt to get the knob where one wants it to be. But the key thing to remember is that the look of the plugin has nothing to do with how it sounds.
I dare say that Waves or UA had some hacker at their company swap the GUI of their Pultec emulator with an SSL, most users would not hear the difference. They’d be mixing away, convinced a great classic Pultec emulation was being applied, even though it was emulating an SSL. Which sounds NOTHING like a Pultec!
So of course what I’m getting at is we, duh...have to always listen with our ears and not our eyes. Most of us won’t have a hardware Pultec, Fairchild, or whatever lying around with which to make a comparison to the plugin. And while it’s interesting to make those comparisons, the point is which one is right? Maybe you’d pick the hardware...but maybe not. What matters is listening and hearing if the plugin you’ve selected sounds right for the mix. It always comes back to using your ears and no matter what the plugin is or how it looks. Does it do what you need? This is why blind listening tests are the best way to make evaluations. My earlier post, “Perception is Not Reality” talks about this.
Critical listening is an art and something one gets at better with practice. Even when I’m in a analog mix room and think, “I need that vintage 1176 on this.” I still have to listen carefully and see if indeed what I thought it needed was right. Sometimes a plain-jane console compressor is the better choice. After the mix is done, no one will know what I used, nor will they care. They want to be moved emotionally by the mix and that’s all that really matters.