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June 16, 2014
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I’m always looking for that elusive “magic” quality in my recordings, and wonder if console-emulator plug-ins are perhaps actually useful or just hype. Was there some aspect of older consoles that made for a “special” sound, and if there really is, can software duplicate it?

Three console-emulator plug-ins, from left to right: Slate Digital VCC , Waves NLS , Sonar ProChannel Console Emulator.
Neal Hutchinson Brighton, UK via e-mail

Neal—There is indeed a technical basis for these plug-ins. Older consoles had slight nonlinearities and differences among channels, so with stereo, these differences between the left and right channels imparted a very subtle widening effect to the stereo image. Residual distortion added some “sparkle” due to the overtones that distortion creates. Many older consoles also had audio transformers in the signal path, which added a slight midrange ring and low-frequency distortion that tended to “fatten” the sound.

Although these effects are almost imperceptible on individual channels, they add up when creating a multitrack mix. Most manufacturers recommend using these plug-ins to emulate the actual architecture of a console—insert the plug-ins on every channel prior to mixing, and mix with them active. If you mix without these plug-ins, adding them later will alter your mix and may require some readjustments to compensate. Console emulators aren’t a magic bullet, but they can add an element that audibly enhances a mix, however minimally.

Finally, note that like any processors, these can be abused to good effect. For example, bass overdriving a console emulator that models input transformers can fatten up the low end. Granted, this has nothing to do with emulating a console’s sound accurately—but really, since when did reality matter to modern music production?
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