Producers and engineers are constantly trying to come up with something new when mixing their latest creation. To that end, they invest in plug-in and hardware effects for DAWs, and work them to death until they fall out of fashion or become so commonplace that they no longer distinguish their users' music from anyone else's. Where can you find exciting effects that haven't been worn thin? More important, how much will they cost? The answer may be lurking in your applications folder, ready to help your DAW create new effects combinations.
Running audio programs simultaneously is easy with ReWire, the code developed by Propellerhead Software. ReWire allows your host program to connect to slave applications that run in tandem with the host. The host project's tempo is synchronized to the slave's, while audio from the slave is routed back to the host. Because of ReWire, for example, Propellerhead Reason and Ableton Live integrate seamlessly with Digidesign Pro Tools, Apple Logic, MOTU Digital Performer, and other digital audio sequencers. Most musicians use the slave applications as composition tools, creating content with the programs' loop-playing capabilities and virtual-synth engines. In addition, the apps can function as powerful effects tools during mixing. You simply export audio into the slave program, process it with the slave program's tools, and route the output back to the host program. Here is a step-by-step guide to unlocking the effects in Live for your mixes.
FIG. 1: Here an Ableton Live plug‑in has been inserted into a stereo aux channel in a project assembled in Digidesign Pro Tools.
To run a ReWire application, first launch your host application, and then route the audio from Live back into your host program. In Pro Tools, a Live plug-in can be inserted into a stereo aux channel (see Fig. 1). For details on how your sequencer interfaces with Live, check the Ableton Web site (www.ableton.com). When the Pro Tools session is set up, launch Live, which will run as a slave. The transport controls on either program will start and stop both sequencers. Because Live plays back audio as “clip” files, anything in your mix that you want processed in Live will have to be exported from your main application as an audio file. Depending on what audio application you have, you may be able to simply select, say, four bars of a simple loop for export. Or you may need to create a longer audio file by selecting multiple regions from different tracks and mixing the selections down to a single audio file using your sequencer's Bounce To Disk function. Certain sounds, such as drum loops, strings, and vocals, are always prime candidates for treating with effects, but sometimes it's useful to export combinations of instruments, like guitars with keys, percussion families, or even entire mixes.
FIG. 2: Built-in effects and virtual instruments in Live can be applied to imported audio and auditioned while running in sync with Pro Tools.
After exporting the audio, import it into Live and drop it onto a track in the Arrangement window. The bar numbers in the Arrangement window correspond with the bars in the host software, so place the audio where it occurred in the original program. In Live, double-clicking on the track's name opens the Device window at the bottom of the Arrange page. This is a drag-and-drop insert point for the various effects that are available in the Live Device browser. Access the browser by clicking on the folder icon in the upper left corner to display a list of Live's built-in effects and virtual instruments (see Fig. 2).
While the mix is running in your sequencer, you can drag any effect from the browser and drop it in-line on the audio channel that's playing your exported sounds. Most of these effects have clear graphical interfaces, and you can adjust all their parameters by dragging them with the mouse.
You can also easily reorder plug-ins by dragging them to new positions. Does the bit reducer sound better placed before or after the tempo delay? Audition it on the fly. The great thing is that you can record all these tweaks into Live as automation events in real time while you're reacting to the mix as it plays in your DAW.
If you're more of a fader jockey than a “mouseketeer,” you'll like that any parameter in Live can be assigned to a MIDI controller using the program's MIDI Map mode, and accessed by clicking on the MIDI switch in the upper-right control bar. Any parameter that can be assigned is now highlighted. Just click on the control you want to automate, and then send a MIDI message from your controller by touching the appropriate knob or switch to direct that control input to the parameter. You can completely customize your control interface to “play” the effects musically as the mix progresses. You can use your computer's keyboard, a MIDI input controller, or a MIDI synth like Novation X-Station or Access Virus. In fact, a cottage industry of Live-specific controllers has sprung up, featuring multiple units from Faderfox (www.faderfox.com) and M-Audio (www.m-audio.com).
Using the effects in Reason is somewhat easier, because Reason doesn't deal specifically with audio playback. For externally created audio to play through Reason, you must load the audio into a Reason sampler, and then trigger the playback with MIDI notes. Since ReWire also routes MIDI information from the host to the slave, these triggers are easily inserted at the appropriate point in the host sequencer. As with any sampler, it's easier to chop the audio into smaller pieces and use multiple triggers than to trigger a long sample that has to be retriggered from the beginning each time you stop playback. Like Live, Reason can route effects in-line, or as sends and returns on its mixer. Reordering the effects, however, is not simply a drag-and-drop move, but rather is accomplished by tabbing to the back of the rack and reconnecting the patch cords. Parameter changes can be fully automated in the Reason sequencer. When you're satisfied with the effects settings, simply route the aux channel carrying the slave program to a new audio track and rerecord the processed audio back into the digital audio sequencer.
You can use other software (without ReWire) to serve as an effects unit. If you own Arturia's Minimoog V soft synth, try inserting it into a drum-loop audio track and choosing the External Input preset. Turn the oscillators down and the external volume up, and hold down any key to trigger the VCA gate (see Fig. 3). The drum loop will be playing through the Moog and can be filtered with the excellent emulated Moog filters or treated with the onboard chorus and delay plug-ins that you can access from the rear panel. It's like having the Moog chorus, delay, and filter plug-ins all at one insert point. One caveat: you may have to rerecord audio that has been processed this way back into the host, because the Minimoog V consumes a lot of CPU cycles, and this method may not work in real time on older computers.
FIG. 3: Arturia''s Minimoog V soft synth is inserted into an audio channel with the synth''s External Input preset selected.
You can also use wrappers to access plug-ins that haven't been designed for your platform. FXpansion (www.fxpansion.com) manufactures wrappers that make VST plug-ins work with DAWs that support RTAS and AU. The wealth of VST plug-ins and virtual instruments available on the Web (many of which are free) makes this a cool option for non-VST apps. One favorite of mine is the Korg Legacy bundle, which gives you four virtual-synth instruments and two effects units derived from Korg's vintage hardware units. These plug-ins function as a multi-effects unit with lots of algorithms and plenty of usable presets. Apple also ports its great Logic plug-ins to TDM with the Epic TDM bundle, giving Logic users with TDM hardware access to the native effects that other Logic users enjoy.
Everyone wants to avoid the same old everyday plug-ins they've used for years. Don't forget to look at programs you already own for new options. The coolest effect may be right in your own backyard, tucked into an unexplored corner of your hard drive.
David Darlington was the composer for the HBO series Oz and is a Grammy winner for engineering on Wayne Shorter's Alegria.