FIG. 1: This is one of five compressors -connected in series. Each compressor has slow attack, long release, 2 dB of gain reduction, and 3 dB of makeup gain.
You can often use several instances of the same plug-in to achieve realistic-sounding effects. The cumulative result of serial processing with subtle settings or of parallel processing with slight variations can be well worth the added CPU cost. And because you aren't restricted to hardware, the sky's the limit. Here, I'll discuss some examples applicable to tracking, mixing, and mastering.
Chorus units are often used to thicken a solo vocal performance by creating a doubling effect. Chorusing is a delay-based effect and doesn't allow for intonation differences between vocalists. You can achieve results that are more natural sounding by using parallel pitch-correction plug-ins that have differing amounts of detuning and, perhaps, different formant settings (if your plug-in offers that). If you can spare the CPU resources, follow each pitch-correction plug-in with a short, variable delay.
I've illustrated that process in Web Clip 1, giving three versions of the same vocal take. The first version is dry. The second is processed through a typical chorus plug-in. The third routes the vocal track through two auxiliary buses panned hard left and hard right. Pitch-correction plug-ins have been placed on the main bus and on each auxiliary bus. One auxiliary plug-in is set to detune a small negative amount, while the other detunes a small positive amount. In-tune pitch correction is applied to the main vocal. A short delay plug-in has also been inserted on each of the auxiliary buses.
One of my favorite hardware compressors, Really Nice Compressor from FMR Audio (www.fmraudio.com), has a mode called SuperNice that passes the signal through the compression network three times. Each stage adds a small amount of compression, and the overall effect is more transparent than using one stage of heavy compression. That's especially useful on mix buses during mastering.
When using several compression stages with low threshold and ratio settings, no single stage compresses the signal very much. The cumulative effect of the multiple stages achieves a high level of compression while avoiding the pumping and breathing artifacts associated with extreme compression.
Start by inserting a compressor plug-in with long release and slow attack times on your master bus. Adjust the threshold to trigger 2 dB of gain reduction with a ratio of 2:1 and 3 dB of makeup gain. Place a copy of the plug-in in two additional insert slots on the master bus. Each stage of compression is fed a slightly hotter signal, and no single stage is working particularly hard (see Fig. 1 and Web Clip 2).
Some high-end compressors offer a dual-release mode, which has a slower release on long, loud passages but applies a fast release to retain control over quick transients. You can emulate that effect by routing the master audio stream through two auxiliaries placed before the master bus. Insert a compressor in RMS mode with slow attack and long release times on one of the auxiliaries, and insert another compressor in peak mode with quicker attack and release times on the other auxiliary. Mix the outputs of the two auxiliaries to achieve a nice balance between the two forms of compression.
Reverb plug-ins offer another opportunity to go beyond conventional hardware paradigms. Many reverb plug-ins allow you separate access to their early-reflection and reverb-tail stages. Early reflections with no reverb tail provide a useful alternative to panning when you are placing instruments within the mix. You can use the early-reflection settings of different rooms and halls to place instruments in the front-back and left-right dimensions, and you can even adjust the width of the space. Use separate early-reflection plug-ins for individual instruments or subgroups; then send the entire mix to a shared reverb plug-in with its reverb tail on and its early reflections off.
Eli Krantzberg is a drummer, vibraphonist, bandleader, and personal-studio owner in Montreal. Visit his band's Web site atwww.nightshiftorchestra.com.