Plug-In Chains – What Order Should They Be In?

One of the more common mistakes made by novice producers is to assume that the order in which you use effects and plug-ins on a sound has no major effect. If you're cutting a frequency out of a track, does it matter whether you do it at the start or the end of your plug-in chain? It certainly does – it can make a dramatic difference, in fact. So this week we're going to take a look at how you should think about ordering your plug-ins, why it's important to keep this in mind, and give you a few ideas for useful combinations.

Take The Test

If you're not convinced that the order makes much odds, then try this simple test. Get a sine wave playing some sub-bass tones at around 75Hz or so. Add an EQ with a high-pass at 150Hz. You should be left with silence. Now add a distortion unit after the EQ – the result will, of course, still be silence. But if you reverse the order of the two plug-ins, you'll hear a dramatic change. The distortion unit will add lots of higher-frequency harmonics onto the sine wave. Then the EQ will remove the original frequencies of the signal, but you'll still be left with all that fuzz and distortion. Just swapping the order of two plug-ins has made the difference between complete silence and loud gritty noise. Not all examples will be so dramatic, but it underlines just how much you need to pay attention to such details!

power_drums

The most significant thing here is that you need to consider exactly what each plug-in does, and how it impacts upon your signal, before you start throwing it around. Then you need to remember the next plug-in of the chain is not effecting the output of your synth or sampler, it's working on the output of the plug-in that precedes it. A simple distinction, but an important one!

So lets look at a few examples of specific orders that you might want to use...

EQs, Compression & Delays

We saw in the example above that using EQ before distortion can dramatically change what happens to the signal, and this holds for other effects too. Take compression, for example. If you had a signal with peaks at certain frequencies – a bongo loop for instance, then applying EQ to it could really change the volume. An EQ boost at the frequency of one of the drums will trigger the compressor much harder on that particular drum, which could add harmonics, or depending on the release time, affect the volume of other hits too. An EQ cut would mean that drum hits the compressor much less hard, giving you a more even level.

Compressors can be very useful in controlling other effects too. A compressor after a delay or reverb will squash the signal into a more consistent volume – then by turning up the channel, you'll hear the delayed signal last longer before starts to tail off. You can make a reverb sound bigger and longer in the same way. Use the side-chain inputs on the compressor to make the delay tail duck when important sounds are playing to give yourself some more headroom in the mix.

compressor-types-640x420

If you're working with compressors in series, it's also important to think which order they'll be in. Typically, you would have the first compressor with a fast attack to handle peaks and transients, so that the second can deal with longer and more general volume movements without being bothered by the shorter peaks.

Delays and reverbs are two plug-ins that are hugely sensitive to being moved around the signal chain. Do you want to effect the original signal, or the delayed version? There's plenty of scope for invention here. For instance, putting an auto-pan before a delay will see delay tails starting either left or right, and staying there. Putting one after the delay will move the entire delay tail back and forth. Or a bitcrusher – put one with fairly brutal settings, like 4-bits, after the delay plug, and you'll hear the delayed signal steadily degrade with each repetition.

Getting it Right

The sheer amount of plug-ins available means it's not possible to go into every combination – but with a bit of critical thinking you'll be able to see what the effect of switching around the order of your plugs will be. It could make a big difference to the sound of your channel, and can be crucial when trying to get a mixdown to sound just right. So make sure you're paying attention to this important aspect of mixing and engineering!

Related Articles

  • Deep Inside The World Of Extreme Mixdowns

    Deep Inside The World Of Extreme Mixdowns

    Over the last couple of years, dance music has taken a turn for the harder, nastier sounds. From Drum & Bass to Dubstep and Electro house, 'filth' has become one of the most popular sounds on th

    Read More 2
  • Music Production 101: Phaser & Flanger

    Music Production 101: Phaser & Flanger

    It's time to set your mixes to stun!   The Phaser and Flanger effects are used to produce a range of interesting sounds on anything from guitars to synths to vocals! But what are they and how do th

    Read More 2
  • How To Mix Using Your Headphones

    How To Mix Using Your Headphones

    Have you been getting complaints from the neighbours about blaring your tunes at all hours? Or perhaps you've got a smaller setup where a decent-sized pair of monitors just isn't feasible? Maybe it'

    Read More 2
  • How Long Should It Take To Make A Track?

    How Long Should It Take To Make A Track?

    Do you find it impossible to finish off a track, and spend ages tweaking all the little details? Or perhaps zap through a beat in an afternoon, only to wonder later on if it couldn't use a little more

    Read More 2
  • 10 Ways Of Making The Most Of Your Samples

    10 Ways Of Making The Most Of Your Samples

    So you've just got a new sample pack and you're looking to do some interesting stuff with them.   Here are 10 suggestions to help you make the most out of your samples! 1. Stutter - Cut up your sa

    Read More 2
  • 5 Ways Yo Make Your Song Perfect

    5 Ways Yo Make Your Song Perfect

    Have you ever been in the position where you've got a good tune and you're happy with it, but think it needs that extra something to make it stand out? Well here are 5 tips for turning that good t

    Read More 2
  • Top 5 Tips For Better Mixes

    Top 5 Tips For Better Mixes

    Okay, so you've got your chart-topping single all composed. The synths are catchy, the beats are interesting and the vocals are filled with sexual innuendo - but nothing seems to mesh! Here are so

    Read More 2
  • How Do I Make A Radio Edit?

    How Do I Make A Radio Edit?

    The good old 'Radio Edit' - a lost art, or something that should be left back in the major label days where it belongs? Do you need to do one, and if so, how should you go about it? Let's turn that FM

    Read More 2
  • How To Use Phase, Chorus & Flangers - Modulation Explained

    How To Use Phase, Chorus & Flangers - Modulation Explained

    Some of the most basic effects that come with any modern DAW these days, after the simple tools of EQ and compression, are those that modulate the sound. They're simple in principle, but can be very e

    Read More 2
  • How To Get Louder With Dynamics

    How To Get Louder With Dynamics

    The field of loudness and dynamics processing in music production is an area of vigorous debate. Everyone loves to weigh in on the famous Loudness War, and on production forums the relative merits of

    Read More 2