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!

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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.

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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!

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