Effects are basically to spice up your audio tracks to make your mix sound like a real ‘production’ rather than a plain home recording. Effects are available both as hardware and software. To add a hardware effect to a track, you basically place the device in the signal path – like feeding a track aux send to an effects device or signal processor and it modifies the signal in a controlled way and returns it to the mixer where it blends with the original or dry unprocessed signal. A software effect is called a plug-in. Most recording programs include plug-ins - that mimic hardware signal processors with an algorithm that runs in the computer CPU or in a DSP card or interface. Your DAW generally will come with basic plugins. However, you can install additional plugins which will become part of your DAW. You can use plug-ins made by your recording software company or by others. Some manufacturers make plug-in bundles, which are a variety of effects in a single package. Plug-ins are the usual way to create effects in a DAW. Some DAWs let you configure your audio interface to produce an aux-send signal, which you feed to an external hardware processor. What are the essential plug-ins you need for your home studio?
Equalizer is a sophisticated tone control mechanism that can cut or boost certain frequency ranges to make the mix sound better (or even worse). Each instrument or voice produces a wide range of frequencies called its spectrum. The spectrum represents the distinctive tone quality or timber of each instrument or voice. Boosting or cutting certain frequencies in the spectrum changes the tone quality of the recorded audio track. EQ adjusts the low, mid, high of a sound by turning up or down certain frequency ranges - that is, it alters the frequency response.
Equalizers range from simple to complex. The most basic type is a bass and treble control (typically labeled LF EQ and HF EQ). With 3-band EQ you can boost or cut the lows, mids, and highs at fixed frequencies. Sweepable EQ is more flexible because you can “tune in ” the exact frequency range needing adjustment. A Parametric EQ lets you set the frequency, amount of boost/cut, and bandwidth—the range of frequencies affected. Graphical Equalizer will have the capability of graphically displaying the frequency spectrum and the graphical representation of the frequency response setting – usually a line that can be shaped according to your frequency response requirement. EQ is the basic and a must have plugin all DAWs come with some basic EQ plugins.
A compressor can be compared to an automated level or volume control that turns down the level when it is too loud. If the dynamic range of your source audio is too wide, for example your vocalist sings certain portions too soft and certain portions too loud, this creates problem as the soft portions get buried into the mix and loud portions will blast the listener. Compressor is the answer to resolving this issue – it reduces the gain or amplification when the audio source gets too loud and turn the gain up when it is too soft. The louder the input level, the less the gain. Thus, loud notes are made softer, so the dynamic range is reduced. Compression keeps the level of vocals or instruments more constant, so they are easier to hear throughout the mix, and it prevents loud notes that might clip. Compression is used almost always on vocal tracks and it can also make drums sound fatter or to increase the sustain on bass guitar. As many of the professional will agree with me, a good compressor plug-in is an extremely valuable asset for your home recording studio.
A good limiter plugin is an essential in you kit especially if you are tracking a lot of vocals and instruments. Limiter prevents signals peaks from exceeding a specified level. While compressors reduce overall dynamic range, limiter affects only the highest peaks. Many audio interfaces, even the tiny ones, come with build in limiters and compressors in some. Limiters cam be used to prevent overload during recording and clipping. Also, when you master a program of several mixed songs in a DAW, you might use limiting to reduce the level of signal peaks in the program.
Especially when your work is mostly in your home studio which do not have the expensive vocal booth that ensures the quietness you need; noise gate can come in to save you. It reduces the gain when the input level falls below a preset threshold. That is, when an instrument stops playing for a moment, the noise gate drops the volume, which removes any noise and leakage during the pause. This is very useful when you need to cut the buzz, hiss and HVAC hums.
Delay, Echo, Reverb
A digital delay takes an input signal, holds it in memory, then plays it back after a short delay—about 1 msec to 1 second. Delay is the time interval between the input signal and its repetition at the output of the delay device. When delay combined with dry signal, it will be two distinct sound; the signal and its repetition. Delay repetition is called echo. Echoes occur naturally when sound waves travel to a distant room surface, bounce off, and return later to the listener—repeating the original sound. Delay and repeated delay can make several interesting effects.
Reverberation or better known as Reverb is another effect used in almost all vocal and acoustic instruments. This effect adds a sense of room acoustics, ambience, or space to instruments and voices. Natural reverberation in a room is a series of multiple sound reflections that make the original sound persist and gradually die away or decay. Reverb adds sense of place and mood to audio tracks as it can simulate sound of a room, gymnasium, auditorium, concert hall etc.
Especially you are tracking vocal, pitch correction is an inevitable plugin for your home studio. This plugin provides automatic or manual pitch correction of a track by correcting flat or sharp notes (off pitch notes) by changing their pitch to match the musical scale of your choice. Some of the pitch correction plugins can be used to get some nice special effects as well.
Restoration Plugins – De-Click and De-Noise: These plug-ins are meant to remove the clicks and pops from LP records or clicks and pops picked up by your mic, or remove hiss and hum from noisy recordings.
With the above mentioned basic plugin requirements, you will be able to record and produce good sounding mixes. The most important thing to remember is that to get the cleanest possible sound in good level before it gets digitized and sent to the DAW for recording. Your hardware audio chain – microphone, pre-amp / audio interface, more importantly the recording space play the most important role in getting good sounding audio tracks.