Will Modern Plugins Change The Way We Mix Music?

Over the last several decades, the tools available for mixing audio have evolved… And when the tools evolve, our skills and strategy must evolve too.

This post is brought to you by Oeksound, a plugin company that has played a significant role in this evolution over recent years. They just released a new plugin called Bloom – more on that in a moment…

The Evolution of Digital Signal Processing

First, let’s look at a couple of key plugin developments that have changed the way we mix.

In the early days of digital, there was a stark difference between the almost sterile perfection of digital signal processing (or DSP) and the vibey analog gear that preceded it.

As DSP improved and mixing in the box became more popular, the plugins available started to break into two basic categories – plugins that embraced the technical perfections of DSP and plugins that emulated the technical imperfections of analog gear. You may ask – “Why would we want to emulate imperfections?”.

There’s a beautiful simplicity to using analog gear because it does so much more to the sound than you tell it to, thanks to the fact that it utilizes real electronic components that are non-linear and often exhibit very pleasing harmonic distortion.

On the other hand, while you can make much more precise adjustments with DSP, a standard digital EQ or compressor won’t do you any favors… They do what you tell them to do – no more, no less.

But over the last decade, we’ve started to see some plugins that harness the power and precision of DSP in a new way. Rather than relying on the user to make every single technical adjustment themselves, new plugins like Oeksound Bloom provide a much quicker and much more intuitive route to reaching a desired sound.

Oeksound’s New Plugin: Bloom

Oeksound gave me early access to the beta version of their new plugin Bloom which I’ve been testing for the last few months and I’m excited to share it with you.

You may recognize Oeksound from their previously released plugins Soothe2 and Spiff, which have been praised by many engineers working at the highest levels in our industry – so there’s no need to take my word for it. This stuff is incredible.

To start using Oeksound Bloom in your DAW today with a free trial, go here: Oeksound Bloom (Free Trial)

As a student and teacher of audio production, I think it’s critical that we understand this new wave of plugins as best as we can, and particularly what it means for the way we mix audio…

As a general mixing framework, I would first reach for an EQ to cut out problematic frequencies and clean up the frequency balance of each instrument, then use a compressor to define the dynamic character of each instrument, and finish off with some additive EQ and/or more colorful compression to accentuate a particular frequency range and blend each instrument into a cohesive mix. There’s more than one way to mix, but this is the way I learned to do it.

I think this general process is still a good framework for approaching a mix, but the way we accomplish this may begin to evolve once we have access to smarter plugins.

Let’s dive into the DAW… 

Here is a synth pad sound that’s already been rendered to an audio track, which means I can no longer adjust the synth controls and I’ll need to use plugins to fit this sound into a mix. 

Example #1: Synth Pad

I could use subtractive EQ to cut in the low-mids and clean up some of the mud.

Synth Pad with Subtractive EQ

But as you can hear, there is a big problem with what I’ve done here: The low-mid cut only fixes the resonance in the first chord. In order to correct for each chord, I’d have to use a wider Q, multiple filters, or automation. 

The ideal solution might be EQ or dynamics processing that is automated to adjust with each chord (and adjust throughout the envelope of each chord).

I don’t know that my simple human brain is even capable of setting up such a complex signal chain, with dozens of automated bands of EQ and compression. And even if it is capable, it would take me hours or days to perfect. If you’re anything like me, MORE time tweaking a mix is the last thing you want. 

But let’s use Oeksound Soothe2 with a similar intention in mind.

I’ll tell Soothe2 to be particularly sensitive within this area. And as you can see (and hear), it will dynamically change with each chord. 

Synth Pad with Soothe2

Bloom by itself can have a similar effect by simply adjusting the “Amount” knob. Doing this immediately brings a level of clarity to this signal that would have probably taken a human a lot of experimentation to accomplish with standard tools. If I want to deviate from Bloom’s tone-shaping curve, I can move these sliders. 

Synth Pad with Bloom

While it’s often easy to understand new EQ or compressor plugins in my videos, these types of plugins are much more difficult to pinpoint and understand… I see and hear what each plugin does, but… What ARE they?

Oeksound Soothe2 is a dynamic resonance suppressor and Bloom is an adaptive tone shaper. The keywords here are “dynamic” and “adaptive”. 

Soothe2 seems to behave like a multiband compressor with A LOT of bands that automatically seek and destroy resonant frequencies when they pop up. 

Bloom is adaptive and context-aware, which means it responds differently to different input signals based on the perceived tonal balance. While a regular digital EQ will apply a static curve to the input signal, Bloom continuously adapts to the incoming audio to make it sound more balanced. 

How exactly does it do this – I have no idea. With a plugin like Bloom or Soothe2, it’s best to just experiment and listen. So let’s look at another example…

Example #2: Lead Vocal & Acoustic Guitar

Here’s an example with an acoustic guitar and a vocal. We can start by playing the raw tracks back, listening to how the two tracks interact…

Raw Vocal & Acoustic Guitar

Using these adaptive plugins, let’s go through that basic mixing workflow: Clean-Up, Balance, & Enhancement

I’m hearing a lack of clarity in the low-mids of the guitar, which can be addressed with Soothe2. I’ll tell the plugin to focus on the areas that seem to lack clarity.

Vocal & Acoustic Guitar with Soothe2

This vocal recording doesn’t have that big build-up in the low-mids (though that’s a common problem we could address with Soothe2). 

It does sound a bit boxy though, so I’ve decided to focus in on the area between 500 and 1K. But I’ll pull down the sensitivity in the high-mids and highs to preserve what we’ve already got up there.

Vocal & Acoustic Guitar with Soothe2

Both tracks could use some dynamics control, so I’ll use a compressor on the guitar to control the transients and a compressor on the vocal to balance out the performance. That should result in a better balance with a more up-front vocal…

Vocal & Acoustic Guitar with Soothe2 + Compression

The balance is better, but I’d still like to adjust the frequency balance of each instrument so the listener’s ear is drawn toward the vocal. To accomplish that, I’ll use Bloom to pull the guitar back a bit to accentuate the presence of the vocal. 

Vocal & Acoustic Guitar – Soothe2 + Compression + Bloom

Again, I urge you to download the free trials and experiment with these plugins on your own projects because it’s more difficult to explain how these things work than it is to feel how they work. 

Bloom in particular reminds me of using analog gear. Analog gear can bring richness to a sound by exciting harmonics. And even though Bloom doesn’t excite harmonics, it accomplishes a similar goal with its adaptive tone-shaping algorithm. 

Overall, I’ve noticed that these more modern plugins seem to do what you want them to do rather than simply doing what you tell them to do. You’ll know what I mean once you try them out. 

Example #3: Drums

Next, let’s look at some drum tracks…

One thing that immediately stood out to me in this set of tracks is the ringing of the snare drum. 

Raw Snare Drum

I’ll use a stock EQ to notch out the most prominent frequency that’s ringing because that is relatively easy to find and doesn’t change. But you can still hear some resonance even after doing that…

Snare with Notch Filter

In this case, you could either hunt for those additional frequencies with additional EQ bands or open up Soothe2…

Snare with Notch Filter + Soothe2
Over here on the kick, I’ve used Bloom to bring out more low end and snap. 
Finally, I’ve put another instance of Soothe2 on the overheads to further clarify the kit as a whole. 

This is a critical thing to understand about this type of plugin – it does a lot of the heavy lifting and problem-solving for you. I think there is still a place for traditional EQ, dynamic EQ, compression, and multiband compression. But it’s definitely more fun and less technical to mix with plugins like these that seem to already know the sound you have in your head. But, the controls are there for those who want to fine-tune.

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