Have you ever heard an instrument in a mix and instantly fallen in love with it? For thousands of producers and engineers, this is part of a constant cycle of inspiration, and often one that leads to seeking out exactly how that mixer got the sound they did.
More often than not, you’ll find a collection of resources from that mixer ranging from sample packs to presets to the coveted signature series plugins from the most elite engineers.
We have a fair share of plugins like that here at JST from Joel Wanasek and Billy Decker both having their own flavor of Bus Glue plugins to the newest vocal mixing plugin from Howard Benson. There are dozens of other artists, producers, and engineers that make their signal chains available in a software format.
In some ways, getting a signature plugin is as much validation in this industry as winning a GRAMMY. It’s proof to your peers that not only are you capable of getting the sounds you want, but you’ve done it so consistently that you’ve been able to replicate your process in a single, concise plugin.
But how do mixers go about getting their signature plugin? After all, it’s not like a band getting signed to a label. What steps do they have to take?
Well for some, it’s the result of just being at the top of their game. Companies are looking to partner with pros all the time to get them something that’s mutually beneficial, whether it be an endorsement of an existing plugin responsible for their signature sound or a custom plugin when necessary.
For others, it’s to create something that solves a problem and makes their workflow easier. From personal experience, I can confirm that the basis of Gain Reduction was to help cut down on a stack of plugins I was using in every session to get my vocal sound. Now, I can dial in nearly any vocal using just a single plugin.
Using Signature Series Plugins
One of the funniest things I’ve ever heard from a producer is that they refused to use signature plugins because it was “someone else’s sound” not their own. Ask any of the pros with a signature plugin though and they’ll laugh you out of the room. Pros use their competitions plugins all the time when it makes sense in their mixes!
Just check out this example of Joel Wanasek mixing a hard rock band using Howard Benson Vocals:
With Howard being one of the leading mixers in the industry when it comes to this style of hard rock vocals, why would you not use his tools to get the sound you’re after?
Could Joel have gotten a great vocal without Howard’s vocal chain? Probably, but that’s not the point. The point is that Howard’s plugin gave him all of the shortcuts he needed to quickly and easily get the vocal sound he was after.
It’s all about picking the right tool for the job, not the name on it.
Same Problems, Different Solutions
The other major reason producers and mixers will use signature plugins from other audio professionals has less to do with getting a piece of their sound and everything to do with looking at common problems in a new light.
With signature plugins, you’re often not working with the same basic controls of a traditional processor. Instead of ratio, threshold & release on a signature vocal compressor, you might have controls over breath, body & sibilance. It’s doing the same thing as the classic compressor, but in a slightly different way.
These signature controls make mixing more accessible for many, but for the pros it’s a way to get outside of their own head. Rather than thinking that a guitar sounds too bright or harsh, they’re forced to approach the problem using the descriptive controls as labeled by another mixer. These descriptive controls then translate into adjustments that one mixer might not make, but the other would.
You get the best of both worlds – your ears making the decisions on what sounds right and the mixer with the signature plugin making the calls on how the processor acts on the sound.
Pretty cool, huh?
Call The Shots
Making mix decisions starts out as a trial and error process, grows into educated guesses, and ends up like a science for many mixers over the course of their careers. As your experiences grow, you start to see patterns in how you set up your signal chains and stack different processors.
Get a behind-the-curtain look at some of the best plugin stacks and processing tricks I’ve learned over the course of my career with Virtual Signal Chain Secrets – an exclusive guide made for the JST community.