The Order of Things: Audio Plug-ins

Joe Albano investigates the chicken or egg situation for music producers... which effects should go first in your plug-in chain? Compressor or EQ, reverb or delay?  

One of the most frequent questions from those new to mixing and audio processing is “what’s the right order for plug-in processors?” Well, there’s no absolute right or wrong order, but since the order of processors does make a difference there are general guidelines which it would be good to follow.

Top to Bottom

Generally, plug-ins that work better with an unprocessed signal should be first in the (top-to-bottom) chain in the Insert section of a DAW channel strip. Also plug-ins that may correct for a basic flaw in a recording should be up at the top of the order. And Dynamics plug-ins are often inserted ahead of plug-ins that might change the overall signal level significantly.

A common order for the most basic processors might be

Dynamics (Gate) -> Dynamics (Compression) -> EQ -> Delay FX (i.e. echo) -> Reverb

Fig 1

A variation might have a Filter/EQ ahead of the first Dynamics plug-in, specifically if that Filter is there to eliminate subsonics—like a highpass (lo-cut) filter that removes rumble or footfalls from a microphone recording (such as a vocal or acoustic guitar). Since subsonics can interfere with the operation of dynamics processors that apply gain change above or below a level threshold, eliminating them first may allow for better results from Compressors and Gates.

Clean-up First

If there’s background sound in a track, like leakage in a mic, a Dynamics processor—an Expander or Noise Gate—might be applied to remove it. An Expander with less extreme settings might be employed to reduce (rather than remove) in-between sounds like breaths in a vocal part. In either case, getting good clean results from the Expander/Gate depends on the user finding a threshold setting between the louder-level main signal for that track, and the lower-level undesirable background sound.

Since a Compressor reduces dynamic range, bringing the louder and quieter parts of the audio closer together, having a Compressor precede an Expander/Gate would to make it harder find an effective threshold to differentiate between the louder and softer parts of the audio—you’d want to run the Expander/Gate before any compression is applied. So the common order for Dynamics processors would be Expander/Gate followed by Compressor.

The Chicken or the Egg

When it comes to the two most common types of processing people always wonder which should come first—EQ or Compression. While there’s no hard and fast rule, conventional wisdom often recommends putting the Compressor first, followed by the EQ. The logic behind this is based on the fact that compression settings are dependent on a Threshold setting, which determines the level at which gain reduction kicks in. If EQ settings—larger boosts or cuts—change the overall level of a signal enough, the response of a compression effect already dialed up may be altered unintentionally. This is generally good advice, especially for newbies.

Of course there are situations when that order might not be the best approach. If you’re using an EQ to make corrective adjustments rather than creative (mix-based) tweaks, and if those are likely to be set-and-forget  adjustments which are not touched after they’re set, then it might be better to have the EQ precede the Compressor, so the compression settings will factor in the EQ. Often in Mastering EQ might be inserted ahead of compression—EQ tweaks in Mastering are typically very small (often only a dB or so) and would be less likely to mess up any compression settings.

Fig 2

And it’s not uncommon to have more than one EQ and/or compressor on the same track. There might be a a corrective EQ ahead of a compressor and then another EQ following it for creative mix-based tonal tweaks. Or an EQ that follows a compressor might be used for some dramatic tonal changes (boosts) and another compressor following it could be set to operate more as a limiter to tame any potential overloads at peaky frequencies. The specific scenario will be the ultimate guide.

Delay FX

Delay-based FX include short-delay effects like chorus and flanging, plus doubling, as well as longer-delay effects like echo. When used inline (within a track) delay effects might placed earlier or later in the chain, depending on the application. An echo effect would usually be placed after other plug-ins. Short-delay FX could go either way..

Doubling—like from a mono in / stereo out delay plug-in—could be created by inserting the plug-in at the end of the chain on a mono track, to stereoize and spread out the already-processed audio. However, some DAWs include plug-in processors that can apply different settings to the left and right sides of a stereo signal (multi-mono in Pro Tools or Dual Mono in Logic). In that case a doubling plug-in that stereoizes a mono track could be inserted near the top of the chain, and the left and right sides processed differently—an example might be creating a wide-panned doubled guitar from a mono track and using different amp models on the left and right, for greater differentiation between the two “parts”.

Short-delay effects could also go either way. Typically a chorus might be inserted near the end of the chain, to add some extra richness to a sound that’s already been EQ’d and compressed. But if the effect is meant be part of the main signal—like if a mic had picked up a guitar amp signal that included a flanger, phaser, or chorus pedal—then it would make send to treat that effect as part of the main signal and insert the plug-in up at the top.

Reverb is normally set up as parallel processing in a separate Aux track as part of a Send & Return hookup, but if one is used inline, it would normally go last.

Specialty Processing

In the case of specialty processing, the order would depend on the effect, following the basic guideline about processing that needs a clean dry signal to work properly. So a pitch-correction plug-in should be inserted first in the chain, where it could analyze and work on an un-processed version of the signal.

Fig 3

Other effects—distortion, etc—could be positioned wherever they make the most sense.

For newly-minted mixers/producers following the conventional wisdom regarding plug-in order at first is a good idea—the more you mix the more you’ll get a sense of what the best order may be in each particular situation.

Take your sound and music production skills to the next level in the Ask.Audio Academy. You might be interested in Joe Albano's Audio Concepts series here and the Common Audio Mistakes to Avoid series here.

Joe is a musician, engineer, and producer in NYC. Over the years, as a small studio operator and freelance engineer, he's made recordings of all types from music & album production to v/o & post. He's also taught all aspects of recording and music technology at several NY audio schools, and has been writing articles for Recording magaz... Read More


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