If you mix on a DAW you’ve likely dabbled with your plugins’ presets at least once. On one hand presets seem like the ultimate shortcut to great mixes. But in reality we tend to find that not to be the case. In fact, many people rail on presets as a crutch for amateur mixers. So, what’s the truth? Can they be helpful? Is it OK to use them? Let’s take a look…
Presets Can Be Teachable Moments
Plugin presets, by nature, are designed by professionals who made the plugin in the first place. They are a recommendation of settings for certain tasks, genres, or instruments. They aren’t completely arbitrary like some programmer closed his eyes and saved some plugin settings. Rather they are intentionally put in place based off of the opinion of one or more engineers or plugin designers. Why would you pass up on a chance to maybe learn something from these people?
If you are looking for a compresser setting for your acoustic guitar, I say grab your favorite compressor and look for an acoustic guitar preset. Select it, and then take a moment to not only listen but to look at what settings came up. What ratio did they use? What attack and release times did they recommend? You can use this preset as a teachable moment, one in which you are looking or information more than say the perfect setting for your guitar.
Presets Can Be Starting Points
Using that same acoustic guitar compression example, your preset can ultimately be a starting point for your final sound. You grab the preset, learn what ratio and attack/release was suggested, but then you notice that the compressor isn’t even engaging because the threshold was set too high for your actual audio file. This is part of what a programmer or engineer can’t possible know about your mix: how loud your tracks are recorded.
So you dial down the threshold until you’re seeing some gain reduction. You listen and decide whether you like the amount of compression or not. Maybe you dial back the ratio a hair, slow down the attack a bit so more of the guitar strumming comes through and then you’re set! You started with a great preset and quickly tailored it to fit your source material, your mix, and your preferences. Great use of a preset.
You Can Create Your Own Presets
Mixing well is all about focusing on the music and not getting too bogged down with the details. What better way to free yourself while mixing than to create and use your own presets as starting points for future mixes? Whether you start from a blank plugin slate (as it were) or tweak a factory preset, find some settings that you like for your compressors, reverbs, delays, etc. and save them with their own custom name and description.
You’ll know they are a helpful preset because you created them, and then you also know that you don’t have to use them verbatim. Just treat them as a starting point and move on from there!
A Final Word About EQs
I can’t finish this post without mentioning that I honestly believe presets on EQ plugins to be a complete waste of your time. Frequencies that need to be cut (or boosted) vary drastically from track to track, and mix to mix. There is truly no way for an engineer to guess what EQ curves you need for your kick drum or bass guitar. It’s just impossible to know.
Ironically most people struggle with EQ the most so they lean on EQ presets hoping to get that great drum sound or piano sound faster, but this is really hurting your mixing ability. EQ is just one of those things that you only use based off of what you hear in YOUR mix. Things get a bit dicy when you rely on EQ presets, even as starting points. Just my opinion, but I had to mention it.