Picture 1.pngHere’s a question I hear a lot: Should I record with effects?

In other words, Is it wrong to use plug-ins while I’m recording, or should they only be used for mixing?

My initial answer to this is probably a phrase you should know by heart (and it’s something Slau emphasized in his interview on microphones for Home Recording Tactics): There are no rules.

Before you smack yourself in the forehead and close this window because you’ve heard that WAY too much here on HSC, I promise I’ll share some practical advice, too.The thing is…people really do want a set of rules, a step-by-step guide to getting great recordings every single time. And that simply doesn’t exist. Sometimes breaking the “rules” is the exact thing you should do.

The First Thing You Should Know

When you place a plug-in on a track inside your DAW, you should know that this only affects what you hear. It doesn’t actually change the recorded audio file.

In other words, if you place a bunch of plug-ins on the track WHILE recording, those effects aren’t going to be recorded. The audio gets recorded without any effects, then that recorded signal passes through the plug-ins on the track.

This is important to know, because no matter how badly you mangle the sound with plug-ins during a tracking session, you can always revert back to the original audio signal after-the-fact.

The Good

Putting plug-ins on the tracks while recording can be beneficial. If you’re tracking drums, for example, it might be nice to have your EQ and compression set up already. An engineer friend of mine here in Nashville actually does this. He’ll set up EQ, compression, etc. on his drum tracks, so they’ll sound more “mixed” when the producer comes by to hear how things are going.

This lets you be aggressive and creative without irreversibly harming the audio.

Also, I almost always use reverb when recording (especially vocals). It’s very unnerving as a singer to sing without ANY sort of reverb. I’ll usually use something fairy over-the-top for tracking, then dial it back during mixing.

The Bad

I rarely use EQ or compressor plug-ins while tracking. Why? Because it prevents me from hearing what the ACTUAL recorded audio sounds like. If I’m using an EQ to reduce low-mid boomy-ness on a track, would it be better to go back and adjust the mic placement BEFORE recording? Probably.

There are no right or wrong answers, but hopefully you can see how plug-ins CAN be very useful during recording…or you may decide it’s not for you.

Thoughts? Leave a comment below.

9 Responses to “Should I record with effects?”

  1. Loaf

    Question asked and answered!!! Ha!! Cheers!!
    Pray tell.. you put your finger on that particular pulse immediately so.. why do i hate the concept touch screens and laptops etc!! Does my inability to create quickly make me hide behind a digital hatred lie!!! Christ.. my creative process has been shot to bits!!!! ..i can construct beautiful little inter woven things from.. my old chrome cassette fostex relic for 1, but give me a laptop with cubase.. and after 15mins of waiting and clicking before i can even record a brainfart, any and creative fluidity is lost.. my enjoyable pass time is ****** …christ i just wanna kick the dog!!!

  2. J Harrison

    No! I’ve sung for decades, and if I were to record “dry” I would get as far as one song and put away my headphones! If the joy of singing is the equivalent to “good sex,” then singing “dry” is…I think you know what I mean.

    Have been trying to find decent Youtube and other videos and instruction on recording VOCALS with effects, and surprisingly, there is very little information. It appears that people just record their voices (and you hear it differently – perhaps even more enhanced – then the outside world or a recording device would) and apply the effects afterward. I do that with compression, noise reduction and normalization. However, if you really sing, and you KNOW your voice – you know how you sound, and how you want to feel. It IS similar to a person that knows his or her own body and what feels good to it!

    How many people have been discouraged from singing, despite being told they have a good voice – because of what comes back after a totally dry mix?

    • Joe Gilder

      You make a good point. But generally speaking a good singer should sound good with or without effects. Sometimes effects are used to hide a bad vocal.

  3. Endpoint Sound Design

    It always good practice I think to track with eq and a bit of compression (applied carefully). Theres nothing worse than recording something perfect only to realize the pre-processing you’ve used has screwed everything.

  4. Letzter Geist

    i almost always track drums with EQ and compression plug-ins, something light and mostly universal for my playing, so when i play back the part it will sound somewhat ‘mixed.’ (though i always mute the tom tracks during play back until i cut out between the fills. they pick up way to much cymbal.)

    however, when i’m actually tracking, i don’t hear my drums with the processing. my computer simply can not handle it and latency is a big issue. i do zero latency monitoring direct from my interface (tascam us1641) while tracking anything. this is fine most of the time, but as joe said, getting some verb on the vox while tracking would be great. maybe a reverb unit on the direct out could just that. so i hear what i want, but no reverb gets recorded 🙂

    great post joe.

  5. Robert Weber

    Hey, Joe, good article as far as it goes, but when I think of recording with effects, I’m thinking of outboard effects on the way into the DAW. These will get printed irrevocably in the audio.

    The main reason most people probably don’t track with plug-in effects is exactly what Vinnie said – you end up with a flamming or even flanging sound between what you are hearing acoustically in the room, and what’s coming in through your monitors.

    Even as a keyboard player I find this latency unaccetable – I unconciously shift my playing forward until I’m hearing it in time with the other tracks, and then when I play it back the track is early.

    Keep up the good work, Joe, and Merry Christmas to you and your new baby!

  6. Vinnie

    I like using a little reverb if I’m singing, otherwise I try not to track with plugins.

    The main reason why? Latency. You can get it pretty low these days, but it depends on the plugin you’re tracking through. I believe the main appeal of PTHD is being able to track with plugins at near zero latency due to the DSP.


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