AMA001: Why print sounds through plugins? Why not just stack up plugins? Why not run it all live into the mix?
No one directly asked me this question, but I came across it a while ago in an interesting blog article by Mauricio Ruiz after he attended a seminar: Craig Henighan on the sound design of Stranger Things
Here is a quote from that article, but it’s worth reading the whole thing.
“Another good insight Craig shared was about his workflow. He prefers not to “stack” plugins, one over the other, but “print” the effects, and then process the sound again, and print again, until he finds the sound he wants. He didn’t state why he prefers to work this way…”
This is also how I have always worked, and I know many other sound designers and sound editors do the same. I am happy to explain why I work this way, but as always these are just my reasons and they may or may not apply to your work.
First is about resource management.
Most established sound designers have taken many years to develop their skills and have also lived through many tech changes. While even free DAWs now ship with a huge collection of plugins, some of us are old enough to remember a time before plugins and for example when Waves first released Q10 and L1, it seemed revolutionary!
During the evolution of computers we have also had to learn to carefully manage resources, and even when using PCI card based DSP, resources were still limited and had to be managed, same as the voice count still has to be managed on large sessions. Making the best use of CPUs, RAM and storage were critical. While we now can take much for granted, the truth is that resources still have to be managed, and as a simple example I have been really enjoying exploring a new resonator plugin I got recently: Moodal by Tritik. But it places heavy demands on my current Mac, such that running three instances in a 24/96kHz design session makes it grind to a hault. Every plugin you stack is consuming resources, and if you haven’t yet bumped your head on that ceiling, then know it exists and that you will, sooner or later.
It is also worth saying, when you take your work to a dub stage for premixes and final mix, they will not want to know about what wacky plugins you used to create the work. They also very likely do not have them installed on their dub stage DAWs, as they have to be 100% reliable. They will expect properly presented audio tracks, which will play correctly every time without fail, and without being dependent on some version of some plugin.
Second is about version control.
Any sound you design will go through evolution. Maybe your first instinct and attempt is perfect and makes it into the final mix. But it may be version 27. Or the director might like the first half of version 1, but the ending of version 22.
It is an essential part of your job, to be able to move seamlessly between versions. But not just versions of your own sounds, also different picture cuts and if there are VFX, different versions of VFX where sync and content may change on a daily basis.
There is no issue with making complex plugin chains to process and create a sound. But can you manage that plugin chain such that you can revisit it exactly as it was when you output version 1? How about version 12? Will you save settings of each plugin and document the order, every time you output a new work-in-progress version for feedback and approval? That seems messy and unreliable.
Depending on the project it may be best to work with seperate small sessions for designing sounds and a master edit session for all your material in reels as you work towards the predub deadlines. Most sound editors work 24bit 48kHz, but maybe you want to create that monster vocal in a seperate 24 bit 96kHz session. So keeping that messy work, with plugins and many VFX versions seperate from your main edit session may be wise, so it does not clog up your main work.
By documenting versions (picture cut, VFX and your own naming system) you can safely work to create and output versions, transferring the results into your main edit session for final placement and context. Creating ‘fixed’ versions of work in progress is crucial to how films get made, for every department. It needs to be a part of your normal workflow.
Third is about creating new source material.
By printing versions you create new media to work with. So that example the director likes (the first half of version 1, with the ending of version 22) is easy to cut together and try, because you are not wrangling multiple plugins with their settings. You can simply grab the audio you printed from version 1 and from version 22, and do a quick edit and try it. Maybe its not perfect, but because you documented your work with versions, you can revisit the sessions that created version1 and version 22, and reprint them with the necessary tweaks (eg maybe version 1 now needs a clean tail, so version 22 can take over)
Every project you work on, you solve new creative problems and gain new skills. For example, I remember the first time I had to design sounds for a timelapse sequence in a film – The Locals in 2002 (which was also my first film collab with Dave Whitehead, fun times!!) The ideas I pursued and developed for those sequences become part of my own techniques, but so does all of the sounds I created for it. After I finish every project, I trawl through all of the development work, and create a seperate sound library of that material, tagged with the project name, so I can find it easily.
Lets take another example: you are working on a short film and right at the end a monster appears and destroys everything. The monster opens its mouth only once and lets out a huge roar. The work you do to create the final creature vocal may involve working with hundreds of ideas, lots of source material and new recordings. And maybe while doing that work, you create lots of new material which doesn’t get used in that one shot in the short film. Should you throw that material away? No way! It will be useful in the future, in ways you can not imagine. But what will trigger the idea to use that material will be your memory of that project.
Just as every sound designer should have their own field recording kit, every sound designer should be constantly building their own personal sound library as it is your most valuable resource. And those sounds that you designed, that only you have? They are invaluable!
Fourth, I will add to this as I think of other motives for working this way.
I am always interested to hear how others work, so if you have insight to share please do!