Latency

When Alexander Lindo first started his career in audio production and engineering he always kept the philosophy that less is more. Alexander has always done his best to stay away from processor intensive plugins and software that depends on dongles for protection. Alexander has done very well. Within the last 5 years, Alexander has noticed a consistent increase in processor use with many of the plugins being made now. New algorithms, new hardware modeling etc. It has gotten to the point where, on a modern production machine with only a few instances of a plugin, CPU fans have to shift into overdrive. 

In addition to increased CPU use, many of these plugins have high amounts of latency, thus rendering them useless for tracking. This must stop. Many people misinterpret the limitations of a Native system vs a DSP-based platform. It is often assumed that the only way to have a stable setup for tracking is to use a DSP-based system. This is simply not true. In fact many Native-based platforms are superior to DSP-based platforms. Alexander is not here to argue about whether you should purchase DSP or if you should go Native, that choice is yours.

Alexander is here to discuss the current state of the actual plugins themselves and what you can do to ensure a completely stable NATIVE system for recording / tracking (not just mixing). For those that are wondering, NATIVE means host-based as in all processing is conducted by the computer’s CPU. DSP-based means that processing is conducted by a processor other than the one provided by your computer.

When running a Native-based system the first thing to consider before making any purchase is LATENCY. How much latency does the plugin produce by itself? This question will determine whether the plugin is useful for tracking / recording on a native platform. If the plugin produces more than 64 samples of latency then it is not optimized for tracking / recording. Always check the manual or support page of the manufacturer before your purchase. Some may list latency in samples, some may list it in milliseconds. Some may not even list it. At this point it is up to you to demo the plugin and see for yourself. To do this in Logic Pro: hover your mouse cursor over the plugin slot on the channel strip at which point it will display the plugin’s latency in both ms and samples. To setup “Low Latency Monitoring”, open Preferences > General > Audio > Plugin Latency and enable “Low Latency Monitoring”.

With Low Latency Monitoring engaged, Record enable an audio track with your new plugin instantiated. Once this feature is enabled, all latency inducing plugins will be disabled (indicated in the mixer with orange text). Set the plugin latency slider to 1 ms (millisecond) in order to allow plugins with latencies under 1ms. The formula for calculating Latency in Milliseconds = Samples / Sample Rate. So if the plugin has 25 samples of latency that is 25 / 44.1 = 0.6 ms. This plugin will remain active during tracking and will not add any audible latency.

The formula for calculating latency created by buffer = (I/O Buffer Size / Sample Rate) x 2

So 128 samples / 44.1 x 2 = 5.8ms of latency

In addition to latency, another factor to consider is efficiency. In other words: How efficient is the plugin in regards to CPU and RAM usage. If a plugin is using up all your CPU or RAM resources, look elsewhere.  If you are looking for efficient plugins with little to no latency be sure to check out some of the following:

  • The stock plugins that came with your DAW. Many people seem to believe that they cannot sculpt great quality audio from the plugins that came with their DAW. This is simply not true. The majority of professional DAWs come with great plugins out of the box. If you cannot get great sound out of your DAW without buying third party plugins then…the problem is you.
  • Power Pack from Waves – All plugins in this bundle are light on CPU and most have zero latency. Ren Axx  and L1 both impose 64 samples of latency at 44.1kHz.
  • CLA Classic Compressors – All of these plugins have zero latency making them perfect for tracking / recording.
  • SSL 4000 Collection from Waves – Most processors impose 0-1 samples of latency. The Master Buss Compressor imposes 3 samples of latency which is negligible.
  • H-Delay by Waves – an excellent vintage inspired delay plugin that is light on CPU and induces no latency.
  • Focusrite Red 2 & 3 Pair – These plugins come bundled with Focusrite equipment and are available for purchase from the manufacturer. Both impose no latency.

These items serve as just general guidelines. There are many other efficient plugins available from Waves and other great plugin manufacturers. You are also free to experiment with plugins that induce latency higher than 64 samples as long as they are within your level of tolerance whilst recording / tracking.

The next thing to consider when running a native system is your choice of OS and DAW. The efficiency of your OS and DAW will play a major role in what you can achieve with your current hardware.

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The Evolution of Audio

There was a time once where it was the standard to record a track with nothing but hardware. From an engineer’s perspective, the band would come in plugin. The engineer would then mic up the vocalist, guitarist, bassist and drummer based on the style demonstrated by the band. These tracks would then be routed though a massive console and outboard effects would be patched in via a patch-bay. The signal would then be routed to a tape machine for record and playback. If there were any errors, the band would have to do the take again. In those days recordings were great not only because the band was great but also due to the fact that they had to practice more in order to get the perfect take.

Fast forward to now and we have DAW software. The workflow for the most part continues on the same path as before with the exception of TAPE and plugins. The signal is routed to the console and from the console to the DAW software. From the DAW software the output channels are routed back to the console in order to enable playback. It is now up to the engineer to decide whether to record to tape or not. Many opt to do so as they claim that the tape enhances the sound.

In reality, all that is necessary to record a band are great microphones, A low latency audio interface with great preamps, with enough inputs/outputs and a reasonably powerful laptop. That is all that is needed. There have been many arguments over hardware vs. plugins that try to emulate that “analog” sound. But let us take this a step back without being over zealous in mentioning any names. In today’s age we have superior audio with a resolution of up to 192 kbps and 24 bit. We never had any where near that resolution with tape. Now that man have accomplished this massive feat, plugin manufactures are now placing the illusion that great mixes cannot be made without these “classic” hardware models. This is simply not true.

In simple terms: a compressor is a compressor, an eq is an eq, and distortion is distortion.

A compressor is designed with only one thing in mind, and that is to reduce dynamic range.

An equalizer was designed to accentuate favorable frequencies to better sculpt the audio spectrum. Anything else is distortion, which in many cases can prove to be unfavorable and yet quite favorable in some instances. Alexander Lindo has experienced many different pieces of hardware and software used to emulate the corresponding hardware and he can confidently say that the differences are greatly exaggerated. A knowledgeable engineer can get a usable sound out of most compressors. Having said that the SSL 4000 Buss compressor and the 1176 are two excellent compressors. The 1176’s super fast microsecond attack time distorts the incoming signal, giving it a perceived “liveliness”. The SSL 4000 Buss compressor add life and consistency to a mix through the use of distortion as-well.