Take the plunge?
In a way, the relationship between an audio engineer and a software or hardware processor can be assimilated to finding a partner. Your first encounter is through some friend(s) (word of mouth) or an ad. Then come the first dates where you begin to know your date better, as was the case in article 137 of this series. Then, if everything goes right, you might decide to start making plans together. At this stage, being acquainted to each other is not enough. You must really get to know each other to make living together easier... until a new model comes along and does you part, that is. Do forgive me if you think this joke is in poor taste when speaking about human relations, but when it comes to audio processing, it is in a matter of fact, especially in the plug-in world!
Anyway, let me get back to the point, namely learning to live with your new partner. When starting a new relationship, do you introduce your new partner to your family right away? And marry him/her straightaway? Have kids immediately? Would you put all your life in the hands of your new partner right from the first minute?
Even though I am more the kind that gives trust, and takes it back, pretty easily rather than being from the school where trust is something you gain, I nevertheless think all of these questions ought to be answered negatively – the heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of. Fortunately, in our case it's much easier to come to reason. Because in this case you have a significant advantage: the user manual. Haven't you ever dreamed about having one to understand your significant other? Well, luckily, except for some notable exceptions, all audio manufacturers include such a guide with their products. It might be wise to start there, don't you think? I know it's not fun at all and it can sometimes be extremely boring, but it's nevertheless a basic starting point, if you ask me. And unfortunately 75% of users (or more) have never read a single manual. So, yes I know I might be preaching in the wilderness, but I still wanted to say it...
I do, but not yet
However, reading the manual is far from being everything you need! Having the means to buy a Porsche 919 Hybrid and reading the manual doesn't mean that you can actually drive it and sign up to the 24 Hours of Le Mans expecting to win the race, does it? My point is that you should first use your new toy on a modest mix without anything at stake rather than try to integrate it into an important mix right away. For a professional audio engineer this means it's better not to use a new plug-in directly on a big commercial session, and in the case of budding engineers not to try to fit it into a mix that's meaningful to you with the expectation that it will revolutionize the latter. Granted, that may happen, but it probably has to do more with luck than anything else, and it's certainly not the best way to approach a new audio processor if your goal is to start a long-lasting and effective relationship with it. Yes, I know I can be a party popper some times, but trust me, I'm talking from experience here and it's for your own good!
In my opinion, the best way to approach this is to try out your new toys with a very basic session and without any artistic expectations. I, for instance, usually use a two-bar loop with a drum groove spread across four tracks (snare, kick and stereo overheads), a bass line, a rhythm guitar, and some vocals.
I then test the plug-in on every track with relatively simple technical goals in mind. For instance, with a compressor I try to see how far I can squeeze the dynamics of each drum element; or I try to make the bass line more "groovy," etc. While at it, I pay special attention to the interaction between the different plug-in parameters. Afterwards I see how this new tool interacts with my usual working tools, always using the same procedure, i.e. setting a relatively simple technical goal and trying to achieve it combing different processors that require me to use my new toy. Using the same example as before, this would entail testing the compressor with one of my usual EQs in order to create a parallel compression bus on steroids to make the drums much bigger. I think you get the idea.
All of this takes some time, obviously. Nevertheless, the task is not as tedious as it seems and can be especially pleasant to carry out when you have half an hour to kill, for instance. Doing it this way you will realize how you gradually start to master your new tools and will naturally start to incorporate them into your daily workflow and productions. In the end, you'll see that this method really pays off because it will provide you more control over your tools during mixdown, allowing you to forget about any technical concerns and focus exclusively on the artistic side of things. Try it out and let me know what you think!