The short answer is Yes!
That doesn’t mean that there is a right or wrong way to do it. I think it’s more important to understand that the order in which you route your plugins is going to determine the overall shape of your sound.
I remember when I was first getting into mixing, I would put plugins into inserts without even thinking about it. I also added plugins because I thought I needed to but that’s a completely different article.
It wasn’t until one engineer (who was more experienced) spilled the beans. He told me that the order of my plugins made an impact on the sound of my mixes. I honestly could not believe it. I thought that through some magical computer process, the sound came out the same, no matter how the plugins were inserted.
I can now admit that I was wrong.
I’m going to give a short general idea of how (and why) I would order my plugins but it’s definitely not a rule. You can use this as a starting point if you choose to do so but If I were you I would experiment and use my advice as opinion and not fact.
There is a theory in the mixing world to “cut before compression and boost after” and I would say I am probably on board with that for the most part but not completely.
Yes, I would most likely start with an EQ but not only to clean up the sound. I would look to potentially shape it into something a little bit more useable in the context of the entire song. That might include a little bit of cutting AND a little bit of boosting. The goal is really just to get the sound to a place that’s closer to a better starting point.
The next plugin would normally be a compressor if I needed it and I’m usually looking to do a few things:
Some compressors like the R-Comp do a pretty good job of taking a rough sound and softening the transients in a pleasing way.
This could be confused with softening the sound but its different. I’m not really trying to change the overall tone that much; I’m just trying to take a sound that may be a bit dynamic (bouncy) and make it sit better between the speakers. Of course any added tone that’s pleasing is a bonus.
Other compressors have built in analog circuitry and really grabby attack/release parameters. These seem to help tighten things up when the sound is a bit loose. The 1176 emulations come to mind.
Other times you have the sound in the right place but you need to control the odd peak. Limiters can work great here too.
There are times when I will put an effect directly on an insert like a reverb, delay or maybe a flanger. An effect could even be something like adding a plugin for colour.
I find myself doing this either before I even start or after the compression. I don’t have a really good reason except for that I either want it before it’s been tampered with or I want it after the general tone has been fixed. It’s really as simple as that.
Yep, some more EQ (well sometimes).
After the compressor goes in and it does its job effectively it might not have taken the sound completely to 100% or it might have changed the tone a bit that I now have to correct. I’ll add in some top or bottom depending on what I’m looking for.
This could potentially be a time when some creative EQ might be needed. If the track is meant to live in the back or occupy an interesting space, I might do some EQ that’s completely bazaar just to help with that goal.
The limiter seems to come last in a chain if and when I use it but there are times when I will put the limiter before the previous step (more EQ). I think it just depends on how the EQ is affecting the peaks and if it’s exciting the limiter too much. It can actually make the limiter work a bit harder causing over compression (limiting) or pumping effects.
It might make more sense to put the limiter first so it can grab the peaks I don’t like. Once I have a smoother sound I can add an EQ to give me that extra something, something.
So I made this order a bit more generic to fit as many possible situations as I could but of course don’t assume that you need all of these on every sound. Some sounds may require you to not touch any plugins, which is probably for the best.
So now that you have an idea of why I would make a decision to bring out a plugin, in a particular order, you can take that and apply it to your tastes. If you want to compress first, for a specific reason, than I say do it. There are logical reasons for EQing (cutting) before compressing but that doesn’t mean it’s right. Remember mixing is an art form just like painting or photography.
The less you stick to conventions but maintain good taste, the more desirable your sound will be.