Digitally produced music doesn’t have to sound harsh, thin or overly clean anymore. Those days are long gone. It’s a matter of choice, skills and having the right tools. I come from mainly a drum & bass background, and am a big fan of a warm, full-bodied sound signature. I like to push things and get dirty with saturation. Needless to say, when I heard about the Waves NLS console modeling plugin, I was super keen to have a go at it.
I downloaded the demo and went right in. In the first couple of days of using the plugin, three things became clear to me:
I like how it sounds. The different console models have distinctly different characteristics.
It behaves dynamically like analog desks do. The outcome is always a combination of many things.
The more time you spend with it, the better results you get. It took me some time to learn what works best for me and how the plugin behaves with different kinds of material. Very rewarding but not for the hasty!
I don't think that's a bad first impression at all!
A quick introduction to Waves NLS
The Waves NLS models the sound and behavior of three different famous mixing consoles:
The SSL 4000G belonging to Mark ‘Spike’ Stent (Radiohead, Björk, Muse, Maroon 5, Madonna).
The EMI TG12345 Mk 4 desk owned by Mike Hedges (The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Dido, Faithless, Manic Street Preachers, U2), heard on such timeless recordings as Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon”.
The Neve 5116 console custom-made for Yoad Nevo (Bryan Adams, Pet Shop Boys, Sugababes, Goldfrapp, Air).
What’s unique about the NLS compared to other similar products is that Waves have actually modelled thirty-two different channels from each of the three desks. Why go through such trouble? In a real analog desk there are slight differences in sound between each of the channels. Modeling those differences introduces a whole new layer of realism.
Separate plugins are included to be used on individual channels and buses respectively. You also have the ability to assign each plugin instance into one of 8 VCA groups. You can then control these grouped up stems from the VCA group interface: there is independent control for drive and trim (level) as well as a choice of console mode, bypass and noise switches for each group. Very clever, and very useful for controlling the project as whole.
In order to focus on the actual use of the plugin and my findings, I’m going to leave the technical introduction at this (you will find it all in the manual, which is very informative by the way). Let’s jump right into the mix.
Being the impatient cat that I am, the first thing I did with the NLS was to quickly set it up on every channel of a new tune I had just finished the previous day. Well, that didn’t work out too good. The mix started to sound a little “off” to me.
It took me a couple of days of testing until I really started to find my approach and getting the results I was hoping for. NLS is a complex plugin and I had to become friends with it first.
You don’t just want to slap this plugin on a finished mix. You can, but for me the real power comes from working with NLS from the beginning stages of the production process. I like to color my sounds with just the right tones from the get-go. This provides me with a starting point, from which I then tweak on as I normally would using EQ, compression, adjusting the stereo image and so on.
The NLS does a lot of things to the sound. It adds different colors, harmonics/saturation and it also affects the stereo image. What comes out also depends a lot on what you put in. It’s a combination of many things.
Most of the time I like to set it up as the first plugin on each channel. This allows me to later adjust anything I want to and get really precise if need be.
It’s a lot of fun to play with the different console models, channels and drive settings to find new tones. I also like to mix up different console models in a single project. In the kind of music I do, I find what works for one sound doesn’t necessarily cut it for the next.
After starting to apply NLS in the music-making process from the beginning, I started to hear improvement in my mixdowns. I noticed a sense of depth that I haven't had before. It was pretty subtle, but it was definitely there. It's weird, but it almost felt like someone else had been working on my mix.
The Waves NLS is not a distortion plugin as such, but I did get some very nice results when driving it really hard with certain types of material.
Back when I was still using some hardware I often used to push basslines through an analog desk and apply heavy gain to make them sound bigger. It is a very specific sound and it’s not something most saturation plugins can pull off.
I was kind of anticipating that this could be too much to ask for from NLS, a plugin primarily made for subtle coloring. However, I was very happy to discover it actually behaves really well when pushed hard.
The Nevo model, especially, often seems to excel with basslines. With the right kind of sound fed into it and right amount of drive, it gives me this nice tight bottom end, while the highs get all mashed up, but still sounding crisp at the same time. It’s a new secret weapon for me (well, not so secret anymore, do try it yourself).
I also had good results when driving many kinds of drum sounds. I especially found NLS useful for kicks and percussion. For drums, I found myself drawing for the SSL a lot of the time. It contributes punch while rounding off some harshness even when distorted.
On some rare occasions, the drive knob doesn’t provide me with enough gain to get what I want, so I take it further by adding a separate gain plugin before the NLS in the chain. At times I also do EQ or compression before going into NLS in order to give it just the right kind of stuff to make it happy.
Using the Waves NLS has brought up some really interesting changes to my workflow.
First of all, because the plugin introduces all these little irregularities in the sound, it really seems to make me listen more carefully. That probably sounds counterintuitive at first, but in fact I have come to love the fact that it kind of forces me to focus and listen properly.
With the extremely visual DAW interfaces we have these days, and because we humans are very visual creatures by nature, we easily start to make musical decisions based too much on what we see instead of trusting our ears.
When working with the NLS, I’m constantly listening for the slightest variations in sound. Otherwise, I could miss a bump in the frequency spectrum, or a change in the stereo image when changing settings. With NLS, you just have no choice but to listen properly, and as a result, your mixes can get better. This is how the old analog domain works! It’s good ear training.
I think it's really clever to model a whole bunch of different channels from each desk. And it's not only that, but the fact that as you load up new plugin instances in your project, they will be automatically loaded with the subsequent channels, so that you don’t have to worry about it (unless you want to use a specific channel, in which case you just pick one from the preset menu).
Now, I do acknowledge some people want predictability more than anything else. Indeed, there are many tasks that require that. With NLS, it’s important to understand that it’s faithful to its role models. You will be able to predict its behavior, but it’s going to take some time before you get to know it that well. Personally, I love the little random aspect. I am always looking for things like that to apply in my music.
The other big workflow change for me is using the VCA groups that NLS provides. As mentioned before, if you set up all of your tracks under the eight groups, you will be able to use it as your main stem control. You can adjust the drive, console model, trim, bypass and noise settings from the group interface. Being able to quickly bypass the console modeling on the entire project, or switch between the different models, is a huge feature for me.
Most of the time I find myself not touching the group interface until I’ve finished the first version of the mix. At that point it’s a lot of fun to get in there and start adjusting things. VCA groups can also be automated, which brings you yet another level of control.
Let me sum up the workflow section with this: The NLS invites you to experiment with different tones and they’ve made it very practical. It seems to make mixing a bit more fun.
I've been throwing a lot of different things at the NLS every day and unveiling its different characters. It feels dynamic and musical. It took some time to get my head around what’s the best way for me to use it, but as soon as I did, I found out it does bring extra character and dimension to my mixes. The differences on an individual channel basis might not always seem like much, but when these subtle effects multiply across the entire mix, it really makes an impact.
When abused and driven hard, NLS becomes a great tool for taking those crunchy basslines and breakbeats to the next level. It’s definitely a good weapon to have in your arsenal.
On the workflow side of things, the Waves NLS definitely makes things more fun and interesting.
That’s a big one in my books. The interface is well designed and great to work with.
Waves NLS offers an intriguing sonic palette to enrich mixdowns, and does it in a very sophisticated way.
Tips for working with Waves NLS
This plugin looks simple on the surface, but there’s a lot when it comes to using it. Here’s a few helpful things I’ve learned while working with it:
You can rename VCA groups by double clicking on the group name.
You can select multiple controls to adjust at the same time by shift-clicking on the controls, or by specifying an area by dragging a rectangle selection. This is extremely useful when working with the VCA groups panel as you can group up faders, knobs and bypass switches.
To find and explore the sweet spots of each console, drive them hard to really bring out the character, then back up the drive when you feel it starts to get too much. Repeat with different kinds of sounds.
Each console has 32 different channels. Use the preset menu to switch between the channels to find out if it makes a difference for what you are doing.
Don't forget to listen to what happens to the stereo image when you switch between different models and channels.
NLS defaults to dual mono mode, which means it uses different channel models for different sides, just like using a real desk. However, you can switch to stereo mode for when you want to make sure the left and right channels sound the same. In stereo mode, the same channel model is being applied for both the left and right side of a stereo signal.