The Love Language(s) of Presets

Presets. They are a thing. Sometimes, they are on point.

Sometimes, they are not.

If you’ve spent any amount of time in the world of audio engineering or commune with anyone who at least thinks they are an audio enthusiast, you know that presets get some shade cast on them. A lot of people really hate even the WORD “preset.” And they’re not entirely off base for feeling that way. A lot of people have had bad experiences, some of which were their fault, and some that were not. SOME people think it is cheating to use presets and think not using them gives them the right to high brow people who do. 

But enough mystique. Let’s dive in and dismantle some of the conceptions on this topic, and where some of them miss the mark.

#1 your gain staging/levels are bad.

Not saving the biggest for last. We’re gonna cover the biggest reason why presets don’t work for you right off the bat.

Levels are important. Gain is important. Even dialing in some crude fader levels before you apply the first EQ, compressor, or FX can make a huge deal in where you begin to tackle your mix. 

“Why, Jiminy?”

– asked everyone’s favorite walkin’ n’ talkin’ marionette puppet, Pinocchio, newly splintered and still glistening from the fairy dust from his father Gipetto’s starlight/starbright thing he said. Or something. 


Not really. No simple answer here. Nothing is that simple. Other than what Pinoke’s nose growing when he lies. That’s simple. Where was I?


Levels are important because they influence what you hear and how you hear it. 

Before you tell me you are aware of that, hear me out. Say for example, you drop some new stems in a session and just start mixing, and the gain on the bass track is outrageously too loud. If you did not take the time to do some basic gain staging and leveling before you went to work, you may find yourself overreacting to that bass, when in fact it is just fine. 

Conversely, that very same bass could be too low in level and you think “man these tracks sound really thin” and start adding way more bass to the bass, when in fact the low-mids in the TEN GUITAR CHANNELS YOUR CLIENT SENT YOU haven’t yet been significantly cut to make room for your bass. 

See what I’m saying? You could have dropped a “ThUnDeRsTrUcK LoWz” preset on that bottom beaver and soon realized it didn’t help at all. And the reason is because the bass wasn’t the problem. 

However, if you were to drop that sweet preset on that bass AFTER you fixed the problem with the guitars, you may find that you can actually articulate what the preset is doing for your bass track. Which you then may or may not even like it anyway. 

Dynamics processing such as compression, gating, limiting, and even ducking are other areas you’ve gotta be SUPER mindful of levels with. If you have a level that is too low, that “In The Air Tonight” gated reverb preset will just completely choke off your entire snare. Because the level of the snare hits won’t be loud enough to “open” the gate. 

#2 You bought those sweet Worship Tutorials song specific helix patches for Lion and the Lamb and after the "BOOM RATATATAT" you have no idea wha OH NO YOU PLUGGED YOUR ACOUSTIC INTO YOUR HELIX AND IT SOUNDS LIKE GARBAGE OH NO.

Dramatic, yes. But the example still applies. Sometimes mismatching presets can be cool, but they do require some degree of thinking when it comes to their application. 

A less moronic example would be something like trying to play metal with that “W or W/o U” Edge preset that came with your Native Instruments Komplete 7 amp models that you spent your student loan refund money on sophomore year because your actual, real amps and pedals just weren’t good enough. Or so I heard.

Another good example would be drums. Let’s say you’re using like a piccolo snare, but you want to fatten it up a little. 

You drop that FaT sNaRe EQ preset on the bad boy…nothing.

Because that EQ preset was probably doing something like a low shelf boost around 120-200Hz by a decent amount. 

A piccolo snare doesn’t generate anything in that area. You can boost it all day long, but that’s like, well, it’s like boosting 200Hz on a piccolo snare. There’s really nothing to compare that to. You can’t boost something that isn’t there. Like multiplying by zero. It’s still zero. 

Put that piccolo back in the closet  and wait for styles hitherto Steven Curtis Chapman’s “Speechless” album to come back around.

Otherwise you’re not gonna get much relevant use out of that thing. #imdivinin

#3 You're trying to use them to fix something that just absolutely cannot be fixed no matter what you do.

You just wrapped up your “Nothing But My Best ‘n Nothing Less” Carman covers mixtape.

It’s lit. It’s jammin’. It made the cassette player in your mom’s 1994 Chevy Astro run to the altar so fast it got blood stains on the green carpet of the local CoG quicker than the VHS of “Heaven’s Gates and Hell’s Flames” the youth pastor played at the last-lock in and ruined everybody’s time. 

Just as track 3 is about to hit the second chorus (if chorus 2 of track 3 ain’t cold, you need to go back to preproduction) you hear this God awful hissing noise. 

You rush back to your homie’s studio and ask him what’s up. He drops the master into his Hissbegone (patent pending) audio soap plugin, and your heart sinks.

The hiss is gone. But so is the Speerit. 

No more presence. no more high end. It sounds like you’re back in the Astro, only your blanky is draped over your head because you want the world to go away and you can only hear the faint rumblings of the road. 

Hiss typically resides in high frequency areas. To get rid of it, you must simply take the good information in the upper frequency register with it. That Hissbegone doesn’t understand the difference in hiss and a hi-hat. It just knows where to cut. Because that’s what it was programmed to do. 

You see. Sound is nothing short of electrical current converted by a transducer into air, moving its way into your ear holes. Your brain assigns the value to it. Your tape machine, computer, pro tools, whatever, just stores information between 20Hz and 20k, or the range of human hearing. It can’t discern the differences between the values YOU assign to it. 

Therefore, unless you can go back to your individual tracks and fix just exactly what was hissing, you’re stuck with it. 


#4 That's next week.