Playfair Audio’s Dynamic Grading plugin is better, faster and more intuitive than the best compressor/expander

When your music has been recorded — or created if it’s all synths — the daunting task awaits of mixing and mastering. Mixing ensures that those tracks or instruments that you want to make sure are fully present in your end result are brought to the fore. The 149 EUR Dynamic Grading plug-in promises to make that a lot easier and better all around.

Mixing usually involves use of compressors and, to some extend, expanders. If you’re a professional audio engineer, you’ll happily play with those and even then those are difficult plug-ins to work with. There’s a plug-in now that takes a dramatically different approach to taming the dynamic range of your tracks. It’s called Dynamic Grading and it’s like a surgical knife for precisely shaping and controlling the dynamic range of sound.

Dynamic Grading works with a dynamic histogram turned 90 degrees so that the loudest parts are at the top and the silent ones at the bottom. The developer claims it offers intuitive control, but trust me when I say this plug-in does require a bit of getting used to. I spent my first hour with it constantly telling myself the graph represents loudness, not the audible spectrum.

Once you have that concept firmly seated inside your head, Dynamic Grading indeed is intuitive and, more importantly, opens up a whole new world in terms of making each track — and all tracks mixed together — exactly the way you envision. It also allows for some nice special effects when used with more drastic settings.

How it works

This innovative plugin uses a ladder-like controller and a few parameter knobs. The ladder has three sections: the top for punch, the bottom for reverb and detail, and the main section for everything else. By pulling the entire ladder down or lifting it up, you decrease or increase the track’s input and output energy without changing anything else. You use the left side’s handles to ensure you capture all of the input energy (loudness, volume) of your track and divide it up into the three sections according to what you define as punch, reverb and body. You skew the ladder’s steps by dragging the right side’s sections and control points. If you drag the entire right side up or down, you’re changing the output energy with the ratio between punch, body and floor left unchanged.

However, if you want to compress the sound of, for example, the body, you do so by manipulating that section’s left side by dragging its control points closer together. That will further skew the steps and visibly squeeze the section from the left to the compressed right. The realtime moving graph will show bars extending further outwards, away from the centre column of the whole thing.

When you’re changing sections this way, you’ll be changing the ratio between punch, body and floor sections. Modifier keys can change that behaviour in several ways.

The explanation of how you work with Dynamic Grading is probably not helpful in getting across the simplicity of the actual process, so you really need to download this plugin, register it as a demo in iLok and try it out. If you do, I am pretty sure you’ll be astonished by how intuitive this works.

To wrap up this part, there are three latency settings: Live, Smart and Maximum. Live is for live performances and special effects. It’s obvious that the live display will lag a bit, but the audible part will be adjusting live. The Maximum setting is useful for setting the correct Response Time, which is the plugin’s delay for evaluating loudness and building its histogram and processing.

Except for this parameter, Dynamic Grading also has a Spectrum knob that you can set to represent the balance between high en low frequencies in your source. By default, this is set to pink (balanced), but you can set it to white (more treble) or red (more bass).

The Release knob sets the recovery time after a significant sound event. For example, with transient-rich tracks you’ll want to decrease this. There’s also an Amount parameter that allows you to just decrease the whole result without touching any of the controls.

The results you can get out of it

Used as a simple compressor or as a way to decrease the sound level without touching your DAW’s faders, the results are clear and direct. There’s nothing special about using it that way.

When you start changing the ratio between the three sections and compressing or expanding those parts individually, it will become clear Dynamic Grading works better than a compressor/expander plugin, simply because it allows for greater detail while showing what you’re doing and what the results will be. Also, in projects with many dynamic changes over time, Dynamic Grader’s automation capabilities allow you to adjust any of its parameters efficiently, although I would also like to see the plugin capable of being controlled by MIDI controller.

However, there’s more. For example, I found that I can easily and quickly fix my terrible sibilance problem by compressing the top section. I used to run iZotope’s RX 10 Advanced to fix it, but Dynamic Grading saves me a trip to another app and I have more control over the results.

By expanding the floor, Dynamic Grading de-reverberates and reduces noise; the opposite can lead to artistic reverb effects. Another special effect is chopping. This happens when you squeeze the input body section into a very small output section and is especially noticeable on notes that are held for a longer time, such as when you’re creating ambient synth music.


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