It’s one of the most common questions I see related to mixing. Inserts vs sends; what’s the difference between the two and when should you use each one?
They each relate to using a plugin to affect the sound of your track, but they’re used in different ways for different purposes.
I’ve got a very handy trick to remember the difference between inserts and sends and when to use each in your mix.
Inserts Vs Sends
What is an Insert in Mixing
We’ll begin with explaining what an insert is as it relates to mixing. An insert is when you place a plugin directly on the track you want to affect itself.
The area where your plugin chain is displayed varies by DAW/program, but in Ableton Live (my DAW of choice), the plugin chain is displayed at the bottom of the session.
If you drag and drop a plugin on a track, it will appear in this section. This is called an insert because it’s being inserted directly onto the track.
Plugins used as an insert exclusively affect the track they’re on.
When to Use a Plugin as an Insert
Inserts have very specific settings which are dialed in for that particular track.
In fact, that’s the easiest way to remember when to use inserts.
When you have a plugin/effect you want to just apply to one track, use it as an insert, dropping it right on the track.
One last thing to mention: because this is directly affecting the audio of the track it’s on, the dry/wet nob of that plugin should be adjusted accordingly to achieve just the right balance. This is in contrast to how we use this with sends which we’ll talk about in a moment.
What Plugins to Use as Inserts
There are a few types of plugins you’ll want to use as inserts.
EQ and compression are two of the biggest examples of insert only plugins because every track in your mix should likely have unique EQ and compression settings.
An exception is parallel compression which can be used with sends, so let’s talk about them now.
What is a Send in Mixing
In comparing inserts vs sends, let’s talk about sends.
A send involves creating a special track called an auxiliary track, also referred to as a return track in some DAWs.
This is an empty track which exists to receive audio sent from other tracks, hence the term “sends”.
You can put plugins on these auxiliary tracks to process the audio which is sent to them, then that processed audio is blended into the mix as a whole.
You can choose how much of a track is blended in by using the send nob on that track.
One advantage of using sends with auxiliary tracks is that you maintain the dry signal of the original track.
For this reason, you always want to set the wetness percentage of all effects on the related auxiliary track at 100%.
Now you can dial in the completely wet version alongside your dry track, making the send dial on every track effectively act as a wet dry nob for that effect on that auxiliary track.
When to Use a Plugin as a Send
The main reason and time to use a plugin as a send is when you want to apply that effect to multiple tracks.
This saves your CPU processing power as you don’t have to use multiple instances of a plugin.
It also creates a sense of cohesion amongst the various tracks in your mix when many of them share a common sound.
What Plugins to Use as Sends
I just mentioned how sends can be used to create a sense of cohesion amongst your tracks.
Reverb and delays are two effects in particular which are commonly used as sends.
You typically want to use a uniform setting on time based effects like these so that your tracks sound like they are all playing or were recorded in the same room.
The only time you’ll want to use a time based effect like this on a track in your mix is when you’re going for a very specific effect like a one-off vocal throw.
I also mentioned parallel compression earlier as a send. I like to create an auxiliary track and put a compressor with extreme settings on it so that it flattens any audio I send to it. Just like that, I now have a parallel compressor I can dial in signal to from any track in my mix whenever I need to thicken up a track.
Inserts Vs Sends Summarized
- Inserts are effects inserted directly on the track you want to affect; they only affect that one track.
- Inserts should be used when you want to dial in a specific setting for just that one track.
- Sends involve creating an auxiliary/return track to receive a specific amount of audio you “send” from one or more tracks using their send nobs. This allows you to blend in a wet, processed version of the track alongside the dry version of the track(s).
- Sends should be used when you want to apply an effect to multiple tracks, albeit with the option of different amounts.
- The dry/wet nob on insert effects should be the percentage to get the sound you want.
- Conversely, the dry/wet nob on auxiliary/return track effects should be set 100% wet so that the send nobs on the tracks you use it with act as wet/dry percentages for that effect on each track.
- Effects where you need unique settings per track (EQs, compressors) should be used as inserts.
- Effects you can apply to multiple tracks without changing settings should be used as auxiliary tracks/sends.
- Using reverbs and delays as sends in particular allows you to create a spacial characteristic unity between the tracks in your mix, making them sound like they were all recorded in the same space.