Category Archives: SonicScoop Presents

Studio Skillset – Guitar and Bass Setups Part 1: Neck Adjustment and Action

A well set-up guitar or bass is a joy to play and to record. But a poorly looked-after instrument can bring a tracking date to a grind. This week, learn how to save a session with a pocketful of Allen wrenches.

Aside from bad playing, nothing can rob a guitar or bass of its tone like a bad setup. Although there’s not a lot we can do about how many hours a player spends practicing, we can offer a few easy tips that may help you quickly fix some common session-halting issues.
To learn how to successfully tweak a stringed instrument mid-session, it’s important to know the basics of what goes into a setup. For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on just two aspects: the “action” (the height of the strings from the fingerboard), and the “intonation” (the minute adjustment of each string’s length for optimal tuning).


In order to bring these two factors under control, we’ll look at the two easiest and most powerful places where they can be adjusted: At the neck, using the instrument’s “truss-rod”, and at the bridge of an electric guitar or bass, using the individual saddles.
To get started, all you’ll need is a set of Allen wrenches (inch-scale for American guitars, and metric for imports), a small Phillips-heads screwdriver, and a guitar tuner.
While adjusting the neck can be more daunting to a novice, with a little care, it’s actually quite simple. If the neck is already in good shape, this step can often be bypassed. However, you’ll only know if it is by checking it out, so we’ll begin by learning what to look for.

NECKING: GET SOME ACTION


I worked through college, selling and repairing guitars at a local shop. Oftentimes, customers – even ones who had been playing for years – would say things like: “I love this guitar, it has great action”, or its inverse: “I don’t really like that guitar at all, the action is way too high”.
The neck of a guitar or bass is under constant pressure throughout its life. Even the lightweight strings of an electric apply nearly 200 pounds of steady pull, day and night. This is more than any suitable slab of maple or mahogany can handle on its own, so the necks of steel-string guitars are generally reinforced with an adjustable steel rod.
This “truss rod” can be gently tweaked to provide the perfect relief. If it’s set too loosely, providing too much relief, you’ll end up with a neck that bows toward the pull of the strings (known as “up-bow”), leaving us with action that is high, stiff, and unresponsive.
If the nut of the truss rod is tightened too much, we instead end up with a neck that’s too straight, or worse: back-bowed. This makes for strings that are so low to the fingerboard that dead frets and buzzy notes result.
Further compromising things, a neck that’s out of alignment can effect a guitar’s intonation, undoing the fine calibrations previously applied at the instrument’s bridge.

INSPECT THE NECK

The first step in fixing a fretted instrument’s action or intonation is seeing if the neck needs adjustment. To get a good read on the neck’s relief, we need to take the nut and the bridge out of the equation and just look at the curve of the neck itself.
To do this, fret the instrument’s lowest string at both the 1st-fret and the 17th-fret. This effectively turns the string into a straight-edge ruler, bypasses both the nut and bridge, and provides a gap we can measure to check the relief. If we look at the gap between the fingerboard and the string at the 7th fret, we can get a good feel for how much the neck curves against this straight string.


If your neck has ideal relief, you’ll be able to just barely slide a thick guitar pick between the double-fretted string and the top of the 7th-fret (This amounts to a little more than 1mm or just under .05 inches). If you have a bigger gap than this, the neck can be straightened by tightening the nut of the truss rod.
However, if the string is so close that it touches the top of the 7th fret, your neck is either too straight, or worse, it’s back-bowed. In this case, you’ll need to loosen the truss rod’s nut to provide a little relief and eliminate buzzing.
(Authors Note: Holding the guitar up and looking down the length of the neck can make humps and warps in the fingerboard more evident – But, since fingerboards rarely have a symmetrical radius by design, you’re unlikely to know what you’re looking for until you’ve seen a lot of them.
Furthermore, fixing these rare and advanced issues is beyond the scope of this primer. For our quick and easy tweaks, the two-fret method we’ve already described is preferred.)

ADJUST THE TRUSS

If you’ve discovered that your neck is in good shape, with a healthy amount of relief and a little gap at the 7th fret, then congratulations! It’s time to move on to the bridge. If things aren’t going according to plan, it’s time to make a minor tweak to the truss rod.


The first thing to do is to find the nut that allows you to adjust the truss rod. On many electric guitars, the truss rod’s access point is located in the headstock, just above the string nut.
On Gibsons, this is hidden behind a little black plastic plate named, aptly enough, the “truss rod cover”. On modern Fenders, it’s recessed inside a small hole. Note that you may want to take the middle strings out of their slots to provide unfettered access to the truss rod nut.
(Author’s Note: If you have an older guitar like a 60′s Fender or reissue, you may find that the truss rod nut is located at the base of the neck, hidden where it meets the body.
Adjusting this type requires that you loosen the strings until they’re entirely floppy, place a capo at the first fret, and unscrew the neck plate, allowing you to remove the neck from the body. This type of truss rod often requires a Phillips-head screwdriver to adjust, rather than the traditional hexagonal Allen keys.)
Before inserting your Allen key and adjusting the rod, be aware that we’ll be making very small adjustments. An eighth or a quarter of a turn is usually enough. It’s very rare that you’ll need a half or full turn to bring a neck back into alignment.
Important: Never force the truss rod. If the truss rod is difficult to turn, or if you hear squeaking, cracking or creaking, Stop! This means that the rod is already tightened to its maximum, and any further turns will risk breaking it.

Provided that the rod is turning smoothly, and you have the right-sized key for the job, all you need to do is tweak. If your strings are too high (up-bow), turn the nut clockwise. If your strings are too low (too straight or back-bow), turn counter-clockwise. That’s it!
As mentioned, just start with a 1/8th or 1/4th turn. After each adjustment, be sure to re-tune your guitar, or you might go too far and miss your mark! This is because tightening the truss rod also tightens the strings, raising their pitch and increasing their pull on the neck. By the time you tune them back down to pitch, you may find that any remaining excess bowing has corrected itself. (The inverse is true for loosening the rod.)
Unless you’re dealing with a very old or out-of-whack instrument, adjusting the truss rod is a pretty safe and painless procedure. That said, the middle of a tense session and a player’s prized instrument don’t make for an ideal scenario for your first attempt! As with anything, you’ll improve with practice. Acquiring a junky guitar to restore to health is a good way to gain confidence, fast.

Justin Colletti is a Brooklyn-based producer/engineer who works with uncommon artists, and a journalist who writes about music and how we make it. Visit him at www.justincolletti.com.

Posted in Artists in Residence, SonicScoop Presents | 3 Comments

Beyond The Basics: Serial Skills, Simplified.

[For more content related to music production, engineering, business and technology, news on the NYC-area recording industry, and interviews with producer/engineers and artists on their process, visit www.sonicscoop.com.]

By Justin Colletti

Like Parallel Compression, Serial Compression is one of those esoteric terms that seems to pop up in recording magazines from time to time. While the name might seem abstruse and academic, the process is anything but:

“Putting one compressor before another is something that was going on long before it got a fancy name that made it sound like a ‘technique’,” says Joel Hamilton, one of the four NYC engineers we asked to weigh in on the subject.

“But the idea that you can kind of mine different things out of the same signal by chaining devices with different tones or time constants is totally valid.”

Simply defined, Serial Processing is the use of two (or more) similar effects on the same audio track. Most often, you’ll encounter the term as it refers to compression, EQ, and de-essing.

In addition to Hamilton [Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Dub Trio], we talked to producer/engineer John Agnello [Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., Kurt Vile] as well mastering engineers Randy Merrill and Scott Hull of Masterdisk, about their approach.

WHY DO IT?

“It’s like using shellac,” Hamilton continued. “You can’t buy a bucket of shellac, pour the whole thing out on your tabletop and expect it to turn out extra-glossy. But, by applying it in a dozen tiny layers, one on top of the other, you can bring the surface to a really high shine.”

“Much the same way, you can’t compress 20db with a Neve 33609 and expect it to sound like several devices each pulling back a few db.”

All of our panelists agreed – sometimes, spreading the work across more than one unit leads to better results:

“It’s well-known that in general, the shorter the signal path the better the sound quality,” said Scott Hull of Masterdisk [Miles Davis, Bruce Springsteen, The Ramones].

“That’s true, and I’ll never use more gear than what’s needed to achieve the goal. But you can’t always get what you need from one device. What you may need is the complex interaction between two.”

“I would probably never choose to put two of the same compressors or EQs inline on the same track, but I will often use two different-sounding but similar types of processors if the combined result is better than without.”

When we boiled it down for this article, it became clear that our panelists consistently cited three basic reasons for stacking their effects: Tone, Tweak Points, and Time.

TONE

“There are some pieces of gear that just have a great character and I’ll use them when that character is needed,” mastering engineer Scott Hull said.

“What might confuse engineers that use primarily digital processing, is that an analog EQ isn’t always an EQ. And an analog compressor isn’t always a compressor. Running through my compressors with no gain reduction sometimes produces very favorable results from a tone or color standpoint.”

Producer/engineer John Agnello agreed:

“I believe that when you’re in the analog world, different pieces of gear do sound different from each other, even if you’re just passing signal through them. You can patch into a Pultec and it’ll sound completely different than an API 560 before you even do anything. Sometimes you don’t want to do a ton of EQ, but you want the sound of that piece of gear.”

TWEAKABILITY

“With a Pultec,” Agnello continued, “you might just add a little bit of low end or a little bit of top-end, and still get the sound you need from it. But you may still want to sculpt it more, so you might go into an API 560 after that and notch out or notch in a bunch of frequencies.”

“So there’s the sound quality of each piece of gear, and then there’s also the practical factor of having access to all the frequencies you want to get to. You may want the sound of a Pultec but the flexibility of a graphic EQ.”

“I’ll do that a lot on snares and vocals. I’ll usually go through a 560, and then at the end of my chain I’ll have a nice fat Pultec, or maybe a Daking, just to give it a little size on the back end – just to take that sound and make it sound 10 percent bigger at the very end.”

Hamilton had similar thoughts: “There’s a difference between boosting 3k on a Neve 1084 and boosting 3k on an SSL EQ. On an SSL, I know that frequency is going to hurt me a little. The same way, I might want to boost 8khz on a Pultec instead. So that way you can end up with a few EQs on the same source pretty quickly.”

Merrill had similar points to make: “I use multiple EQ’s in series a lot. The curve shapes and phase responses of each of my EQ’s is different. I’ve found that in some cases, several small, incremental adjustments across multiple EQ’s gets me the sound I’m looking for, as opposed to adding more EQ on one unit in the same range. Other times this isn’t the case, and I’ll do a lot of EQ with one unit. It always depends on the mix, but I’d say more often than not, I’m using multiple EQ’s.”

TIME

With compressors, there’s another crucial factor: attack and release times.

“When it comes to the ‘how’ part,” said Hull, “ I find it’s simply a matter of putting the compressors with longer attack times first in the chain and faster attack compressors and limiters later in the chain. This isn’t brain surgery.”

That kind of stacking was the first thought to come to mind for Agnello and Hamilton as well:

“As far as time constants, you could put on a very slow, low-ratio compressor first, and send that into a fast limiter that’s catching just the top of the peaks,” said Hamilton.

“That can make it feel like the track is plowing through molasses to get to the limiter. With that approach, you can take something that’s very lightweight and stringy, like an arpeggiated nylon-string guitar, and get some real heft out of it. It’s almost like adding a sense of inertia; some real weight in a mix.”

“It can help get rid of that really unencumbered and pointalistic sound that people associate with a straight up Pro Tools mix, where you have all these really spikey transients. For me, it could be a slower, gushier compressor first, like a Collins 26-1U, followed by a Neve 33609 set to a really fast attack and release.”

Agnello had a similar approach on electric guitars:

“A lot of times I’ll go with a tube compressor and put a solid state compressor on the back end, or vice versa, depending on what sounds I’m going for. If I’m having trouble getting a guitar to sit in a mix, I might put it through an LA-2A to give it a big tube action, but at the end put it through an 1176 and compress the sh*t out of it, to make it really like a brickwall.”

Of course, there are times when the opposite approach can work. When tracking an especially dynamic vocal or bass part, it can be advantageous to set up a compressor with a fast release time first in the chain. A busy and dynamic part can wreak havoc on a slowly responding compressor, allowing some peaks to go by uncompressed, while low-level parts of the performance wind up quieter still, buried in the trough of the compressor’s lazy recovery.

The classic example here would be taming a dynamic vocal with a quick tap from a fast-recovering 1176 before allowing it to pass through an LA-2A or Sta-Level set to deliver more consistent compression.

NEED FOR SPEED

Sometimes, two fast dynamic devices in a row can be handy:

According to Agnello: “If you have some nasty “S”s, sometimes one de-esser won’t do it. You’d have to hit it so hard that it’ll catch too much, giving you a lisping effect. I might give the S’s a little nudge with one de-esser, then really go for the kill with a second, trying to take out as much as I can. I like to think of it as setting up with one and knocking it down with the other.”

“I almost never use two compressors,” added mastering engineer Randy Merrill, “but I often use two limiters in series. I find at times that one particular limiter can only sound good up to a certain point. Once I get there, I’ll rely on another, different limiter to get me closer to the result I’m looking for.”

SETTING IT TO STUN

Unlike our mastering engineers Hull and Merrill, our mixers (Agnello and Hamilton and myself) felt that while stacking compressors can lead to greater transparency, that isn’t always the goal. One or more compressors in a mixer’s chain could very well be set to “stun”, ruthlessly lobbing more than a dozen db off an unsuspecting sound source.

Serial compression can still help in these cases as well. Feeding our “character compressor” a signal that’s already been cut down to a manageable dynamic range can ensure that our hardest-working box delivers an even and predictable effect, rather than jumping around in color and responsiveness due to an erratic signal.

EVERYTHING ELSE

Shane Stoneback discussed sending his plug-in reverbs to a real live chamber in our recent Cults interview. Hamilton is also a long-time proponent of searching for new sounds by stacking ambient effects:

“In general, I really love reverbs layered up. I might have six reverbs on a mix,” he said. “I could be using a spring that doesn’t even go to the main mix – it could be there just to feed a plate reverb.”

“I guess what I’m looking for is a kind of ‘custom complexity’. If the album was tracked in hotels and bedrooms, I might want to create a unifying, Motown-ish kind of signature reverb that ties everything together – you know, where everything kind of lives in this one really unique space.”

For his part, Agnello remembers a time before multi-parameter reverbs. The earliest versions of these chains of time-based effects were patched in by guys like him, using a tape-slap delay to feed a plate reverb.

“Nowadays, the pre-delays are built-in,” he said. If you have an Eventide, you can just pull up anything you want – a flange into a plate – whatever. Of course you can explore as much as you want. The only thing holding you back there is how much gear you have at your disposal and how much time you want to spend f*ing around.”

And Agnello has spent a lot of time doing just that:

“While working on my second Dinosaur Jr. record [Without A Sound] at Electric Lady, J [Masics] would want me to put one piece of gear after another on his guitar to hear what it would sound like. ‘Put something else on it, let’s see what that does. Ok, now something else’. We’d end up with these chains of like 5 boxes in a row. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it would be ridiculous.”

“But there would be those times where it would be amazing – all of a sudden the guitar was really jumping out of the mix. We just kept listening and trying until it sounded good. I don’t think we called it anything. We were just experimenting.”

Hamilton had similar feelings about attaching terms to the things we do instinctively:

“I think the name ‘Serial EQing’ only came about because of the proliferation of internet ding-dongs talking about Parallel EQing,” he said, as I tried to avoid looking sheepishly at my feet.

“But I guess we’re stuck with the term as much as we’re stuck with anonymous internet punditry.”

As long as that’s true, we’ll be here, hoping to undo the damage by bringing a bit of clarity to all the chatter.

Now go get in tune with your instincts, and start some experiments of your own.

Justin Colletti is a Brooklyn-based producer/engineer who works with uncommon artists, and a journalist who writes about music and how we make it. Visit him at www.justincolletti.com.

Posted in Artists in Residence, SonicScoop Presents | 2 Comments

Beyond The Basics: Parallel Processing Demystified

By Justin Colletti

“Parallel Processing” is a term that can describe a number of techniques engineers use in pursuit of punchy, relentless backbeats, rock-solid bass-lines, and vocals that speak with power and nuance.

At its most basic level, this family of tactics is at play whenever we duplicate an audio feed, and treat each copy of that feed differently.

Say the word “parallel” to an engineer around these parts, and the first effect that comes into mind will likely be parallel compression. When applied to a drum bus, this technique carries the fond nickname “New York-style Compression.”

Properly executed, parallel compression on a drum bus can help us achieve a consistent minimum audio level while retaining some organic dynamic range, and allows us to obtain powerful, up-front sounds that still maintain clear and natural transients.

But the game doesn’t end there: For decades, bold engineers have turned to a variety of parallel effects wherever they need to sculpt new tones that merge the best features of two or more sounds. Compression, limiting, distortion, even parallel EQ can be used on a wide array of instruments to great effect.

HOW DO I DO IT?

In a broad sense, the way we route to a basic reverb is a form of parallel processing: Our audio signal is effectively split in two, with some of the sound running through the sonic spin cycle before it’s blended back into the mix underneath our unadulterated “dry” sound.

In essence, we apply dramatic effects to a duplicate of a sound. Unlike reverbs or delays, which are traditionally fed to effect boxes through an aux send, tracks earmarked for other types of parallel processing are most commonly routed via bus assigns, patchbay “mults”, or simply duplicated within a DAW.

However you chose to route and duplicate your sounds, the concept behind all parallel effects is basically the same: fearlessly crush, smash, carve, distort, or sculpt your duplicate. Then, fold this hot twisted nugget of audio back into the mix alongside your original sound.

DRUMS AND DRUM BUS

For the iconic sound of “New York-style” compression on drums, get a good blend of drums together for your main mix. Then, simply route all your drums through another bus, squeeze to taste, and fold them back into the main mix alongside your clean tracks.

The goal here is to make sure your parallel drum mix is compressed to the point where it has precious little dynamic range. For this technique, a very fast attack time often works best – Don’t be afraid to chop off some of the transients and create a big, consistently thumping backbeat. Fast releases time that pump and breathe with the rhythm of the music are fair game, as are longer release times that create a smooth and consistent decay.

Depending on your tastes, the compressed drums may sound a bit dramatic by themselves, but that’s okay. When added to your original mix, this parallel bus acts as a supporting element, allowing you to bring up the beef and average level of your drums while preserving the original transients and much of the larger dynamic changes.

A similar approach can be applied to individual drums. Snare tracks are an especially common recipient of the parallel treatment. To bring more attack and consistency out of a snare drum or its corresponding reverb send, it can be fun to crush, EQ, and perhaps gate the original sound in parallel. Feel free to go for an unusual, even unnatural drum-machine sound, to add impact and excitement to your clean snare.

But be careful, and make sure to maintain perspective! These techniques can be a quick path to big, punchy and relentless drums. While it’s easy to get drawn into the addictive process of creating ever more exciting sounds, some productions will benefit from a significantly more understated approach.

VOCALS

As with drums, many of today’s engineers feel compelled to create distinctive and ever-present vocal sounds.

But this isn’t a contemporary phenomenon. Back in the 1960s, Motown engineers Mike McClean and Lawrence Horn were using a technique on vocals that they called “Exciting Compression.”

Simply put, a vocal track would be duplicated through a console; One instance of that vocal would be treated with typical EQ, compression and reverb, and the other would be squashed and then brightened considerably with heavy-handed hi-shelf EQ.

A decade later, Curt Knoppel would design the first Aphex Aural Exciter, a box whose basic function would owe much of its heritage to this tactic.

In addition to parallel compression, parallel distortion is a common trick for vocals.

Often, applying distortion directly to a lead vocal can leave the track sounding thin, harsh, undecipherable and over-processed. Add some distortion to it in parallel however, and your have a gritty vocal that maintains much of its original body and natural growl.

BASS

A similar approach is common on bass guitar.

Sometimes, a touch of distortion is just the thing to keep the instrument articulate, defined, and audible throughout a mix. Adding some gain in parallel can help ensure you don’t lose too much low-end power in the process.

Some mixers are known for taking a more complex approach to parallel bass, creating a blend from 3 or more parallel treatments. One channel provides solid low end, one delivers a nice midrange growl, while the third channel is voiced to maximize the instrument’s snap and articulation.

While such drastic measures may seem like overkill to some of us, bass guitar is one of those instruments that almost always benefits from at least basic parallel compression or distortion to help it gain a solid foothold in the song.

STRINGS, ORCHESTRA, EVEN MIX BUS

It’s impossible to say who first made use of parallel compression in the mix process, but Motown engineer Bob Olhsson maintains that his crew stole the trick from classical engineers at DGG records who used the technique to combat the high noise floors and limited dynamic range of early recording technology.

Although parallel compression can be used to dramatic effect, it can also be a suitable approach for the audio purist. Once they’re mixed in with a full-spectrum sound, parallel tracks can have the effect of unobtrusively bringing up the quietest portions of the signal, rather than glaringly lowering the loudest peaks.

No discussion of parallel styles is complete without a mention of Michael Brauer, a New York-based mixer who is often associated with the term.

However, contrary to popular references to his work, the key feature of the Brauer style is in the use of multiple bus compressors, and not in the use of parallel treatments as we’ve defined them here. Although parallel compression may result from this style, it doesn’t paint the overall picture – But that’s enough ammunition for another article.

WHY BLEND IT?

Parallel processing isn’t just a technique that allows us to combine sounds. It can also help us find workarounds to the compromises multifaceted arrangements can impose upon us.

Alex Newport described this approach well in our recent May interview:

“The obvious example is on a vocal. Someone’s singing in the verse – you set your EQ, compression and effects, and everything sounds great. Then, the chorus hits, they start belting, and all of a sudden you’ve got a nasty 2kHz buildup. You could find an EQ setting somewhere in between as a compromise, but that’s not really acceptable.

“So, the better choice is to mult [the vocal] to two channels and develop a sound for each section. At some point I figured, there’s no reason you couldn’t do that with a kick drum or an effects return. Those moves help create these subtle dynamics that really make the song come alive.”

In the end, parallel processing is a general approach, rather than any one specific tactic. However you chose to use it, the parallel approach is just another option in the professional’s toolkit. Once practiced, it affords us yet another path we can use to chase after the sounds we hear in our minds’ ear.

Justin Colletti is a Brooklyn-based producer/engineer who works with uncommon artists, and a journalist who writes about music and how we make it. Visit him at www.justincolletti.com.

Posted in Artists in Residence, SonicScoop Presents | 4 Comments

Review: Softube Tube-Tech Classic Channel, By Chris Zane

First things first, let me get this out of the way: I love analog gear. I do.

I feel strangely guilty saying this, but so many of my peers are wholly ITB (“in-the-box”) or have slowly gravitated towards it, that suddenly I feel like I’m standing out in the cold by myself for wanting (needing) to use a big desk and a ton of compressors to making something sound good.

Ok. Not really, but you get my point. I’m 33 years old, and am caught right in the middle of the laptop generation and the “old school” guys. I’m not going to go down the ITB vs. analog road here, but I just wanted to preface that I do rely mostly on hardware as opposed to plug-ins. I should also mention that I love Tube-Tech stuff. A lot.

I love just about every piece of theirs I’ve ever used: I have 2 MP1As, 2 MEC1As and my personal favorites: 2 PE-1C equalizers. I’m pretty familiar with the sound of these boxes and lean quite heavily on the PE-1Cs in particular.

So when I saw the announcement that Softube had developed a software version of some of Tube-Tech’s choice tools, and packaged it together as a channel strip, I was certainly intrigued.

Softube’s “Tube-Tech Classic Channel” is a bundle of the following four plug-ins:

· Tube-Tech Classic Channel plug-in

· Tube-Tech CL 1B Opto Compressor

· Tube-Tech PE 1C “Pultec” Equalizer

· Tube-Tech ME 1B Mid-range Equalizer

IN PRACTICE

Bass: I don’t know why, but whenever I see a Pultec style EQ, I think bass. Maybe it’s the big knobs, maybe it’s the fact that the frequency curves are made for this kind of broad sweetening, but either way, it’s the first thing that I went for.

As expected, using the PE 1C, I was able to beef up the bottom with a nice boost of 4 or 5 @ 60Hz, and tighten it up with a cut at the same place. I then opened up the ‘teeth’ of the bass with a nice broad boost @ 3kHz, again boosting to somewhere between 4 and 5, and the bandwidth around 7. Just to be safe, I usually then experiment with where I want to ditch extraneous high end by cutting to about 2 or 3, and A/B’ing @ 5kHz and 10kHz.

With the ME 1B midrange EQ, I tend to leave the high mids and low mids alone unless there is something specific I feel I’m not getting from the PE 1C. But my favorite thing to do is yank all the mids out around 7 or 8, sweep through a couple frequencies, and when I hear something that ‘could’ be useful, back the attenuation way down to like 2, and then A/B it in and out a few times to see if I like what it’s doing.

Then, just cos’ it’s there, I’ll pop on a little light compression. I usually start with the default-medium attack and release times, and just bring the threshold up till I get the reduction I want. I tend to lean towards lower levels of compression with the CL-1B; maybe just somewhere between 1-3 db.

At this point, I gave the “compressor before EQ”/“EQ before compressor” switch a couple flicks to see which I like better (a nice touch, rather than having to go and change patches around in the middle of a mix).

I’ll do some more global bypassing comparisons, and possibly back some settings down a tiny bit. As opposed to a lot of gear/plug-ins, I kept coming back to the idea that a little goes a long way on this particular piece.

Drums: Another place that I find Tube-Tech gear to shine, is on kick and snare, so I was excited to see if the same would be true for Softube’s plug-in. In the hardware there is something about the way the high end rolls away that sounds very pleasing to me, and Softube seems to have captured that here in the digital domain.

The PE 1C portion sounded killer on a kick drum with liberal amounts of 60Hz boost and cut (I actually deviated a little from the standard ‘Pultec trick’ by not cutting as much as I’m boosting) and fairly heavy on the 8kHz or 10kHz boost (again, with the bandwidth around 7 or so).

On the snare track is where the beauty of having all of these pieces together really starts to become apparent. Being able to pull out the horrible midrange of your liking with the mid-band, and add a little low-mid punch, and high-mid punch, all with the ME 1B, is great. I then used the PE 1C to ‘exaggerate’ the highs anywhere from 4-8kHz, and maybe even a little 100Hz push.

The compressor portion seems a little too slow and/or colorful for me on close mics like a kick and snare, so I may skip it, or just barely touch it with some medium attack and release times, but I will say that for overheads, or room mics, it’s lovely.

Vocals: The vocal tracks that I threw this plug-in on, were approached basically the same way. Sweetening with the PE 1C, and corrective stuff with the ME 1B. I think the compressor excels more on a vocal track here than a kick or snare, but even then, I liked it more for “sitting a vocal down” than “making it pop”.

I found myself going back again and again, giving things a nice smiley face on the program EQ, dealing with any annoying stuff on the midrange EQ, and just touching the compressor with medium attack and release times simply because it’s easy to grab. The overall effect is not dissimilar to when you have the real gear sitting in your rack. Sometimes a little bit is just the right amount.

In a digital world where everyone is looking for one magical thing to make their work sound better, it may not be some saturator, or multi-band limiter at all, it might very well be Softube’s Classic Channel.

Softube’s Tube-Tech Classic Channel plug-in bundle ($699) runs on any VST/AU/RTAS compatible host application. iLok required. Visit the Softube website for more information and to demo or purchase.

Chris Zane is a NYC-based producer and engineer who’s worked with Friendly Fires, The Walkmen, Passion Pit, Holy Ghost!, Ruby Frost, Les Savy Fav, Asobi Seksu, Suckers, and Heartsrevolution (among others) He works out of Gigantic Studios in Tribeca. For more on Chris and to get in touch, visit http://chris-zane.com.

Posted in Artists in Residence, SonicScoop Presents | 3 Comments

The UAD-2 Satellite Quad Firewire DSP Accelerator

Reviewed by Bo Boddie

When Universal Audio first debuted the UAD-1 system in 2001, I have to admit that I didn’t pay it much mind. At that time I was still pretty skeptical about the quality of the mixes that I could get out of mixing in-the-box (ITB), and only used plug-ins for minor utility work and making roughs.

Most of the work I was doing was in recording studios anyway, so I had access to great gear‚ why would I use a plug-in 1176 when I could insert a real one? However, I always liked the idea that I would someday be able to work completely within the computer and still get the results I was after.

A lot has changed in the music production world since 2001‚ CPU power has grown exponentially, and the quality and flexibility of both DAW software and plug-ins along with it. Engineers and producers who are so inclined have adapted to the idiosyncrasies of working ITB, adjusting working methodologies to compensate for the differences between the analog and digital domains, and it is becoming commonplace for us to make great sounding records without all of that analog outboard that set the bar so high.

And as a specific milestone on the timeline, I still remember the first time I used the UAD plug-ins. Between 2003-2008 I used to work at Stratosphere Sound (shout out to Geoff Sanoff!) pretty frequently and they had UAD-1 cards in both of their rooms. During one session there, with an artist who was on Island records at the time, I decided to check out the UAD 1176 just out of curiosity. For someone who didn’t really care about using plug-ins, it was a big moment. It actually sounded like a real compressor! I was pretty floored and so I went and did the research on the UA software products. 

Although I was skeptical of having to add a PCI card for processing, I liked the commitment that they had made to creating emulations that went the extra mile, and so said, required the additional DSP to do the convincing work. These days I do most of my production work in my home studio, and so last year I purchased a UAD-2 card. Although the Mac Pro I use has a ridiculous amount of power which I have yet to max out, I still had that lingering memory of the first time I used the UAD-1 at Stratosphere, and growing gear envy over the ever-expanding line of UAD plug-ins. I was sold on the plug-ins; the fact that all processing took place on the PCI card was just an added benefit.

When SonicScoop asked me if I wanted to review the new UAD-2 Satellite Quad ‚Universal Audio’s new Firewire 400/800 UAD-2 plug-in platform (with Quad processing power) ‚I jumped on it. I was really curious to see how well the system would work over Firewire, and hoped I’d also get to try it out with my laptop.

SIMPLE SETUP

If you are new to the UAD system, the setup is extremely easy. The Satellite ships with the latest version of the UAD software, which includes all of the plug-ins (more on that later), all necessary drivers, and the metering and control panel application through which all features and authorizations are managed. The Satellite requires that you use software version 5.8.1, in which the ‚ 1 offers the Firewire support.

 If you don’t already have a UAD account, you will need to create one, as it is a necessity for managing plug-in and hardware authorizations. The software must be installed first, after which, authorizing the Satellite is as simple as turning it on and plugging it into either a Firewire 400 or 800 port. To complete the authorization, you must click the authorize plug-ins button.

Without following the instructions it took me a moment to remember this, maybe it would be a little more self-evident if there was a separate button for hardware authorization, but it’s hardly a sticking point. Clicking the button brings you to the user area of the UAD website, and it is here that your system is recognized and authorized. As with all UAD authorizations, both software and hardware, a file is downloaded through your web browser which must then be dragged into the window of the UAD system software; which in turn enables the use of the hardware/software.

All versions of the Satellite include a stellar collection of plug-ins, which Universal Audio calls the Analog Classics:
1. 1176LN, 1176SE
2. Pultec Pro
3. Realverb Pro
4. LA-2A

All of the other UAD plug-ins are pre-installed along with the system software, and have 14 day demo periods which can be authorized through the control panel, or via instantiating the desired plug-in from within the DAW environment — a dangerous proposition to be sure, given the amazing sounds you are sure to get! An extensive manual is included on the CD-ROM, which details all of these steps, as well as detailed descriptions of all of the plug-ins.

IN USE

I was pleasantly surprised at how well the system works over the Firewire bus. I tested it at both 400 and 800 speeds, in both Logic and Pro Tools 9, and although less plug-ins can be used with lower data bandwidth, using the Firewire 400 bus did not seem to radically affect performance.

The UAD control panel offers extensive control over how the Firewire bus is used, and allows the user to make decisions about how much Firewire bandwidth is allocated for the card’s usage. This is a wonderful feature given that there will almost certainly be other devices on the Firewire bus, either drives or an audio interface, and being able to have some control over how data bandwidth is distributed is paramount.

Universal Audio recommends that the Satellite always be the first device in the daisy chain, if there is one. The Satellite does not distribute bus power to devices that may need it, so that will also be a consideration. The manual offers a several different connection schemes, all of which were helpful. I tried many different configurations myself, and I’m happy to report that the Satellite worked well in all of them. All of this said, it is preferable to use Firewire 800, simply to maximize the power of the DSP card.

The Satellite uses the same SHARC DSP cards as its PCI-based brothers, the only difference being the way it interfaces with the CPU. There is no question that more plug-ins can be used with PCI-based cards, however, the Satellite’s major offering is its portability and compatibility on computers without PCIe, like MacBook Pros and iMacs. It is here that we see the one major difference between the Firewire and PCI based systems: LiveTrack mode cannot be used with the Satellite.

The major consideration with all of the UAD systems is latency. Sending audio data out to an add-on card for processing, either PCI or Firewire, creates significant latency. Hence, tracking with a UAD plug-in instantiated can be difficult, and the PCI-based UAD-2 cards and software introduced a low-latency mode (LiveTrack) as a workaround for those of us want to use the plug-ins while tracking.

 Because of the lower data throughout offered by the Firewire interface, this option is not available with the Satellite. For me, this certainly isn’t a deal-breaker, as I rarely incorporate any software-based processing while tracking; as long as I can mix with the plug-ins I’m happy. Perhaps we will see a UAD Satellite in the future that incorporates Apple’s new Thunderbolt interface protocol, which would undoubtedly offer the data bandwidth necessary to include this forgone option.

The only issue I had with the Satellite will not be a factor for most of you, but may possibly save a few people the disappointment of discovering too late that their laptop is not compatible, as was the case with my 2007 Core 2 Duo MacBook. The Satellite works with Intel-Based iMacs, select MacBook Pros and Mac minis. Just make sure you check out the UAD-2 Satellite Support Page to find your hardware on the list of compatible systems. As you’ll see, the Satellite works best with later model MacBook Pros, iMacs, Mac Minis and Mac Pros, and is partially compatible running at FireWire 400 speed, but requiring an adapter to run at FireWire 800 speed with earlier models of MacBook Pro, Mac Pro and iMac. Based on how well it worked with my desktop system at both Firewire 400 and 800 speeds, I can only assume it would work perfectly on any of the systems on the list.

CONCLUSIONS

In my mind, there is one compelling reason to use this product, and that is to have access to the dizzying array of analog emulations that Universal Audio has developed. They all sound fantastic, and have made a noticeable difference in my ability to more easily pull off great sounding ITB mixes.

UAD-powered plugins! Check out top plug-ins from Studer, Manley, Neve, Roland and more…

 While I was only able to use the Satellite with my Mac Pro for this review, the ease of set-up was fantastic, and I really enjoyed having 4 extra chips worth of power with which to go hog-wild with the plug-ins for a few weeks. I should note, that even with my DUO PCI card alone, I usually do not max out the available DSP.

A friend recently asked me if I thought the Satellite would be a good addition to his TDM Pro Tools system, as he had run out of PCI slots. After seeing how solidly the Firewire interface has worked I can say yes!

The UAD-2 Satellite comes in several different configurations: DUO (2 chips) with $50.00 voucher ($899.00); DUO FLEXI with $500.00 voucher ($1,199.00); QUAD (4 chips) with $50.00 voucher ($1,499.00); QUAD Flexi with $500.00 Voucher ($1,799.00); and QUAD OMNI with all the UAD plug-ins up to version 5.7 ($4,499.00). Visit http://www.uaudio.com/uad-plug-ins.html for the full range of UAD-2 powered plug-in systems.

Bo Boddie is a Grammy winning engineer/producer and composer who has worked with Santana, Everlast, Korn, Reni Lane, and many others. He is currently beginning work on Imperial Teen’s second release on Merge Records. Also check out Psychic Friend, his new band with Will Schwartz (Imperial Teen) and Patty Schemel (Hole).

Posted in Artists in Residence, SonicScoop Presents | 3 Comments