We here at SonicScoop realize that everything comes at a price these days – times can be tough. So for the 13th time, we have wrangled up these lucky freeware picks that we fell head over heels with over the last few months.
This installment includes seven plugins that will keep us busy for months to come. Now, read up on these keepers and let us tame these beasts:
Next up we have a freebie that goes both ways – Mac and PC! Not only is that convenient for all users, it is also surprisingly flexible plugin in the distortion department. Sounds can range from a smooth and warm to crunchy and gritty. IVGI is available in RTAS, AU and VST formats. Here is what Klanghelm has to say:
IVGI can deliver very soft and subtle saturation, that feels at home on the master buss. It is equally capable of very dense and dirty distortion effects to spice up single tracks.
IVGI’s base sound is comparable to the DESK mode in the upcoming big brother SDRR. Just as SDRR, IVGI reacts dynamically to the input signal. Even the modelled fluctuations react dynamically and also change depending on the drive setting, so that it doesn’t get in the way of the SOUND. Stereo tracks benefit from it’s modelled crosstalk behaviour. Just as its big brother SDRR, IVGI features a “Controlled Randomness”, which determines the internal drift and variance inside the unit. It contributes to the livelyness and realness of IVGI’s saturation character. All internal processes are modulated to some extent to make this possible.
IVGI gives you a sensible amount of controls to manipulate the character of the saturation itself. It offers a unique ASYM MIX knob to alter the symmetry of the signal without affecting the harmonic content much. Usually, asymmetry leads to an increase of even order harmonics. But in IVGI’s case, dialing in the asymmetry makes the negative part of the signal “cleaner”. This way you can preserve the dynamic structure of the source better and get a more transparent result. Actually, you can think of ASYM MIX as a transparency control.
IVGI also lets you alter the frequency dependency of the saturation with the RESPONSE control.
IVGI is internally calibrated to 0VU = -18dBFS.
IVGI is free! So try it out for yourself.
Out of the gate we have a broadcast-based limiter with a few extras. The plugin has vintage warmth written all over it and promises to add that subtle heat of times since past. ThrillSeeker VBL is available for free doll hairs, VST and Windows only! Variety of Sound says:
Bringing mojo back – Thrillseeker VBL is an emulation of a “vintage broadcast limiter” following the classic Variable-Mu design principles from the early 1950′s. They were used to prevent audio overshoots by managing sudden signals changes. From today’s perspective, and compared to brickwall limiters, they are rather slow and should be seen as more of a gain structure leveler, but they still are shining when it comes to perform gain riding in a very musical fashion – they have warmth and mojo written all over.
Thrillseeker VBL is a “modded” version, which not only has the classic gain reduction controls but also grants detailed access to the amount and appearance of harmonic tube amplifier distortion occurring in the analog tube circuit. Applied in subtle doses, this dials in that analog magic we often miss when working in the digital domain, but you can also overdrive the circuit to have more obvious but still musical sounding harmonic distortion (and according side-effects) for use as a creative effect.
On top, Thrillseeker VBL offers an incredibly authentic audio transformer simulation which not only models the typical low-end harmonic distortion but also all the frequency and load dependent subtleties occurring in a transformer coupled tube circuit, and which add up to that typical mojo we know from the analog classics. This would not have been possible with plain waveshaping techniques but has been realized with my innovative Stateful Saturation approach, making it possible to model circuits having a (short) sort of memory.
The third freeware plugin we have keeps on rolling with the retro vibes – drum rolling that is…! EXD-80 has a variety of digitally processed percussion hits at our disposal from classic emulations to glitchy revelations. The virtual instrument is available for Windows only in VST format. Here are more features from Third Harmonic Studios:
Third Harmonic Studios have released EXD-80, a free 32-bit VST instrument plugin for Windows. The plugin is a virtual analog drum and percussion synthesizer featuring:
- 8 Modules – kick, snare, open and closed hi-hats, 5 x percussion sounds
- 4 Stereo output pairs
- Each output pair has its own stereo effects section featuring a Granulator and Waveshaper
- Supports VST host automation and MIDI continuous controllers
- User definable MIDI note mappings
- 128 User drum kit patches (comes with 16 preset drum kits)
EXD-80 is a flexible drum synth that can produce a wide variety of drum and percussion sounds, from emulations of classic drum machines to crazy, mangled glitch sounds – all synthesized, no samples here! It is suitable for many EDM styles including electro, glitch, industrial, ambient, dubstep, drum & bass and hip hop.
Seeing as how this plugin is based off of the classic EL-8 Distressor analog compressor, we can expect numerous combinations of distortion, compression and side-chaining. This is the type of plugin we would take home to mom. Available for Mac and PC as VST and AU formats, let’s see some more details from Cocell Productions:
- Modeled Classic Compressor plugin
- Based on acclaimed Distressor® EL-8 Compressor, 500 Series Rack Style.
- Power On/Off Switch (Bypass) .
- Gain Reduction meter.
- Input level meter (-12 dB detect).
- Input control (Relative threshold).
- Threshold Controlled Circuitry(-30 to -50 dB).
- Ratio switch (1, 2, 4, 8, 20 and Nuke).
- Attack time control (0.05 ms to 4 secs).
- Release time control (0.30 ms to 3 secs).
- Post-Coloring modes switch (1, 2).
- Output control (0 to 40 dB).
- Side-Chain Filter modes HP(D) / BP(B) Detector, HP(A) Audio
- Dry/Wet Parallel Compression Knob
If users have room for only one more freeware plugin, we highly recommend this one. Why? Because after seven loyal years, Tone2 has decided to release FireBird 2 as a freeware product (previously $79). The synth comes packed with 437 sounds specific to its unique synthesis method, HCM. You can read more about that here. Only catch – Windows ONLY! Sorry mac loyalists. Here are more details from Tone2:
Harmonic Content Morphing synthesis is based on a large, expandable repertoire of standard waves, like saw, pulse, as well as more complex wave material, like multi-waves, trumpets, organs, pads, pianos and voice samples.
These waves are modified in real-time, by for example transposing the wave by one or two octaves and adding it to the original wave, altering its harmonic structure, syncing, compressing or even expanding the frequency domain of the spectrum. Making the wave for example sound more fat using only one oscillator, transforming each wave into a hyper-wave or selecting some cycles of a sample and moving through them over time (comparable to wavetable synthesis).
Any modification of a wave can be modulated producing lively shimmery sounds (remember: using only one oscillator!) With a total of more than 18,000 different spectra available for combination and modulation, Firebird+ gives an almost unlimited amount of timbres to experiment with.
- Very easy to program and easy to use
- A unique sounding synthesis: Harmonic content morphing (HCM)
- High sound quality: Warm, transparent
- 437 hand picked presets included, over 1000 sounds available
- 84 oscillator types containing 18,000 morphable waveforms
- 38 different filter types
- True stereo mode, 4x unison mode, and up to 8 oscillators per voice
- Can sound like other synthesis methods – additive, subtractive, AM, FM, phase distortion, supersaw, vocoder, sync
- Can sound like natural instruments like piano, brass, organs…
- 23 spectral manipulations or “modifiers” can be applied to the oscillators
- 21 arpeggiator types
- 13 effect types
- Skinable user interface
Lastly we have a freeware bundle combining a musical parametric EQ and (the real gem) a 4-band multi-fx plugin. The HUE-X’s musicality comes from the way it is laid out – unlike traditional EQs that display the actual frequencies (20Hz – 20kHz), this one lists the audio spectrum by musical terms from “Boom” to “Sparkle”. Beginners should find it very useful.
The M4GIQ is a cool take on an FX plugin that allows users to apply different effects to different bands which could really help sources cut through mixes in different ways. The plugin bundle is available for Windows users only. Here are the descriptions from Mildon Studios:
HUE-X is perfect EQ for those who trust their ears or just love to experiment with sound. It is designed to let you bring
out what you want in the sound instantly and with much ease. Now you can control different characteristics of the sound without having to deal with the obscurity of traditional EQ’s.Screenshot
M4GIQ is a 4-band multi-fx plugin that lets you apply Gain, Panning, and Delay to each frequency band. This is extremely useful for spreading frequencies across the stereo image, making it easier for the sound to cut through. You can shape the sound further with the Gain controls and High-pass/Low-pass filters. Delay can also be added to make an interesting effect, or to emphasize the spreading of frequencies. Screenshot
Dave Derr, designer of the instant-classic analog Distressor, says his high-end audio company is ready to move “furiously” and “excitedly” into the digital domain.
Dave Derr of Empirical Labs got his start in audio as an analog man at a digital company, testing circuit components for Eventide Electronics’ breakthrough hit, the H3000 UltraHarmonizer.
When he invented the instant-classic Distressor compression unit, he remained an analog man in what was an increasingly digital world. It was the late 1990s, and in a time before widespread clones of the iconic LA-2A and 1176 compressors, Dave Derr used analog FET circuits to emulate them, squeezing their charms into a brutal swiss army box dubbed the EL-8.
It went on to become, arguably, the most popular boutique analog compressor of all time. To walk into a well-appointed modern studio is to see a Distressor somewhere in the racks.
When I asked Derr about what was to come next for his company, I teased him slightly, playing devil’s advocate as I am obliged to do, in the hopes of prompting a poetic wax about his die-hard love of analog magic:
“Dave – I love the Distressor,” I said, “But tell me: Why should I care about an analog compressor now? And why should I care about one in ten years? Why stay so committed to analog?”
“Actually, its funny you say that,” Derr responded without so much as a pause. “We’re pretty much in the process of going all digital right now.”
“I worked in an digital company – Eventide – for years, and I love digital. For one thing, there’s the consistency and the repeatability. And then, you can do things in digital that you could never do in analog. That’s very appealing.”
This is not to say that Empirical Labs has plans to pull the plug on the manufacture of their Distressors and Fatsos and Lil Freq EQs. They are all still shipping now, and selling at a steady clip. Derr, a self-professed “pain-in-the-ass” spent as much as twoyears designing each of them to be hardware that would stay relevant in perpetuity.
“The goal for us is a few great products,” he says. “Not to throw out a whole bunch of products to see what sticks. So we always test the heck out of stuff, sometimes beta testing for over a year. The hardest product was probably our EQ. The goal was to make an extremely powerful EQ with a ton of features, that would last forever.”
“But I also designed 3 or 4 other products where, after up to a year of testing, we decided “Nah, this is not up to the standard of what we do.’
“People probably would have liked some of them,” he says, mentioning a DI and a handful of compressor designs that didn’t make the grade. “And we do have some test units out there that people won’t give back.” But ultimately, for Derr to release a design, it has to be among the best in its class, it has to come in at an inspiring price point, it has to be repeatable and reliable, and it has to be stuffed to capacity with both character and features.
That last bit is probably Derr’s defining genius if he has one – Every Empirical Labs unit is crammed with control and does something, or some combination of things, that no other box really can.
The EL8 Distressor can blow up audio, compressing and distorting at the same time, or cleanly and authoritatively tame peaks, adding just a bit of character and girth. It can give the impression of an LA-2A or an 1176 or a vintage dbx160, or do things none of those boxes could ever hope to do.
The Fatso Jr saturates and “warms”, sending signal through transformers and multiple non-linear circuits, while the Lil Freq packs in more features than almost any EQ this side of a computer screen, every square inch of its faceplate crammed with control.
Then there’s the Mike-e preamp, which starts with an input stage that’s flat from 3hz to 200,000hz and ends with a “CompSat” section capable of adding a little vibe or tearing it all apart.
That last one that drives home Derr’s design philosophy: As much as he loves the idea of saturation and pleasant degradation, he also wants his tools to be as hi-fi and as consistent as he can make them. He never officially released the opto-compressors he designed over the years, citing lack of consistency.
“I think the problem there is the opto-couplers themselves,” he says. “They’re like snowflakes. No two are alike.”
“There are companies that make renowned opto compressors that they’ve sold thousands of, and I can tell, they’re not within a dB or two of each other – And they have to spend hours testing parts to even get them that close.”
Engineers in the field reportedly loved some of Derr’s discarded prototype test units, but they did not pass one of his main criteria: undeviating audio fidelity. And to him, that’s one of the most exciting prospects of digital.
Adapting to Digital
“I’m friends with 10 different developers,” says Derr. “Right now we’re just trying to narrow things down.”
A few years ago, Empirical Labs put a big toe into the digital market with the release of the EL7 Fatso Jr./Sr. for Universal Audio’s UAD platform. Derr’s guess was that it would be one of the hardest pieces to emulate, because it is so non-linear. If they had some success there, he could be convinced.
“Everything in [the Fatso] is non-linear,” he says. “At first I asked Dave Berners [of UAD] if he’d even be interested in doing it, because trying to recreate that thing is like trying to model 8 Distressors.”
Their results with the plugin version of the Fatso proved two things for Empirical Labs: First, that it was possible for a plugin to live up to Derr’s exacting standards and to accurately emulate its analog counterpart.
“Right off the bat, [Berners] got the soft clipping sounding really good. I compared the soft clipping to the soft clipping of the fatso under a microscope and it was just incredibly close. As soon as I saw that I said ‘yeah, he’s going to be able to do it’.
The two went back-and-forth for about a year, perfecting the response of the plugin. Derr glows as he talks about Berners’ work, citing the man’s patience, and persistence and hunger for detailed feedback that he could put to work in the emulation.
In the end, Derr says that UAD was able to get the software to behave in a way that was stunningly faithful to the original, even as they worked together to add in bucketloads of new features. “You get the total Fatso vibe with that plugin. Even here at the studio, I’m more likely to just use the plugin unless I’m doing something really crazy. It captures not only the soft clipping, but the warmth, the saturation, the compression.”
The experience taught a second lesson as well: That a successful plugin doesn’t spell doom for hardware sales. If anything, they discovered first hand, it seems that the success of one may go hand-in-hand with success for the other.
The original analog Fatso is easily one of Derr’s most popular rack units, despite the $2,500 list price. But not long after the software version came out, software sales swiftly outpaced them, although Derr says both markets continued to grow.
“Anyone who has done this will tell you that software plugins will not adversely affect hardware sales,” he remarks. “And we have found that to be true. The Fatso plugin and hardware have not directly competed with each other. I doubted it at first, very seriously. But now, two and a half years later, I just don’t doubt it any more.”
In an industry where hardware manufacturers might be lucky to keep 10-20% of their list price as honest revenue, software, which can have far lower per-unit costs, means a company can keep profits going, even while charging less and serving more customers who they were never able to reach before.
It’s a good thing, because for Derr, new profits mean new designs.
Derr expects Empirical Labs to have a new plugin out sometime in 2013. But just as with his analog designs, Derr approaches design with performance in mind, not deadlines, so a solid date is not forthcoming.
Still, “We are definitely moving that way,” he says, “and we will definitely be selling plugins on our site.” He even says that they’re “winding down” as far as analog development is concerned. There might “be a couple more” new analog units in the works, but after that, Empirical Labs has its eye squarely on where the market is headed.
“We’re moving furiously into digital,” says Derr. “I’m looking really excitedly at it.”
The company has a few tools that would be an obvious fit for emulation. But the next new plugin EL that releases will not be based on a pre-existing analog device.
“It may have some similarities. It may do some of the things other products do. But very few parts of the circuit will come from hardware.”
Derr cites several benefits when he talks about designing directly for DSP. There’s the flexibility of interface, clearly a playground for him, and the near-limitless power to shape every aspect of a non-linear curve.
But another reason he’s not aiming to release a direct emulation of Empirical Labs hardware immediately is for the sake of protection.
If it wasn’t for cracks, Dave Derr says, “A Distressor plugin would have been out 10 years ago.”
Derr says he has received near-constant requests for a plugin version of his flagship design. And that’s precisely why he has not released one.
All that demand indicates that a Distressor plugin is especially likely to be targeted for cracking by disreputable coders with too much time and not enough scruples on their hands.
“The Distressor is a flagship product. If we’re going to do it, we’re going to put our heart and soul into it. But to go through all that, only to have it cracked within a year? I’m just not willing to do that.”
Those of us who work in the music industry are acutely aware of how a lack of control over intellectual property can sap creativity and focused effort from the world – not to mention economic activity and jobs. Let’s hope that the prospects of a Distressor plugin – sure to be a hit if it were developed and released – are not another casualty.
In the meantime, Derr and Empirical Labs are prepared to test the waters with a new plugin next year in the hopes of discovering that copy protection has improved to a point where they can continue to invest in developing new tools for the frontier where so many engineers have and are continuing to move.
I, for one, have got my fingers crossed. If a software version of the Distressor ever does come out, I’ll be among the first on line to buy it. In the meantime, Empirical Labs remains one of the most respected and accessible high-end hardware companies around. Whatever the future holds, that doesn’t seem likely to change anytime soon.
GREENPOINT, BROOKLYN: Winters in Anchorage, Alaska are epic. And, as it turns out, ideal incubators of NYC studio innovators.
Erik Braund, chief proprietor of the intriguing new Greenpoint facility known as Braund Sound, explains the musical connection between the sub-Arctic outpost where he grew up, and the 24-hour metropolis that he now occupies.
“Alaskan winters are the coldest, darkest, longest seasons you can imagine,” Braund explains. “Music was a wonderful escape from that. It’s an easy place to hole up and woodshed on guitar and drums – because it’s cold outside! It’s dark outside! When the thermometer reads minus-ten degrees, you don’t really want to go out.”
Eventually, however, Braund did step outside – way out. (4,367 miles out, to be exact.) The result is a paradoxically distinctive home base in Gotham, where a one-room studio in-the-round houses an ambitious multimedia venture.
One Room, Many Uses
Although he’s just 27, Braund appears to have jam-packed his time on Earth with action aplenty. His life was massively altered by the arrival of Nirvana’s Nevermind, and he went from playing hockey to being a proficient guitarist and drummer. Bit by the recording bug early on, he set up his first studio in Anchorage (“a dump with a shitload of gear”), which was funded by his fiscal success managing SEO campaigns for Web clients.
A fourth-generation Alaskan with extensive family ties to Norway, the enterprising Braund began producing and engineering heavily in the US and Europe (credits include A Place to Bury Strangers, Strange Shapes, Jared Woods, The Whipsaws, Delmag, Bowerbirds) as he dropped in, out, and back in to some of America’s finest educational institutions. Not long after graduating from NYU’s Clive Davis Dept. of Recorded Music (he also spent a year at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program), Braund felt ready to carve his own niche out of NYC’s crowded audio scene.
Not surprisingly, the spot he was selected is as far North as you can go – in Brooklyn. He found that relatively affordable space was available in the bustling Greenpoint Lofts building at 231 Norman Avenue, an artistic beehive that hosts an interconnected community of filmmakers, designers, and other studios.
After a careful assessment of the 1,600 sq. ft. space, Braund came to two – seemingly diametrically opposed – conclusions: 1) that the uncommon one-room studio-in-the-round design would be necessary for Braund Sound’s first phase, and yet 2) it would be an ideal HQ for multiple content-related business models, ranging from recording to audio post, video content production to an indie record label.
“If there’s one thing that’s at a premium in NYC, it’s space,” Braund acknowledges. “It’s not huge here, but I have space. I can record full rock bands here. I can make great live videos of them performing, or I can put up a green screen and create something else entirely. This is my headquarters. I like working with my friends, and I have a good network of people I respect that I’m excited to work with.”
Making the Studio In-the-Round
As he’s done with his life, Braund has packed a great deal into the 1,600 sq. ft. studio space of Braund Sound – while still making it all an enjoyable experience. Two racks of Distressor-dominated dynamics, API/Neve-flavored mic pres and effects are connected via 32 channels of Aurora Lynx A/D/A into a “vintage” Digidesign Pro Control 24-fader worksurface running Pro Tools HD2. Genelec, Yamaha and Mackie monitoring are available, with a Dangerous Monitor system.
Instruments on hand for recording are plentiful, including an ample supply of electric/acoustic guitars and basses; two beautiful DW plus one Slingerland drumsets with Craviatto snare (six more snares available) and 1922 Estey baby grand piano. Mics on hand to capture it all include hand-picked models from Neumann, Josephson, Schoeps, Blue, and Royer. A 10-foot video screen with HD projector dominates the wall facing the mix position.
A bonus at Braund Sound is the presence of a peppy Pomeranian named Goonie. Adding to the Alaskan wildlife experience is the cat Buffy, who resides full time in the adjacent sunlit lounge, complete with foosball and the indispensable Goldeneye Pinball Machine.
Despite the significant gear and instrument manifest, the Braund Sound space has plenty of room to breathe, create, and – most importantly – collaborate. With no control room, Braund revels in the advantages of recording in the same room as his clients.
“The biggest benefit of a studio-in-the-round is communication,” he states. “You have constant eye contact, and you can take your headphones off and talk to each other, instead of the fishbowl effect of pressing the button and saying ‘Go’ from another room.
“There’s no chance you can be texting during tracking, or otherwise ignoring your client here,” he continues. “I’ve been on the other end of that. This scenario requires everyone to be present. If you’re in here, you’re in here.”
Braund acknowledges that a studio-in-the-round setup can have its perils – the slightest audible shift in his chair could blow a breathy vocal take happening a few feet away. But ultimately he sees it as a perfect match for his recording style, which emphasizes creative connectedness between producer/engineer and artist. “I was expecting more glitches, but I’ve gotten totally comfortable working this way,” says Braund. “I find that the focus is heightened when everyone is in the same room.”
By maintaining his roots in the highly active Alaskan and Norwegian rock scenes, Braund Sound has quickly established itself as a welcoming space for far-flung clients trekking to NYC and his Brooklyn studio. Even though he’s just opened in May, so far Braund has already tracked sessions for 25 clients in the space. Word is spreading to the advertising community as well, with agency clients finding that the spacious open room helps get quick results from talent in time-sensitive VO sessions.
And while Braund Sound has acoustics that make it a smart match for a wide range of styles, its founder is unabashed in his allegiance to the rock & roll that got him started. “The musical niche here is rock band tracking, if I had to sum it up,” Braund says. “Because I’ve played drums and guitar, I can speak drums to the drummer and guitar to the guitarist. And as a producer I bring my influences and taste — which is not the best taste, and not the worst taste. It’s just mine.”
A Smarter Studio Business
Braund may be young, but he knows that simply setting up a shingle as a recording/mixing studio in 2012 is a risky bet.
That’s why Braund Sound is every inch a multimedia venture. His Web channel “Live at Braund Sound” demonstrates the facility’s capabilities for shooting/editing video, as well as mixing to picture. The Braund Sound label is working steadily alongside, providing him with an angle to work closely with his friends from Alaska, Norway, NYC, and anywhere else on the planet that harbors talent.
“This is my Erik Braund hub,” he says. “I’m not just trying to be in the studio business. My goal is not for the room to be booked every day of the week. Instead, it’s about creating an environment to work with good people in different ways, whether its video, recording, editing or producing. This place is creating the space for that.”
Still, there’s no denying that the space Erik Braund created, at any given time, may very well emerge as a craved flavor in NYC’s wildly diverse recording scene – not just due to the way this distinctive space sounds, but to the way it feels.
“The first time everyone comes in here, they say, ‘Where’s the booth?’” notes the enterprising audio maven. “They start out apprehensive, but once everyone is outfitted with their own headphones and cue system, people see they all have a nook to fit in.
“By the end of the session – every single session – people all say the same thing: ‘I was really comfortable.’ That’s the best feedback I could get. That’s what people come back for.”
– David Weiss
Special thanks to Julian Silva of On Air Mastering for helping to make this story happen!
HARLEM, MANHATTAN: You don’t have to imagine what’s like to be in the head of La Dispute. Everything about this intensely emotional rock band – their lyrics, their message, their music, and even the way it’s recorded – is about removing the mystery.
It’s all obvious from the moment that you hear the band’s singer, Jordan Dreyer, pushing it out in “a Departure,” the opening track from their arresting new album Wildlife. Don’t wait around for the raw energy of this Michigan five-piece to let up either, because the artfully charging guitars, rhythmic explorations, and intimate space of their post-hardcore screamo/progressive rock songs just keep on coming at you.
The recording team of producer Andrew Everding (Thursday) and engineer Joe Pedulla (Swizz Beatz, Thurday, Patent Pending) arrived at an early self-imposed challenge while working with this uniquely inspired group: no artificial reverb allowed. Whether it was plates or Lexicon PCMs, all ambience not imposed by the band’s actual surroundings was banished on Wildlife – instead, only the natural sound of the rooms at NYC’s Stadium Red and Chicago’s Drasik Studios were allowed to influence the sonic sense of space.
Like many feats of engineering, the “no reverb” rule came not by design but as a matter of natural course, starting at the initial sessions in Chicago. “We had miked the drums in the live room, and the room mics that were in there were set up for talkback,” Pedulla recalls. “Then the guitarist was in there to be next to his amp, and we started realizing, ‘This sounds cool.’ The parts needed this ambience, and sounded really good with that sound that you don’t get from close mics.
“So we started printing more and more room mics,” Pedulla continues, “and we realized early on the importance of that way of working. Collectively, we started printing everything by having a ribbon mic in the center of the room. Midway through the record, we made it official: Shoot for no digital reverb, and bash away in a way that you can’t do in a basement studio. Obviously, it’s a digital album to begin with, recorded entirely into Pro Tools, so we did what we could from there to remain in the natural era of recording. It was a fun science experiment for us to do.”
AMPED UP WITHOUT REVERB
After recording six of Wildlife’s 14 songs in Chicago (without vocals), the scene shifted to NYC, where the rest of the album was tracked in the spacious complex of Stadium Red uptown. As Everding, Pedulla, and La Dispute — Dreyer, drummer Brad Vanger Lugt, guitarists Chad Sterenburg and Kevin Whittemore, and bassist Adam Vass – progressed, they got an increasing feel for the appeal of the real reverb that they were cultivating.
“We were just trying to capture what it would be like for an audience member sitting and listening to a guitar in a room,” says Pedulla. “There was something natural about it — no one ever listens to a guitar with their ear right against the speaker. Whenever someone is in their bedroom or basement playing guitar there’s a natural ambience to it, so we wanted to put that down and get the big parts to sound really big, and really ambient.
“The singer, Jordan Dreyer, has this crazy dynamic range – a 20dB swing from how loud and quiet he gets. So there are some vocal parts with no resonance at all, where he’s speaking/singing softly, the room is not echoing, and he sounds close and in-your-face. Then the dynamic swing happens, and we would see how big it can get.”
At Stadium Red, where Pedulla frequently works, the team took full advantage of the versatile, 1,000 sq. ft. Studio A. “I love that room for its flexibility,” Pedulla says. “It’s got gobos and a throw rug to emulate the size of different rooms, and with the small (300 sq. ft.) drum room, leaving the door full or partially open makes a difference. You can really have everything sound intimate with close mics, or you can open your room mics and get the long throw on it.”
To record the drums at Stadium Red, Pedulla first put a combination of close mics and boundary mics on the kit. Leaving the drum room’s sliding door open, he then miked the large live room purely to pick up the drums’ resonance. “We did a couple of different setups,” says the engineer. “We had a Royer 121 as our mono room mic, and a pair of AKG 414’s as the stereo-pair room mics, or two of the Audio Technica3060 tube condenser mics, which they don’t make anymore.
“There was another mono room mic from the ‘50’s or ‘60’s, the STC 4021 that I know as a ‘ball and basket.’ It’s a really cool, dark-sounding ribbon mic. Ribbon mics on rooms are king, and that’s what we used for our vocal room mic as well — there’s something about the way a ribbon mic chops off the top end, and makes it kind of smooth. Using a ribbon for the room on drums you don’t get too much of a cymbal bang, it’s not harsh, with a really solid top end and it gives you the mid range you need to capture that natural, resonating snare reverb.”
Dreyer’s close vocal mic was the Bock Audio 151 tube microphone, going into an Amek 9098 preamp, then tamed by an Empirical Labs Distressor. “We printed room mics on the vocals as well the whole album through, except for one song because of scheduling we had to record in Stadium Red’s C room,” Pedulla notes. “So for that, while I was mixing I took a Genelec 1031 speaker and placed it in the vocal booth in the exact spot that Jordan was standing. Then I placed the STC 4012 ribbon mic in the center of the live room and ‘reamped’ the vocals.”
When miking guitars, Pedulla looked to a Shure SM57 and a Royer 121 for close mikes, and a Neumann TLM 103 for the room. “There’s something cool about that, from 6’ to 25’ back from the amp. You can put it right in front of the amp and still get the ambience, or put it all the way at the end and really have it sounding big.”
Those listening even semi-carefully will hear some artificial wash on the guitar part for the song “a Poem.” “We used an analog spring reverb, the Sound Workshop 262 Stereo Spring Reverb, on one guitar part there on input,” concedes Pedulla. “The guitarist, Chad insisted on using it — he used it sort of as you would a pedal into his guitar amp. We were using it as an effect, by picking up and actually dropping the 2U box. Rest assured, this was accompanied by a room mic for more reverb.”
StadiumRed’s SSL G+also helped shape and tame the sound. “We had a 26” kick drum, and that went straight into the SSL,” Pedulla says. “Those drums were so big, and there was something about the kick that I hated at first, but Andrew and I reduced 15 dB at 120Hz – that solved the problem of the kick drum, getting rid of the low-mid garbage we didn’t need. The flexibility of that EQ and that one cut alone saved the drum kit – to me, cutting is just as important as boosting, if not more.”
MAKING IT WORK IN THE MIX
Knowing that Studio A and the SSL G+ were booked up, Pedulla executed the Wildlife mix in the box. “I really liked using HEAT in Pro Tools|HD on this album,” he notes. “For a raw-sounding rock band like La Dispute are, I really liked overcompressing at times and then hearing the harmonic character of the HEAT distortion. I summed through the SSL, with two faders up to unity gain – the SSL 2-buss compressor combined with HEAT was really important to the glue of the mix.”
While temptation ran rampant, Pedulla was able to keep his hands off any and all reverb – hardware or plugins. “It was always in the back of my mind, but I was on this mission to make the record happen without it,” states Pedulla. “Even if it was sounding weird, and the room mic wasn’t able to give me what I wanted to throw in the mix, I just did what I could to make it work. We agreed on it, that’s what it is, and we accepted that fact. Even if it was a little bizarre or not quite perfect, that’s what it was going to be, regardless of the character.”
BEAR-HUGGING THE LIMITATIONS
For Pedulla, Everding, and the brave souls of La Dispute, the self-imposed restrictions of Wildlife were well worth the pain. “You kind of get painted into a corner sometimes, and you need to know how to dig yourself out,” Pedulla says. “The limitations are fun. It’s the challenge of engineering. Some days you’ll say, ‘I have to focus on compression and making this sit well,’ realizing the dynamic and importance of it for the band.
“One of the big lessons I learned from this project is the importance of room mics, and that I shouldn’t neglect them when recording. Even if the fader is at -25 dB, there’s still a little ambience in there, so it can sit in the mix a bit better. And now I know there are some things you can do with room mics that you can’t do with digital reverb — that’s for damn sure!”
– David Weiss
SOHO, MANHATTAN: The studios of NYC are not sitting still. As evidence consider the latest sonic escalation, launched from right below Broome Street and Broadway. There, Downtown Music Studios has upped the Big Apple ante with the installation of a vintage Neve 8014 console into the control room of Studio A.
Extra musically satisfying and aesthetically amazing, this 16-channel board represents more than just a fancy bunch of faders from the year 1970. Its addition provides a focused window on NYC studio economics in 2011, shedding light on the artistic and technical demands of the sector’s current clientele, as well as the informed interplay between facilities striving to be competitive instead of repetitive.
The console has been busy since it arrived earlier this year. Early projects on it include Santigold, David Guetta, Mike Posner, Benny Blanco, and Jason Goldstein mixing SNL-borne rock stars The Lonely Island. Downtown Studios Chief Engineer Zach Hancock explained to SonicScoop exactly why this bold new board has rolled into town.
How long has Downtown Studios been going now?
The studio is approaching our third year. It’s evolved from a production space that we rented at Chung King to the full-fledged, two-room commercial recording facility that it is now.
We initially started this facility with two control surfaces, moving from two Digidesign D-Commands to just one of those, in Studio B. That’s because of the importation of an 8014 Neve into Studio A.
What led Downtown initially to the D-Command for both rooms?
For the longest time we were large format console people, and we fought passionately to prove not only to ourselves, but to the world that mixing in the box was a viable option. The move from SSL desks to mixing with a Pro Control and an HD5 was a revolutionary phase for us in the early 2000′s. Working with Tony Maserati and Vaughn Merrick, they proved that it could really be done. Implementing mixing-in-the-box with a control surface in both rooms was in part an outgrowth of my relationship with Vaughn, and his astute idea that it was the best way to work.
Part of what makes Downtown Music Studios special is that as a record label, and a publishing company. We’re generating content ourselves. We provide a commercial workspace for clients half the time, and the other half we are the client. I wanted artists and the publishing company to be able to use the space as creatively as they could.
Downtown is a brand dedicated to forward-thinking artists, and that comes out intensely in the music. Part of that is having the studio time that they need, therefore a device at the center of the workspace that isn’t proprietary. If we had a large format console that was doing the mixing, I felt that they’d have a hard time translating that at their personal spaces, or in another commercial studio.
I saw other people’s workflows following suit — mixing in the box. So that’s why we equipped studio A to what we previously had. I still believe in it, and it was an amazing opportunity to work that way for two years.
What paved the way for switching to the Neve 8014?
Something happened when Avid acknowledged to the rest of the music community that native processing was just as robust as a small TDM system. When PT9 came out, I realized all at once that so much of our workflow – editing, doing overdubs, mixing – was going to happen in personalized spaces. It was an outgrowth of the music community, an outgrowth of the robust environment the computer now provides.
I saw the opportunity to focus Studio A as a tool to record bands, and handle all the elements of a project’s tracking. I thought that if you’re going to end up doing 30 to 40% of your workflow at home editing, maybe some mixing, etc… that it would free up your budget to work at an “A” level studio to do your recording. So we picked the console that was best for that.
This Neve 8014, working in coordination with PT9 and a EuCon control surface, is the perfect implementation of the modern workflow we’re talking about. It is truly the best of both worlds, a hybrid analog digital environment. It sounds astonishing, everything works in a very elegant workflow, and people are reacting to it very strongly.
What were the criteria going in to the new console search, before you settled on this particular board?
The selection process was laborious, we looked at every option out there: SSLs, APIs, Neves of different variety. Ultimately, the most important things for us were that 1) it was not counterproductive to the way we had worked previously, and 2) that it had had the best sounding mic-pres, the best sounding EQs, and it could really bring something to the table that wasn’t there in the market before.
I’m close to people who, on paper, could be considered to be our competition. It didn’t make a lot of sense for us to be doing what they were doing. I’m really happy to see that the community of studios run by people in NYC are really good people. That wasn’t always the case.
Let’s drill down to this Neve 8014 that’s sitting in front of us. Why did it finally make the cut?
The main reason is that this console is in pristine condition, and it has the best of what we want for tracking, mixing, summing or any other in-the-box permutation of analog and digital equipment.
One of the things that we’re very mindful of is the acoustical installation in this room. It sounds like one of the best rooms I’ve ever worked in, and I’m not the only person who feels that way: Tony Maserati, Jason Goldstein, Vaughn Merrick, Ari Raskin, are serious engineers. We work out of this room for different reasons, but one is that it’s acoustically flat – Pilchner-Schoustal knocked it out of the park.
I didn’t want to get a console that would require us reworking the acoustical or mechanical infrastructure. I didn’t want to have to put in another AC unit or bulkhead, or rip apart the room to get it in, because to me the most important part of the room is the acoustics, and the ergonomics. The equipment is always within reach, and the fact that there’s not a credenza behind you is meaningful. That’s why if we had put in a 72-input console, that would have been counterproductive.
Where did you locate this particular board?
I always said I wanted an 80-series Neve. The difficulty in acquiring an 8068 is that it would have been too big a car to fit in our garage. The 8014 is really the perfect-size console, given the modern integration of the computer, and the way Studio A is layed out. We found this board in Ireland – I sent Joe Russo, who’s an amazing young tech, to Ireland to inspect it, and he spent four or five days there. We did a very thorough inspection, and decided it really was the console. Rock-It Cargo handled the logistics of getting the desk here quickly and safely.
We split a lot of hairs when it came to planning the actual switch from the D Command to the 8014. When the time arrived, we executed the plan and there weren’t a lot of surprises — it went very smoothly. The people at Neve and Geoff Tanner were kind enough to send us some documentation, and Alto Music NYC provided us with a lot of outboard gear and a new Pro Tools rig. Everybody did a really exceptional job.
You’ve been working on this board since January – how has it matched up with your vision of an ideal tracking tool?
I think that there’s an “X-factor” to the sonic architecture of the mic pres and the EQ that make you feel as though you’re listening to a record. Working in the box is transparent, and sometimes indicative of something a little bit lifeless, but this console sounds a little less like real life in a super-natural way. Ergonomically, it’s the best way to work in a tracking situation. All of your mic pres and EQs are there. It’s not arduous. It’s logistically easy to accomplish tracking.
The other thing is that the Class A mic pre really is a cut above. I think these mic pres are the best for pop and rock music. It’s a very clear, robust sound, and it has a harmonic detail in certain frequencies that are very musical. It’s difficult to explain how they sound better, but they’re famous for a reason. Having them inline, directly in front of you and your PT rig is great. You can get what you need really fast.
The artists we’ve been working with on this console have been excited about the sounds that we’ve gotten. That gives you confidence in your ability, and that’s what it comes down to: making sure the artist can create. This console has definitely augmented our ability to do that. That’s a really rewarding feeling after working so hard to acquire it.
How are you’re using the 8014 in the mix phase?
The first thing I should note is that it’s not an inline console – it’s a split console. It’s got an interesting set up for monitor returns. We’ve integrated the monitor returns at mixdown to become inputs to the console, but with a flick of a switch they can function, as they would have when they left the Neve factory in 1970. Some engineers prefer this for tracking.
So we have, essentially, 32 inputs to the desk; 16 of those inputs have faders and 1084 mic pres and EQs etc…, and the other 16 inputs allow the room to use some of the other pieces of the installed outboard– the Chandler TG1, the Distressors, 1176, Pultec style EQs, GML EQ, tube limiters. Everything can fold down to the stereo bus.
It’s all new outboard equipment in Studio A that we thought would be the perfect complement to the console, and we made a point not just put in vintage equipment. There’s some incredible new gear, and we’ve adopted a lot of that stuff in the workflow. I think of outboard processing as an opportunity to add different spices to your mix. So we bought valve EQs that would complement the Neve – they have some color that the transistors in the console don’t have, and the dynamics that we have are different than the compressors in the desk. We wanted to have mono tube limiters and compressors that you would use in a tracking environment, and the stereo bus compressors that you would use in a tracking environment or on groups in a mix.
The automation comes from the Euphonix Artist Series Controller with EuCon, integrated into Pro Tools 9, which together works like the D Command. So we were able to get the same level of integration into this amazing analog console as we had before.
Can you explain exactly how that EuCon-to-Neve connection works?
We’ll come out of Pro Tools, and dedicate an analog output to a group of audio i.e. a “stem”, or one analog output per instrument. So that comes from Pro Tools into the desk, and then the desk functions as an analog mixer.
It goes a step beyond a summing mixer, in that you can do inserts on the console that allow you to step away from hardware inserts in Pro Tools. That requires a level of digital-to-analog conversion, then analog-to-digital, so you covert twice while you go out of the box then back in. The beauty of the Neve is that you can use the inserts on the channel fader and avoid all that conversion.
For automation, we modulate parameters in Pro Tools, volume data etc… with the Euphonix control surface. Any volume changes happen before they arrive at the console. It’s an important step in making recalls easier, more convenient for all parties involved. Most people are doing automation in the box so if you open the session the next day, the automation is there. There’s no lengthy recall, and that can save your client money. You can also bring it home, etc…
You said before that you were paying attention to where Downtown fits into the overall scene, in NYC and I guess that goes for nationally as well. Why is that so important?
One of the difficult things about owning or running a studio is that there are so many choices at hand for people. At the same time one of the incredible things about making music is you have so many choices.
For me, the challenge was to live on the side of the debate where you’re making music and loving the choices. I think it’s silly to be doing the same thing that five or six other people are doing. So it was a no-brainer for us to do something a little bit unique. But it’s not just the console – the truth is I feel that we have the best Pro Tools rigs – an HD5 system, an HD Native system and an Avid Symphony system. We take each one seriously, whether its Logic or PT. We can accommodate at a high level of integration. We have almost every plug-in you could want, and a UAD 2 card, which I’ve been raving about.
The bottom line is that the computer has always been the most important thing for us. One of the ways to find a lane is to take our expertise as computer and process people, and combine it with the best hybrid approach which we’ve been developing over the last 10 years. It’s not completely unique, but it’s not run-of-the-mill by any stretch of the imagination. It’s something that people are really excited about – the response that we’ve gotten so far is amazing.
In the last several months we’ve covered some significant console switches in NYC – the ICON was switched out for an SSL G+ at Stadium Red, and prior to that Tainted Blue traded their SSL J9000 for a Euphonix System 5. Why this increased activity?
I think that studios have always changed consoles. I read Stadium Red integrated Just Blaze into their workflow. Not only is that an amazing facility, but he’s one of the greatest producers of all time. Just Blaze has had an indelible mark on hip hop and R&B. His work is amazing. The guys at Tainted Blue I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting, but time to time you hear glowing reports of what they’re doing. I can’t tell you why they switched, but I know the System 5 is the pinnacle of post production consoles. Some people use it for music, and for post it probably is one of the best tools.
I do think that technology is at a place where for the last four or five years there was an identity crisis of how people wanted to work. The expediency of working in the box became really important, because recording budgets have scaled back. The need to make changes at the last minute possible has made a definite impact on our workflow.
Computers have gotten so good that a large-format console isn’t a need, it’s a want, whereas before you had to have one. Whether or not a studio needs an analog console is something you need to look at on a case-to-case basis. But for us, this change is exciting. It makes a lot of sense.
– David Weiss