(Mostly) Universal Audio and mixing the space rock

It’s the end of an era.

Well, for me anyway, in terms of mixing and recording audio. You see, for the past number of years, almost a decade now, I’ve been on the Universal Audio “Artist’s extended demo” roster for their plugins. In the course of this time, I’ve spent the money on several pieces of their hardware (Apollo 8 Channel Quad processor, a PCIe 2-sharc card, an external FW800 2-sharc card, and more recently Apollo Twin Quad Thunderbolt just for use with the laptop) and recorded tracks for tons of albums, and mixed, mixed, mixed. Even sort-of mastered some albums. But now, I’m losing my “artist” status as the churn moves on to the more important folks. Ah well, all good things, as they say. 

I’m a ProTools guy. Still. Started with SoundDesigner II back when I first saw it used in 1990 or so, immediately stepped into the world of digital recording and mixing. I’m really into being able to view the waveforms and edit them like graphics. Part of the synesthesia of hearing sound in a stereo space, seeing the analog drawing of the energy going out the speakers. I can’t say I’m super psyched about Avid in general though. I haven’t updated Protools since my “subscription” to whatever ran out, and I’m running an almost 10-year-old computer, so I’m still working on PT 12.4 here. Nonetheless, all the Universal Audio plugins are still working. And I’m super good at working with audio in ProTools, in a way I just can’t figure out how to do in other programs. I’ve tried many over the years. I do have Logic X on my laptop, (which is lucky because then I can just plug a cable from a digital board at a club and record all the tracks onto the interior drive (SSD) and it *just works* in a way that Apple stuff should. But then trying to deal with mixing or editing in Logic and I can’t even.)

Universal Audio is a Santa Cruz company, so they’ve been nice to us in Camper Van Beethoven, we being (initially) a Santa Cruz band. I had always loved their audio hardware, especially the preamps, but the direction they’ve taken with hardware emulation plugins is astounding and keeps getting better. I’m hooked. 

I’ve got my favorite plugins to use, of course, by now, but I change it around. Right before leaving on tour with Camper Van Beethoven this summer (2019), I was trying to get some mixes done relatively quickly, several Øresund Space Collective shows from eastern Europe in May and June were recorded multi-track (either directly out from a digital mixing desk at the club or board outs to a hard disk recorder) so I’m trying to make ‘em sound good. I’m gonna go through my methodology here.

So, I got 6 concerts multitracked, you’d think I’d make a template to just dump all the audio in wouldn’t you? I guess that would be smart, but the thing was each night had different mics and even different drums sometimes. So it wasn’t like I could just make generic settings, so I just loaded all tracks into their own sessions and started from nothing on each one.

AllTRacks

Classically, I like to set up tracks starting from the kick drum, snare, (hi hat if the channel exists) toms, overheads. Then on to bass tracks, guitars, synths. Like normal old-school mixing board set up. ØSC is an instrumental all-improvised space-rock ensemble, so usually only one live vocal mic for Scott Heller (Dr Space) to announce things. I’ve mixed several of our studio albums as well, so even though the lineup changes (it *is* a collective, you know), the vibe is usually a groove with wailing guitars and synth, with Dr Space doing modular synth wind/noise/sweeps/bleeps’n’bloops, etc. Think 70s Hawkwind or maybe Gong. 

Most of time I will make a drum buss with its own VCA and possibly a buss that controls overall guitar-and-maybe-synth levels. If I’m doing studio mixing I still go the classic mixing board method and have stereo busses for drums, bass, guitars, synths, (vocals), reverbs and effects, and I put them all the way right on the other side of the master fader. 

Starting with our kick, I’m trying to get a decent sound out of either the drum set that resides at the practice space in Copenhagen, now parading around Europe at the mercy of whatever mic some club in Dresden or Warsaw may have for it, or an opening band’s gear. Tim Wallander, the drummer (from Agusa and several other Malmö-area groups), usually brings his own snare and cymbals, and his snare sounds like a drum, it retains a lot of drum-shell sound and less of snare-y high end (especially with a crappy old mic on it.) 

I’ll usually resort to my favorites for these, UA Neve 1073 or Neve 88RS. The 1073 is just the best, in my opinion. I end up using it a LOT, desert island preamp and EQ. The 88RS of course has the weird Neve compressor/gate, and while I try not to gate any of the drums (if I have to, I’ll edit tom tom tracks to only have their hits, but…),  I do end up with slow gates on the kick sometimes, depending on how much low end is bleeding from the bass nearby or if the stage has subs under it (why do they do this!?) In any event, one tries to get some sense of the size of a kick drum shell in terms of low-end resonance, with some elements of the sound of the beater beating the living hell out of its skin. I usually end up making a kind of bactrian-humped EQ where the bass guitar can fit in between—minus a little 90-120hz or so on the bass, but then bringing a little bit of very low under that from the kick and the bass also. I find that the classic compressors like the UA DBX 160 or LA-2A are working nicely after EQ on the kick, if indeed the signal isn’t recorded with compression to begin with (again, different clubs.)

The UA Neve 1073, as I’ve said, is the best on everything. It just sounds good. I use it on snares, on guitars, on vocals. Even without starting to alter the EQ settings, I feel like just inserting it on the channel brings a lovely sound, a little quality distortion that brings out the harmonics of the sound. As I mentioned, the snare ends up being recorded live as well as it can be, which isn’t always excellent. In the mix, I end up needing more “snares” sound, more hi-mid white noise elements to add to the drum’s cracking and popping sound. There are some great presets for the 1073 to start out with, many “70s” sounds, for example. One thing I dislike, however, is the sound of a super squished snare that pops instead of cracks. So I try to be very sparse on compression. What I *do* do, though, is often duplicate the snare track and EQ it radically (UA Cambridge EQ!) to bring out the snares themselves and then crunch that up a bit with something like SoundToys Devil Loc or maybe even a SansAmp. 

drums

drum processing, kick and snare EQ/preamps and compression, Overheads EQ and parallel buss comp

Toms are a problem on these live recordings, because they are inconsistent and almost always open mics that pick up everything. I try to tune them to get some more resonance and a little stick, the bactrian camel curves again, a little higher than the kick for resonance, and possibly lower for the stick with a dip in between. Say ~150hz for the floor tom, and a little 1k-2k spike. I wonder if a superimposition of all these EQ curves would look like a herd of camels. Depending on what’s going on CPU-resource-wise, I maybe just use the ProTools native 7-Band EQ and possibly their gate/comp. Tricky though, with the gates, due to what freqs may be bleeding at what levels. Especially for mixing a live show, I want it to sound more natural and less studio-jiggered. Gates can bring in some weird elements when the drum track has a sound that aren’t the sound of the drum in the recording, can end up sounding bizarre, like sudden high pitched electrical noises coming in with each drum hit. Not fun.

For Overheads—if there are recorded tracks! I’ve mixed some shows that had no cymbal mics, so had to duplicate other mics and radically EQ them and try to place them in space to fake it—I mostly use the UA Cambridge EQ, some hi-pass, then depending on what cymbal or toms are on what side, make some cuts in the middle and boosts in the high end to match the instruments’ tones. I run a parallel drum buss through the UA Fairchild 660. Wow, what a roomy compressor/limiter. Really ties the room together, that guy, like a nice rug.

I’m mixing drums from audience perspective, by the way. For live, anyway. I think I unconsciously do from drummer’s perspective (L-R) when doing studio recordings, but for live shows, I try to match the placement on stage as if you were in the audience. So for these, floor tom is left channel, rack tom is right channel. 

So a little ear-candy now, since I’ve got a decent drum set going on, with a parallel compression, both summed to a drum buss controlled by a drum-group VCA. But it’s dry! So, rather than trying to mix in a room recording (which I could do and have done, of course) I’m gonna fake it. Two reverb busses are in place at the far right of the mixing console, one of them is my all time favorite, the AudioEase Altiverb. I’ve been using this convolution reverb for what, 20 years now? Still the best. (for me anyway.) In this situation, I’m finding either a club to put the band in or possibly a theater space. For several of these shows, I’ve settled on the Club Paradiso in Amsterdam as a substitute for, say, Hydrozagadka in Warsaw or Vaastavirta in Helsinki. Sometimes the New York club Tonic works really well for a club space background. My weird methodology is to send a little of the snare track directly into the Altiverb reverb, and then take another send from the parallel comp drums track to a *different* reverb with all the drums. Often that second one is a plate, like UA’s EMT140, but they recently brought out the Capitol Echo Chamber and so I’m using it while I can. What’s cool about it, besides sounding like an old recording studio’s echo chamber, is that, in stereo, the sides are unequal: it actually maps the real space, so the bounce is different on different walls. This can be cool, especially just a touch to create a sense of space for the ensemble to live in. 

reverbs

Now on to the bass. Jiri, the bassist, plays a left handed 5 string bass with a low B string, and he uses a lot of effects. Including fuzz, octaves and echoes. So he tells the sound man that he likes a microphone on his cabinet instead of a DI, as that will actually get the full frequency spectrum he’s using. Sometimes he sounds like a bass, sometimes like a synthesizer. For the most part, I just need a little bit of control, so first thing I will do is notch out a tiny bit of low end in that 100hz range, maybe 90, maybe 120, to fit his signal around and between the kick drum. Then compression. I’ve been using the UA LA-2A’s a bunch for bass compression, but I’ve recently been on an Empirical Labs Distressor kick. (for guitars too!)

It helps *me* if there’s a DI line also, because what I like to do is send that signal to the UA/Softubes Bass Amp room. I love this plugin, it’s amazing on line-recorded bass. I’ve used it on nearly every album I’ve made in the past 7 or so years. It sounds like a bass amp (or three) in a room. I have two 70s Fender basses, a Precision and a shitty Musicmaster with the frets filed off and a Seymour Duncan pickup, either one plugged directly into the Apollo and then through the Softubes Bass Amp room, and that’s all I need. In Jiri’s case, for these live shows, I use the plugin in mono-to-stereo and bring it in under the original track. That way I can EQ his original track to get all his high mids and then the amp room brings up a bit of the ultra-low floating around in the space. Especially good when balancing a fuzz bass with the band. It’s a lot of two-humped EQ curves going on between the bass and the drums, all fitting together in notches. Herd of camels.

On this tour, we had two guitarists and usually a keyboardist. Our normal touring synthesizer player, Mogens, had to stay in Copenhagen due to just starting up his own acupuncture business! So we tried to get locals each night to jam with us, and we got some great and varied musicians. On these shows in the screenshots, in Warsaw, it was Marysia Bialota on some Korgs, while in Helsinki it was Vesa Partii playing a synth with a guitar: Boss GT-10 Synth and EHX Key9!

In general I want the keys to be relatively centered in the mix, but of course that depends on the music and where they might be on stage (bleed-wise). Or if it’s an actual organ or mono-synths or what. In Hamburg we had Anders from Liquid Orbit with his touring setup: a chopped Hammond with tour-boxed Leslie speakers, a Mellotron and a mono synth! Unfortunately, we don’t have multitracks for those, just room recordings. 

I started using UA’s CS-1 Channel Strip a long time ago when there was a starting preset called “Synth Tamer”. Well, I can’t find that preset anymore, but that doesn’t stop me. It’s got an EQ section for some shaping (hi-pass to get out of the way of the bass, for one, some upper mid sculpting, maybe some hi end sparkliness) and then it has a compressor, and some time-delay and it’s own reverb. I try to get a little subtle chorus out of the delays and maybe a rectangular room for a little bit of its own space. Might nit need more than that.

The other guitarist on this tour was Vemund Engan, from Black Moon Circle, who was most of the time playing through a big Peavey combo (from the Copenhagen rehearsal space again), his tone is very rock guitar, very Marshall-y, with either an SG or a baritone guitar. I was playing my Fender Stratocaster (the ’62 reissue, now with a super comfortable leather strap which was very cheap in Poland. It feels like you’re sliding into a luxury sports car to put it on) into a Peavey tweed classic, my tone ranged from more Strat-clean to fuzz, with echoes of course, etc… I could go on about pedals and guitar tone forever. Maybe I will someday.

Anyway, we are usually on opposite ends of the stage, so I put us there in the stereo space as well. EQ and compression. Lots of volume editing. And one trick: I put each guitar into one of the reverbs, with the send panned opposite to the track’s placement. I love this trick, I automate the send levels for solos to send the track into the other side of the space, it’s especially cool with the UA Capitol Studios chamber because it has a distinct bounce on the left side, you can take the left-channel guitar, send it to the echo chamber right side and it bounces a bit back to bolster the initial track as well as spreading the signal a bit for solos. I do this rather than change the pan of the track on live show mixes. 

guitar synth helios

guitars: Helios and Distressor, 1073 and Smack (an old ProTools comp) and the CS-1 for the synth

These screenshots are from Warsaw and Helsinki, at the former I was left side (looking *at* the stage) and Vemund right, at the latter, it was the opposite. Again, I often use the UA Neve 1073 on guitars, but I’ve also become smitten with the Helios 69. The Helios really brings the crunch out and can tame some of the low end as well, so I have been using it on Vemund’s guitar signal. I only became aware of this EQ due to recording some Camper Van Beethoven with Jason Carmer in Berkeley, CA, and then discovering the preset on the older version of UA’s Helios called “Carmer’s Charmer.”

I’m usually more “classic” electric guitar-sounding usually with a Fender amp (the Peavey Classic is excellent, by the way), so the 1073 works really well on my guitar or violin. That and the Distressor! I was turned on to the hardware version of the Empirical Labs Distressor when I was playing with Sparklehorse 20 years ago, I mean, you can tell Mark Linkous loved his compression, and the Distressor was a hit with him. I have never owned the hardware version, but UA’s plugin is kicking ass for bass, guitar, violin, etc. It has some harmonic features as well, hi-pass and harmonic distortions that can work wonders on midrange and treble instruments. 

So that’s all pretty simple, straightforward. Get good sounds and leave them in the mix. I’m not doing ornate effects sends like I would do in a studio session (where I do really go for it with the different echoes and filters and whatever.) However, I do want to make Scott’s modular synth and Kaoscillator make the space to lead the listener through the sectional changes in the improvised music. Scott usually has a mono signal live, so I get to play with it in the mix. Depending on the quality of his signal, there are different options. Some places are crappy DIs and there’s a lot of line noise which is a bummer, but a good signal from the modular is also tricky because it’s producing a very wide frequency spectrum and sweeping through it. I would like to compress or limit the signal, but again that can be messed up by the sweeps of different frequency areas, so one thing I started doing recently was using the new UA Oxford Dynamic EQ, that can limit levels for specific ranges, in a graphic EQ window. If I set it for a basic De-ess type and then wiggle it around, I can get a decent signal when his noise or tone sweeps go through the high end, 5-7khz. I mean, oscillators don’t care, they just output signal regardless of your old ears and the Fletcher Munson curve. I also have been tending to hi-pass the modular, he rarely goes into super low end and usually it’s just line hum down there. 

Then I auto-pan him. I started using Melda Production modulation plugins a few years ago, they’re really good but I still find them really difficult to get to the controls! Have to look it up in the manual each time to find how to slow down the LFO, it’s not intuitive. I started working with their Leslie cabinet emulators for organs, but have recently really gotten into their Pan and Spectral Pan modulators. You can alter the waveform of the controlling LFO, so I usually put a couple harmonic bumps into the sine wave so that it hovers back and forth in the center before panning out to the sides. Like a spiral. With the Spectral Pan, I can specify a frequency range or ranges that pan differently. And then, he gets echoed, with the sends reversed left and right, so the echo follows his panned signal across the stereo space, almost like it has a trajectory of its own. Maybe he gets a little sent to the Altiverb also. For echoes, I’ve used a bunch of different things. I like the UA EP-34 tape echo, but haven’t been using it on these sessions, instead I’ve gone with a SoundToys EchoBoy for straighter echoes in stereo (lots of options here too, including some tape drive or prime-number echoes) or their Crystalizer, which is a granular echo so I can have a certain quantum of the echoed signal fed back and reversed in time, which is super cool with Modular Synth sweeps. Other commonly used delays are the UA Cooper Time Cube, which mimics a weird hardware unit that has a hose coiled up inside it to delay the sounds (hardware version used mixing CVB at Chase Park in Athens, GA), or my old favorite, the A/DA Stereo Tapped Delay. The A/DA is something I used a lot back in the early 1980s when I started down this road of audio sin at the University of California Santa Cruz Electronic Music Studios. We had an Omnipressor, the A/DA Stereo Tap and an Eventide Harmonizer and a few other crucial pieces of hardware, now almost all available as emulation plugins from UA or Eventide. The A/DA made the UA roster last year, at a time when I was working on a piece for a choreographer that was coincidentally premiered at the UCSC Performing Arts Theatre (in multichannel!) So I really got my Stereo Tap groove on very heavily for that one as I recalled the EMS there.

modular 2

Modular synth precoessing

Back to the live set, the lonely vocal mic will sometimes get a little work, but again, it’s mostly just for Scott to introduce the band or talk to the audience between pieces. Maybe I’ll freak it out a bit with a UA Moog moving filter, and send it to echoes or reverb or something. 

So we’ve moved across the (virtual) board from Left to Right, then my Aux channels are just two reverbs and a delay, then a Master Buss that has some faux-mastering plug ins if I’m in a hurry, then the master fader. For these shows, which are mostly straight-to-video, I mean, straight to the Bandcamp site or the internet in general, I just do the EQ/Compression/Limiting right there and that’s that. For studio mixes, I mix and then set up a whole new session to master. I’m not the greatest mastering ears, I think, but you know, you do what you can. There are a number of pieces of UA gear that really can make you realize what mastering is all about, and I have a number of ways and means to work on the final mix on the master buss. 

For EQs, I like the UA Chandler Curve Bender, it’s not a radical EQ but it can carve out a nice shape and it has some super-high end air to work with. The other route is the UA Precision Multiband. Wow, what an instrument. It’s a multiband compressor that can control separate frequency bands in separate ways. I’m trying to *not* alter my mix super much, just trying to get some cohesion and enhancement. Especially if it’s gonna be flac or MP3 listening on the other end. The Precision Multiband is a hog, though, and it means the whole mix is offset by about 16000 samples in delay compensation, so playback looks a bit weird. Not suitable for tracking. 

For compression or limiting, I used to use the UA Precision gear most of the time, but lately I’ve gone over to the dark side using the UA/Sonnox Oxford Limiter. It’s a boss, has its own EQ enhancement curve levels, and the normal input and threshold settings, as well as some control for compression attack and release. I don’t just want to squish and get more “loudness” out of it, I prefer to have a slower attack and let some drum transients come through. And since most of this stuff will never be aggregated to streaming services, I don’t have to worry about their weird loudness measurements and specs. 

For more nuanced compression, I love using the UA Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor, in one of its more gentle modes. Sometimes I also will put the UA/Katz K-Stereo ambience recovery stereo field manipulator, it can widen the image or shed some light into the corners of the reverb spaces. I also tend to try using the UA Ampex ATR-102 tape machine for the master buss. I’m into the hi-fi settings, 30ips, 1” tape, not slammed on input. The tape machine emulators are interesting, in fact my very first experience with UA plugins was when we were recording Apricot Jam and All Attractions and the engineer threw the UA Studer A-800 across all the drum tracks, it blew my mind. I will sometimes do some tape deck on drum tracks as well, or at least kick and snare.

mastering 2

Mastering/mixing master buss with Precision Multiband, K-Stereo, ATR-102 and Oxford Limiter

Anyway, that’s a quick run through of my process for mixing these live recordings. I love mixing music and/or sound. It’s like a big 3D sculpture in time. Mixing ØSC is super fun, but always a little tough due to the length of the piece—some jams are 30 or 45 minutes long, so moves you make on volume or EQ might need changing or going back to check how it gets there, trying to get the sense of where you are in the overall timeline. I’ve tended to draw in the volume and send level automations by hand rather than controlling a virtual fader, but I have recently tried to use the ProControl EUcon app on iPad, or the Softube Console 1 controller which I got a couple years ago for use with UA plugins, but really I don’t go to it first. Yet. Old habits and all. 

In terms of the 3D Stereo space, it’s funny, because a long long time ago in the late 1980s, I was working with an engineer named David Gibson on my first “solo” album, “Storytelling”, and he and I discussed our various synesthetic takes on the stereo field of sound, at different levels and frequencies, and he was coming up with an entire methodology on mixing based on a visual model of the sound field. Which I could easily see, we worked well together on that album’s mixing (done at Hyde Street Studios in SF in 1988. Sandy Pearlman kept coming in and muttering, calling me “Frank” for some reason.)

There you have it. I wrote this up during a flight layover at Gatwick on my way to the states to play music. One day I should describe one of the studio mixing sessions. 

Albums I have worked on using Universal Audio plugins include:

Camper Van Beethoven: La Costa Perdida, El Camino Real and Sharknado songs

Jonathan Segel: All Attractions, Apricot Jam, Shine Out, Superfluity, and several others in between.

ALL Sista Maj albums! (Though the “Localized Pockets of Negative Entropy” LP was mastered by Eroc at The Ranch in Germany so it’s even better.)

Øresund Space Collective: (studio) Different Creatures, Visions Of…, Hallucinations Inside the Oracle, Kybalion, and upcoming releases and (live shows) Live in Karlsruhe,  Live at the Little Devil in Tilburg, NL, Live at Urban Spree in Berlin, Live at in Tampere, Finland

And many violin and guitar tracks recorded for other peoples’ projects. 

I have to thank Universal Audio profusely for the opportunity to use their software for these past number of years. It has been invaluable and has bettered my output as a recording musician and as a mixer. They have brought me back to the realm of the physical studio while being able to work on my little sessions in Pro Tools on a 2010 Mac Pro. It really changed my audio life.

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Posted in Music
One comment on “(Mostly) Universal Audio and mixing the space rock
  1. Chip McKenzie says:

    Man! Thanks, Jonathan! Hopefully, I’ll be seeing you, soon!

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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