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Don’t Forget to Stretch

At the start of every new year, I like to take an assessment of my studio life, looking at both the gear I have at my disposal and the skills I bring to a session.

At the start of every new year, I like to take an assessment of my studio life, looking at both the gear I have at my disposal and the skills I bring to a session. Every year I’m looking to push my boundaries. Sometimes it’s a new technique I’ve picked up that makes me research and then purchase a certain piece of technology. Other times it’s a piece of technology that comes out and inspires me to adopt a new technique or way of working. The two go hand in hand.

With that in mind, I’ve recently found some great affordable tools, both old and new, that have pushed me to try new things while extending my skills in the process.

The Fabfilter Pro Q2 plug-in ($199) makes using M-S techniques both easy and understandable. You can use the plug as a stereo EQ, but when you set it to stereo M-S, the labels change from L/R to M/S so you can quickly get your head around what you’re doing, and hearing. It has a built-in matrix decoder and a pan knob giving you the tools you need to mix recorded M-S feeds to stereo, and you can also separately EQ M and S through the interface. For example, pushing the S button (side), and filtering everything below 100 Hz makes everything at the bottom end of your mix, or M-S stereo pair of mics, mono. We can’t readily discern stereo image at this frequency anyway, so this acts to tighten up the bottom end. You can then build in a boost at the higher end to enhance the image where we’re most sensitive to stereo info. This plug-in, and the techniques, also work with a traditional, non-MS stereo pair of mics. The plug-in’s interface is elegantly done, and while you can get into trouble in overusing it, it’s worth exploring your understanding of M-S and how it works to a higher level.

One of my favorite plugs is the bx-digital V2 EQ. It not only does traditional and M-S EQ’ing as mentioned above, it adds Bass and Presence shift and a wicked simple, full-range de-esser. It’s a two-knob design with one control selecting the frequency between 20 Hz and 20 kHz and the other setting the amount of cut. It takes the concept of de-essing to the next usable level. I’ve used it to take woofy tones out of a bass or guitar amp, presence peaks out of vocals both in and out of the “S” range, and tamed mid-rangey instruments so they sit better in a mix. When you click and hold the frequency knob on any band, it isolates the frequency while you’re adjusting until you let go. It’s brilliant and under $100.

My favorite mind-blowing 500 Series processor under $800 is Empirical Labs’ Doc Derr. I call it my miracle maker. Not only does it have a great-sounding 3-band EQ with 21 preset frequency choices, but it’s a tape simulator, very usable one-knob compressor with parallel control, two-stage highpass filter, and an instrument/line amp—all in a singlewide unit. The only thing I’ve wished for when using this on difficult and/or great-sounding tracks is more of them. 

I recently found a great book from Hal Leonard that can advance your practical skills and understanding of what goes on under the lid of preamps, processors and more. Electronics—Concepts, Labs, and Projects by Alden Hackmann has all the definitions and explanations you’d expect from a tech book, but adds cool DIY projects, and loads of Web content related to the book. 

I mentioned last month that I was waiting for my Ultimate Ears, Capitol Studios-tuned IEMs. They have changed how I work. They are dead flat and unhyped in any way, so I like to add some love at the bottom end, but the detail and intimacy with the music they give me is unprecedented. My sources are either mixes up to 96 kHz, or CDs burned through the Apple Lossless encoder and heard back through the Wolfson DAC on my Galaxy S5.

What I first noticed is new panning detail on music I was very familiar with and have heard back on great systems. On one track in particular I noticed the vocal was slightly panned to the right so the engineer could make room for some ambient “people having fun” sounds that fit in with the theme of the lyric. I then jumped to other tracks and started zoning in on panning, and was surprised over and over with sounds I knew were there, but never heard them so isolated and in such a perspective within the track. It gave me a better appreciation of what the mixer was doing and made me think I need to extend my end-of-mix listening experiences beyond the large/small/mono/headphones/boombox/car options I usually go through. These won’t replace headphones, but they are another great stretch for my process.

At this month’s NAMM, I’ll be looking for new gear and techniques in our great and growing world of audio. To find your new stretch, be sure to tune in to the pages of Mix or check out our new Website. We’re at