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Reviewing Pro Audio Gear In Paradise

PSN reviewer Rich Tozzoli returned to St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands for his fifth annual recording retreat, reviewing ultra-portable pro-level gear to pull it off in a region still recovering from multiple hurricanes last year.

This year’s St. John (U.S. Virgin Islands) recording retreat carried with it a special energy and unique set of circumstances. Six months earlier, the island had been ravaged by Irma, a Category 5 hurricane with 180 m.p.h. sustained winds, gusts of 240 m.p.h. and random micro tornadoes. That was followed by another hurricane a few weeks later, which left the residents with untold damage. Thankfully, there was no loss of life on the tight-knit island, and each day the rebuilding effort and spirit of perseverance grows—something that was obvious to us immediately on our arrival.

We went down to the Virgin Islands with a certain sense of unease, having heard reports of what the storm had been like and having seen some shocking pictures. But we knew the house where we were staying, owned by bassist Hank Skalka, had been mostly spared, suffering only minor damage. Most years our entire band comes down, ready to do shows and record, but circumstances had only some of us flying in—not to mention that some of the venues we usually play were literally shattered slabs of concrete after the storm.

Despite the circumstances, we could still create music, support the local economy, sit in with some of the local musicians and, of course, get some sun in our soul. This year’s crew included bass player/homeowner Skalka, engineer Mike Dwyer (Shawn Mendes, Bob Weir), keyboardist/programmer Bruce MacPherson (Fleetwood Mac, Yes), drummer Ray Levier (KJ Denhert, Mike Stern) and entertainment attorney Alice Barstow.

Listen to a sample TV cue written and recorded with the gear reviewed here:

We decided ahead of time to keep things lean, mean and highly portable, working mostly with software, keyboard controllers, few mics (one!) and a handful of good old fashioned (but new) stomp pedals. Sometimes you’re challenged to make it work with what you’ve got on hand, and that’s exactly what we did.

The music writing this year had a pointed purpose, as we had a handful of TV assignments due, some for several Discovery Channel shows and some for shows on Bravo and TLC. The setup was based around a single Universal Audio Apollo Twin running through my trusty NHT Pro speakers (which live at the house); a small Novation Launchkey Mini for me; a Novation Launchkey 61 and loaded Mac laptop for MacPherson; a single Sony C100 mic; a Tech21 SansAmp Bass Driver DI; and some great guitar stomp pedals from TC Electronic, Digitech and MXR, supplied by Dwyer. Skalka had his 6-string Zon bass and I had my custom Telecaster and an additional custom short-scale 4-string bass. For drums, Levier had the Manu Katche Hip Gig Kit from Yamaha and some Paiste cymbals.

For software, we ran Avid Pro Tools 12.8 as our primary DAW with the Apollo Twin, with focus on the use of SoundToys Little Plate, Empirical Labs Arousor, Steven Slate Trigger 2, Sound Radix Drum Leveler, FabFilter Pro-Q 2 EQ, Sonnox Oxford Envolution and the Eventide Blackhole.

Additional instrument software included Xfer Records Serum, Vienna Symphonic Library, Heavyocity Ensemble Drums, Spectrasonics Omnisphere, Avid Mini Grand and Air Music Technology Hybrid.

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Working through numerous power outages and without internet access for the week (we made sure to save often, and some gear didn’t survive), we not only got lots of tracks done, but we learned a lot from each other in the process. Here’s a look at some of the gear that caught our eyes and ears on this trip.

AMS RMX16 Expanded

The AMS RMX16 is a Universal Audio UAD/Apollo software version of a hardware classic and studio stalwart first released in 1982. The original software version was released with nine Ambience, Nonlinear, Room, Hall, Plate, Echo, Chorus and Reverse effects; the expanded version adds nine more algorithms and some additional presets.

This plug-in creates a special depth that sounds like it has height and width—with a customizable sense of diffusion and reflection. Our favorite, and the one we used the most, was NonLin2, which was added to snare drums, loops, percussion and sound design elements for a sense of stereo space. To push the effect even harder, we increased the decay time, pre-delay and high decay filter to brighten the overall feel, and turned up both In and Out levels. The expanded version adds NonLin1, where the decay rapidly dies away, which sounds almost like a creative gate. Also available in the expanded version are Reverse 2, Freeze, Room A0 and Room B1, Hall A1, Plate B1, Delay and Image P1.

The other main effect used in later mixing was the echo setting, which offers two discrete delay lines that are independently adjustable using the A and B buttons on the right side of the keypad. We added it to several guitar parts, with differing left and right settings to create a huge sound. You can click anywhere to select a band, then use your mouse or trackpad to narrow it down.

Universal Audio’s AMS RMS16: A Once Staple Processor Reborn Anew, Oct. 20, 2014

FabFilter Pro-Q 2 EQ

What we like best about Pro-Q 2 is not only how it sounds, but how quick and easy it is to use. To begin with, by clicking in the small box in the upper right corner, the EQ GUI will fill your entire screen, or you can select small, medium, large or extra large. Clicking anywhere on the real-time audio spectrum will instantiate a band (up to 24), and you simply drag to boost or cut. To change the shape of the band, simply right-click for a drop-down menu of options and make selections under the shape menu including bell, shelf, cut and notch. You can also change the slope with the mouse/trackpad or drop-down menu (up to 96 dB/octave under the slope menu).

There’s also an auto-gain option that allows for compensation of EQ boosts and dips. It seems to be an intelligent algorithm that works according to the bands and material presented, but additional gain work can also be done to achieve the desired results. There are many other features, such as adjustable display range, piano roll display (allowing you to snap bands to exact notes), Zero Latency, Linear Phase or Natural Phase modes, an EQ Match feature, and the ability to spectrum freeze and simply grab a band. Pro-Q 2 offers a useful, creative and musical way to interact with an EQ.

EQ: The Next Generation, by Craig Anderton, Feb. 14, 2017

FabFilter Releases Pro-Q 2, Sep. 2, 2014

Empirical Labs Arousor

Arousor is basically a full-blown Distressor with some additional touches from Dave Derr. Like Distressor—or an 1176, for that matter—the input drives the signal against the fixed threshold, and you’ve got Attack, Release and Output gain. Arousor has a few unique features, including a 1.5:1 and 2:1 ratio, and the Rivet setting replaces the Nuke setting on the hardware. Another sonically important feature is Attack Modification, which helps to change the shape of the attack and is part of what makes this plug-in so powerful. Next to that is a Soft Clipping section, to add some warm saturation into the signal.

I like that there’s a full parametric band on the Detector Sidechain with 30 dB of cut or gain and a highpass filter and Blend knob for wet/dry control. We used the sidechain quite a bit to alter what went into the compressor, allowing us to dull and brighten the character of some drum and percussion loops, as well as snare samples. But that section could also be creatively used as a de-esser section when using the Arousor on vocals.

Presets are a great way to learn this plug-in, but what’s really cool is that the presets are actually a sharable file—you can upload them to the Empirical Labs website or download others. Simply click the Help button on the lower-right corner of the plug-in and a Share Presets box appears. Follow the steps and you’ve got many more sonic options at your fingertips.

Empirical Labs Launches Arousor 2.0, by Strother Bullins, Aug. 30, 2017

SoundToys Plate

Less is more when it comes to the Plate plug-in. A spot-on emulation of the Classic EMT 140 plate, though it takes the original plate reverberator a few steps farther with the addition of decay times of 0.5 seconds up to infinity (the original had 1 to 5 seconds). It also features a MOD switch for reverb tail variations and oddities. We used it because it’s deep and dark and full of character. On guitars, you can set it short and tight to get a bit of ambience (try panning to one side) and with the crime-related cues, you can swim things like pads and cymbal swells into reverb times over 10 seconds, which creates its own sonic world.

Sony C100 High-Resolution Condenser Microphone

The Sony C100 is 2-way (condenser/back electret condenser) mic with a C-800G lineage that features a 20 Hz to 50 kHz frequency range, three polar patterns (cardioid, omnidirectional, figure-8) and a highpass filter and 10 dB pad.

When you say “minimal mic recording,” using one mic is as simple as it gets. Whether it was drummer Ray Levier’s full kit or just us tracking single percussion, toms or cymbal overdubs, a single mic was all we had. Since the room we were recording in had tile floors and a high ceiling, we mostly used cardioid mode, pointing the mic directly at the source from just a few feet away and often “hypermiking,” which is a term we used for recording 1 to 3 inches from the source. For example, recording a cymbal or floor tom that close will pick up all kinds of crazy overtones, which sound great in certain drama- or crime-related cues. (We simply EQ’ed out any unwanted frequencies or low-end boom.)

The Sony took compression well—we hit it hard with the Arouser and an 1176. Without question, it delivers a clean, clear and rich sound. In addition, we used it creatively in conjunction with the Sound Radix Drum Leveler to trigger additional kicks and snares (see below). This might be my new desert (well, Virgin) island choice mic for my travel bag.

Review: Sony C100 High-Resolution Condenser Mic, by Rich Tozzoli, Feb. 1, 2018

Universal Audio Apollo Twin Mk II

The central brains to our portable operation on this trip was the Apollo Twin Mk II Quad Thunderbolt interface. This small powerhouse was our mic preamps, line inputs, headphone station and monitor controller, as well as the chips running our various UAD plug-ins. While we could have connected an 8-channel optical preamp to it, we decided to strip it down and do the whole trip with 2 channels, tracking instruments one at a time and building the productions as needed.

I own both the Apollo Twin and the Mk II version, and the preamps are certainly a step up on the Mk II. We would plug in the bass and guitar direct (also through the SansAmp Bass Driver DI), or run the stereo output of some of the pedals into line inputs 1 and 2. Also, McPherson ran his laptop samples into 1 and 2, and when we did record with the mic, we used the XLR input. The headphone and monitor output have plenty of gain. Overall, it’s amazing what this little thing can do on a mobile session.

Review: Universal Audio Apollo Twin Mk II, by Rich Tozzoli, May 17, 2017

Sound Radix Drum Leveler

Mike Dwyer noted, “Drum Leveler is an upward and downward expander, compressor and gate, but in practice, it’s more. The most obvious use—as the name implies—is to level out drum hits. If you find yourself with a drummer whose dynamics are all over the place, Drum Leveler can gain up the quiet hits and gain down the loud hits to even out the performance without really changing the shape of the sound, the way typical dynamics processors would. You can control just how much it levels the performance by using the compression knob; turning it all the way to 100 will make every hit the exact same level; alternately, by turning the compression knob below 0, you can increase the dynamics of a performance. This could be useful, for instance, if you find there’s not enough of a difference between the level of your normal snare hits and ghost notes.

“On our trip, we dove a little deeper into Drum Leveler and found some interesting uses for it. We were doing a lot of single-mic drum recordings and were able to use the sidechain filters and high and low thresholds to focus Drum Leveler’s beat detection on individual elements of the drum kit. From here, we could use the compression knob and target level to do things like turn the snare up or turn the hi-hat down, giving us incredible control over our single mic. We then took this idea one step further by using the built-in gate to isolate the kick or the snare on duplicate tracks. We then used Steven Slate Trigger to add samples, giving us a great rock drum sound quickly and easily, all from a single microphone. Another cool trick we stumbled on was soloing the sidechain filter and automating the cutoff points on drum and percussion loops to get filter effects without having to bring up a separate EQ plug-in. We’ve only scratched the surface of what this tool can do, and I’m confident we’ll be finding plenty of new uses for it for some time to come.”

Steven Slate Trigger 2 Platinum

Allowing you to trigger and customize up to eight stereo samples at once, Trigger 2 Platinum was a useful and creative tool on our trip. Most of us already turn to it in our daily production work, but this time it helped us make some cool drum sounds using a single mic, when used in combination with Sound Radix Drum Leveler.

There are several reasons why we like this plug-in so much. First, it’s quick and easy to use, allowing us to layer in sounds in combination with the original tracks (or replace them entirely). Second, the stock sounds are excellent quality, though we also used some of our own samples created at Clubhouse Studios in Rhinebeck, NY, including Dywer’s own hand-built snares (which are featured on several No. 1 records). Third, we can tune the samples to fit the track and blend in a combination of them—for example, taking a few rock kicks and adding in an 808 under it. It’s a valuable tool to have on any recording session when you want to kick your drums up a few levels.

Steven Slate Digital Trigger Advanced Drum Replacer, by Rob Tavaglione, Oct. 20, 2011

Xfer Records Serum

Bruce MacPherson said, “One of the hits of our trip turned out to be Xfer Records’ Serum, a very capable plug-in wavetable virtual instrument. There is a sweetness and smoothness in the quality of sound that can quickly be changed to a rude and aggressive, throat-gripping assault. Also present is a nice selection of presets that can be edited easily to suit your mission. When you want to dig deeper, the user interface makes it easy and inviting.

“The most powerful aspect is the matrix section, which can be a very flexible modulation ‘amusement park.’ All the effects seem to have a very creative vibe rarely felt inside a synth plug-in. I found using Serum’s built-in effects more appropriate for what we were after rather than some other popular and pricey dedicated plug-ins. Serum also has a very entertaining graphic for indicating activity, with useful movement and info about LFO speed, envelope cycles and more. With a quick glance, it will give you the info you need to fuel your ideas. The ability to automate parameters with my MIDI controller, such as the wavetable itself, was mind-expanding. This is my new ‘go to’ synthesizer for some of my more demanding sound design challenges.”

Sonnox Oxford Envolution

The Oxford Envolution plug-in is a frequency-dependent envelope shaper with separate sections for sustain and transients. I’ve been using it for some time now as a creative gate for many percussive elements. At the risk of oversimplification, I tend to use only three knobs on this plug-in—but that’s part of what makes it so great. The first knob I turn to is the Sustain feature, which quickly and easily pulls back the sustain on your audio. For example, we used a lot of rhythmic sample loops on our sessions, and by pulling the Sustain knob, you can gate off much of the sample after the initial attack in a clean and very musical way. We also recorded a lot of shakers and cymbal effects and used the same technique, making them tighter and cleaner.

Transients is the other knob I turn to, and by turning it up, you increase the attack of the audio. By turning it down, you reduce the attack, which is great for helping certain rhythmic elements “sit back” in the pocket. It’s also useful to visualize the Transients (yellow) and Sustain (purple) features in the on-screen display, which helps you understand the processing you are applying. I also tend to turn up the Warmth feature, which adds a bit of extra harmonic saturation. There is the option to process certain frequencies of the effect, but I tend to work quickly and simply with it and just tweak a few knobs, which part of its usefulness.

Review: Sonnox Oxford Envolution Plug-In, by Rich Tozzoli, March 3, 2016

Video: Sonnox Envolution—How It Works

Stomp City

We turned to a variety of stomp pedals this year, which we used almost like modules in a synthesizer. We would chain certain pedals together to go for a sound we wanted, or experiment with combinations. They included the SansAmp Bass Driver DI, along with the Boss TU-3 Chromatic Tuner, TC Hall of Fame Reverb and Flashback Mini Delay, and DigiTech Ventura Vibe. It’s fun to get your hands on hardware and tweak knobs until you hear what you like.

Tech 21 SansAmp Bass Driver DI

Talk about a useful studio tool! The classic Bass Driver DI was the front end of both our guitar and bass signal paths. It allows you to quickly get a warm tone from your instrument, and with EQ controls, a Blend knob (wet/dry), EQ shift button and useful Presence and Drive controls, you can dial in a wide variety of tones. Using the mono output, we fed it to a variety of other pedals, some of which had stereo outs, where we ran them directly into channels 1 and 2 of the Universal Audio Apollo Twin Mk II. Bass Driver takes away some of the midrange “honk” of direct guitar and bass sounds, and warms it up almost like an amplifier. From there, you can adjust the controls to keep the signal pure or change it as needed. I take one to every session and I’m glad we had it on this trip.

PAR Picks 6: Bass Production Plug-Ins, by Rich Tozzoli, May 16, 2012

Avid SansAmp PSA-1

The software version of the SansAmp from Avid is another staple in my home Pro Tools HD system, used for adding harmonic grit to just about anything, including snare drums, keyboard pads and sound effects. I’ve found it quite effective on bass and guitars, even after running the signal into the Bass Driver DI. Between the Buzz, Punch, Crunch and Drive, you can get as much or as little attitude as you want, all the way up to full-blown power fuzz. Low and Hi allow for a bit more EQ tailoring, and often I will place an additional software EQ after it to really carve out those sounds. SansAmp is in every one of my sessions, and we used it on every mix for extra grit.

Related Stories from Pro Sound News:

Rich Tozzoli’s Fourth Annual St. John Recording Retreat, by Rich Tozzoli, May 26, 2017

Third Annual St. John Recording & Review Retreat, by Rich Tozzoli, June 9, 2015
Link to video 1 and video 2

Tozzoli’s St. John Recording Retreat featuring AEA, DPA, Fender Passport Studio, Grace Design and Universal Audio, by Rich Tozzoli, June 6, 2014