Recording Lyrics Born with Apollo’s Unison™ Technology
Learn How Producer Joel Hamilton Weaves UAD Plug-Ins Into His Productions
Hyper-articulate, with a strong grounding in both studio technology and the humanities, producer/engineer Joel Hamilton thinks quickly, deeply, and out-of-the-box. It’s this mindful mix that has made him the producer of choice for a wide range of artists, from the organic jazz-folk of Norah Jones and the electro-pop of Pretty Lights, to alt-rock phenoms Highly Suspect.
We chatted with Hamilton about his hybrid analog/digital recording studio, how he implements UAD plug-ins and Unison technology in his workflow, and the session he produced at Studio G, his multi-room Brooklyn recording facility, tracking hip-hop artist Lyrics Born.
Describe your recording system and networked workstations, especially the interplay between your SSL console, your DAW, and UAD plug-ins.
Basically, every single time that I’m bringing something out of the DAW and into the console, there’s a 99% chance that there’s a UAD plug-in on it that helped me shape it so that it sounds great coming up flat on the SSL, right from faders-up.
And it’s very much a one-to-one relationship: If I bring a kick drum in on channel one of my SSL, for example, it shows up as channel one in Pro Tools, and also when it comes back on my SSL. Then, I’ll use some console EQ and some outboard dynamics, like additional compression. Then, once I’ve fine-tuned the mix on the SSL, I send the main stereo output of the SSL to an entirely separate computer and Pro Tools rig, which is essentially being used as you might a two-track tape machine.
On that machine, I’m running Pro Tools 11, and I’m running my UAD plug-ins there on my entire mix, on the main output print path — things like the Manley Massive Passive EQ plug-in.
On that rig, I’m mainly just using a stereo track, but it’s locked via Timecode to my main machine over Ethernet. So, when I hit “play” on my larger Pro Tools rig, the little one for printing is always in sync. This enables me to print stems to that one; and then I wind up doing recalls from my stems right on that smaller rig as well. It’s worth noting that, because of this Ethernet connectivity, I can run my A room in sync with my B room, or all three rooms at once together. Or I can run three laptops all in sync. In fact, the amount of networking I can do is only limited by the length of Cat-6 cable, which is massive, up to 328 feet, I believe. Anything that runs on a computer is networked here at Studio G.
For the Lyrics Born session, you used an Apollo 8p running Unison mic preamps for a number of tracks, and more traditional outboard preamps and compressors for the rest, correct?
Yeah. The Unison stuff was principally on the single Apollo 8p, so we incorporated the 8p specifically to use the Unison plug-ins, especially the fantastic preamps and EQs, like the Neve 1073 Preamp & EQ Collection and the UA 610 Tube Preamp & EQ.
We decided not to use the Unison plug-ins on the drums, interestingly, because in this case, I felt I needed the physical knobs of outboard analog preamps to get sounds happening right away without looking at the computer. But things that had less dynamic output — like synths and guitars, for example — I could easily dial those tones in and sort of “set it and forget it” with the UAD Unison plug-ins. And we also used it extensively on the vocals.
Tell me a little about how you captured all of the track’s vocals.
All of the vocals went through the Neve 1073 Preamp & EQ plug-in using Unison technology. I was shooting for an “aggressive” sound, but not in the sense that, say, Slayer is aggressive. More in the way that Aretha Franklin’s voice sounds “aggressive” when she sings “Respect” — an R&B delivery that has strength.
I also wanted a preamp that would help make the transition from clean to driven in a smooth, logarithmic way, like what happens when Aretha really opens up, and you wind up with some distortion.
The term “distortion” probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when people hear an Aretha vocal.
I mean, listen to those old tracks — it gets straight-up distorted, but it’s smooth and beautiful. That’s what I love about vocal sounds from that era. The way that Unison technology works allows me to get that same natural, very musical transition to drive.
Unison doesn’t just crap out like you would associate with a purely digital path. When you use a Neve 1073 in the Unison preamp slot, it actually allows your source to go from clean to distorted with the organic color and character of the hardware.
How did you treat the vocals for the mix down?
I’ll use the Sonnox Oxford Dynamic EQ plug-in to notch out any frequencies that may have gotten a little too gnarly when things got distorted. And then I will typically use either the Teletronix LA-2A or the Neve 33609 Compressor plug-ins.
Do you use any processing other than dynamics processing?
I’ll also often use the Galaxy Tape Echo plug-in on the main vocals to add a quick slap to the voice, and then I’ll use the high and low pass filters in the analog domain to add some character that’s personal to me. Perhaps make those out-of-the-box slaps a bit darker, for example. On the Lyrics Born mix, I used the MXR Flanger/Doubler plug‑in on the background vocals.
“The Neve 1073 Preamp & EQ plug-in with Unison technology allows your source to go from clean to distorted with the organic color and character of the hardware.”
The bass sound is especially cool and vintage-sounding here.
The points of reference for the bass on this track were things like Prince and Morris Day, that whole Minneapolis sound from the ’80s. Now, while I do believe that the midrange is what carries the DNA, or the essence, of a mix and of a production, the rhythmic pattern of what the bass player is playing is what drives it along. And it’s not always the lower bass frequencies that make the difference.
What do you mean? Isn’t the bass all about the low frequencies?
Sometimes a bass doesn’t need a ton of 50Hz, it just needs a whole bunch of 120Hz, or 180Hz, because the kick drum is operating down there in the lower frequencies. You hear this especially in hip-hop, where there will be a very “subby” 808 kick paired with a slappy, midrange bass part.
Also, for that bass track, I deliberately used the worst DI that I have — the kind of thing that you’d find on a shag carpet in a rehearsal room in 1974. That signal ran through an analog preamp to an Apollo 16 interface. I fuzzed it up a bit in the mix using the Fender ’55 Tweed Deluxe plug-in, because, again, I didn’t care so much about low end, Using the Fender ’55 Tweed Deluxe that way adds some great low-midrange “throat” to the bass.
Do you use the Fender ’55 Fender Tweed plug-in on any other sources?
Yes. it’s an amazing plug-in for so many things. Because of its line in capability, you can easily use it on snare drums, for example, and not have to worry about sending an aux off to an amp and have to deal with impedance matching and all that.
Whether something is analog or digital doesn’t seem to matter to you.
Absolutely. I don’t treat any of my studio devices as “superior” just because I can hold them in my hand physically. I choose what makes sense for the task. And a lot of times, the UAD plug-in is a better tool than a piece of outboard for the particular job I’m trying to do, be it tone-wise, workflow-wise and with all things considered. And, of course, analog and digital can really complement each other.
“The UAD Fender ’55 Tweed Deluxe is an amazing plug-in for so many sources.”
How do analog and digital complement each other?
Sometimes I’ll EQ in the digital domain, adding some UAD Sonnox Oxford EQ plug-in on the vocal, perhaps putting a couple of notches in the top end, but then I may also give it some EQ in the analog domain, as well, and that could mean a hardware Pultec, or that could mean the EQ section on the SSL or the Neve board. I might even patch in another 1073 that I have in a hardware version — you never know.
In some cases, the ideal EQ might be a super accurate EQ in the digital domain, like the UAD Cambridge EQ plug-in, especially when I’m wearing my mix engineer hat and I’m trying to get a sound that just isn’t quite there in the original track. Sometimes sounds walk with you arm in arm, and sometimes you’ve got to put the sound in a headlock and drag it across the finish line!
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