Tracking with Apollo X at AIR Studios

Tracking with Apollo X at AIR Studios

Producer Jacknife Lee on his Revamped Workflow

Jacknife Lee is not a producer who allows his mental energy to be occupied by technical hangups. In fact, nothing frustrates the veteran of records with U2, Snow Patrol, and The Killers more than gear that’s less than completely reliable. So when Lee tracked Irish indie rockers, Two Door Cinema Club along with the London Metropolitan Orchestra at AIR Studios in London with the new Apollo X interfaces, he was delighted to not bang his head against mountains of klugey outboard gear, or outdated I/O devices.

Lee had prior experience with Apollo, but very little with the included Console app — the key to unlocking UA Audio Interface's unique Realtime UAD Processing capabilities. Here, Lee details his revelatory experience with Console, Apollo X, and how they fit seamlessly into his platinum-approved workflow.

What a way to get thrown into the world of Apollo X — a massive band and orchestra session at AIR Studios. Talk about trial by fire!

Absolutely. This Apollo Artist Session was an eye-opener for me. I had used Apollo before, but never with the Console app. I couldn’t understand why you’d want to work with two mixers. It just seemed unnecessarily complex.

At first, going between two screens — the DAW and Console — I couldn’t figure out where I was working. But once I got going with Console, I found it to be a very intuitive, almost invisible system even. Plus, there’s no front-end latency, which is amazing. It was like discovering an upstairs to your house you didn’t know was there.

What advantages did you find to working with Console in a tracking session of this size?

One of the handy things about Console is that you can audition things in real time. You can’t really do that the same way in the hardware world, because you can’t quickly A/B between two different settings on the same piece of hardware — you’ll never return to the exact setting.

With Console, I can listen to a few minutes of the band tracking with a given mic preamp or compression setting, change it to something else mid-stream, and then change it back to exactly the same setting.

Jacknife Lee prepping his session at AIR Studios, London as UA President Bill Putnam Jr. looks on.

That's a huge creative pay off.

For sure. I often find that when I’m in the studio and I’m using hardware, I just don’t get the time to play with it as much as I’d like.

Console also enables me to experiment with a huge variety of mic pres, on the front end, that I simply wouldn’t have access to otherwise, and then learn the differences between them. I suppose that applies to most UAD plug-ins — they have the side-benefit of teaching you how better to use the actual hardware.

Are you a "commit to tape" kind of guy?

Oh yes, and for this Apollo Artist Session I followed my usual method of “destructive” recording and committed to sounds up front, whether from hardware or Unison plug-ins. In fact, there wasn’t anything that didn’t go through some kind of processing in Console. I mean, if I’m going to go through the Thermionic Culture Vulture, I’m not concerned about going back and tweaking that sound later. I’m committing. It just speeds the whole process up.

"With Apollo X, it was easy to make connections and get sounds quickly without having to ask someone at the studio to do it for us."
– Jacknife Lee

What struck you about Apollo X while you were tracking?

Well, one thing that makes Apollo X really special is how reliable it is. I had a very bad experience with a recording system that, while I really liked the way it worked, it was simply unreliable. Believe me, I’m not the guy who’s going to mess with a successful system. But, if I’m the producer, and a piece of gear isn’t working, that puts me in a really difficult situation.

It should be said that UA support is excellent, but the equipment also just always works, and you can’t underestimate how important that is. But in addition to being reliable and working beautifully, Apollo X also really expanded my capabilities. A lot of the interfaces are just that: interfaces. That’s it, and that’s what I was used to. Apollo X with Unison technology and the Console app is much more than that.

You’re used to working in your own space, and I know you have mixed feelings about “big studios.”

When I go into “proper” studios these days, I’m often reminded of how laborious the recording process can be, and why artists often shut down in big studios. Everything just takes ages — even for someone to just play something off their iPhone can take an hour to connect.

But once we got into AIR Studios, it was refreshing that I didn’t need to rely on their control room equipment — with Apollo X, it was easy to make connections and get sounds very quickly without having to ask someone at the studio to do it for us.

Maybe you're more inclined to experiment when you don't have to ask someone to patch hardware in and out.

Exactly. Sometimes I’ll do something radical, like split the whole track to different buses with hardcore compression, and parallel those with some extra plug-ins on the master bus. There’s no "one way."

Sometimes I put, say, a slapback echo on the master bus, just to see what happens. Generally, if someone in the band is in the room with me and I put something crazy on the master, they all get excited because suddenly it sounds so different.

From left, Two Door Cinema Club guitarist Sam Halliday, bassist Kevin Baird, and vocalist Alex Trimble.

Do you find by doing that you keep the artists engaged?

Well, in the old days, it was understood that everything would take a big sonic leap in the mixing stage, but people are more impatient now. As a producer, don’t assume the artist knows it’s going to sound great later. Do not assume that, especially in an age when everyone sort of expects the track to sound as good as a finished master right out of the gate.

In what other ways did the song transform in the process of doing this recording?

On the original version of “Sun” there are very few keyboards — I think only a Wurlitzer. For this version we figured we’d try a few different things, including synthesizers, like a MiniMoog, and drum machines, including a Korg KR-55 Pro and a Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer. Once we had laid the drum machine in, nudged it a bit to work with the original click, and created a very minimalist map of the song, then the band went into the room and played with it live in Studio 1.

"When I’m in the studio and using hardware, I don’t get the time to play and experiment with it as much as I’d like."
– Jacknife Lee

It didn't seem like you used a ton of microphones.

A couple of mics on the bass — plus the UAD Ampeg B-15 plug-in, a couple for the Wurlitzer, a couple for the guitar, and of course the drums. We really didn’t use a lot of mics. It was a pretty straightforward band recording, in a fairly lively room, so we didn’t feel the need for a lot of ambient mics. Alex (Trimble, Two Door Cinema Club vocalist) recorded his vocals in the control room, with a Shure SM7 through a UAD Neve 1073 Preamp & EQ and 1176 and Distressor compressors.

Is it safe to say that you hear a difference after tracking with Apollo X?

The strange thing is that I didn’t think I was going to hear any difference, sonically, with Apollo X. I really didn’t. But suddenly, almost imperceptibly, my recordings began to sound more unified. I found that, somehow, recordings tracked with Apollo X blended better together. They sound richer, extremely natural — just better.

— James Rotondi

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