Years of insightful interviews with top engineers, mixers and producers have taught me a lot, including the truths within a well-worn cliché: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Operating systems, DAW-based software and electronic sound sources may be constantly changing, but it seems the most commonly preferred hardware components, signal chains and processing trends of our industry’s most respected pros are fairly well-established.
There’s no doubt that recording engineering is an art largely based on familiarity and nostalgia, poses John McBride, engineer and owner of Nashville’s Blackbird Studios: “It’s interesting… the finest guitars, when it comes to electric guitars, are from the ’50s and ’60s. With acoustic guitars, the best are from the ’30s to the ’60s, when they were using more of the Brazilian rosewoods. With microphones, what they were doing in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s was incredible. It is, in general, better than what is being done today… the only hang-up was the multi-track machines available; then, it was either a lack of or not good-enough quality machines.”
Today, high-resolution track counts are essentially infinite while recordists continue to seek classic tones, signal chains and microphones— or their closest software emulations or essences. The commonalities of these studio essentials, despite their users’ wide-ranging styles and techniques, are revealing.
Carl Glanville recalled recording vocals for U2’s hit “Vertigo” on a regular handheld SM58 microphone.CLASSIC COMPRESSION TONES + PROVEN MICS
“I don’t bring a whole bunch of kit with me,” began the late, great mixer Mike Shipley, in a 2007 interview about his location mixing work on Anberlin’s modern and sharp-sounding Cities album. “Most of what I do bring is outboard compression. I really don’t bring effects; I have effects in Pro Tools that I’m very fond of. But it’s always worth bringing my Crane Song STC-8, two Gates Sta- Levels, a couple of Empirical Labs Distressors and one Fatso, a Crane Song HEDD converter—I love all that Dave Hill stuff—the SSL stereo compressor, an RCA BA-6A limiter and the SPL Transient Designer. As you can see, it’s all compression besides the SPL; nothing beats analog compression. I just love what the warmth of Sta-Levels and what they do for the bottom end of bass and vocals; I haven’t found anything else quite like it yet, software or hardware.”
Dave Hill’s Crane Song Phoenix, an analog tape emulator plug-in, was one of Shipley’s favorites—an example he shared as “hardware-rivaling software” only because it so closely matches sought-after tones of the past. “Plug-ins like the Phoenix are indispensable in Pro Tools land. It’s amazing how that plug-in has the right kind of harmonics, and just the right amount of depth for a thin, Pro Tools-y sound.”
In raving about his favorite gear, Nashville engineering legend Billy Sherrill shared his signal chain found on the vocal tracks of early Kenny Chesney hits—a sound that still influences today’s burgeoning Country superstars. “Since our first microphone shootout with Kenny, we’ve used an old Neumann U 47 Tube, API 512 pre-amp, and (Teletronix) LA-2A compressor; that’s been the vocal chain from the get-go. It sounds good, so we stuck with it. I have a specific U 47 that I rent; we use that same microphone every time.”
Tracking engineer Mike Plotnikoff notes that he uses the Fairchild 760 “quite a bit,” as he discussed his work with Papa Roach, Halestorm, and other classic-tinged hard rockers. “Of course I like the LA-2A and Distressor quite a bit, plus the UREI 1176, even the dbx 160.”
Narrowing the field via shootouts, Plotnikoff often finds his vocal chain via a select few legendary models. “I usually try the Telefunken ELA M 251, Neumann U 47 and a Shure SM7; the Shure always sounds good on vocals. After one pass each, we know what works. It’s often the ELA M 251, but sometimes it’s a little too clean and bright. When the vocalist doesn’t have a very crisp voice, we’ll use the AKG C12. If too bright, we’ll use a U 47. We’ll go through a chain of different mics.” Coupled with a Neve preamp and dbx 160 or LA-2A compression, “we’ll find what works.”
ExPENSE IS NO OBJECT AT THE TOP
Producer/engineer Howard Benson is admittedly less nostalgic in his tonal pursuits, often relying more on the $10,000 Sony C-800G vocal microphone— ideal for his vocal-centric clients such as Daughtry. “It’s a great pop vocal mic with a lot of top end and brightness,” he explains. “A lot of rock artists sing through U 87s, U 47s, and C12s, but I like mics made for vocals; I want the attack and detail. I know [mixers] Chris Lord-Alge, Tom Lord-Alge and Andy Wallace well; when these [large-budget releases] are mixed, they go for the sibilance, so I give it to them and they don’t have to EQ it in.”
Meanwhile engineer Carl Glanville— reflecting on his contributions to U2’s How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb—made a point to illustrate how simple it all can be, noting the gear-based irony of tracking vocals with vocalist Bono and subsequently mixing the hit single “Vertigo.”
“We did all the vocals with a handheld SM58,” Glanville explained. “It would just be that into one of the desk pres with EQ plus an LA-2A compressor, then straight to tape. Bono would always sing in front of the speakers in the control room. He knows how to work a microphone so well, which made recording very easy in that regard.”
“The other great thing about the ‘Vertigo’ mix is that it’s completely manual, no automation,” Glanville continues. “It was just Steve [Lillywhite] and myself sitting at the desk. He said, ‘Oh, it’s just 24 tracks. We can do this without a computer.’ Steve did the drums and guitars; I did bass, the vocals, the vocal effects, and one other guitar that plays on the outro of the song. It’s just four hands. If one of us made a mistake, the great thing about Pro Tools is that we could rewind a little bit and just drop in as we printed mixes. It was a great mix of new and old technology. Every time I hear the song now, I can see us doing our moves, and it sounds alive.”