By any measure, 2013 was a banner year for Derek Vincent Smith, better known by his stage moniker as Pretty Lights. A Color Map of the Sun, Pretty Lights’ fourth release, was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Dance/Electronica Album category and grabbed listeners’ attention with its ambitious textural grooves and soundscapes.
What listeners might not have known is that, the album is the result of a monumentally laborious, ambitious, borderline obsessive-compulsive process. A self-professed “sample collage” artist whose previous efforts relied on chopping up and layering samples into his own form of glitchy, electro, hip-hop, vintage funk, and soul-infused music, Smith decided it was time to shake up his creative process.
To that end, he set out to create his own source material, which meant a two-year journey of tracking his very own breakbeat sources, using real musicians and real instruments — and real analog tape — before being cut to vinyl.
To achieve his sonic ideal, as well as assemble and mix the ensuing album, Smith tapped long-time engineering pal and owner of Brooklyn’s legendary Studio G, Joel Hamilton. Smith and Hamilton’s workflow consisted of tracking on Hamilton’s Neve 5316 board, and then ping-ponging digital files in a collaborative assembly process. Finally, Hamilton sat down to mix, using hefty amounts of UAD Powered Plug-Ins on his way out of the DAW and into his SSL 8048 G+ console. Here, Hamilton details how he and Smith crafted A Color Map of the Sun with the help of UAD.
A Color Map of the Sun was quite an undertaking. Can you explain the workflow?
At the beginning, while recording the “vinyl sessions” for the sampling source material, it was all about tracking with analog. Then there were digital stems generated by Derek in Ableton Live that he’d send back to me to mix.
I used Pro Tools like a really smart tape machine that I can sort of apply a curve influence on, or compression to with plug-ins, and then it comes out of a physical channel on the SSL console.
Explain the process of getting those initial sessions recorded. Were you mainly concerned with getting a vintage sound, leaving the artistic direction up to Derek later?
Sort of, except that there was so much that I was involved with musically in the front-end as well. We did all the initial stuff tracked and mixed to analog quarter-inch 2-track, for that true old-school vibe.
I was more like one of the musicians, in the sense that it was “improv tracking,” where the drums start doing something and then I’m playing this old Neve just like another instrument, tweaking everything on the fly to capture what’s being played and flatter them on the way to tape.
Really, I was playing the entire control room with Derek. I’d put him on a filter where I didn’t have enough hands to get on it, and say, “okay man, this is what this does, this is what that does." Remember, this was live to 2-track — no timecode, no automation, no mistakes.
This project was way beyond just engineering then.
Oh yeah. Working this way made engineering a part of the musical experience, rather than just watching levels. You have to be able to transcend that whether you’re in-the-box, or not, but in this case it was definitely transcending the EQ points and just diving in for what I needed and making it happen. It’s much the same way that you don’t count the number of frets in the middle of doing a guitar solo, you just have to know where it is on the fretboard and you start speaking through your instrument. And in that case, I got to “speak” through a console and bunch of outboard gear.
“When Joel told me about UAD plug-ins, I was beyond blown away by his opinion. He insisted that they were actually true emulations of the [analog] gear he is so familiar with. I couldn't believe my ears. I immediately went and bought every UAD plug-in and a Thunderbolt chassis for three OCTO cards. I don't use any other plug-ins now.”
—Derek Vincent Smith/Pretty Lights
You’re known for your work with more rock-oriented acts such as Sparkelhorse, Plastic Ono Band, and Blakroc. How did those projects prepare you for working with the funk, soul, hip-hop feel of Pretty Lights?
I was always the one armed with the Syl Johnson tape for the late-night drive, and not Metallica, you know what I’m saying?
I grew up being super aware of New Orleans music. My father was a huge fan. He would do entire vinyl buys back in the day at the Salvation Army down in the Ninth Ward. He would buy the entire crate and then come back and sort through them with me. We would wind up just listening to, a Meters 45-rpm that’s a drilled (promo) copy of “Hey Pocky A-Way” with an instrumental on the B-side that was released just to radio stations in New Orleans. So I got a sense of the textures that were coming out of the R&B and funk scene and I was like, “Man these guys are more daring than anybody.”
Do you think modern R&B/funk/hip-hop still has that cutting edge?
I do! I think that hip-hop production today is more daring than anything else going on. Meanwhile, rock is quantizing and triggering with everyone sounding like everyone else. I mean, there’s like 27 rock bands that sound exactly alike out there! Yet, every hip-hop song sounds different, never mind every hip-hop record. There’s just amazing variation in R&B and there’s very little in modern rock, so it’s amazing the rock that everybody thinks I hold dear, I actually have a lot of contempt for! (laughs)
How did you get introduced to UAD-2 Powered Plug-Ins?
My very good friend Michael Brauer was always texting me about the stuff and that I should check it out. So, yeah — I’m going to listen when Brauer tells me that UAD is great!
Had you used other plug-ins?
You know, I’d tried plug-ins from other companies for years and years and years, and was never satisfied. I just learned to feel that it was this kind of necessary evil of the whole modern engineering process. I always found myself removing plug-ins, or just using them as a placeholder during basic tracking and then using my actual hardware equivalent when it came time to really mix the thing.
Why do you think that was?
Aside from a very small few, I always felt that software plug-ins just crapped out when you pushed them past where they wanted to be.
UAD has given me the freedom to explore without fear of hitting walls or going out of bounds! With other plug-ins, they distorted the same way and they failed the same way, because it was always a set of parameters that the designer decided for me — the punk-rock kid in me hated that. You had to always play within the lines.
Then, all of a sudden, Universal Audio comes along and makes a really intelligent set of decisions. You guys are using the platform for all it’s good for, which is to capture the spirit, not only the sound, of a particular piece of gear, and often times give it even more flexibility.
So it’s never a question of analog versus digital for you?
To be honest, I don’t give a crap about comparing the sonic fingerprint of a plug-in it to the original hardware — all I need to know is that it’s a useful tool in my arsenal. It’s funny. What drives me crazy is when people argue over analog and digital as though they have a theological attachment to one over the other. I mean, we are all pursuing results here — we’re going for a sound, right? That’s all that matters
From where the computer sits in my studio that houses my UAD-2 QUAD card, the physical input on my real-life EMT 140 is about four arm lengths away, yet I use the UAD-2 version nine times out of ten.
It’s noiseless when I want it to be, it stays with the session, and quite often, we’ll have the plug-in up during tracking and play into the sound. It’s not like it’s laid on later.
So you’ll print UAD-2 plug-ins?
Oh yeah — even while a person’s singing. Often, a singer will make timbre decisions based on what they are hearing. So to pull that rug out from under them, so to speak, at the mixing stage, doesn’t always work.
So UAD-2 enhances your creativity?
Yes. It increases my sonic palette massively.
For example, working on the Pretty Lights record, all of Derek’s files came back to me at 88.2kHz — and I decided not to reduce that sample rate. So there were a gazillion channels at 88.2kHz — most of them stereo. But with UAD, I’m able to throw a stereo Neve 1073 across a bunch of these tracks. That just wasn’t available before. I would need three entire Neve 80-series consoles!
I just did a live recording and 5.1 mix for Puss N Boots, a group with Sasha Dobson, Norah Jones, and Catherine Popper and I used the Apollo 16 for that. It has plenty of inputs so that I could track everything live and be able to have a plug-in active on the way in. I didn’t have to carry four LA-2As with me!
What are your go-to UAD-2 plug-ins?
The Neve® 1073 / 1073SE Classic Console EQ Plug-Ins is a big one. If I’m stemming out a bunch of things, like, ten guitar overdubs and they’re coming out a pair or quad of channels on the SSL, I’ll have an aux in Pro Tools that most likely has the Teletronix LA-3A and a Neve 1073 on it, just to get the right “tilt” to the sound so that the SSL’s input stage doesn’t even have to deal with it.
I also use the new Teletronix LA-2A Classic Leveler Collection a lot and the Bob Katz Precision K-Stereo Ambience Recovery. That thing just rules. I can’t help but picture Bob in a Hawaiian T-shirt somewhere, just laboring over whatever algorithms went into that plug-in but man, it really works.
The bass on A Color Map of the Sun is huge. How did you get that massive power, yet keep it under control?
Anybody who mixes records knows that it’s a delicate balance of actual amounts of voltage coming out of the DAW and the illusion of massive amounts of voltage coming out. Managing gain-staging and overall frequencies with EQ and compression in the box, on the way out to the console, is how you do it. On A Color Map of the Sun that was 100 % the job of UAD-2 plug-ins.
You know, a friend of mine who mixed a lot of really great records once said, “mixing is really easy if you forsake the low-end.” I refuse to forsake the low-end. In this case, the whole spirit of the Pretty Lights' sound is the “drop,” just like all of the drum-n-bass stuff that I loved in the ’90s from Optical and Dillinja and guys like that. Those guys knew all about saving headroom for the drop.
A lot of people view the midrange as the defining aspect of a mix.
Yeah, people always say, “It’s all about the mids,” but I feel that is misleading. Sure, the mids define the character of the mix, and you tend to judge everything from the snare/vocal relationship, but with something like Pretty Lights, there’s actually quite a bit of midrange in the bass. And again, the warmth just comes from selective EQ and manipulation in the box, and then gain staging outside of it and really starting to feel it push into the parallel buses and feeling it push into the compressors. That’s crucial. Then everything starts moving together.
Photos: Juan Patino