Engineer Michael Ilbert Mixes Multi-National Hits with UAD Plug-Ins

Engineer Michael Ilbert Mixes Multi‑National Hits with UAD Plug‑Ins

Engineer and producer Michael Ilbert's long and successful career began with credits on records by Roxette, a-ha, and the Cardigans. Over the past couple of years, Ilbert has lent his magic touch to records by the Hives, the Refused, Travis, Supergrass, In Flames, and Carolina Liar, but it's his work on Taylor Swift's Red and 1989 that have garnered him multiple Grammy nominations. More recently, Ilbert has worked on Swedish pop sensation Tove Lo's Queen of the Clouds and Adam Lambert's latest album, The Original High.

Here, Ilbert discusses his love of classic UA hardware, mixing "in the box," and what UAD Powered Plug-Ins bring to his A-list international hit parade.

What advice would you give someone sending their tracks to be mixed by you?

I try to convince my clients, please do not give me all the microphone tracks because I don't need them! If I need anything else, I'll just ask. I prefer when clients commit to mic blends on background vocals, for example. I would rather not have to guess the blend of mics or harmonies.

You use a hybrid analog/digital setup with tons of outboard compressors and a Neve 8028 board. What would you say is an area in which analog hardware still has advantages, and what can plug-ins do especially well?

It's difficult to make a definitive statement about that. I'm still in the process of experimenting. I feel my in-the-box mixes sound great. But they sound different from an analog mix.

“When the processing on the channels is different, then a mix sounds alive."

In what way?

In the box, my mixes have faster transients. I find this really good for the pop mixes.

The main difference is that plug-ins emulate one, single piece of hardware, so each instance sounds exactly the same. That's something that I don't have with my Neve console. Even though it is perfectly maintained, every channel is slightly different sounding, and I think that plays an important role. In general, I am very satisfied with plug-ins, but I find they require a special approach to get what I'm after.

Can you explain?

Basically, I don't use the same plug-in on all channels of a session. Instead, I use a variety of different processors to achieve what I'm looking for. For example, with drums, I'll use the API® 500 Series EQ Plug-In Collection and use the 550A and 560 on the drums, and then perhaps I'll use the Helios™ Type 69 EQ plug-in for the guitar.

Formerly the mix room at Hansa Studios, Berlin, here is Ilbert's mixing domain and his slew of outboard gear.

Does this plug-in workflow also apply to how you use compression?

Yes. In my experience, if every compressor reacts exactly the same and sounds identical, then it shrinks the mix. Here again, the trick is to combine different processors to achieve an optimal result. This concerns not only the "preparatory work", such as EQ, but also the creative aspects of the mix.

Like with reverbs and delays?

Yes. For example, I like to use the EMT® 140 Classic Plate Reverberator plug-in, then also a reverb from Avid, and perhaps my old analog AKG BX 20 spring reverb for lead vocals. Again, these are three different worlds: One fully analog, then two plug-ins - one of which emulates an analog device. When I do all this, I don't miss much of what makes an analog mix, because I get all of the depth when the processing on the channels is different. Then, the mix sounds alive.

See, when we tracked to tape, it automatically leveled the transients a little. But in the digital domain, I have to use limiters to similarly push back those impulses slightly. It's not about getting levels, but about slightly leveling off the fastest high frequency stuff.

Once again, that's something that happens automatically with an analog mix, but you need to do it by hand if you're working digitally. The point is not to have the overall control of the levels only take place on the mix bus, but preparing the tracks for it in advance - to control the dynamics so that the mix bus just sits there, completely relaxed and smiling at you. Then you hardly need any compression on the mix bus.

"The UAD API EQ plug-ins are so good, I really do use them practically every day."

You mixed the Tove Lo single, "Timebomb." Did you use the type of workflow you just explained?

I did. I used my hybrid analog/digital setup, and the track was produced by Klas Åhlund and he does it the way I like it - commit to sounds and print what you like - hardware or plug-ins. All the drums went to an aux with API 550A and Pultec EQP-1A from the Pultec Passive EQ Collection to add some lows and highs. The bass had a little Pultec MEQ-5, boosting some 3k, all of the keys go through an aux with the Fairchild 670 from the Fairchild Tube Limiter Plug-In Collection for some tube texture and saturation. Finally, the piano has an aux with the Pultec EQP-1A and an LA-2A compressor from the Teletronix® LA-2A Classic Leveler Collection on it.

How did you treat her vocal on "Timebomb?"

I used the Thermionic Culture Vulture for thickening, some API 550A EQ, and an 1176LN from the 1176 Classic Limiter Plug-In Collection plug-in, running in parallel. For effects, I relied on the EMT 140 and EP-34 Tape Echo plug-ins, as well as my hardware AKG BX 20 spring reverb - you guys hadn't released the plug-in version yet!

I also sent the EP-34 to the Roland Dimension D plug-in for modulation and spread. For the background vocals, I had an aux with the LA-2A and API 550A. I used the EMT 140, Lexicon® 224 Digital Reverb plug-in, and my AKG BX 20 for reverbs.

Tove Lo's "Timebomb," from the album, Queen of the Clouds.

You have a rack full of nearly every version of the 1176 compressor. How do you harness their sonic individuality?

With all of these different kinds of compressors, it's just like with a car: You have a gearshift, and you choose the gear depending on where and how you're driving. On the highway, you drive fast, so you need a fast gear, but it's not always only about speed when you're driving.

I arranged my different 1176 models in the rack chronologically. The oldest being the 176. Then the Blue Stripe, the first transistor version. It's faster, has a little distortion, but still sounds more like tubes. Then comes my favorite, the 1176 Blackface Revision D, which incidentally is an original unit from the Meistersaal at Hansa Studios. All the legendary productions ran through it.

And finally, I have the Revision F, which is also amazing. The D has more saturation, it sounds more intense and aggressive, and the F version sounds a little softer. It doesn't sound less good, just a bit smoother.

Ilbert's 1176 lineup from top: UA 176, two Blue Stripe, two LN models Rev D (from legendary Hansa Studios), and two LN Rev F models at bottom.

I presume the 1176 Plug-In Collection with the Blackface, the Blue Stripe and the Anniversary Edition, is well suited to your working method.

The UAD plug-ins also cover this spectrum very effectively. Finally plug-ins are no longer just about pure compression, but with the 1176, now there are three different sounds available digitally. It's easy to try it out. Set up three tracks with the identical source and try each version. You'll notice very quickly which option you prefer for which signal!

Would you like a plug-in version of the 176 Tube Limiter.

Yes, absolutely! But an updated Teletronix® LA-3A Classic Audio Leveler plug-in would be better. The new LA-2A and 1176 plug-ins are so good that I wish for the same update for the LA-3A.

What do you like about the LA-3A?

In general, the LA-3A doesn't get the respect it deserves. I use mine mostly on guitars. They're always good alternative if the LA-2A is a little too rich and "tubey." It's faster and more in-your-face, but of course it doesn't sound as aggressive as an 1176. People always reach for the LA-2A or the 1176, but I think that's because they don't understand the LA-3A!

— Christian Stahl

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