Jacquire's Shoot Out!
Vintage Analog Hardware vs. Apollo & Unison Plug‑Ins
Jacquire King speaks the same way he produces and mixes records: he’s direct, to-the-point, and avoids unnecessary hype. It’s an approach that has served the 50-year-old Washington, D.C. native well, from his previous perch at Nashville’s legendary Blackbird Studios to his Grammy-winning work with Kings of Leon, Buddy Guy, and Tom Waits.
A longtime fan of Universal Audio plug-ins and analog gear, the 30-time Grammy-nominated and multiple Grammy-winning King recently put Apollo’s pioneering Unison™ mic preamp technology to the test in a live session at Blackbird Studio G, with electronic-soul artist Jamie Lidell and a cast of all-star players.
We sat down to get King’s take on the session, and his insights into mixing, recording, and tracking through Unison mic preamps with Apollo interfaces.
As someone who has worked extensively in the analog and digital recording domains, what has Unison technology meant to you and your projects?
Unison technology is really interesting, and it definitely shows the potential of emulations taking place on the front end, and in more of an analog realm. I’ve never had one particular tool that I thought was a perfect solution. But Unison shows what the Universal Audio system and Apollo is transforming into — a platform where I can completely track and mix in the box.
The whole purpose of doing this video and tracking session with Jamie Lidell and that amazing band was to demonstrate that Apollo with Unison technology gives you arguably the same thing as outboard gear, but with a slightly different flavor. I wanted to see just how far I could take Apollo and Unison, and I think the result speaks for itself. I’m pretty proud of it.
Does Unison’s ability to track and commit to tones using a more analog-type workflow appeal to you?
Absolutely. Like Tom Dowd and the Beatles and all the legends of record-making who really didn’t have a lot of gear — you’ve got to go boldly. That’s what we should aspire to. Make a choice and go for it.
For example, if you want something that’s compressed and dirty, do it. The one pitfall of the technology we have now is the temptation to leave things too open-ended, and not committing to anything until mixdown. As a mixer, having to make all those decisions at the final hour, and figure out how it’s all supposed to fit together, that’s a difficult creative headspace to get into.
“Like Tom Dowd and the Beatles and all the legends of record-making who really didn’t have a lot of gear — you’ve got to go boldly. Make a choice and go for it.”
How does committing to those sounds when tracking affect the final product?
Committing to sounds early informs the process as you go, in terms of making calls about how to record each successive part, or how to layer sounds. You really don’t have to have a lot of expensive outboard gear to be recording in that style with Unison and Apollo hardware, because you can much more affordably have a very similar experience.
Has Unison technology had a positive impact on your workflow when it comes to mobile recording?
Yes. For vocals on the latest [Icelandic rock band] Kaleo record, A/B, we wanted to get some vocals recorded on the road, so we used my Apollo Twin, recording the singer with a Shure SM7B mic, through the Unison-enabled Neve 1073 Mic Preamp & EQ.
We even punched some of these takes into the existing tracks that we’d recorded with the pure analog chain at the studio, and in a room full of pretty educated ears, no one could really tell the difference.
Using parallel compression is one of your go-to techniques in a mixing session, especially for drums, bass, and vocals. Could you talk about your strategy with it?
The advantage of parallel compression is that you can be more extreme and go for more “character” when you don’t really care about maintaining transients. So you can dial in a cool sound where your softer, lower dynamic tones are sort of “stabilized,” if you will, and then you can blend in the more extreme texture. This allows you to bring out more room tones, for example, and then you choose how to blend that with the less compressed signal.
So, do you prefer a fairly naked original signal, to allow you the most latitude with parallel compression?
Not necessarily. Just because you’re using parallel compression doesn’t mean you’re not also compressing the sources. It’s just that you’re doing it differently — a gentler tailoring there, a bit of nuanced control, maybe some tonal shaping. Then, with the parallel, you balance it to taste — maybe you only need a little bit of the transient preserved, and so the dry, uncompressed or less compressed sound is actually lower in the blend than the parallel sound.
For example, with drums, the parallel channel is typically something you’re going to be bringing up from underneath — it’s at a lower volume, it’s more supportive — that’s definitely the way I view it. It helps you manage the overall drum sound. It’s difficult to only compress single tracks of drums individually, and expect to maintain all the transient energy that helps define and clarify the overall sound.
Tell me what characteristics you like about the different UAD compressors you use on the Jamie Lidell session, including the UAD Fairchild compressor for the kick/bass parallel bus.
The Fairchild has slower settings — there’s that more old-school attack-and-release thing going on. So when you’re a bit aggressive with that, and blend it into the kick and bass, it kind of glues everything together. In general, I do like a lot of the older designs, and older style compressors where they’re almost less flexible, and they have a more specific sound and character. They seem to work really well for parallel compression, maybe because they’re just simpler and more familiar.
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I’m fascinated by your mix bus signal chain for the Jamie Lidell session: UAD Brainworx bx_refinement EQ, Neve 33609 Compressor, Ampex ATR-102 Mastering Tape Recorder, Pultec EQP-1A, and Precision Limiter plug-ins. Why these particular choices?
With the Brainworx, I like to start with some EQ to gently manage the overall blend, to clean up the low end, maybe eliminate some subsonic frequencies in an appropriate way so that I keep a certain amount of lows, without having to high pass everything in my mix.
So I filter off some of that, gently opening up the top-end, and that pushes a little bit of general EQ into my first compression stage, in this case, the Neve 33609, although sometimes I’ll use the SSL G Bus Compressor.
How do you like to set that first compressor on your mix bus?
Typically, I’ll set the threshold as high as it will go, so I can push as much level into it as possible, with a quite low ratio, like 1.5-1. Even if I’m compressing up to 3 or 4dB, I don’t want it to be a steep ratio. Slow attack, fast release. Very gentle, nothing too aggressive, not hitting the transients too hard.
How do you use the Ampex ATR-102 plug-in for shaping your mix bus?
I’m not necessarily using it to get the “sound of tape.” I use it because it has a good glueing effect, and you can play with the speeds which each give you different EQ curves, and with different tape types. It’s a great tone box, basically. It can also help widen or collapse the stereo field, depending on the material, and how it presents the frequencies. I even generally leave on the crosstalk feature.
Then how do you use the Pultec Passive EQ Collection?
Once I’ve got the mix run through this general EQ, compression and tone-shaping, the Pultec EQP-1A is sort of the “smiley face” that I really want to hit it with — open up the top end a lot, bump up the bottom end. That way, I’m not having to over-EQ individual things. It’s more about shaping — on the top, making sure the guitars are bright enough, or that when the drum kit is balanced correctly, that the cymbals are at the right level, and the voice is bright enough.
“There are three hallmarks of a great mix: the drums, the vocal, and the low-end. If you can master those things, then the rest will fall into place.”
Using the EQP-1A here is better than having to go in and open up the high-end on all the individual elements. They should all be in pretty good shape by that point. It’s about shaping the overall tonal personality and direction of the project.
As for the the UAD Precision Limiter — basically, I don’t want to have peaks printed. I don’t want the output converters seeing red. I don’t want them in clipping mode. I want them to have the little bit of headroom that they need to sound the way they’re supposed to sound.
When push comes to shove, what are the key elements of a mix?
There are three hallmarks of a great mix: the drums, the vocal, and the low-end. If you can master those things, then the rest of it is relatively easy, and will fall into place. Those are the things that you need to be able to get just right, and have everything else around them heard in a way that makes sense. It comes down to the story of the song and the rhythm of the song. The topline melody and the groove — everything else plays off of that.
— James Rotondi
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