Producer Presets Unpacked ‑ VOXBOX

Producer Presets Unpacked ‑ VOXBOX

How the Pros Create & Use Presets

Welcome to the first installment of “Producer Presets Unpacked,” where we’ll focus on a UAD plug-in preset and its designer – learning how they created it, why it works, and how pros use presets in their everyday workflow.

To get us started, we turned to Manhattan audio guru Chuck Zwicky, a platinum-selling producer, engineer and mastering ace who’s worked with Prince, Soul Asylum and Nine Inch Nails, Zwicky has helped create numerous UAD presets for the MXR Flanger/Doubler, Lexicon 224 Digital Reverb, Pure Plate Reverb, and, today’s focus, the acclaimed Manley VOXBOX Channel Strip plug‑in, which Zwicky played a key role in refining during its early stages.

Plug-In: UAD Manley VOXBOX Channel Strip
Preset: “Warm Male Vox”
Created By: Chuck Zwicky
The Manley VOXBOX features a tube-driven preamp, dynamics and EQ circuits, designed specifically for vocals.

Do you use presets in your own sessions, and if so, how?

I like to say that a preset is like showing someone a guitar lick. It’s a really neat exercise, and though it’s probably not going to work in your song the exact way I’m playing it, it’ll give you a starting point for what you might do.

So I think of my presets very much as jumping-off points. There’s no way I can expect anyone to simply call up one of my presets and be done.

I’ve never used a preset in my life. On anything. Not on a synthesizer, not on a multi-effects processor, hardware reverbs, nothing. Sure, I have chains of effects that I may like to use on a vocal, but not presets within that. But even if you do use presets, ultimately everything you do still needs to be tailored for the application you’re going to use it on.

Let’s say you have something like my “Warm Male Vocal” preset: Is that for more of a Michael Jackson vocal sound or is it Barry White? Obviously, everyone’s got a different register and timbre. That said, if you go through some presets, and arrive at something that sounds like it’s working pretty well, look at what it’s doing, learn from it, and adjust it as you need to.

“You only become an expert through repetition.”
– Chuck Zwicky

But it’s understandable that many of us may want to “defer to the experts” and trust your settings as a starting point rather than starting with a blank canvas themselves.

Sure. The potential danger with presets, though, is that you can endlessly scroll through them looking for something that perfectly suits your preferences, rather than having a vision in your head of what it is you want to go for, and then dialing in settings in that direction.

You only become an expert through repetition. If I’m working on an outboard console, there are no presets. It’s all intuition, knowing when something’s not translating, and having an instinct about which EQ knob to grab to help improve it.

But if you look at the presets I created for the Manley VOXBOX, you can ask yourself, “why did he put that knob at this setting?” That’s the real benefit to presets — they can be really educational.

What was your goal with the “Warm Male Vox” preset on the Manley VOXBOX Channel Strip.

I wanted a preset that pushes a bit of warmth and distortion. You can see that I have the tube preamp gain set at the maximum, +60dB, while the input level is turned way down.

Chuck Zwicky's low input/high gain settings help achieve a subtle, warm distortion texture.

Here’s what is going on behind the scenes with the Manley VOXBOX circuit: the Gain switch adjusts the gain of the circuit by changing the amount of negative feedback around the amplifier. That’s why they call it “feedback-controlled.” The more negative feedback you apply to an amplifier, the lower the distortion goes.

So, when you’re adding, say, 20dB of negative feedback, you’ve just reduced the gain from 60dB down to around 40dB. It’s going to be much more linear, it’s going to be extremely clean, right up to the point where the amplifier clips.

But if you reduce the negative feedback, there’s going to be more lower order harmonics, second harmonic and third harmonic, in the signal. And obviously if you’re getting 20dB less negative feedback, the gain is up 20dB and you can attenuate the input to still get a bit of a warmer sound. If you want a cleaner sound, you just add more negative feedback by turning the gain down and the input level up.

The way I have the gain stage set in “Warm Male Vox” is optimized for a certain amount of lower order distortion and hitting the input level too hard is just going to push it into clipping. You’ll notice that the output knob is also trimmed back to -6dB. The reason the output is tuned down a bit is to compensate for the fact that there’s a lot of gain at the amplifier itself which I did here for tonal reasons.

"With the 'Warm Male Vox’ preset, I wanted to add a bit of warmth and distortion."
– Chuck Zwicky

You’re basically trying to balance the gain structure?

Well, you want to find a sweet spot with distortion. By turning up the input even just a bit more, you can hear that you start to go into heavier distortion. So, this is set up in a place where, hopefully, you’re close to a sweet spot where it’s hitting that amplifier in a way that’ll give you just enough distortion to cause a certain amount of warmth, but not enough to blow you out.

By the way, in this respect, the bypass button is your best friend. Because you’re able to A/B and hear exactly what the differences are between your original signal and the effected signal, you’ll really know what it is you’re hearing. Don’t be afraid to use it.

In your "Warm Male Vox" preset, the VOXBOX's compressor section is set to the fastest attack and release. Why?

Because, in the Manley VOXBOX, the gain reduction element is a Vactrol opto-isolator, a passive light-dependent clamping resistor, driven by an LED — so the user has very little control over the speed of the compressor.

Fast attack and release settings on the VOXBOX give Zwicky a "natural" compression.

You can’t really do anything other than slow it down from the natural dynamic envelope. A lot of compressors that use similar technology — like the LA-2A and LA-3A, although technically they’re driven by an electro-luminescent panel rather than an LED — they’re all fairly slow, and I don’t like a compressor that’s any slower than that.

So even at the fastest setting, the natural physical state of that gain reduction element is what you’re using. That setting, for me, is the Manley VOXBOX’ compressor’s most natural-sounding state.

You’ve got the De-Esser set to 3K, and yet you’re simultaneously boosting 3K in the EQ section. Why?

Yeah, I’m boosting the EQ section a little bit at 3K, and if you bring up that region, you’re naturally going to hear it a lot more, and that’s going to allow that top EQ band to be more apparent when the vocals are softer, when things are a little less intense. The de-esser is set to that same region to make sure that nothing rips your head off if the signal increases. Basically, the De-Esser is really just a limiter that’s going to kick in for those particular frequencies when it’s needed.

Here, Zwicky uses the VOXBOX EQ and De-esser to bolster body, cut mud, and enhance clarity.

Interestingly, I’m also adding some very low frequencies, around 70Hz, and dipping around 200Hz, and that’s just to give it a bit more chestiness without a lot of murk or boom; it would be great for a male spoken vocal, too, or any male voice that’s a bit lower in register. If a male rock singer is singing an octave up, you may not notice much impact at all with that, but with, say, a radio announcer, they would have a lot more voice in that range. Still, to take out any clutter, you’d want to dip just above that, in that 200Hz range. In terms of sculpting that low-end response, having the low-end roll-off in the preamp section at 80Hz, rather than 120Hz, just prevents any sub-sonic stuff from getting in there.

— James Rotondi

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