#1 - What's Your Secret Weapon?
In this brand new series, we ask music industry professionals to give us a personal insight into the tools and techniques they use in the studio. This month we kick things off by asking a group of producers, engineers and mixers to reveal their favourite secret weapon…
Sonic Academy Kick 2
One of my favourite software "secret weapons" is the Sonic Academy Kick 2 (kick drum synthesizer) plug-in. I like having so much control over such a fundamental building block of the track - rather than just rifling endlessly through my library of kick sounds to find one that fits. You can shape and customise every element of the kick sound, and it allows me to tailor-make one in a few minutes.
From time to time, I'll still use a kick drum from Native Instruments Battery or something from my own sample collection as a layer in the overall sound, but I increasingly find that Kick 2 provides the bulk of it. It means I can easily make something bespoke for every track.
Thermionic Culture Fat Bustard
My favourite secret weapon at the moment is the Thermionic Culture Fat Bustard.
Funnily enough, I have been referring to it as “my secret weapon”! I tried to do a mix purely in the box recently - after having done most of my mixes through the Bustard over the last few years - and I missed its colour.
I love how it opens everything up, colours the mix so beautifully and adds a bit of low mid edge. The attitude knob is always on 3 and the EQ is gorgeous.
Also, I love my little Foxgear Echosex pedal for simulated tape delay. I love running vocals and guitars through it and playing with the feedback and delay levels live. It adds depth and interest as well as being beautifully musical when you go a little wild with it.
Waves Renaissance Axx
It’s probably crazy, dangerous and irresponsible but... using a plug-in in a way contrary to it's intended purpose can yield surprising results. My favourite being Waves Renaissance Axx as a drum room "attitude adjuster".
It’s designed as a guitar compressor but it has a load of crunch at extreme settings which really suits a room mic scenario, or overheads if you’re game. It will destroy any drummer's ego and is very simple to use. I usually stick it on a Stereo Aux, route the room mics to it and BOOM!
Spectrasonics Stylus RMX
I’ve been using this since it came out and there’s hardly a track I’ve written that doesn’t have it in there. In the old days I would just use it for loops and percussion, but over the years I’ve found I turn to it more and more to try out ideas quickly, especially when I get stuck with something.
For example, I might have a track that’s working pretty well, but it feels like something’s missing and I don’t know what. Very quickly I can run through various options, like trying a 16th groove or something syncopated - and that could be percussive, or a guitar or even strings. If that works I may then switch to another instrument to actually play the part, but at least I know it’s going to work. In my world (writing to picture), you need to be fast, so experimenting has to be kept as simple as possible.
Stylus RMX has so many creative tools in addition to just playing loops - some great FX (I love the filters and distortion) and also the Time Machine, which allows you to mangle things up in incredibly creative ways. Of course most DAWs now have many of these features, but I find Stylus RMX so intuitive, quick and fun to use.
Call a great player! Collaborate! I always try to use my favourite musicians to add their flavour as much as I can. It’s such a great investment for most productions and also if there isn't much budget, we’ll trade favours and play on each other's records, which always yields much more interesting results that doing it all on your own!
Equipment wise, I feel the FabFilter Q3 EQ plug-in is a beast of a tool - but really for me, jumping between various DAW's encourages me to make different creative choices. I may track vocals in Pro Tools over a backing created in Ableton Live which then ends up in Logic for production before coming back to Pro Tools for mixing.
With all the included plug-ins within each DAW you just naturally work differently.
Electro Harmonix + Earthquaker Devices
There's so many to choose from - and most aren’t a big secret - but I’m always drawn to guitar pedals for creating interesting textures and effects. Whether it be for tracking or mixing, the general lack of presets and their tactile nature forces me to make creative decisions and commit to printing them rather than constantly fiddling with a plug-in.
The Electro Harmonix Superego is a big favourite of mine. It’s essentially a synth engine designed for guitar, but it’s also great for creating vocal/keys textures or as a blend on drums and percussion. The send and return mean you can also add other effects into the feedback loop of the signal chain. Pair it with something like the Afterneath or Disaster Transport Sr reverb/delay pedals from Earthquaker Devices, and there’s a whole palette of ambient effects to play with.
My secret weapon is the Moog Grandmother. It's a fantastic-sounding synth, more aggressive than the Phatty, but very much cheaper than the Model D reissue. Its semi-modular design makes it expandable via other units, like the Moog DFAM, for example. But it's not really that stuff which makes it a true secret weapon - It's more the fact that via the audio input, you can run external sources in, allowing you to slightly distort, and filter them, and of course, to add the incredible spring reverb.
Yesterday, I was working with an artist on a guitar part. I was using my 60's Fender Super Reverb, which being a 60's amp can be temperamental. After fifteen minutes of takes ruined by bursts of unexplained noise, I plugged the guitar into my Audiokitchen The Big Trees pedal (another true secret weapon), and on into the Grandmother. We were able to get a beautiful edge from the pedal, control the highs with the Moog filter, and add some spring.
The end result had that unmistakably 'real' feel about it, but it was less ordinary than the amp, less mundane sonically, and had less noise without being sterile. I use the Grandmother in this way constantly - Its a truly useful part of the input chain, as well as being one of the best mono synths around.
Nautilus Nemo DMC8
I first found out about the Nemo monitor controller in a review in Resolution magazine many years ago.
I chose it to replace a desk monitoring set up, so my main DAW goes into an old Yamaha 01V desk via ADAT for multiple outputs and 4x digital inputs, which also allows inputs for multiple interfaces/mics and other tape machines.
The desk output goes into the main Nemo Stereo Buss input, which then allows other inputs from CD deck/DAT machine for accurate ref A/B - those extra inputs have their own volume control for accurate level matching.
The main XLR outputs go direct to my monitors with a wonderfully large monitor pot and excellent VU meters. Overall a great package designed for mastering and mixing rooms where A/B reference comparison is part of my work flow.
I’ve also invested in audiophile high quality mains and cabling to maximise the signal flow as the stereo imaging is especially awesome!
Roger Mayer 456-500 Series
My favourite secret weapon is my rack of ten Roger Mayer 456HD 500 series Tape Emulation modules.
This basically gives me ten channels of 2-inch Studer with a bias control at my fingertips which gives my recordings that malleable content and makes mixing so much easier!
I find they give my recordings that old-school tape harmonic content that I find very difficult to live without these days.
It’s an accumulative process that really comes into it's own when you use the process on every single source!
NEXT MONTH on Producer Club we ask another selection of producers:
"What's on your mix bus?"...