Recording and mix engineer, Joshua Blair is one of those all round nice guys who not only has a great ear or two, he also understands how to get the best from his gear.... old and new. His credits as an engineer include everyone from Beyoncé, Leona Lewis, Take That, Mel C and the Scissor Sisters, through to Queen, Stereophonics, Nädiya, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Thin Lizzy and Simply Red. He has worked on movies such as “Book Of Blood” and TV programs including “How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?” and The X-Factor, and if you were to visit his website, you would also see that he has even played mandolin for Imelda May and guitar for Robin Gibb.
Josh, who is currently based at Sphere Studios, London recently bought the SPL RackPack loaded with 2 Premium Mic Pres and 2 TwinTubes along with the Analog Code Plug-Ins bundle, so I popped down to see him where he is presently working with Mark Ronson on the new Duran Duran album and to find out what he thought of his new toys.
Josh is recording the Duran Duran album on Pro Tools using a few choice front-end processors and mic pres, and we quickly got into a conversation about the advancement of plug-ins and their usability. “With the speed and power of computers advancing the way that they have, plug-ins have come a long way.” Josh explained “I mean, I am running stuff at home on my laptop now, that couldn’t even run on a G4 a year ago. And this thing here” he said pointing to a lonely G3 under the desk ”in comparison to what we can do now, is effectively a typewriter”.
“With the older plug-ins, you could never get near what the hardware sounded like, but now we have modelling plug-ins (like the SPL Analog Code), you don’t just turn parameters up and down to get some kind of random sound, many of them really do model and achieve the sound of the analogue version.”
I asked Josh if he had used his SPL Analog Code Plug-Ins yet. “Yes, and they are fantastic, really, really good. I have used the Transient Designers on everything, every track I pull up I literally try them out.” Pointing proudly to his racked SPL Transient Designer 4, he said: “I have only had 4 Transient Designers to work with before, but now I have as many as I want to play with, so I can do whatever I want.”
Apart from the Transient Designers’ usual and obvious applications such as drums, Josh uses them elsewhere. “They are great on loops and I also use them on room mics, just turn the sustain up and the attack right down and you get an implosive sound. It also helps a lot on stuff that’s not been recorded by you and you need to tweak it a bit.
The Transient Designer is as much about effect as control “Especially on the Duran Duran stuff, when we do the set-up, we have an acoustic drum kit, an electric drum kit, Bass, Guitar, Acoustic Guitar, Vocals and 16 lines of keyboards coming in, so we can use the Transient Designer as a production tool or effect. It means that we can have a drum kit sound like a great drum kit or if we want it to sound completely different, then we can do that and we have every nuance we want in between.”
“Nick (Rhodes) was telling me that when they were mixing one of their tracks back in the 80’s, they wanted the snare to have a tail where the note slid down on every hit. And because there was no automation on the processor used on the effect, someone had to sit there and turn the knob on every snare strike. But now, you can just automate it or create the effect on one snare and copy/paste it in to the rest of the track.”
“Now the guys know that these effects can be achieved easily, they can be far more creative with sounds at a much faster pace.”
At this stage of tracking the Duran Duran album Josh is mixing almost exclusively “in the box”, so it is the front end processing of the source signal that is so important to him. So, I asked him why he chose the SPL RackPack with the Premium Mic Pre’s and TwinTubes?
“I’ve always been a big fan of SPL stuff, especially as their gear has always been so clean with so much headroom. I have always loved that about their mastering desk and especially the PQ, which is a great sounding EQ.”
“With the stuff that I do and the clients I have, I have to be able to trust the pre amp is not going to distort easily thus not losing that vital performance. It gives me the confidence that I am going to get as good amount of gain out of it as I can. But I also need the headroom, just in case the singer suddenly decides to scream. I work with a lot of different genres of music, including opera and musical singers who are very dynamic, so I need to know that the mic pre can handle it.”
“So after checking out the SPL RackPack, I am changing from my Neve 1073 which has been used on a whole bunch of great records, to the SPL Premium Mic Pre (in the RackPack). I normally use the 1073 because it’s warm and open, but it does ‘pack it in’ when someone whacks it (sings loudly) on the mic. I used the SPL Premium Mic Pre on 8 different singers who came into the studio one after the other and they were going from ‘whisper quiet’ one moment to belting their brains out the next, and it just did the job. It didn’t complain. I didn’t have to think about it, I just set it up and let it go.”
“When you’re getting down to it, you don’t have time to mess about changing settings constantly on a pre. The way I do my sessions is that if it takes longer than 30 seconds to set, it’s taken too long. The producer or the artist doesn’t want to wait around all day for you to get a sound, so it’s important to get an idea of what they are looking for before you go into the studio, listen to the instrument or voice acoustically and also know enough about your equipment to know what is going to work, so this is why the SPL Premium Mic Pre is going to be my new starting point, or my go-to pre if you like. So, it’s like the 1073 but more open and with more headroom.”
Josh then went on to the SPL TwinTube, “Normally when I do vocals I use the Pultec EQP-1A3 and I don’t EQ too much, but I do add a little air just to open out the top end, and the passive EQ has a much nicer boost than an active EQ. The TwinTube has the Harmonics section which allows me to tweak the top end better”.
“I also have the Analog code version of the TwinTube which I have used to great effect on piano. The problem with pianos is that if you EQ/brighten them when they’re playing in the lower registers it also has an effect on the 2nd harmonics of the upper notes, so all of a sudden they step out into your face and are very uneven. But when I used the Analog Code version of the TwinTube, I was able to get very rich harmonics to come out but without having certain parts of the piano being too loud, it totally smoothes them out.”
“With the TwinTube I also have total control over the saturation. The problem with tube saturation is that it can push the vocal further and further back into the mix, but I have that under control with the TwinTube. For example, I can be recording a lead vocal and then we can decide to do the BV’s, so using the same mic, I make a slight saturation adjustment on the TwinTube just to push the vocal back in the mix, and we are immediately ready to go and it still sounds natural. It means that I am confident enough to make those decisions going to disk (or tape) and still not paint myself into a corner when it comes to the mix.”