Mixing engineer/producer Andrew Scheps explains enhancing guitars with vocal tools, saturating single frequency bands and the plugins he grabs when a mix needs some extra love.
If you run in pro audio circles, you can't escape producer/engineer/mixer Andrew Scheps. But then, why would you want to? Every time you bump into Scheps online, in music or even in person, you're probably learning something new about the art of audio production, listening to a master product or just conversing with a really nice, down-to-earth guy. But in the latter scenario, you still have to be on your game, because Scheps barely slows down for anyone. How can you when you're constantly in demand to work on projects for the biggest pop/rock acts in the world? Scheps has #1 credits from a who's who list in music: Adele, Beyonce, Hozier, Jennifer Nettles, Metallica, Neil Diamond, Red Hot Chili Peppers, U2, Ziggy Marley—the list goes from A to Jay-Z.
Scheps is a little bit country, and he's a little bit classical. He's actually a little bit of every musical style, but he's 100% pro. Indicative of someone who slashes through production projects like a machete through underbrush, he talks with precise technical mastery about as fast as a lesser-experienced mind can keep up with him.
Of course, it's worth the effort. The man has downsized—yet upgraded—his mixing studio from a huge room to a backpack in recent years. Yet his work has only improved as his schedule has filled up since he began mixing in the box.
Scheps does the majority of his mixing with EQs and compressors, but here he talks to us about some of his favorite go-to plugins for when he needs an extra little something. Specifically he tell us about enhancing guitars with non-traditional tools, breathing life back into over-distorted guitars and good uses for saturation plugins.
When you're enhancing guitars with the Noveltech Vocal Enhancer, you mentioned that it's efficient with its controls, and you don't have to use as many controls to get the same effect you would get on other products.
When you're working on guitars or vocals, and sometimes even snare, you're dealing in mid-range, and that's where this plug-in is really meant to be used. But what's cool about it to me is, first of all, it's a parallel process, which I like a lot. I'm a big fan of parallel stuff. You get this focus frequency that is sort of tuning the enhancement, so you can really try to find where the tone is living on a guitar as opposed to where the noise is. Adding to that, you can filter the processed stuff with the high and low-pass filters before it gets back in, so you can really fine-tune it.
So, you set your focus frequency at where you're really trying to get most of the enhancement, but if some other artifacts come up, you can really slam that low-pass filter down near the focus frequency, so you're not bringing up all the noise and the fizz along with what you're trying to push. I just like how intuitive the interface is for that and also how intuitive their little frequency graph thing is with the enhancement on top.
And you also use it for vocals, as well as guitar?
Yeah. Obviously, they've built it for vocals, so it does a really good job in that range. Of course for me, as soon as I see something that's meant for vocals, I think, "what else is in the frequency range that they're dealing with?" It's the same thing with the SPL Vitalizer MK2-T plug-in. I don't know if that was meant for guitars, but it sort of acts like it's meant for guitars. So then you think, "well, what would it sound like on a snare drum?" The Vocal Enhancer does work on the top end, but basically it's really meant for mid-range, so it's great on vocals. You can decide whether you want to go all the way out into the air part of the vocal by leaving that low-pass filter open, or you can really decide that you want to just deal with mid-range and get your air somewhere else.
The fact that it's a parallel process and the fact that it is high and low-pass filtered really let's you decide how much of it you want and where you want it—without having a thousand knobs on the screen. It's a pretty good trick to be able to really fine-tune that quickly.
Can you give a real-world example of when you would decide to use the Vocal Enhancer on guitars? At what point of the process would that come up?
Basically, I will use parallel compression on everything and EQ stuff that needs to be EQ'd. I stay pretty traditional with the tools I know as I'm building up a mix. But every once in a while, you just get stuck, like on a guitar that has been distorted to death. There're just no dynamics left in it or all the noise from the distortion is sitting right on top of where all the tone is, so anytime you try and bring out the notes, the sound of the fingers and that kind of thing, you're also bringing up the noise. At that point, you're really not going to go anywhere with just EQ and compression. You could, but it's going to take you forever.
That's where tools like this are doing a process – maybe it's just EQ, compression and expansion—but whatever they're doing is so complicated that I'm not going to set up a process like this myself. And yet it's also tune-able to the point where I'll know immediately if it's going to help me or not. So in the case of guitars, if I can't just EQ in the tone I want, then I would immediately reach for something like the Vocal Enhancer, because by just slamming that focus frequency around, I find the spot in the tone I'm looking for and then mess with the filters and see if I can do it where I'm getting what I need without bringing up all the other bad aspects of it.
You also told us that you'll use the SPL Vitalizer MK2-T on guitars that need help.
Yeah, the Vitalizer does the same thing but in a totally different way. Instead of really just dealing with one frequency band that you can change the width of— the Vitalizer deals with the low-end separately from the mid-range. So you've got the same kind of idea but for something with even more problems, you can treat the low-end. On a guitar, you're looking for the low-end thump and kind of the bloom of single notes and stuff like that, but then deal with the mid-range completely separately—they're independent. That really lets you fine-tune in a totally different way. Then you can take that same approach to vocals if you want to use the Vitalizer on vocals.
Let's say, if you start with the Vocal Enhancer, and that mid-range is really good, but there's low-end problems and things like that. Rather than then go to a separate process, I might swap out the Vocal Enhance for something like the Vitalizer, where I can tighten up the low-end while enhancing the mid-range all in one place, just because those things interact a little bit, and it's a lot easier to tweak one box than several.
Earlier when you said it's good for putting life back into heavily distorted guitars, does that have to do also with treating the low end and mid-range separately?
Yeah, it does. And there's something about that particular plug-in, whatever their process is. Maybe if I read the whole manual they tell you exactly what they're doing, but I kind of doubt it. They managed to—by a combination of their mid-range and low-end processing—you can take a guitar that's been over-distorted and over-compressed in the amplifier and actually get a little bit of life out of it. It doesn't always work, but there have been tracks where I feel like, "man, there's just nothing left in this. Everything's been squeezed out of it." And the Vitalizer has been the only thing that made it sound lively again. For me, that's the big thing. I mean, EQ-wise, I don't care which frequencies are doing what. It's all about the energy of it.
Some people who aren't that experienced at recording guitars think, "well, the more distorted, the more exciting it's going to be." But of course, the more distorted, the more compressed it's going to be, which can get rid of some of the excitement. So the Vitalizer is a really good tool for trying to find whatever life is left in it and enhance that.
So it sounds like this is something you'd use on a mixing project when somebody has already recorded the tracks, and they need some work.
Yeah, exactly. I can do most things that I'm going to do with EQ and compression, and I understand those processes intimately and what they're going to sound like as I'm doing them. But sometimes you just get stuck. You've got something, and you know what you want it to do, but it just isn't doing it. At that point, you start reaching for all of these other tools. It would be really easy to put Vocal Enhancer or Vitalizer on every track in the session, and you'd probably convince yourself that each individual thing sounded so much better when you did it. But doing that across the whole mix, I think you'd get into trouble. You're going to start getting really harsh; you're going to build up at certain frequencies. But for individual important things in a mix that really need to stand out and have the energy be right, those are the kinds of tools that can get you out of a lot of trouble.