Let's talk about how you use some of your favorite saturators: the Brainworx bx_saturator V2 and the Vertigo VSM-3.
Absolutely. The bx_saturator V2: One thing I love about the way Brainworx lays out their stuff is when they break stuff into frequency bands or M/S and the ability to solo different bands. There're lots of different saturators that do different things or have parallel processes. For example, the Vertigo VSM-3 has the second harmonic and the third harmonic, and they can either be parallel or serial; so you've got two clippers in one box, and you can blend them and things like that. But the idea of driving the different frequency bands separately is something that, as far as I know, is really only in the Brainworx bx_saturator V2, where they give you a crossover, and you can really leave the low-end alone and crank the mid-range. (Editor’s note: the Vertigo VSM-3 also allows for different saturation in different bands)
For something like a snare drum, sometimes you want to distort it, and you'll end up with a really cool kind of fuzzy distortion, but it destroys the thump down at around, I don't know, 200 Hz, because that just gets too distorted. So you end up having to compromise. You'll leave the top-end a little less distorted than you want, because you don't want to mess up the low-end. Whenever that happens to me just using the straight clipper or running something into a compressor too hard, my brain immediately goes, "aha, that's something I know how to fix." And the Brainworx lets you do that, because you can completely leave one band alone or do them differently. They can have different amounts or types of saturation just blended that way, and being able to grab the crossover, solo the individual bands to really hear what you're doing is great. With all of their tools, the precision with which you can hear what you're doing is amazing—and I just love the idea of splitting that type of clipping into frequency bands. When I need that, it's the only place I really know of to do it.
What other situations might you need that specifically, where you just want to crank the mids? You mentioned snare drum; are there other things you might use it on?
Yeah. Kick drum could be the same way. When you want to distort the low-mids, but not mess up the bottom or the very top—you know, when you want to keep that click going in the kick drum. It can happen in guitars, too. If you want to give a guitar a little bit of fur, but it's a clean-ish guitar. There are going to be only certain places you want to do it, because you're not trying to distort the guitar; you're just trying to give it a little, again, "energy." You can get that out of clipping, the same way you can out of enhancing. And with vocals it's the same way, because sometimes you'll have a really clear, strong low-end, but the top end just feels a little lifeless and a little boring. When you enhance it, all you're doing is cranking up something that's not great, so you actually do want to clip it. And trying to set up a parallel chain of clipping doesn't really work very well, because a lot of times when you introduce crossovers, things get phasey, and you can't do it that way. To be able to pop it into this plugin and bypass everything except the top band and get that distortion right and leave the low-end alone is really, really useful.
Is there anything about the specific harmonic distortion from the bx_saturator V2 that you prefer?
I think for me, what sounds so different about it is just the ability to split it into bands. There are a lot of people who spend a lot of time deciding what type of clipping they want, whereas for me, I get used to what certain plugins sound like. For me, the sound of the Brainworx is the fact that I'm only working in certain bands. There are different flavors of it within the plugin using the different compensation and different amounts of drive and then the XL control. You can blend and tweak, but I find myself doing that more with the crossover than I do with the controls for the saturation itself.
What do you like about the Vertigo VSM-3's effect that's different from the bx_saturator V2?
The first thing is, you've got two clipping processes, but they're just totally different-sounding processes, and then you can decide whether to have those in series or parallel. One of them is sort of based on cranking a tube, though they call it a Fet Crusher, and then one is more of a straight transistor thing. Again, you have input filters. So you don't have quite as much control over the harmonic part you're dealing with, but you do have control over for example, just using the second harmonic stuff on the lows and the third harmonic can be on everything or only in the mid-range. That's really useful. Being able to change the serial/parallel completely changes how it works, because obviously, if it's serial, you're distorting the distorted thing; if it's parallel, you're distorting the clean thing twice and adding them together—and you can blend them.
Also, I really love soloing the process in the monitor control, so you can just hear what's going on in the second harmonic circuit, then what's going on in the third harmonic circuit and then hear it all together, or just the two of them together when you're switching serial/parallel. You get a really great sense of control over what you're doing. Again, it just sounds different to me. I don't know how to characterize it, but you just crank that Shape control around and the amount of Drive and stuff like that.
Are there use cases where you tend to grab the VSM-3 over the bx_saturator V2?
It's probably whichever one I thought of first, because they're the two that allow you to deal in different frequency ranges, and I think probably, if I felt I wanted the distortion to have a particular character, I can mess with the character a little bit more in the VSM-3, because you have two totally different types. Then within that, you've got the Shape controls and the frequency controls. Whereas, the bx_saturator V2 is the one I think of immediately when I know I really want to mess with just one part of the frequency spectrum.
What have you been working on recently that you're really excited about?
There're a few projects. I mixed nine songs on the latest Zac Brown record [Jekyll + Hyde], which stylistically is all over the place. That was a huge challenge and a lot of fun to do almost a heavy rock track, then a total pop track, then a straight-up acoustic country track, then a dance track and never know what was coming next. Then there's an album called Unremembered by Sarah Kirkland Snider, a composer from New York—a full-blown classical record, which was amazing to work on. I'm sure that I used all four of those plugins somewhere in that record, because there were a lot of very small coloration things I was doing. Within the context of the orchestra I needed some things to stick out, but I had to be subtle and at the same time, use techniques I wouldn't normally use. There's a lot of sound design; the orchestration is pretty dense; and there're a lot of voices on top. To find ways to bring the pop/rock mix aesthetic to that was really interesting, and I probably used every plugin I own on that record at some point.
This stuff isn't out yet, but I mixed a record for a band called The Heavy in Bath, England, which is awesome. And a record for the UK band Coasts. That one's coming in 2016.
In your most recent Pensado Place interview, you talked a lot about working in the box and using plugins. Does that kind of work style enable you to be more mobile and go around and work wherever you want to?
Yeah, absolutely. My entire mix rig fits in a backpack instead of two huge Neve consoles and five racks of gear like what it used to be. So it frees me up not only physically, but also with time, because I can work on anything at any time. I'm not doing recalls; I'm just opening sessions. So the ability to be right in the middle of a project and then get a call about something else to do one song and be able to do it without really taking any time away from the first project, instead of trying to see if that first project can take a break or if this new thing can wait for two weeks to free up the console. So, it's completely different, and I believe it's also allowing me to be a lot more creative. I can mess around with a bunch of plugins that I wouldn't otherwise use, because I can just do something and live with it for a bit, and then hear it the next day and decide whether it's a good idea or a bad idea. I'm not trying to finish things immediately in order to get them off the console.
What all is in your mix rig backpack?
I've got a MacBook Pro, [Universal Audio] UAD box for some DSP that's also my headphone amp, a couple of hard drives and a Frontier Design AlphaTrack for a one-fader controller. That's pretty much it. When I'm not traveling I add an Avid HD card and HD I/O interface to drive my speakers.