It’s now more than a week into February, and I’m still not done with The Soundmills mixes. We keep improving, and some replacement performances recently came in, so things are somewhat behind schedule.
Instead of waiting until the very end of the project, here’s a quick post to give you a feel for what the style will be here on this home recording blog. When this project is done, I’ll do a series of posts where you can hear the basic tracks, and I’ll go through drum track prep, drum mixing, bass guitar tone, adding “real” sounding ambience to dry, close mic’ed tracks, and a lot more. I’ll try to cook up some videos using a screen capture, too. So stay tuned.

Before starting, I’d like to sing the praises of the Soundtoys “Decapitator” plugin. I recently picked up the Soundtoys bundle, and had assumed that the Decapitator would be an extreme, mangle-your-sound kind of plugin. I’ve been thoroughly impressed by the tone sculpting abilities of this plugin, however, and have found many, many more uses for it than simply creating fuzzy, overdriven sounds. I’d have to call it the “sleeper” of the bundle, which I had actually bought to get my hands on Echoboy and Crystallizer to satisfy my craving for the H-3000 D/SE I wish I hadn’t sold some years ago.

On to the point of this post. In one of The Soundmills tunes, “You’re Wrong”, the guitar tones were not working in the track. Mr. Lachs (the singer and guitarist) had used just one mic setup for all the tracking (more on their tracking setup in later posts), and the combination of guitar, pedals, etc. that he used on this track led to a thin, harsh tone. Case in point:


To fit in the track, the tone needed to be warmed up a few degrees. Here’s where we wound up after processing:

…and this is what the guitars sound like in the track:

[audio:’re Wrong BLOG Full Track.mp3]

This is one of those famous “fix it in the mix” scenarios. What to do with a guitar sound that isn’t working in the mix?
The usual tool for the job is EQ; find the nasty frequencies and cut them out. In this case, that just wasn’t doing it. The overall “shape” of the tone needed work. There weren’t just problem frequencies, the sound needed a “shape” change. Decapitator to the rescue.

First things first. Here is the EQ setting for the first guitar (left channel):

There were tracks recorded for each guitar part, a dynamic mic (Sennheiser MD-421) and a ribbon (T.Bone RB500, same as the Apex 210 mic). After balancing the mics, I EQ’ed each separately, before sending them to a bus for more work. It sounded more pleasing this way – some frequencies that needed to be tamed in one mic would have otherwise been pulled out on the other if I only EQ’ed on the bus. Mostly it isn’t too radical, but there was a nasty point in the tone at around 4kHz that I pulled down quite a bit.

Now, off to the guitar bus. Here are the plugs I put up on the bus:

If you don’t have Brainworx Cleansweep (the filter plug on the upper right) be sure to use the link at the bottom of this article to get it right away. It is very clean and clear, cutting unnecessary lows and/or highs from your tracks with no other sonic footprint. A must-have mixing tool. If you crank up the unprocessed guitar tracks, you’ll hear all kinds of room resonances and other woofy low end that is not needed on the track. The Cleansweep clears this right up, further tightening the low end of the mix. For home studio recordists, this kind of filtering is a MUST. It helps removes rumbles and resonances from cranky appliances clod-hopping roommates.

Next stop is the Smack compressor plugin. This was set on opto mode and adjusted so that it wasn’t compressing constantly, but only grabbing a few resonant chords that were uneven in volume again due to room resonances in the recording. You may start seeing a pattern here… room acoustics cause an awful lot of the fix-it-in-the-mix problems that crop up in home recordings. In a coming post, I will explain more about the recording setup used by The Soundmills, and let you hear some before/after samples.

Finally we come to the Decapitator. The “Style” letter buttons control the general vibe of the unit. They stand for an Ampex analog tape machine, EMI channel, Neve channel, and Triode and Pentode settings on the Thermionic “Culture Vulture” unit. I find that on most sources the “N” setting generates the least obvious distortion, and adds a solid midrange thickness that these guitar tracks really need. So “N” it is. Additionally, the low cutoff filter creates a pleasant, speaker-like resonance at the cutoff frequency when the “bump” switch is engaged that enhanced the guitar tone further. The high cut switch in “steep” mode trimmed off harsh upper mids from the mic’ed amp sound, seeming to actually somewhat reduce the amount of distortion on the guitar.

Have a listen to the guitars again with the Decapitator switching in and out:

[audio:’re Wrong BLOG guitar 1 Decap on off.mp3]

As mixing progressed, the Soundtoys Decapitator did more and more heavy lifting; thickening snare drums, re-shaping guitars, adding grit to help define the bass guitar, and even strapped across parallel drum buses and reverb returns to create a dirty, vintage vibe. I dare say it is a must-have plugin for those who track at home with budget gear – it compensates very well for a lack of pricey mics, preamps, and mixing console with the attendant tubes and transformers that give those units their “thicker” sound. The Decapitator even wound up on fiddle tracks on a recent Celtic-tinged version of a traditional American folk song I mixed.

Next time around, I’ll start in this series on home mixing properly with a preview of the basic tracks, the biggest problems we had, and where we wound up (I hope to be done mixing by the end of the week).

Here are the shameless promotional links for some of the toys mentioned here – if you in the market for new gear, ordering via these links it helps support the site:

First of all, you have to grab the free plugins from Brainworx at the Plugin Alliance site:

And here links to the plugins and the Apex 210 Ribbon Mic (The ribbon mic was used a lot on this album, to especially great effect as a front of kit mic!):

APEX 210 Ribbon Microphone

SoundToys Decapitator – Analog Saturation Modeler (Native)

SoundToys SoundToys Native Effects Plug-In Bundle