#3 - What's Your Go-To Tracking Chain?
In this Producer Club, we ask nine professional producers, mixers and engineers to tell us about their go-to setup when tracking...
For vocals it depends on what kind of singer I'm working with. For most female vocals and quieter male vocals I often use a Neumann TLM49 - unless there is a well maintained U67 around. For louder vocals, or where the TLM49 isn’t sounding right, I’ll try my Telefunken AR51, or a vintage U87. If I want real clarity and precision I’ll go for a Sony C800G or a Brauner VM1. As for mic preamp my go to is a Neve 1073, but if that is too warm or thick for the application I’ll go for an Avalon VT737SP. I love those for EQ too. They are completely underrated units, if I just had one box for Pre-amp, EQ and Compression I’d choose that. I tend to not do much EQ on the way in other than a HPF and maybe a cut around 3k if it’s feeling harsh. I nearly always track vocals through a Teletronix LA-2A. It’s almost impossible to overdo it, it always sounds great and if I need more punch then I’ll use a 1176 but it’s a bit more critical to get the levels right. I’m also a big fan of the Tube Tech CL1B. I often try and use what a studio has in terms of tracking equipment instead of hiring gear.
Our work and Guy’s production aesthetic at large is based around sounds generated inside the computer - unapologetically digital. As such we only do a small amount of acoustic recording, most of which is vocals. That said the array of other instruments we’re working with on these odd occasions is pretty esoteric - from gut-string quartets, to Indian flutes, to acoustic guitars, to lever harps, to clavichords. For this reason our tracking gear is kept lean but versatile - just a handful of mics and outboard that share duties to capture things nicely but not overly stylised. For vocals, mostly we’re using a Sony C800G. This yields a pretty slick sound straight out of the gates and on most vocalists sounds great in the track without any work. Recently this goes into a CAPI VP28 then through a JLM LA500 opto compressor. The LA500 is a really good non-invasive leveller that I use for just a little bit of control on the way in. I don’t tend to EQ vocals at the tracking stage. Most acoustic instruments I record with either a Neumann U87 Ai or Royer R121. These I’ll put through a Helios Type 69 which is great for pretty much everything you throw at it except the quietest of instruments. If needed, I’ll use the LA500 too. For DI’d bass and electric guitars, I mostly use the Avalon VT-737SP via an Origin Effects Cali 76 compressor. On bass guitars I’ll often go into the Helios for EQ and the LA500.
My go to tracking chain is a tough one as it can vary from studio to studio and dependant on what kind of artist, but there are a few chains I go to as a starting point. For vocals my default is a Shure SM7B (or an AEA R84 or Neumann U67) through a Neve 1073 and Empirical Labs Distressor compressor. For drums, it can vary depending on the desk and the room, but where I can I try and get a bullet mic under the snare between the kick pedal and snare stand through the oldest and clunkiest mic pre in the room - like the old Helios at Assault and Battery. Then I compress it with an Empirical Labs Distressor, adjusting the attack and release depending on the amount of “pump” required. This is just to add a bit of colour and character to a kit. For bass I like to use a Chandler TG2 for both the DI and amp, with a Neumann U47 on the amp.
Whether I’m composing or producing, I’m a big fan of getting a really clean sound first and messing with it later. I have to say that in recent years I’ve sometimes strayed from that ethos by recording through my Roland RE-201 space echo or a bunch of guitar pedals from Wampler, Strymon and TC Electronic - often with great results, but I’m definitely happier with a DI from a really nice pre amp. Everything in my studio is set up ready to record, so the piano is mic’d with a pair of Coles 4038's going through a pair of Neve 1073 LB's. The overhead mics for violin and cello are a pair of Brauner VM-1's going through a pair of API 512C's. The spot mic for vocals, clarinet, trumpet and everything else, is an AEA KU4 going through a Neve 88R LB with synths and guitars/bass getting DI’d through an API 3124+. I used to have amps mic’d up for the guitars and bass, but I just didn’t feel it was adding anything for what I was trying to achieve. Making a record in a studio with a ‘proper’ guitarist or bassist would be different of course! Something I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never tried, is using the UAD Apollo Console to record through emulations like the Neve and API rather than using the real thing. It’s on my to do list, honestly!
As someone who makes records across a large number of genres and styles, vocals are almost always the unifying factor. Vocal tracking can be incredibly simple or incredibly time consuming and depending on a number of things. Setting up a good vocal chain (or two) that you know will yield results immediately in advance of the singer arriving will definitely help. Pre-production and interactions with the artist in advance should give you a good idea of a starting point for microphone choice. To be safe and to get the session rolling though, I’ll almost always set up two go-to signal chains. The clean chain would be a Neumann U87i into the Neve VR console with the Tube-Tech CL1B on compression duties and a Maag EQ4 for a touch of equalisation should it be required. I’ll almost always set up a dynamic mic too, usually either a Shure SM7B or an EV RE20, through a Neve 1073 for preamp and EQ and the Highland Dynamics BG2 for compression. As always, the source material is key for any good recording. Finding signal paths and equipment that will work time and again, especially when you’re pressed for time, will make life a lot easier. Also worth a mention for vocal tracking is good headphone monitoring for the artist. A balanced, clear mix and a good set of headphones will go a long way to helping a performance along.
When it comes to tracking, all vocals and most instruments go through the Neve 1073 DPA and the UA 1176LN as I’ve used this chain the last 15 or so years, and I still haven’t found anything that beats it. Slow attack, fast release on the compressor with 4:1 ratio - some instruments get a bit slower release. We have the hardware units in the larger studios but in our project studios or when travelling, I use the same settings on the Universal Audio and Antelope interfaces. When tracking bands we have an SSL Duality where we record all our live sessions through the SSL preamps alongside the 1073 DPAs, Shadow Hills Mono Gama's or the CraneSong Europa1's if extra colour is required. Microphones do vary. In our vocal booths we use the Sony C800G, Telefunken U47 and the rare Didrik DeGeer as our main vocal mics. As a default we have the Neumann TLM 107 in all our 6 studios, so that you can switch rooms when writing and tracking ideas and always get the same great sound.
I've recently been doing a lot of tracking on my own for an album that Dave Eringa produced by an artist called Typh Barrow. Dave is a connoisseur of guitar tone and is very particular when it comes to the right sound, so for her whole record I used this chain. Starting at the pedal board I had a Roger Mayer 615 Smooth Limiter to condition the signal leaving the guitar. This is a 48v device and is of a very high bandwidth. Then I'm using a Roger Mayer 4644 Drive, which is his take on the Tube Screamer but with more bass response and a very dynamic response to the level, i.e. If you roll the guitar volume back it cleans up really nicely. I also used an Empress Super Delay, which is a very good 'Echoplex' style pedal and a Strymon Blue Sky Reverb. Before I hit the amp I go to a Roger Mayer DI, which is a transformer design with a discreet class A circuit and has a split to go direct to mic pre/DAW and then another output to the amp. It gives the producer a safety and will be time aligned to the amp mics so it can be used in conjunction. This is very useful for some of the cleaner tones and I always print my FX to the DI too. The amp I used was a Victory Sheriff 44, an amazing two channel amp with a big tonal palette. A lot of my lead sounds for this album were the guitar straight in to the high gain channel. Other favourites are a '96 Mark Sampson era Matchless HC30, a Selmer Treble And Bass and a 66 Black face Super Reverb. The amp was mic'd up with a Beyerdynamic M69 and AKG C414B ULS in cardioid pattern with a -10db pad, and I used the Dynamount remote mic positioner over wi-fi to obtain optimum position. This is an absolute life saver when working on guitars as I move the position depending on the track or the guitar. I find it stops me from getting stuck in a "mic position rut" - whilst keeping the chain from source to DAW the same I can have loads of variants at the flick of a switch, and saving presets of the mic positions allows me to recall them perfectly. The mics went into a RM 456 mic pre-amp. This is a class A mic pre with hand wound transformers which gives a big open sound with a very fast transient response. It also has great meters for keeping everything in check whilst I recorded into my Lavry Blue A/D, set at -18dB FS=0vu @+4dBu.
Sometimes I’ll make a record almost entirely in the box. When I’m doing overdubs for my analog synths, pianos or drums, everything is going through the Apollo x8p at the moment where I can throw plug-ins on and commit to sounds early, which I like. Regardless of the type of music I’m making though, I’ll always be recording a vocal and my tracking chain is pretty straightforward when I’m in my own studio. It’s a Neumann u87 Ai into the Neve 1073 LB pre amp and then into the Warm WA-2A, to smooth things out a bit. The WA-2A also just colours the signal in a really pleasing way. That goes in to the Apollo Twin, which is hooked to the rack unit up for more inputs, but at that point I only add some low-latency reverb for monitoring - quite often the UAD plate. Lately I’ve been swapping the 1073LB for my Shadow Hills Mono Gama if it feels like it works better for the vocalist. Occasionally I’ll find that a singer really gels with the Shure SM7B that I have in the room as a mic for putting down scratch ideas so that might be the master vocal mic too sometimes.
It may be hard to believe but with over 46 years experience in the industry, I don’t really have a ‘favourite go-to tracking chain’. The reason for that is because I am still searching for it – even after all this time. As a predominantly Pop Music producer my priority recording chain is vocals, as this is often the only acoustic recording chain on a pop record. Within my current PJS Production Team we will generally record through the Apogee Ensemble Mk 1 mic pre-amp directly into Logic ProX. In my own home system I am happy to track my vocal mic choice through my Yamaha 01V desk mic pre-amp into Pro-Tools via an ADAT digital connection. I will generally add a subtle amount of compression on the vocal input chain via the Apogee and Yamaha systems described above and generally a HPF up to 80Hz to discard any low-end rumble. If I had a choice of an external compressor in this vocal recording chain, it would be the DBX 160. If I was being really fussy then I would say that the mic pre-amp on the MCI J500 series desk that we had at the Marquee Studios in the 1970s was the best mic pre-amp I have ever experienced as an engineer, unfortunately I’m not aware of anyone in the world making this mic amp available as a stand-alone item to producers and engineers today.