Beyond The Basics: Serial Skills, Simplified.

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The classic example here would be taming a dynamic vocal with a quick tap from a fast-recovering 1176 before allowing it to pass through an LA-2A or Sta-Level set to deliver more consistent compression.

NEED FOR SPEED

Sometimes, two fast dynamic devices in a row can be handy:

According to Agnello: “If you have some nasty “S”s, sometimes one de-esser won’t do it. You’d have to hit it so hard that it’ll catch too much, giving you a lisping effect. I might give the S’s a little nudge with one de-esser, then really go for the kill with a second, trying to take out as much as I can. I like to think of it as setting up with one and knocking it down with the other.”

“I almost never use two compressors,” added mastering engineer Randy Merrill, “but I often use two limiters in series. I find at times that one particular limiter can only sound good up to a certain point. Once I get there, I’ll rely on another, different limiter to get me closer to the result I’m looking for.”

SETTING IT TO STUN

Unlike our mastering engineers Hull and Merrill, our mixers (Agnello and Hamilton and myself) felt that while stacking compressors can lead to greater transparency, that isn’t always the goal. One or more compressors in a mixer’s chain could very well be set to “stun”, ruthlessly lobbing more than a dozen db off an unsuspecting sound source.

Serial compression can still help in these cases as well. Feeding our “character compressor” a signal that’s already been cut down to a manageable dynamic range can ensure that our hardest-working box delivers an even and predictable effect, rather than jumping around in color and responsiveness due to an erratic signal.

EVERYTHING ELSE

Shane Stoneback discussed sending his plug-in reverbs to a real live chamber in our recent Cults interview. Hamilton is also a long-time proponent of searching for new sounds by stacking ambient effects:

“In general, I really love reverbs layered up. I might have six reverbs on a mix,” he said. “I could be using a spring that doesn’t even go to the main mix – it could be there just to feed a plate reverb.”

“I guess what I’m looking for is a kind of ‘custom complexity’. If the album was tracked in hotels and bedrooms, I might want to create a unifying, Motown-ish kind of signature reverb that ties everything together – you know, where everything kind of lives in this one really unique space.”

For his part, Agnello remembers a time before multi-parameter reverbs. The earliest versions of these chains of time-based effects were patched in by guys like him, using a tape-slap delay to feed a plate reverb.

“Nowadays, the pre-delays are built-in,” he said. If you have an Eventide, you can just pull up anything you want – a flange into a plate – whatever.  Of course you can explore as much as you want. The only thing holding you back there is how much gear you have at your disposal and how much time you want to spend f*ing around.”

And Agnello has spent a lot of time doing just that:

“While working on my second Dinosaur Jr. record [Without A Sound] at Electric Lady, J [Masics] would want me to put one piece of gear after another on his guitar to hear what it would sound like. ‘Put something else on it, let’s see what that does. Ok, now something else’. We’d end up with these chains of like 5 boxes in a row. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it would be ridiculous.”

“But there would be those times where it would be amazing – all of a sudden the guitar was really jumping out of the mix. We just kept listening and trying until it sounded good. I don’t think we called it anything. We were just experimenting.”

Hamilton had similar feelings about attaching terms to the things we do instinctively:

“I think the name ‘Serial EQing’ only came about because of the proliferation of internet ding-dongs talking about Parallel EQing,” he said, as I tried to avoid looking sheepishly at my feet.

“But I guess we’re stuck with the term as much as we’re stuck with anonymous internet punditry.”

As long as that’s true, we’ll be here, hoping to undo the damage by bringing a bit of clarity to all the chatter.

Now go get in tune with your instincts, and start some experiments of your own.

Justin Colletti is a Brooklyn-based producer/engineer who works with uncommon artists, and a journalist who writes about music and how we make it. Visit him at http://www.justincolletti.com.

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  • Matt Verzola

    Great article!

  • Justin Kahler

    “it’s not brain surgery” Mr. Hull? Thanks for clarifying.

    great article, thanks Justin!