Pro Techniques 4.1.2002

Pro Techniques from Ian Blanch

by Randy Alberts

If you're tired of fixing drum machine hiccups on bar 1/beat 1, bored with your plug-in vocal chain, and need to repeat exactly the same filter sweep on multiple song prints, read on. Thanks to engineer Ian Blanch, Queen Latifah, DJ Quik, The Alcoholics, and Brandy didn't sweat any of the above when he was behind the board.

Blanch, a 26-year old independent engineer represented by HitMixers Engineer Management Company, offers up the following Pro Tools and TDM plug-in tips. He's learned a lot in his five years as Head Assistant Engineer at Skip Saylor Recording in Los Angeles and, judging from his eagerness to share a few of his Pro Tools tricks, will help engineers young and old alike learn a lot more about their favorite platform in the years to come.


Engineer Ian Blanch

Pro Technique 1 —
Preventing Audible Hiccups When Recording Hardware Drum Machine Sequences
into Pro Tools

Most Pro Tools engineers start a session at the one hour mark to avoid clock problems with locked external devices. Hardware sequencers and drum machines can get confused knowing what time it is if a session is rewound past zero, and its always a good idea to leave room before a song in case some serious rearrangement happens during production. But typically the same engineers won't give themselves any pre-roll and instead indicate bar 1/beat 1 at the same one hour mark, which is another challenge for external hardware devices like Akai's popular MPC-3000.

"Let's say you've programmed a sequence on an MPC-3000 and you're trying to dump it into Pro Tools," says Blanch. "If you start the session at one hour, set that as bar 1/beat 1 and don't have any pre-roll, then the MPC does a little hiccup in the first bar. It starts fast and then catches up with itself but its definitely noticeable and you have to go back and clean that up. The MPC is seeing code all of a sudden at the top of the song and it sort of jumps to catch up to Pro Tools."

Blanch suggests an easy fix by simply starting a session at 59 minutes and 45 seconds to allow an external device to hiccup without being heard. "When you're sending code out of Pro Tools to your MPC or a sequencer or drum machine, Pro Tools is actually already rolling before that start time. The MPC will still do a little hiccup but there's no audio playing yet because the sequence isn't going to trigger until the one hour mark. You're basically just getting Pro Tools and the MPC locked up with enough time to accommodate that hiccup, which is what we've been doing on analog machines for years. I'd recommend doing this for any device you want to lock up to Pro Tools, even if its a keyboard or sampler locking via MIDI clock."

He also offers a secondary tip with regards to making a tempo map in this scenario. "Just locate to one hour once you've laid everything down, get your marker on one hour, and then use Identify Beat at that point and tell Pro Tools that's bar 1/beat 1. Once it gives you that little tempo marker in the tempo ruler, just double-click on that and then punch in your tempo and there's your tempo map."

Pro Technique 2 —
Creating a Great Vocal Chain with Antares Mic Modeler, Waves Renaissance Compressor, and Waves DeEsser

Many musicians and producers today are bringing tracks they've recorded at home in to studios. Though home-brewed tracks are sounding better every day, there's more than a few out there recording with semi-pro gear and techniques that make even the most accommodating engineers cringe.

"I get a lot of home recorded vocals that people bring in for me to transfer to Pro Tools," Blanch continues. "They'll have vocals they recorded in a closet, and I'll ask them what kind of mic they used and they'll say something like, 'I don't know, it had a big silver ball on the end of it and it was cheap.' [laughs.] It's cool they got it down, though, and the [Antares] Mic Modeler plug-in is a great start in those vocal chains. I usually pick the Sony C-800 as the model because I just love the way that mic sounds. If their vocal track sounds kind of muffled, I'll think, 'OK, that sounds like a U 87' and pick that as my input mic in the first pull-down menu in Mic Modeler, then pull down the C-800 in the output menu. Mic Modeler is really subtle but it works good."

Step two in Blanch's favorite vocal chain is Waves' Renaissance Compressor. "What's cool about that plug-in is that you can hit stuff pretty hard with it and it will ride the track's dynamics very nicely. If I try to hit any kind of outboard compressor as hard as I would Renaissance Compressor, it will usually pump the sound a lot and make it tough to get the attack and release settings just right. I usually just end up going with one of the default settings and then adjust the threshold. You can also select the type of compression, too: I usually go with Opto, which is like the old LA-2A and a very nice setting for most vocals. Sometimes I'll play around with the attack and release settings but it's of course all driven by the content you're running into it. On a rap vocal, for instance, I'll typically go to a male vocal setting."

Blanch is looking forward to checking out the Waves Renaissance DeEsser, but for now likes using their original DeEsser plug-in. He adjusts DeEsser's threshold and frequency settings to cut down on the sibilance and popping P's many home-based vocalists create as they develop their microphone and singing techniques. Blanch walks the fine line between removing sibilance and chopping off too much high end content in a vocal track.

"For most tracks the threshold usually ends up at Ð30 dB," says Blanch. "The maximum I'll ever take out in gain reduction is typically Ð6 dB, but I've had tracks that had to go down as low as Ð10 dB that still sound good. Then I just keep taking the bypass in and out to make sure I'm not taking off too much high end."

Pro Technique 3 —
Automating a Filter Plug-In with Pro Tools

Blanch just finished tracking DJ Quik's latest project at Skip Saylor Recording, an untitled album for Castlerock Entertainment. The track "One On One" needed some precise filter sweeps for the song's intro section, but Blanch had to first overcome some serious doubt in the artist's mind to do so.

"Quik's got to be the most anti-Pro Tools guy I can imagine, he's really into the sound of vintage gear and analog tape machines," Blanch recalls. "For the intro he wanted the whole track to start out filtered, then as the rest of the song came in he wanted to open the filter all the way. But because we had to create four versions of the song--vocal ups, vocal downs, TV mix, and instrumental--the only way to do that was with Pro Tools' automation and a filter plug-in, such as McDSP's FilterBank. Even as good as he is riding analog filter controls there's no way he could get the action the exact same way for each print. More importantly, the filters in FilterBank are a lot better sounding than any of the analog filters we have laying around the studio. That's when we convinced him that we had to use McDSP and Pro Tools."

Blanch automated the frequency and amount of filtering applied in FilterBank as DJ Quik patiently watched and listened. "We just went through the long list of parameters you can automate in Pro Tools, selected what we needed, and then used the pencil tool to draw the sweep in for the intro. I drew pretty much a straight diagonal line on the automation track for each parameter, and then he would ask us to change things like how fast and how much the plug-in filtered. It was easy to create new points along on the automation rubber band where he wanted things to change and then move it a little bit."

Did DJ Quik like what he heard? "He was totally amazed," Blanch beams, "and for at least that one day he was just loving Pro Tools."