Pro Techniques 05.01.2003


Pro Techniques from Rhett Lawrence

By Randy Alberts

"It's very organic and just happens naturally," says producer, songwriter, and Pro Tools engineer Rhett Lawrence about his successful collaboration with the many female vocalists he has produced and written for since the '80s. Having worked with Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Barbra Streisand, Selena, Macy Gray, CeCe Winans, Eternal and Gladys Knight, he claims the only intentional thread in his work is the mutual fun of working together. "I just enjoy recording the powerful performances they deliver. If there's any reason for working so often with these great female artists, I think that's it."

Lawrence has also worked with numerous male artists and vocalists, such as Enrique Iglesias, Michael Jackson, Earth Wind & Fire, Bebe Winans and Black-Eyed Peas, but lately the ladies have been belting it out at his Hollywood Hills complex, Sound Gallery Studios. Recent artists such as American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson and new Russian artist Alsou are as likely to rave about working with Lawrence as he is to praise them, always the sign of a good session.


Rhett Lawrence

"Kelly is definitely the next in line of those great female singers. She was a blast to record, and in addition to being a great singer, she's also a really great person. Alsou is another powerful female singer with a great range, stylistically kind of a cross between Shania Twain and Madonna, but with the power of a Celine Dion," says Lawrence as his Sound Gallery Studios crew wraps up the new Clarkson record while Alsou tracking begins.




Sound Gallery Studios: A Perfect MIX & HD Blend

Hearing the radio debut of Clarkson's single "Miss Independent," from her album Thankful (now the #1 Billboard Top 200 Album), and watching her perform on The Today Show, The Tonight Show and American Idol all in the same week, a proud Rhett gives some of the credit to Pro Tools—literally. In the single's credits on his page, Lawrence lists himself as producer, songwriter, engineer, guitarist, scratcher and "Pro Tools," which about sums up his devotion to the platform since the days of Sound Designer and Sound Tools.

"We're still doing a lot of sessions at 44.1 kHz, but even at that rate our Pro Tools|HD rigs sound great because there's just so much more headroom for mixing," he continues. "Now there's true 48-bit headroom in the way that the busses are summed, so your transients are a lot harder and aren't lopped off. Boy, we really love it. Our mixes sounded good before, but now they're just slammin'."

At Sound Gallery, Lawrence's custom Pro Tools MIXplus systems with expanded 13-slot Magma chassis now feed into three new Pro Tools|HD systems. Both the studio system and a remote Pro Tools rig are fitted with 7-slot HD chassis housings.

"It's a really awesome setup," says the soft-spoken Lawrence. "We do everything in Pro Tools, including mixes. Now people are comfortable to just let us mix in Pro Tools, and they're always really thrilled with the results. There was one recent project in New York where they wanted their guy to mix it on a large-format console. He uses Pro Tools, too, but he doesn't mix with it...yet! He will. The label didn't think his mixes were as punchy as the rough mixes we did on our Pro Tools|HD rig, so they asked us to finish it here."


Pro Technique 1 —
Creating varied delay taps with McDSP and Lo-Fi
One of Lawrence's favorite techniques is creating complex variable delays by pasting pieces of a word from a lead vocal track onto adjacent tracks and, with a little nudging, letting McDSP's FilterBank F2 and Digidesign's Lo-Fi do the rest. Beginning with the original lead vocal track, he creates as many as seven new tracks next to the original track in which to paste his selected word or syllable.

"We'll paste a piece of the vocal to various quarter, 1/8th or 1/16th notes across the new tracks and then use a really narrow McDSP filter to darken the vocal piece with each progressive delay tap," says Lawrence. "We'll then run some of these pasted delays through Lo-Fi to make the rhythm of the taps more random than consistent. For instance, it might be pasted to triplets in the grid on one tap, 1/16ths with rhythmic gaps on another, and so on. It just gives everything a very cool feel that isn't possible when simply using a delay plug-in for the effect."

Lawrence explains that he applies darker filters to each consecutive 'tap track' and pans each differently, though occasionally he'll do just the opposite and start dark and gradually fill-in the bandwidth with highs as the taps progress.

"I might do this several times in a song, so for each instance I just create seven new tracks adjacent to the original vocal track. They sound like delays, but each one has a sort of a different rhythm to the repeats. It makes the song feel really good."

Pro Technique 2 —
Creating better tape stops and turnarounds
Lawrence likes to emulate the effect of a manual 'tape stop' using Digidesign’s Vari-Fi. Before plug-ins were commonplace, he created the effect by physically grabbing an open-reel analog recorder. Though Vari-Fi works well for him, he prefers to fine-tune the results with Digidesign's Time Compression/Expansion algorithm or Serato Pitch 'n Time.

"When using Vari-Fi, the most dramatic part of the stop edit is the tail, where it goes way down in pitch," he says, "but then it goes so low at the end that it fades away to nothing and the effect is less evident. Sometimes we'll use time expansion to stretch the tail so it ends right on the quarter note, so you can hear the effect more as opposed to a stop edit that fades away to nothing. It's a very short period of time, but it makes a huge difference in the feel of the effect."

Since the stop/start edit approach is typically applied to a short portion of an entire song, Lawrence makes a stereo mix of the song within Pro Tools, applies Vari-Fi to the section he wants to either slow down or speed up, then pastes the Vari-Fied audio file back into the song.

"We're trying to make it stop right on a quarter note, for instance, to make it a little bit longer and make the effect more exaggerated," Lawrence concludes. "We'll cut off the tail at the most dramatic part, then use Time Compression/Expansion or Pitch 'n Time to make it end right where it should."