Outboard gear is making a comeback. There are lots of great companies making very affordable, high-quality gear that can take a bedroom studio sound to a pro studio caliber. Pieces like the Warm Audio WA-412, WA76 and WA-2A are some of my favorites. Focusrite's ISA range is another pro preamp priced for anyone that sounds great on pretty much everything.
Even with gear at their fingertips, many engineers still struggle to properly use their outboard units. In this article, I'll walk you through how to get the best out of your outboard pres, compressors, EQ, and other effects.
Preamps are the first hardware piece that most engineers upgrade. They can make a huge impact on your recordings - especially compared to built-in preamps. They can range from very transparent and clean to colorful and harmonically saturated. I personally love gear with transformers in the audio path because it makes the audio less fatiguing to my ears and sounds more like a polished record right off the bat.
To properly use a preamp like this Focusrite ISA One, you must first drive the input gain to where the needle averages around 0 on the VU meter. You can go a little further for some color, but 0dB is safe and sounds great.
Next, you'll need to set your interface inputs at unity gain. If you have an interface with fixed line inputs, this is really easy. Just plug into the TRS input. If you have an interface with variable gain line inputs (like most interfaces have), this is where the real trick comes in. For this example, we'll use a Clarett 4Pre.
The Clarett 4Pre has unity gain at the 9 o'clock position. Unity gain is the point at which the TRS input gain stage has no effect on the incoming signal. Every interface is different and you can often contact the manufacturer to find unity gain. This is the real secret in using outboard gear with your interface because if you don't do this step, it sends your signal through another preamp.
Sending an already amplified signal through another preamp causes the high end to get fuzzy, sometimes distorting the low end and makes the performance more dynamic in a bad way. The quiet parts will be even quieter which brings up the noise. The louder parts will be even louder, causing your compressors to pump a lot more and sound very uneven throughout the track.
Golden rule: Send a preamplified signal through line inputs at unity gain!
Now that you can properly use a preamp with your interface, you can begin to use other gear during the mix process as well! The first thing I reach for when it comes to outboard gear is a great compressor.
To use a hardware comp in a mix, you need to route the track from your DAW (Digital Audio Workspace) to an extra output on your interface. If your interface only has 2 outputs, this will not work. After compressing, you need to get the signal back to your interface. Take the output of the compressor and plug into the TRS input on your interface at unity gain. The great part is that the more inputs and outputs you have on your interface, the more hardware you can use at one time in your mix!
Some engineers like tracking with high quality analog gates because it cuts a lot of the editing work later. Some examples of where this would come in handy is in a podcasting studio or tracking drums. I would highly recommend a Drawmer gate or a dbx gate because I think they sound the most natural.
To properly track with gating, you must first plug your microphone into an external preamp. After properly gain staging, you will need to go from your preamp into your gate. How you should set your gate really depends on the sound you need. I always recommend a fast attack and a little bit longer decay so it stays sounding natural.
Some gates allow you to EQ what the gate hears to trigger. This is especially useful on drums. I like to cut off the high end down to 1kHz so the gates only trigger from the low mids instead of the high end from the cymbals.
There's nothing quite like a high-quality analog EQ circuit. I love tracking with just a little bit of console EQ so it doesn't completely change the tone, but just adds some sweetness and gets the tone mix-ready. Lots of mastering engineers run the signal out of their DAW into outboard EQ's to polish it off in a way that software can't. You can use either my tracking trick (unity gain) or run out of your interface's outputs to use outboard EQ's.
*Sidenote: Lots of people argue about where you should put the EQ in your vocal chain. I have a very strong opinion that it should be put between the preamp and compressor for a simple reason: I like to boost the top end and the creates sibilance. Having a compressor afterward really tames sibilance in a nice way so I can boost as much 8kHz as I need to.
Recording hardware has never been more affordable, so it's a great time to start implementing these tricks into your production!
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