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For 10 years, the Universal Audio Apollo interface and UAD plug-ins have been revolutionizing how producers, engineers, and musicians create their art. We’re celebrating the Apollo’s decade-long run with an in-depth conversation between two world-class producers and engineers, Marc Daniel Nelson and Jon Gilbert.
Marc Daniel Nelson has worked with a wide array of recording artists, including Fleetwood Mac, Colbie Caillat, and NeedtoBreathe. His resume also extends to the film world with credits like Solo, Blade Runner, and Mulan. Marc was also the host of our three-part video series, Road To Vinyl With Universal Audio.
If you missed our recent interview with Jon Gilbert, head here to read about his experience recording Mt. Joy’s self-titled album with the Apollo 8 interface. In addition to his work with Mt. Joy, Jon has spent time working on albums by OFF!, Crystal Antlers, The Kills, and many more.
Continue below to read our epic conversation with Marc and Jon. The duo talk about their first experiences with the Apollo, how UAD software compares to the real thing, and the importance of immediacy when in the creative zone.
In our feature about the making of Mt. Joy’s self-titled album, Jon talks about how the Apollo took him back to his early days of recording with a four-track. What’s inspiring about the interface and UAD plug-ins to you, Marc?
Marc Daniel Nelson: For me I think the days of being inspired in a control room with a large format console, isn’t the same as it used to be. I like to be inspired by little gadgets and instruments around me. I just don't feel inspired going into those rooms like I used to.
What inspires me now is going into a comfortable, creative space like what you have, Jon. And with the Universal Audio gear, you can put a Unison plug-in on a channel and know that you will instantly get some great sounds. Plus, you know it won’t tap out your pocketbook.
And for me, buying analog gear wasn’t the goal when I was 11, and the same goes for Jon. His goal was probably to create something using a cassette tape, listen to The Beatles Anthology, and try to understand what they did. That’s what I did and that was creative.
There was this weird time for me and a lot of other people around 2012. I had to make a very serious decision about learning to work in the box. Even though I loved consoles and summing mixers, I had a lot of outboard gear, I had a studio, and I worked out of other studios, it was time to learn both sides.
Lots of people were doing it successfully, and it made me angry because I couldn't, and I didn't know how. So I stepped away for three or four years and learned. I didn't go out of the box, and I didn't do any summing or anything because it was crucial for me to learn.
I know it doesn't sound cool to just record on a computer, but that's where we're at in the world today. And you can have your tape machines around you like Jon has, which can be your inspiration. But just let it be your inspiration, and do what you do in the digital lab. That's what I do.
I surround myself with stuff that I love and at the end of the day, it's more about how you hear things and react to them versus what kind of guts you have in your 1178.
JG: You described exactly how I started with my first four-track. I went to Guitar Center with my mom on my birthday. I came home, opened the box, plugged in, and I was recording immediately. And there were a couple of little things you needed to know about recording to get going, but the learning curve was so, so, so small. I stuck with that format for years.
I eventually upgraded to the Tascam 424, and then to the 488, which was the eight-track. That thing had a vibe and sound that was cool. At the time, I wasn't even thinking about it like that. I figured this was what I could afford. This is the way I can make records easily. My family had one computer, and it had 256 megabytes of hard drive space.
MDN: I used to plug my four-track into the line-in input of the Gateway in 1997 and record it into WinAmp because it allowed you to reverse the digital. So I was putting all these Beatles things to tape and then playing the Beatles stuff into the computer so I could reverse it and hear all the “Paul is dead” stuff.
JG: Wow, that's genius, that's cool. I was going straight into the sound card. I recorded everything on my four-track, like all the drums. My first time going out of the box, I went into my home computer, and dumped it all into Cool Edit Pro. It was very similar to Audacity or one of those programs.
My bandmates also had a home computer, so I took the hard drive to their house, recorded more stuff in our garage space, and then recorded guitars and vocals in Cool Edit Pro. I took it back to my house, and when I put the hard drive back in, the computer started smoking. I fried our family's computer, and my whole family was pissed. That was my first time working with a DAW.
We take for granted how easy it is to travel with the Apollo now and do something like that.
MDN: Did you go to recording school?
JG: No. At the time, I took a couple of classes at community college, just like a recording music production class. I had a buddy that went to audio school, he spent a fortune, and he came back a year later and was interning at a video game studio. He quit after a couple of months, and he was devastated. I was like, “I'm already recording stuff with my four-track, I'm being creative, I'm making stuff, I’m just going to keep doing this."
I interned, I mean I tried interning at a couple of studios. I interned at one studio, and I remember it was before smartphones, and I got lost in LA. I lived in the suburbs, and I was driving around trying to find the restaurant where I had to pick up the producer’s salad.
It was like a Seinfeld episode. He wanted the big salad, not two side salads. And I got lost, and it took me an hour and a half to get back. Of course, he was pissed, and I got fired.
Not many studios were hiring interns around 2000, so it felt like the home studio was my path, and that’s what I did for the next 15 years.
What were your first experiences like with the Apollo and UAD plug-ins?
JG: When I brought home the Apollo and plugged it in, I felt the same way as I did with the four-track. It just worked immediately. My prior experiences with DAWs were just tons of menu diving, IO issues, and computer compatibility issues. It was the worst. I hated working on a computer, but when I got the Apollo, it was lightning fast.
It was just an instant experience of "Hey, I'm going to load this 1176, and being like, ‘Whoa, that sounds awesome, it's an 1176.’” With the Unison pres, I could drive it into distortion and get that same lo-fi sound I would get by driving the preamp on the four-track. I used to love distorting the four-track, I’m sure you did that too, Mark, but you couldn’t do that with other interfaces. It would be digital distortion.
MDN: The first time I used the Apollo and the Unison plug-ins, I was doing pre-production on an album with Ken Caillat. We were recording at Prairie Sun with the band, The Painted Horses, and they kept sending us pre-production tracks recorded at home on their Apollo. Funny enough, two songs on the final album were fully recorded on the Apollo with the Unison set-up, and I can't remember what was what.
We were recording on a very, very, very high-end 80 Series Neve at Prairie Sun with super mics and great compressors. So some of the songs have that, and then the other two songs, which I still don't remember which ones they are, have UAD plug-ins on them. And that was like the first time I knew that it didn’t matter what gear we were using. It was just about the creative aspect.
You both have worked in amazing studios with unbelievable analog gear. How do UAD plug-ins stand up to the real thing, and what are some advantages of the software?
JG: I don't want to make super clean records. I want to have a vibe, a sound, and a character. With Console and UAD plug-ins, I can immediately go in and create something that sounds cool. I can use a tape emulator and destroy and mangle the sound with the ATR 102. I can get it as lo-fi as I want. That’s what I want. I don’t really want to own an ATR 102. Even if it's perfectly calibrated, you're not always going to get those sounds.
MDC: I was using an EMT 250 all last week. And it makes me really want one, but at the same time, the second one goes, it's done. They are known for blowing up, and you can't repair them. Those are the headaches we deal with, and I don’t want the headache anymore. Doesn’t mean I don’t use or hate analog.. You just have to be cautious.
JG: I’ve used an actual EMT 250 at The Village Studios. It sounds like a reverb. It's a plate. It has a chorus. It has a slapback. It's not as crazy as people think like, “Oh I have to have the real thing and spend $10,000 or $15,000.” But like when you actually hear the UAD plug-in and compare them apples for apples, it's literally within very narrow margins.
And here's the thing, the artist doesn't care or know. And that's what it comes down to in the moment. “Can you make this sound cool?” And they don't care what it is as long as it gets the right results. We are the ones that care and make it feel like the Holy Grail and “If I don't use the real thing, then I'm being fake.”
It's this imposter syndrome like “I'm not using the real Neve 1073. I'm using the clone preamp.” But that’s not it. It’s irrelevant because you'll get the sounds faster than you probably would at a studio. Setting up The Village sessions with five assistants and runners took a whole day. It was an incredible experience, but not everybody has that kind of time or budget. But here, someone could walk into my studio, and I could open up a template with a UAD plug-in, and then we could start making music.
At a bigger studio, there is no template, you know, it's going to take you a day to get where I could be in literally seconds by just opening up my computer. Someone can sit on this couch and say, “Hey, can you add a cool 80s reverb?” Boom, here's the 250 that was used by Prince or whoever. The artist can tell someone what they want and we can experiment right then, and there.
MDN: I don't wanna be a hypocrite and say, “Hey, kids don't use the hardware because it doesn't matter.” I love hardware gear. I use it sparingly for specific things because I believe it does certain things personality-wise and collectively creates sound. But I had to learn the other side of it too.
I took those three years off to work in-the-box, and I chose my work inside the computer more than the work with analog gear. Way more, by like 80%. And what you said about experimenting with the plug-ins is exactly right.
For example, a Lexicon 480L reverb sounds really great. When you use the real thing, you only have two channels, basically four outs, an A and a B, and that's it. And in your DAW with a UAD 480 or a 224 or 250 or a plate or whatever, you have as many as you need, and you really don't have to limit yourself and you can literally experiment, which is way more important.
Like Jon said, you know how long it would take to get all these reverbs to audition on a vocal? To be all leveled and timed and everything and to make sure the phase on every box is the same because everything's gonna change.
I think that is it in a nutshell. That's why even if the 250 is 95% the same as the hardware, you’re losing way more than that 5% by not doing any critical listening, focusing, and experimenting.
JG: My job as an engineer is to capture the artist and get them inspired to perform. And they don't know how to use consoles or my Pro Tools rig. They’re here so I can capture them in their best light and create something incredible. And obviously, this is their heart and soul. This is their music.
So if I'm sitting there tweaking eight reverbs and I'm setting this all up and five hours go by, they're going to be asleep on the couch. The take I’m going to get from that artist, even if it's the same hardware reverb Prince used, the exact literal one, it will not matter because I won’t be catching the right moment.
And I think that's what the problem is with gear. I like what you said, Mark. It's not that it's bad to have gear. These are just tools, and we have to remember the end goal. We're making art. It's about getting inspired. It's about experimentation.
Let’s talk about some specific ways you both use the Apollo, Console and UAD plug-ins in your workflows.
JG: I've used Console and UAD plug-ins to great effect. One of the first things that come to mind is using the Fender Tweed 55 plug-in for guitars. It’s so cool because I have a smaller studio space and I've actually recorded guitars via DI live with the drums. With that set-up, I don't need an ISO booth. I don't need those studio bells and whistles when I'm tracking here. The band hears a legit Fender sound or a Marshall stack or whatever in their headphones.
So that's fun when someone's just sitting in here, and then we plug right into the interface, and they're getting a sound. That's as fast as it gets. You know that’s what you want, you want that distorted guitar sound, and it sounds pretty sweet. And you crank up the monitors.
Another way I use Console and plug-ins on the front end is for drums. When tracking drums, I'm loading all those channel strips with 1073s in most cases. And then I’m EQing with the API Vision Channel Strip. I'm setting the phase, checking the snare top and bottom, and my overheads. I'm doing that all with the option to print it.
So I get some drum sounds just like I was at a bigger studio. I get the toms rolling. I have a couple of ribbon mics that I’ll use for that. I sometimes find ribbons to be pretty dark and wooly, so I’ll use the Pultec Pro. I love that plug-in, and every time I use ribbons, just like I would at a studio with a real Pultec, I have to use it.
That's a magic plug-in because it has that really refined tube, hi-fi sound without sounding digital. And the top end is like butter. That’s some coveted real estate. If I crank it on my AEA R84 ribbons, I can use that with vocals. I can get like a pop-level fidelity, but all of the warmth and the boom of the mid-range that the ribbon has. So I'll often use that.
And then another classic plug-in I love to use in my workflow is the Galaxy Tape Echo, and I have an actual Roland Space Echo. I finally got one, but I've always had the plug-in version. Many artists, like John Lennon, want to hear slapback on their vocals. He always wanted to hear a vocal effect because he didn't like the sound of his own voice. And a lot of artists don't want to hear their dry voice. I use that to get a vibe and give an artist something that doesn’t sound like their sterilized voice with a hi-fi microphone.
It’s a killer effect. It’s great for distorting the guitar or DI too. The preamp on the Galaxy is cool if you want to get a really weird guitar sound or run a synth through those.
I also like using the UAD tape emulators and the preamps, like the V76. I drive those into saturation. I don’t want to drive any of my digital stuff into saturation, but if I drive those preamps, the saturation quality is great. It's perfect for synths, drums, and some really distorted vocals. Give someone a Shure SM57 and distort it. That's like a keeper creative chain that sounds all mangled and cool.
In my opinion, the Apollo and UAD plug-ins are like a canvas to get weird sounds. I love using it in that fashion.
MDN: My approach is very similar to what you do. I think the UAD software is there to have the world at your fingertips.
You can create a unique listening environment for the artist by using UAD plug-ins and Unison technology on the front-end, saving templates, and having chains set up for different compressors. Because as Jon says about people singing with reverb and compression and delay and stuff, their performance will have a greater outcome. If you're monitoring with compression, your delicacy will be different in terms of your mic handling and etiquette. So this is just allowing you to do all those things.
And to be honest, I remember being very anti-digital in the beginning because I was a snob and trying to say no, no, no, you have to use the real stuff. I feel like just by having a UAD API channel, a 1073 channel, a 610 channel, you can have way more options.
Plus, it's in one rack, and you can save the settings. So at any moment, you can go and record somebody's Steinway in their house. We're trying to eliminate the rule that you can't make albums or music without spending a zillion dollars.
It doesn't mean that I don't love my analog counterparts. It just means I have access to that too. And I like to kind of shift around and choose the flavor that my mind goes to on that particular day. The sound is incredibly solid. Everything about UAD is very very good. That’s the most important aspect to me of what Universal Audio does.
Thanks for chatting with us guys and celebrating this huge anniversary for the Universal Audio Apollo!
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