Universal Audio have emulated some extremely sought after and hard to get pieces of hardware such as the Fairchild compressor and Pultec EQ as well as products from ubiquitous companies including SSL and AMS Neve. However, pretty early on they surprised everyone by releasing an emulation of a boutique piece of hardware: namely the IBP by Little Labs.
Little Labs is a one-man operation – some sort of mad scientist building units that are capable of solving all of mankind’s problems (or at least engineers’). The unit that made the company famous worldwide and the first product to be emulated was the Little Labs IBP or In-Between Phase, a phase-alignment tool aimed to help engineers fix phase issues in multiple mics setups, but also use phase as a creative tool.
In Between Phase
The Little Labs IBP features no more than 2 knobs and 6 buttons. The 2 knobs control the Delay time, offering extremely short delay ranging from 0ms to 4ms which clearly means that it cannot be used as a creative delay as such, but more as a time alignment tool offering precise control of the time delay. Having such control is ideal for aligning instruments that cannot be easily aligned. All you need to do is turn the knob until the source sounds the biggest. The second knob is the Phase Adjust and controls the polarity of the signal.
Most mixers and interfaces offer a phase reverse switch, and this is great to minimise the impact of phase on instruments like drums, bass or guitars, but having as much control over the polarity is definitely a bonus. Again, minimising phasing issues is as simple as turning the Phase Adjust knob until the sources sound the biggest with the most bass. Just working with these two knobs, it is already possible to get a really powerful sound, but Little Labs have gone the extra mile and have included useful controls such as Delay Adj Bypass and Phase Adj Bypass, which are here to help the engineer compare the result with the original take. Phase Invert and Phase Adjustment between 90 degrees and 180 degrees are very useful additions, as sometimes simply inverting the phase on one microphone can produce a great result.
Finally the two remaining buttons called Phase Adj 90/180 and Phase Center Lo/hi are useful for finer ccntrols over the range of phase between 0 and 90 degrees or 0 and 180 degrees, as well as the phase centre.
To put it to the test I went back to one of my first recordings suffering from bad microphone placement. I wanted to see how much of an impact the Little Labs IBP could have. The drums sounded fairly unfocused and uneven, while the guitars sounded edgy and somewhat metallic. I started with the drums in the hope that I could get them to sound slightly more focused. I started with the overheads first and, looking at the waveforms, I noticed that the right channel seemed to start slightly, later so I adjusted the Delay on the left channel so it would start at the same time. Although it helped to a certain extent, I felt it was easier to move the channels directly in the DAW. I then brought my attention to the phase. I started by pressing the phase invert to make sure that they were in phase and then tweaked the Phase Adjust knob until the overall sound sounded more coherent. The result was that the snare sounded heavier and more central and focused. Once I was satisfied that I got the best possible sound out of the overheads I moved on to the aligning all the drums in time with the overheads and brought each element individually, moving the phase until the sound was the fattest and biggest. Using the 90 degree mode offered the ideal degree of precision and proved to be really useful. Although I hoped the IBP would do something to the sound I really didn’t expect the results to be so drastic. The drums became instantly punchier and more focused.
I then moved on to the guitar where I had used two SM57, with one in front of one cone and the other at the back of another cone. Once again I really didn’t pay much attention to placement and in all fairness the guitars didn’t sound very good. The SM57 at the front sounded okay on its own but as soon as the other one was mixed in, it would result in an undefined low end with a really metallic sound in the upper mid range. I didn’t expect much from the Little Labs IBP but I was hoping that it would make the sound more useable. I added the IBP on the back cabinet’s channel and started playing with the delay and the Phase, and was really impressed by the changes of tonality. By moving the delay slightly I was able to control the comb filtering produced by the two microphones while tweaking the phase, which really helped in getting a fuller sound. Once I reached the optimum position, where the guitar sounded the most balanced, I decided that I preferred the colour of the sound by moving the Phase up slightly. It seemed to give a little edge to the guitar that felt right for the song. Tweaking the Little Labs IBP on the the guitars felt like I was moving the microphone around to a certain extent. The phase relationship between both guitar tracks was changing as it would when moving one of the microphone.
I never thought the UAD Little Labs IBP would have such an impact on the sound, but by carefully tweaking the delay and phase controls, I was able to get a bigger and much more powerful sound. All engineers working with material with multiple mic setups should spend some time with this incredible tool to check and compensate for any phase issues. The flexible controls should go a long way in keeping under control many of the issues caused by phasing and delay.
The Voice of God
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The Little Labs VOG or Voice of God is another nifty little unit meant to help engineers in getting the best possible sound with little effort – it’s a Bass Resonator Tool designed for a tight and powerful bass. The low-end is probably the hardest thing to get right for most home-studios so such a tool is always welcome, and now ported on the UAD Platform, it’s possible to use as many instances as your card allows for.
As per the IBP, the Little Labs sports a textured black plate with 2 knobs called Amplitude and Frequency, and 3 buttons to control the centre frequency bands. Next to each button features three dual-colour lights. It is possible to use 2 of the buttons in combination to select different frequency ranges for a total of 4 frequency bands ranging from 18Hz to 305Hz. Reading the manual is important to learn the different combination of these. Something to note is that on the Little Labs VOG the lights work in the ‘opposite’ way, with green being the bypass mode and red the enabled mode. I found this to be extremely confusing at first, but after a while I got used to it.
Using the unit is as simple as selecting the the desired frequency range with the buttons , turning the amplitude up or down and turn the frequency knob to select the centre frequency affected. Again, the frequency knob has inverted value starting at 10 on the left all the way down to 0 on the right. Turning the Frequency knob clockwise actually lowers the target frequency. I must admit i really find this confusing and instinctively tend to turn the knob the wrong way before realising my mistake.
The obvious instruments to benefit from the VOG are the bass and the kick drum and so I decided to start using it on a recorded kick drum that was lacking in low frequency information. I was reluctant to cheat and add samples to support the production, as it called for a DIY and raw sound and therefore I thought I’d try UAD’s Little Labs VOG. Adding an instance on the kick drum I selected the frequency range between 50 Hz and 180Hz and tweaked the frequency and amplitude until it sounded right to me.
Once set to the desired frenquency, the kickdrum sounded a lot heavier and powerful. Adding this kind of low frequency information with EQ usually affects the tightness of the sound, but using the VOG it was possible to keep a surprisingly punchy sound. I didn’t expect such a result and it feels like there is some kind of magic happening behind the scenes. This became really apparent when I worked on toms where any EQ I added seemed to impart something unpleasant. I therefore decided to try the UAD VOG, and the result was incredible. The toms became really powerful with a surprising tight low-end. Building on this success I decided to try on the snare drum as I felt it lacked weight and power. Once again after finding the right frequency the Voice of God worked its magic and gave the snare the weight it was lacking.
I then moved on to the guitars, and as this band didn’t have any bass I thought I would try and fill this gap by using the VOG. Once again the UAD VOG imparted more weight, and the guitars were able to drive the song even more. I was really impressed not only by the weight the VOG imparted to tracks but also by how focused and defined the tracks still sounded.
The last step was to try it on vocals. This particular singer didn’t have much information in her voice below 250Hz when singing and 500Hz when screaming. However, it makes the task of mixing easier in that the low-end is free for other instruments, so I thought I’d try the UAD VOG. What I found was really surprising. Indeed, it boosted some of the low frequencies around the 250 – 300Hz but in such a natural way, so that I felt that the singer was in the same room as me. It didn’t sound like an overblown proximity effect, or a muffled voice, it just sounded completely natural. Even when pushed the definition was incredible and far superior to what I could ever get with EQ. I can definitely see this plug-in being extensively used in voice-over or broadcast.
The UAD VOG is a very unique piece of equipment that manages to emphasize on low frequency information in an extremely natural way – I didn’t expect it to work so well on so many different sources, but I have to admit I am blown away by the possibilities on offer and the incredible ease of use (even despite its inverted behaviour).
Little Labs have created two surprising units that solve issues that many people might not have been aware they had. But once shown the light it is simply impossible to revert back to the old ways and these tools have become – in a really short amount of time – critical to me achieving a great mix. UAD really did engineers a huge favour by emulating these two little units and I hope that their collaboration will bring many more tools that will change my perception of what is possible to do with a mix.