Top 5: Luke Smith
English record producer, mixing engineer and musician Luke Smith has worked with a swathe of artists including Depeche Mode, Foals, Chartreuse, and Keaton Henson. Here he discusses his five essential studio tools.
By Joe Matera
16 May 2023
ARP MODEL 2600 SYNTHESIZER
ARP 2600s have been used on hundreds of classic records as a synth but for decades producers have been using them to run audio through. If you’ve got something that needs a bit of extra charm or you just need to make something sound cool, you can run it through the ARP and you’re almost guaranteed success. I think mine is a ‘71 model so it’s an original one. The signal path through the preamp and to the speakers is very special and I use it all the time.
The spring reverb has this unique out of phase effect so it makes everything sound 3D and spatial. I usually just mic up the speakers with SM57s and it’s good to go. The filter on it is outstanding, when you’re looking for something warm — or even some other sort of musical presence — it does it for you. It’s an amazing tool that you can use for so many things. It’s probably the most used thing in my studio.
STUDER 089 CHANNEL STRIPS
I have some 1970s Studer 089 pres/channel strips. I’ve got lots of really lovely preamps and I like to use different pres for different tasks as each have different characteristics. Some are thick and heavy, snappy and mid-range forward, slow and rounded, whilst others are very clear and hifi. However, the Studer pres have a unique tone, and punchy sound. When you plug in a mic the sound has this great vibe — a little bit like the old classic Neves — you just feel like they’re doing something awesome and musical to the signal. So, they’re great when you’re looking to capture every bit of energy in a performance, or if you want to just get a really cool sound on the drums. You can hit them a bit hard, and level them off a little bit, and in conjunction with the exceptional EQs they’re just really great tools.
I decided some years ago, after messing about in the industry for a while, that rather than having five drum machines that I barely understood, I would just get one drum machine and learn it really well. So, I did that with the Machinedrum. I usually use the sequencer in it rather than programming it via the MIDI for the groove. Although sometimes I trigger sequences via MIDI. It’s got a real energy to it, and you can do live performances.
Once you know how to use it, it’s very intuitive. It feels a little bit like using a mixing desk and loads of outboard effects — you can ‘play’ it and capture a performance. It really comes alive if you’re treating the outputs through compressors, distortions, delays, etc. You can get something energetic or emotive — a tactile musical performance, if you will. Whilst I find that programming in the box is great for some for some tasks, there’s nothing quite like having a natural, impulsive performance. It feels like there’s this spontaneous charm, as opposed to the precision of laboriously programming for hours.
AEA R88 SERIES RIBBON MICROPHONE
The R88 is a stereo ribbon and the ribbons are mounted as a fixed Blumlein stereo pair. It’s a beautiful sounding mic. You can use it in mono if you wish too. It’s a great sounding, good value mic. You get two incredible ribbons, and you can put it anywhere and it’s always in phase, which is super important. It’s a simple task to create a beautiful stereo sound without having a lot of set up time. Just plug it in and it’s ready.
It also takes EQ and compression very well, should you need to do that. I’ve recorded whole bands just using the R88 on its own. You position people around it to get the balance you need, and as the ribbons are figure eight patterns it picks up in front and behind, so this is relatively straight forward. You can use it with mid-side techniques as well, which is really cool.
Sonically, it is full frequency but because of the ribbons it’s not overly bright or harsh in the top end. This is super useful as I think that we almost have too many things that are hyped in the top end these days, so it just fits really well. There’s something about it — when you pull the faders down you can still hear what it’s doing. It sort of ‘catches’ the sound, if you like, so you can record some percussion or some background vocals and if you want to pull them down in the mix, they’re still there — they don’t just disappear into mud. Just for the quality of the sound, ease of use and bang for buck, I think it’s an incredible piece of equipment. I use it on every session.
MARTIN 00-18E 1959 GUITAR
It’s got a magnetic DeArmond pickup built in as it was Martin’s first foray into electric guitars. Rather than sounding like the thin bridge-mounted piezos that lots of acoustics have, it has this proper old pickup that imparts a really stunning, thick sound. When you hear it via the pickup, you can’t quite tell if it’s an electric or an acoustic — it doesn’t have that twanging top end at all. It’s just got this beautiful tone.
It has a slightly V-shaped neck profile and plays beautifully. It’s always a real asset to have on any session, and if you’re looking for something a little different, you can distort it or put it through effects. Acoustically it sounds great too — it just has a vibe and it’s a joy to play. Most artists who use it want to keep it which is understandable, but I like it so much I take it home from the studio on weekends so it’s not going anywhere soon. Ultimately, if you’ve got a nice guitar and a nice mic, you can you pretty much nail most jobs.
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