The use of effect pedals at the mixing board is by no means a new thing. I remember studio owners thinking I was crazy in the '90s when I patched in a SansAmp Bass Driver DI or BOSS DM-2 Delay pedal on vocals at mix. Then everyone was talking about that Strokes vocal sound and saying it was a Rat pedal. Somewhere in there, geniuses like Jonathan Little of Little Labs made it easier for everyone by manufacturing robust level-changing interfaces and thusly allowing for whole new sonic palettes using boxes that typically stay on the floor. I know this isn't news to anyone. It's just a little background. Stay with me. Right around this time, I started doing the opposite of this. I'd use the same gear to insert a Neve strip and/or an 1176 or LA-2A between a guitar and its amplifier for overdubs.
Like most engineers, I am aware that a number of my favorite guitar sounds have been achieved by using and abusing a Neve or EMI input channel going direct to tape ("Revolution" by The Beatles, "Black Dog" by Led Zeppelin, "Bodysnatchers" by Radiohead, "Cinnamon Girl" by Neil Young, tons of Motown, etc.). The occasion to do this comes up infrequently at High Bias Recordings — strange because we do a bunch of weird shit around here. I guess it's a combination of availability and convenience. I don't have a pile of Neve preamps, so they are usually in use for the duration of a session. We tend to switch back and forth a lot between overdubs and tracking, so the usual occupants of said preamps (kick, snare, vocal, etc.) stay put on them. So I was beyond stoked when I picked up a JHS Pedals Colour Box!
Unboxing the Colour Box is a real treat. It's burly, and it looks super cool with its red and blue knobs — and a line-drawing of a Neve console on top. It's built incredibly well, and the knobs all feel great. Essentially, there are two gain stages of "Nevesque" discrete preamp inside, with knobs for master volume, interstage gain, and stepped gain of both stages. A modified Baxandall EQ with treble, midrange, and bass bands is also there. On the side are XLR and 1/4'' jacks for input and output. On the input side, a switch lets you choose one jack or the other. On the output side, both jacks are live so you can run one to the guitar amp and one to the mixer.
Of course, the first thing I did was plug it in and play the opening to "Revolution." Yep — that's the sound. Right there. It was a similar experience to the first time I played through a Space Echo. I'd heard them forever and coveted the sound. Then I got one and played a Strat through it into a Marshall Plexi, and there it was — the sound I'd wanted for years. These moments are great for making records. You hear something on a song that inspires you to seek out that method. You do this, and in doing so, you experiment further and then make it your own.
Jamaican Queens are easily one of my favorite bands, yet it's difficult for me to put my finger on exactly why. They are a power trio for sure, but their heft and prowess are derived from heavy synth bass and undersampled snare sounds — like Here Come the Warm Jets-era Brian Eno meets the best moments on Kanye West's Yeezus. Very little electric guitar is employed; that register is occupied by sawtooth this-and-thats and blown-out vocals. I had borrowed a second Colour Box from The War on Drugs' monitor engineer Laurence Eaves "by accident" during a break from our tour. Co-producer and bassist Adam Pressley wanted to do a piano overdub to replace a sampled piano or some other weird thing he had made. He wanted it to sound real, but not too real, so we ran my Yamaha CP-80 electric grand through the two Colour Box pedals. This provided a super unique and hard to place sound. Definitely piano — but it existed somewhere between Rhodes and a regular piano. Perfect. We ended up doubling this with an ultra-compressed baby grand mic'ed with a spaced pair of AEA N8 ribbons, also through the Colour Box pair. Perfect for what he wanted — and not to mention the pair looked adorable next to each other on my rack.
LIDS are a supergroup of Toronto music royalty. Brian Borcherdt from Holy Fuck handles guitar and Mackie wizardry, Doug MacGregor from Constantines is on drums, and Alex Edkins from METZ plays bass. Brian is a master at leaving things to chance and then steering the chaos adeptly. Since he was keen to sing live, we used a Beyerdynamic M 160 ribbon mic into the Colour Box and split this into my touring pedalboard for some Jape on the live vocal. This mic/preamp combination sounded amazing. Once we blended in an Eventide H9 [this issue] and Pigtronix Echolution 2, we had a total keeper vocal. It was fully reminiscent of something off of Gene Clark's No Other or some rad Can outtake.
We used the other Colour Box as a bass DI. It sounded absolutely stunning in a beautiful mid-'70s rock way. It was super useful to dial in some grit before the amp when needed, which we did song to song. Also, the EQ sounds ridiculously good and was convenient since Alex knows his way around a few knobs when needed. It's so nice to dial in a finished sound from the get-go, and the bass DI blended in a great way with the Sennheiser MD 441-U we had on the cabinet that day. This thing is worth the price alone just as a DI.
My friend Zach Saginaw is Shigeto and makes transcendental hip-hop and ambient music out of his studio in Detroit's east side. He mixed his last record No Better Time Than Now at High Bias, and he's started coming in to track and accumulate fodder for his next record. These sessions are endlessly challenging and interesting as an engineer, as we tend to start with the piano and drums mic'ed, and by the end of the day, the studio is filled with the blue smoke, the electronic tabla machine is out, percussion is strewn all over the floor, and Space Echo and Moog boxes are everywhere. The only limitations are Zach's imagination, which is boundless to say the least. During these "inspired" moments, you appreciate convenience. Having a totally badass preamp like the Colour Box at your fingertips — that can be placed anywhere in your studio — is super handy. Since this session, I keep one in the live room and one patched into my tie lines sitting on the rack. We tracked nearly everything through the Colour Box that day, and it far exceeded my greatest expectations. We did several Moog Minitaur overdubs as well as tons of percussion using everything from Korby KAT convertible mics to an AEA R84 ribbon and again the AEA N8 piano pair as above — all sounded as intended. The Colour Box even lent a real legitimacy to the sound of this weird Riyaz Tabla Machine; only Zach uses this thing, and it can sound like a toy. Something about the Colour Box grounded it and gave a nice floor to the track.
Informed readers may notice a lack of the usual affirmative language about how taken I am with this-or-that as the review goes on. This is because I was sold long before this box ever entered my studio. How you may ask? I received my Colour Box in the middle of an intensely sprawling tour with The War on Drugs. This band is a real pleasure to do sound for, but Adam Granduciel is possibly the most dynamic singer I have ever mic'ed. He spends 90% of the show at a consistent, totally reasonable level. On occasion, he likes to affirm the vibe by exclaiming loudly in the form of a few well-placed WOOOOs — to the tune of many dB louder! More often than not, we are on an Avid VENUE Profile or SC48 mixer. The preamps in these desks are not what you would call robust — not by a stretch. Anyhow, I'd always compromise having the gain low to alleviate clipping, and I'd ride the fader all night. Now his channel goes straight into the Colour Box and then into whatever digital hovercraft I'm driving that night. Problem solved. I leave the mixer channel flat and padded at -20 dB, and voila! Aside from this utilitarian function, the vocal is way more present and huge sounding. House guys are constantly poking fun at my weird shit at FOH. Invariably, they end up asking me what all this stuff does, and blah blah blah, they always sweat the Colour Box.
The Colour Box has really been a game-changer for me in the studio and on the road. From gaining up a Wurlitzer to using it as a distortion pedal, it's just amazing. FYI — it can get downright nasty as a guitar pedal. It also dominates as a vocal distortion effect. And it blew a few minds around here on snare too! This box's strength is that it does so much so incredibly well. Because of its portability and ease of use, it silently bridges that aforementioned place of inspiration and the boundless experimentation that follows. Not to mention, it puts classic sounds in hand at a super reasonable price. If I had my way, I'd start wearing a pair on my belt!