Bob Clearmountain [Tape Op #84, #129] is responsible for mixing some of rock music's most iconic records and happens to be one of my favorite mixing engineers of all time. So, when I heard Apogee had created a plug-in with Bob that recreates his effects signal chain, I immediately emailed Gear Reviews Editor Scott McChane to ask if I could write this review! Together with Apogee, Bob Clearmountain has designed Clearmountain's Domain, which they say, "reproduces Bob Clearmountain's personalized effects signal chain for creating the cohesive spaces, expansive dimensions, and rich atmospheres where his mixes live." This is not your typical reverb or delay plug-in, with settings like Decay, Size, and Diffusion. Instead, Clearmountain's Domain has multiple impulse response reverbs to choose from, a stereo delay, and a modulation section, all of which can be routed to each other internally to create unique and lush spaces for your mix.
When you first open up the plug-in, you'll see four main tabs: Input, Delay, Pitch/Reverb, and Mixer. Input is where you can set your input level to the plug-in as well as "pre-condition" your audio with De-Ess'ing and/or a 3-band EQ before hitting the effects (a major factor in how Bob creates his sound on his original hardware). Next is the Delay section, which looks a bit clunky at first but makes total sense once you're familiar with the parameters. The stereo delay can provide simple, clean, tempo-synced or manual delays, with a 3-band EQ for each channel. But the magic is in the Offset, Spin, and Blur controls. The Offset control allows you to apply subtle feedback time differences between the left and right channels to create a wider stereo effect. For instance, you may set an eighth note delay and have the left channel feedback a few milliseconds quicker with the right channel a few milliseconds slower. Spin is your Feedback control, but the left/right channels can be linked to decay at the same time. This is incredibly helpful when you've got different delay times in the left and right channels but want them to decay at the same rate. A great example of this is the guitar delay from David Bowie's "Let's Dance" (which Clearmountain mixed and added as a preset in Clearmountain's Domain). Blur control is the amount of saturation added to the delay. Bob says he likes to add short blurred delay to the rear channels when mixing live concerts in surround sound. The Blur effect is very musical, and a huge part of what makes this plug-in achieve so many different sounds.
Now onto the Pitch/Reverb section. There are three reverb sends: two that are fixed, plus a third with a drop-down menu with six different impulse responses to choose from. One of the fixed sends is the Apogee Studios impulse response, a short and warm room ambience captured from the in-house studio at Apogee Digital. The second fixed send is the stereo Mix This! Chamber from Bob's personal studio. This one is bright and splashy; think Motown wall-of-sound. I spoke to Bob on the phone about this plug-in, and he mentioned that this is a true stereo impulse response because it's actually two different rooms connected by a doorway that they left slightly open when capturing impulse responses. This means even if you send signal hard right to the right chamber, you'll still get a little 'verb from the left chamber. The third reverb send is user selectable, with the following options: Concrete Stairwell (very cool on drums), Marble Bathroom, Mix This! Shower, Roscoe Chamber 1 (impulse response taken from a pair of AKG 451s), Roscoe Chamber 2 (same chamber as Roscoe Chamber 1, but impulse response taken from a pair of AEA mics), and Gated Plate (again, the Roscoe Chamber 1 but gated). Bob likes to set up a few instances of Clearmountain's Domain on aux sends to use the Apogee Studios room, the Mix This! Chamber, and a longer or more effected verb like the Roscoe Chamber or Stairwell. Each reverb send has its own Pre Delay setting and a send to the Delay/Pitch section, where you set the level of the Delay/Pitch sound (i.e., from the output of the Delay and Pitched Delay) sent to the reverb. The Pitch section has two faders, one for the left channel, and one for the right channel. Here you can pitch your delays up or down a few cents, up to a whole octave. The amounts can be fixed or random, allowing for nice movement and realistic modulation. You can also adjust the Pitch Delay – meaning if you have a 50 ms delay and add an extra 25 ms pitch delay, your signal will be delayed 75 ms. It would normally take up to a dozen or more plug-ins to customize sounds like these in your DAW. Having it all in one place not only makes it easy, it actually makes you try new things and stumble on FX that you may never have thought to create before. While the preset menu is a fun way of getting nostalgic sounds from Bob's classic mixes, I recommend trying the Randomizer which sets random values throughout the plug-in. This wields totally wild sounds while helping to kick start ideas and originality.
Lastly, there is the Mixer window, showing you the Delay, Pitched Delay, Apogee Studio, Mix This! Chamber, User Selectable Verb, Wet/Dry Blend, and plug-in Output all on their own faders with Solo and Mute buttons too. This page is helpful for fine-tuning the overall sound of your FX chain. This page is also the first place I jump to when I open up a new instance of the plug-in to mute whatever the Apogee default setting is. Friendly tip: Create your own preset, with all delays and verbs turned off so you have a fresh start when you open up the plug-in.
Bob Clearmountain has developed a method of mixing on his SSL console that involves intricate routing to outboard gear, with physical and hardware reverbs and delays. Thanks to Bob and Apogee, it is now available in one simple, yet powerful plug-in for anyone to use in their home or fully loaded commercial studio. It is compatible with both Mac and Windows, the manual is easy to read and informative, and a free trial is available. Bob mixes everything in stereo and surround these days, but Clearmountain's Domain is only available in stereo at the moment. He hopes a surround version will become available in the future. Another thing I should mention is that the plug-in runs a bit hot at the moment, so send levels and inputs don't necessarily need to be set at unity, like most other plug-ins. Bob says he will usually start off by turning down the plug-in input a few dB, at least until this is addressed in a future update. I strongly suggest auditioning this plug-in on a mix if you're trying to create depth and space (which is all of us?). It sounds wonderful yet forces you to get creative, instead of doing the same old thing on every mix. When I'm mixing alone in my studio for hours on end, it's nice to have something in my toolbox that sparks creativity and produces excellent results every time.