Since joining Sarm Studios in 2005, Graham Archer has moved up the ranks to become one of Trevor Horn’s top in-house engineers. Having recently engineered recordings for Seal, Robbie Williams, Massive Attack, Ellie Goulding and Madonna, Archer is often found in Sarm’s London or Los Angeles studio reaching for his A-Designs Audio HM2 NAIL compressor/limiter.
Purchased last summer, Archer’s NAIL spends most of its time on either the drum buss during tracking sessions or across the two-buss when mixing. The engineer reports that he deployed the device across the mix buss on recent projects for Seal, Spector, Ben Saunders, and Kelly Rowland, as well as on the entire drum buss for recordings by Birdy and Jeff Beck.
“When I put the NAIL across the whole drum buss, the filter allows me to get a really punchy, less compressed kick,” Archer describes. “It allows the bottom end of the kit to be quite dynamic and hit hard. With ‘normal’ compressors, the kick can be the element that drags down the gain reduction and sucks the life out of the drum buss.
“I usually set the filter somewhere between 150 Hz and 250 Hz, which allows me to compress things above those frequencies. In reality, I find this makes the top kit, the room, and ambient mics sound more alive, exciting, and cohesive whilst allowing the kick and the low toms to punch through largely unhindered.
“For me, the NAIL’s biggest strength is its versatility. I also like really hammering it and then using the mix knob to back off the heavily compressed signal and find a subtler middle ground. In my opinion, the NAIL glues things together really well and definitely makes everything more ‘3D’. It also adds an airy quality, like a subtle top boost, which is very clean and open. Plus, I don’t know of another stereo compressor that has a solid state/tube design with a variable HPF and wet/dry controls, so it’s quite unique.”
Archer notes that he has also used the A-Designs compressor/limiter to provide a bit of subtle compression when tracking piano, but the NAIL’s other primary duty has been to essentially “live on the two-buss” at Sarm for mix applications.
“Tim Weidner, Trevor’s other engineer, and I tend to pool our gear resources on Trevor’s projects and the A-Designs unit is currently sitting on the mix buss along with a couple of mastering grade units,” says Archer. “Tim agrees with me that the NAIL is a fantastically versatile compressor.
“I tend to use it in a fairly standard way with a low ratio, slow attack, quick release, and a threshold that results in a couple dBs of gain reduction,” Archer describes. “In this context, it’s great, does all the things that I want from a mix buss stereo comp, and adds more weight and depth to my mix with a sharper stereo image.
“One thing that I love about the NAIL, however, is that it can allow me to be a bit more creative if I’m looking for something a little different. I can really crush a mix and then back off a lot of the compressed signal with the mix knob. It’s not for all situations, but it can be really cool!
“Before doing anything with the NAIL, I’ll send a tone through the unit and align the left/right output gain. I then usually flick one of the meters to ‘level’ and the other to ‘GR’ so I can see at a glance roughly how much I’m compressing and what my output level is like. It’s only a guideline as I’m looking at the left and right signals separately but I find it really useful.”