ABOUT MIXING The battle of analog vs. digital concepts or harmony in their co-existence?
Since the invention of digital technology marked by the arrival of Protools software in 1991, both musicians and music producers have engaged in discussions revolving around which of the two concepts of producing audio recordings are better. Can these two concepts co-exist, or be combined somehow to complement each other, or should one opt for preferring one over the other and why? Lastly, what are the advantages of producing music digitally versus via analog means? After all, many of our favorite recordings and albums from the past were created exclusively via analog means (and when the first digital recordings came out, the sound was less than exciting.) One can check out the fully digital Columbia release of Wynton Marsalis’s Black Codes, for example, to see what I mean. While the music itself is world-class on this album, the dynamic range and clarity of each instrument is lacking noticeably. However, digital technology has made incredible leaps since its origins which benefits us all. While I'm not going to give you clear answers here, I will provide you with an opportunity to learn about my take on all this and how I go about my own audio album productions.
To reiterate my point (and give out the secret beforehand), the best professionals in today's music productions have found a way to combine both analog and digital processes for the best, most consistent results. That means they found a way to use the best aspects of each concept and found a perfect marriage of the two, depending on the production needs they or their clients have. Now, as there are many roads that lead to Rome, there are many different ways of working with audio tracks that help achieve similar results. My viewpoints and suggestions below come exclusively from my 20+ years of experience as both a performing and recording artist as well as a tracking, mixing, and mastering engineer/music producer. By no means do I claim this is the best way – it is just one of many which I have found to work well and most certainly for my needs.
BASIC DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ANALOG AND DIGITAL CONCEPTS
For one, every source out there has always been recorded via analog means, because sound has to be captured via microphones and preamplifiers, which both are analog by the nature of their design. At one point, Neumann started manufacturing digital microphones for a little while, but that trend didn't catch on. When recording into a computer or DAW (digital audio workstation), the next step in the signal chain hierarchy is an A/D (aka analog to digital) converter, which translates the analog signal captured by microphones diaphragms and amplified them by preamplifier into the digital language of binary ones and zeros. Once you have the individual tracks inside your DAW, you can and often do manipulate them and mix them via digital means. So, it is not possible to separate the two processes from each other once a hard drive is used to store your precious audio tracks for future manipulation. Therefore, their coexistence is a must.
On one hand, we have the convenience of today's DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY, with all its positives such as all-in-one digital audio workflow where one can produce entire CDs using computer or specialized computer-like digital audio workstations, where you can not only record and edit all tracks, but also mix and master them using so called virtual plug-ins, which for the most part emulate real analog gear of the past, such as Pultec and Sontec equalizers, Teletronix and Universal Audio compressors, TC Electronic delays and reverbs, etc. We call this concept MIXING IN-THE-BOX, and it has become a very popular way for young and upcoming artists who are on a budget and can't afford paying for real professional studio time or renting precious analog equipment to mix their music.
On the other hand, we have the option of using either an ANALOG MIXER or an ANALOG CONSOLE, along with a TAPE RECORDER, where mixing actively or passively is done via analog means or via a custom designed SUMMING BOX. These concepts often render nicely warm and full bass-responses and naturally tape-compressed and saturated tracks, which resemble all that sound from the time when recording via analog means was the only option. However, this concept also requires a good amount of very costly analog out-board equipment as well as expensive and hard-to-find analog reel-to-reel tape, not speaking of the climate-controlled storage space needed to preserve all those analog reels and some technical skills to keep all those machines in shape both sonically and mechanically. From this perspective, mixing analog is a much more difficult and time consuming endeavor when compared to digital mixing.
When listening to my jazz album releases of the past ten years or my mixes I created for my clients, you will notice that the analog mixes I have used on those sources will sound louder and fuller than their digital counterparts. That's because of the analog processing and all the gear which was used during that process. Ideally, you would want to bring all the different mixes into a DAW of your choice (Pro-Tools, Nuendo, Sonar, Cubase, Logic, etc.) and match the volumes of them all using your ears for the most accurate and fair listening comparison. However, it is my hope that even with the MP3s 320kbps, the differences between various mixing concepts will easily be recognizable even to a less experienced listener.
I have spent over 25 years researching and collecting equipment which I find ideal for my needs as an audio engineer, both for mixing and mastering. While my budget is not limitless, I've been pretty lucky to get my hands on some of the best analog gear ever produced, which makes a noticeable difference in the way my music productions sound.
MY TEN STEPS TO ACHIEVING A GREAT SOUNDING DYNAMIC AND MUSICAL MIX
On average, depending on the quality of the tracking job and if it’s an inside job (done by me or someone I know well) or outside job (tracked anywhere around the globe without my participation), it takes about 120 hours to mix a 60+ minute long music CD album via analog means. That's a lot of night shifts, folks! This assumes all the tracks have already been edited accordingly, proper takes have been selected, and no further music recording or modification needs to take place. This is the preferred way when working globally, because the mixer and the client do not have to be present in one room and the mixer has the freedom to work his magic at his own pace and time.
1. the most important stage is the very first one, called tracking, which includes selection and placement of microphones and preamplifiers and determination of proper instrument spaces to be used (a large tracking room vs. an ISO booth). As a rule of thumb, always pick the best mic/preamp combo you can find, and don't be afraid of recording each source with more than one mic (if resources allow). During the mixing process you can make a decision, which of the mics selected sounds the best for your needs or sometimes combine them to find that "right" balanced sound. Try to match a good preamp with the type of instrument and microphone you are recording with. For example, when recording drums, one of the best sounding preamps is vintage Langevin AM16, which costs only around $350-400 each un-racked on eBay. This unit handles drum transients incredibly well and is known to be among the best sounding for drums, period. Given its price range, it is also very affordable.
2. the room selection - when recording in separation, or mic-ing instruments closely, the room sound may not be as important, but when recording one group live in one place, or wanting a big drum sound, this is crucial. Sound bleeding is one of the biggest nightmares of mixers, as it is the hardest one to eliminate during mixing processes. Too live of a room and no matter how good your mics and their placement are, your mixer will have a heck of a time trying to make it sound just half-decent. That's why many studios feature padding on the walls, uneven angles, and special flooring to help eliminate reflections and bleeding.
3. analog to digital conversion (so called A/D stage) - pick the best converters you possibly can get your hands on. Most studios will use custom build ones or build ones by manufacturers who are known to be among the best. In our home studio, we use the British PRISM ADA8-XR exclusively (we have 8 channels of analog I/O and 8 channels of digital I/O), but our other converters are also great, such as TC Electronic's M6000 AD/DA cards (we have six channels total) or Db Technologies aka Dan Lavry Blue or Gold series or older Genex GX9000 products, which are on par sonically with the Prism line of products. We avoid using Pro-Tools HD 192 conversion at all costs as it sounds a bit dull when compared with the above-mentioned converters, but when tracking 40+ instruments, even some of those channels available can become useful.
4. stable clock - this is important during both the tracking and mixing stages. We are pretty happy with PRISM's own clock, which everything else is clocked to in our studio. Some studios prefer custom made clocks. It's all a matter of cost and convenience. A stable clock is a very important feature to have however!
5. stable DAW - our workflow speed is very important. That's why we use the Pro-Tools HD3 system with Apple's Mac Pro computer, which is more than sufficient running multiple plug-ins and many tracks at once. Good thing other World-class manufacturers were able to meet Pro-Tools system protocol and we can plug our PRISM directly to HD Core card with no issues. This makes a big difference.
6. while it is a standard today at most studios to store the sound digitally, the best studios still do record up to 24 tracks at once to a two-inch tape recorder before the audio is captured digitally via A/D conversion. This is by far the best quality sound one can achieve, however at a very high cost and also is the most time-consuming and cumbersome to deal with when making music on the fly. When running tape at 30IPS (inch-per-second), the tape has to be changed every 16 minutes, or you need multiple machines synchronized together to double this limit before a change of tape can happen. Most studios will record at 15IPS, which gives you about 33 minutes on one professional tape. This is better. Now, the cost of 2-inch GP9 tape (to fit all 24-tracks at once) is around $350 per tape on eBay as these are no longer made. Say you need 5-6 to make an album, being a pro-studio which records onto tape exclusively… well, imagine storing all those tapes for future use or recall! That's why often, these tapes are rented out by clients and reused many times. GP9 for example, our most favorite and the best sounding, can be reused 30-50x depending on how well the recorder is calibrated and what type of heads are used (hint: butterfly heads are among the best and also most costly).
So, a compromise here is to record straight into DAW via super high quality A/D conversion and use the tape at a later stage during mixing and/or mastering, which is what I have been doing for some time now at sonicADventures. That way you have close to an unlimited amount of space to record onto (limited only by the size of your hard drive/s) and you bypass the costly process of using analog tape during tracking, which slows down the workflow noticeably. Lastly, there is the issue of tape noise - so unless you get your levels peaking close to the very top, this can become an issue during the mixing stage - as too much noise from tape when levels are boosted during the mastering stage can create some real issues to deal with later on.
7. once you pre-mix your tracks inside your DAW and pan each instrument where it needs to be, adjust delay or reverb accordingly to get some 3D spacing, add some plug-ins such as EQ or compression to help your tracks stand out or better match your overall idea of the sound, and get control over your volume envelopes (for automated tasks), you are ready to mix. In my experience, it is a good practice to try a few mixes via DAW and then A/B them against some CD recordings of similar style of music and instrumentation to get direct feedback. This is usually an ear opener and gives you a rather cruel perspective on the sound of your DAW mix. That's because most, if not all, of your favorite CD albums out there were mixed by real professionals, often via analog means and that sound can not be reproduced with plug-ins, unless it is captured onto a tape using all that expensive outboard gear (or, at the very least, run through an analog console or board such as Neve, SSL, and the like.) I prefer recording everything raw however, with no outboard EQ or compression applied, since once you record the signal it is captured that way forever and can't be changed without making some serious compromises at a later stage. Of course, if your studio has been running for a longer time and you have already figured out that favorite drum or piano sound by knowing what type of outboard gear to add to the chain and what combo of mics/preamps to use, by all means go for it! It will only simplify and speed up the mixing stage at a later time.
8. after you have worked hard on your digital mix within your DAW, you will be left with some mixed emotions. You know that you did your best utilizing your plug-ins and the way you've imagined the sound to work in a standard listening environment, yet it doesn't quite sound on par with your favorite albums, often not even close… Have you noticed how the market in the last ten years or so has been gradually saturated with so-called SUMMING BOXes? What are those about and do they improve your mix? The answer for the most part is YES, although going deeper it really depends on many aspects and therefore is hard to generalize. Many people/artists will opt to hire a professional mastering engineer to "fix" their "in-the-box" digital mixes, bring up the levels to today's standard, and help warm the overall sound. Mastering engineers will have a very hard time processing this type of DAW mix and a lot of their skill and time will need to go into making the music sound half-decent. Some will ask for the music to be remixed and even recommend a mixing engineer who they know is very good. This all can be avoided with a proper mixing stage in the first place!
A SUMMING BOX, similar to an analog mixer, gives you the option of running all your mixed tracks from your DAW back to the analog world (via D/A conversion) and having them mixed/summed via analog means - just like in the past before digital technology was available. Most summing boxes are either passive or active. Passive ones have the greatest frequency response (our custom-made summing box goes from 2Hz - 500kHz with no noticeable loss in any frequency spectra), but they are often unbalanced and require a high quality preamplifier to amplify the sound of the passive summed signal. Then there is a problem of having a different type of outboard gear offering varying impedances on their outputs , which means things can get complicated in a hurry. Active ones usually don't require additional amplification and are often fully balanced for better noise-specs and rejection. However, most are limited in their frequency response and don't achieve the same specifications as some handmade or manufactured passive units (think Folcrom for example), although looking at 2018, there has been some amazing pieces put forth by Dangerous Bus for example as well as Neve, Tube-Tech, and the likes.
Most big studios will however prefer using their large ANALOG CONSOLE or ANALOG BOARD/MIXER, which already includes a great summing section, plus usually EQ on each channel and a built-in or external bus compressor on the main bus as well. Many engineers prefer mixing on these large boards because of the way they sound and blend all tracks together - in this regard mixing reminds me a lot of cooking. Think big NEVE or SSL boards, which cost around $120k - 200k each (depending on the size and amount of channels available). With a SUMMING BOX, you can bypass any dedicated mixer and still engage a variety of outboard gear (when available) to mix at a very high level. Often, the variety of the outboard gear is what helps individual instruments stand out in the mix.
To wrap this one up, I’ve read online that some of the best large analog consoles of the past utilized a passive summing box on their main bus and used a built-in high quality preamp to amplify the sound of the final mix before re-routing it back to the console for listening. The advantage of the passive summing box is that there is an almost limitless amount of headroom and no distortion, where analog sources are mixed as voltages and bottle-neck issues associated with some active summing boxes or even summing units on large consoles are simply non-existent. This is in part why digital mixing doesn't sound that good - because of the bottleneck issue associated with 24bit files and their limitations. Imagine running 24 tracks of 24bit material within Protools into a two channel stereo bus, which works often at the same resolution or at some kind of fake 32bit one at best. Bottle-neck comes to mind as some crucial information from these tracks will simply have to be dismissed by the digital mix bus - this is a simple math issue and therefore a logical one to be aware of. It is possible that the newly designed 64-bit workstations will improve upon this known limitation, but the bottle-neck issue will still be present, albeit on a much smaller scale.
9. Once all your digital tracks, already pre-mixed, are going to an analog mixer or a summing box (via D/A conversion), you are ready to mix via analog means. The question now is, on what type of master recorder do you print your final mix onto?
well, you can go back to your DAW, which is the fastest and easiest to do at this stage. This is usually a good way to compare how your original digital mix sounds like vs. your newly created analog mix. Usually, this is a first eye opener what analog mixing can do to the sound of your music or production, but sometimes the difference is subtle - depending on the type of music you work with and your skill set and amount of outboard gear you have to your disposal as well as how well you are used to working with it, of course.
while going out of your DAW via D/A stage, use as much outboard gear as you can get your hands on to EQ, compress, or manipulate your track's individual sound and then use the output of your outboard gear to go into your summing box or analog mixer. Record back to your DAW for easy comparison and A/B test to hear the difference. Most mixes come alive after this process, especially if you used high-end outboard gear, which is either tube based or solid state class A or A/B design. Vintage Neve, Studer, Neumann, Pultec, Lang, Langevin, Telefunken, Manley, Tube-Tech, Universal Audio, LA2A, etc. come to mind here. Some are great for some instruments, others work great on most sources. There is never one unit to do it all however - sorry.
same as stage two, except you record your mix straight onto a reel-to-reel master recorder. Swiss Studer tape decks are known to be among the very best in the world. We use their A80 mkII customized model with 1/2 inch Quantegy GP9 or Ampex 499 GOLD tapes for best results. The mixes going through our tape machine sound simply amazing as long as the levels are correctly set! You then capture the sound of the tape playback back into your DAW in real time, at which point it is close to being ready to be sent off to your mastering engineer of choice. The engineer then will translate your high end mixes (often 24bit/96kHz) to a standard CD format of 16bit/44.1kHz using specialized digital outboard gear (plug-ins don't work very well for this type of work and although we've tried most of them, I reserve the right to give them the benefit of the doubt as the technology keeps improving). Lastly, the mastering engineer needs to make sure that the album master is ready for a manufacturing plant to be burned onto commercially-ready CD media. Our favorite processor for this type of conversion is a Db Technology/Lavry 3000S unit as well as our Prism's ADA8-XRs own's dither curves and down-sampling hardware options, but there is software which has decent results as well such as Sound Forge by Sony.
10. When your mastering engineer receives a properly mixed record using an analog mixing technique (either via tape or not), they will have a big smile on their face. They no longer will have to fight for your mix to sound warm and dynamic, and all they have to worry about is the levels of all tracks in comparison and overall balance when using it for radio broadcast or online streaming. When a mix is recorded to a tape, mastering should be done via digital means exclusively to preserve the original sound of the tape and avoid additional AD/DA conversion, which degrades the original sound of the mix noticeably. More on this in my next section, called ABOUT MASTERING.