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Master Class – Analog/Digital Synergy in the Studio

October 29, 2012
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At GearFest 2012, Craig Anderton led a presentation on integrating analog and digital studio technology.
GearFest, held every Summer on the Sweetwater campus in Fort Wayne, Indiana, has become the premier Midwest event for musicians. Over the years, founder Chuck Surack has transformed it from an informal gathering where musicians can connect and check out gear to an ever-growing, twoday event; this year GearFest featured a mix of booths from 220 manufacturers (many of whom didn’t exhibit at Summer NAMM), visitors from around the world, more than 80 seminars and workshops, a flea market for used gear, celebrated keynote speakers, “you-have-to-be-there” deals on gear, and some pretty cool music. Some of this year’s featured speakers were Thomas Dolby, Lee Roy Parnell, Marcus Miller, Fab Dupont, J. R. Robinson, Jeff Loomis, George Massenburg, and Electronic Musician’s own Craig Anderton.

The thing that makes GearFest successful is that, while it’s obviously Sweetwater-centric, it has transcended its origins to become a summer music event second only to Summer NAMM. Among the many seminars featured at GearFest was the Craig Anderton-led presentation on integrating analog and digital in what he calls “the hybrid studio.” Although we can’t take you backward in time to GearFest itself, we can certainly present the highlights of this wellreceived seminar. —Sarah Jones

 

Although there’s much hype around analog vs. digital technology, let’s remember analog’s original meaning: “represented by a continuously variable physical quantity.” Analog is more than just a type of technology; in fact, most studios already combine analog and digital—transducers are analog, as are moving air, ears, and instruments. Furthermore, levels, sends, EQ, and similar elements, even if implemented with digital technology, aim to give a smooth, analog feel.

Mixing is a good example of an analog process, but also note that a mix can be a performance ( just ask DJs, or consider sessions back in the ’60s when multiple sets of hands worked a large-format console), and it’s also an inherently polyphonic activity.

 
Fig. 1. Yamaha’s Motif series was designed to serve double-duty as a basic control surface for a variety of DAWs—not just Steinberg’s Cubase AI.
 
Fig. 2. This shows the FireWire button enabled in PreSonus’s StudioLive 16.0.2 mixer; inputs 1–3 are set to inputs coming in from FireWire instead of their analog inputs.
This is why mixing with a mouse is often unsatisfying: It’s a monophonic device in a polyphonic world. Fortunately, there are plenty of control surface options—from keyboards like Yamaha’s Motif series, whose sliders (Figure 1) can map to a variety of DAWs, to multifader controllers like the Mackie Control, Euphonix Artist Series, or Behringer BCF-2000, and to individual channel faders like the PreSonus FaderPort or Frontier Design AlphaTrack. And of course, there are specialized control surfaces, like Novation’s Launchpad, or Akai’s APC20 and APC40 for Ableton Live.

The Mixer as Control Surface Another option is a conventional mixer working with an audio interface that has multiple audio outputs, or a mixer with a FireWire or USB 2.0 interface (PreSonus StudioLive series, or the latest digital mixers from Yamaha, Phonic, Alesis, and others). There are several benefits to using a mixer as a control surface:

• You can route the output back into the DAW feeding it to record a stereo mix.
• Real faders encourage mixing as a performance.
• You can perform with EQ and other controls.
• It offers easy interfacing with analog effects via inserts and auxes.
• Using the mixer’s processors takes a load off your computer.
• Analog mixers can lend an “analog” character.
• Workflow is much faster than using a mouse.
• This approach is DAW-agnostic.

Of course, there are disadvantages too:

• Mixer settings aren’t saved with a project by default.
• There may not be enough hardware ins or outs.
• Mixers take up space.
• They can be less convenient, due to the need for extra connections.

Interconnections My first “mixer as control surface” experience involved a Panasomic DA7 digital mixer and Creamware SCOPE interface. Both had dual ADAT Lightpipe ports, which allowed sending 16 DAW outputs to 16 DA7 inputs. Some faders handled individual instruments, while others covered submixes. In those days computers were pretty slow, so the DA7’s onboard processing was a big advantage.

Although connecting via analog patch cables from a multi-output interface to a mixer is doable, using an ADAT, USB, FireWire, or MADI digital connection—now offered by many mixers—keeps the signal in the digital domain and minimizes cabling. However, you do need to know how to set up the mixer to talk to your computer. Typically, you assign DAW outputs to FireWire buses, which then go to individual channel inputs; these are then enabled for FireWire inputs as opposed to standard analog inputs (Figure 2). Now you can do your mixing moves in real time, using the mixer’s faders.

 
Fig. 3. This routing allows not only mixing your DAW through a mixer’s faders, but also recording your 2-track master back into the project from which it came.
If the mixer has built-in DSP, that can supplement any plug-ins used in the DAW itself; if your mixer can save snapshots, you can call them up in real time as part of the mix. And if there aren’t enough faders, you can send a premix of parts whose level doesn’t vary much (or which use DAW automation) to two channels, thus reserving the other faders for “important” mixing moves.

Mixing and Mastering In the days of tape, studios would mix down from a multitrack to a separate tape recorder. But with the hybrid studio, you can record your stereo mix into the same DAW project you’re mixing.

Referring to Figure 3, the DAW outputs (red) are going into mixer inputs via FireWire. Meanwhile, the mixer’s stereo master out (green) feeds back into the DAW (in this example, using interface inputs 15 and 16). Now when you want to hear your final mix, simply play back the track where you recorded the final mix.

And if your mixer doesn’t have moving faders, you can do a sort of “pseudoautomation.” Start mixing; if you make a mistake partway through or miss a move, locate your DAW to a place before the spot where the mistake occurred, then set up your faders, pan, etc. the way they’re supposed to be. Start playback, punch before the mistake, then carry on with the mix from there. Even better, once you have the perfect mix, it’s now in two tracks of your original project. When you save the project, you also save your mix.

Fig. 5. Sonar X1’s external insert plug-in routes a channel’s signal out of the DAW, into a hardware effect, then returns the signal to the DAW channel.
Integrating Hardware Effects As your mixer will almost certainly have aux buses, it’s easy to add aux effects like hardware reverb units. But even without a mixer, it’s not hard to add hardware effects to individual DAW channels. Most DAWs have some kind of “insert” plug-in that looks like a standard plug-in, but acts like a virtual insert (see Figure 5). It routes the channel’s output to a hardware interface output, which you patch to a hardware effect input. The effect’s output patches to an unused interface input, which then returns to the insert plug-in and proceeds to the DAW’s mixer. The DAW will typically “ping” this effects loop, and compensate for the additional latency introduced by going through another stage of analog interfacing. However, note there is one limitation: You can’t do a faster than realtime bounce through hardware; any track bounces need to be done in real time.

“Hybrid” Isn’t Just For Cars Although some people treat analog vs. digital as some sort of technological holy war, you don’t have to buy into the hype. Simply choose the right tool for the right job. Sometimes you’ll get the best results by embracing both analog and digital technology.

EM Live!

by Sarah Jones

A major GearFest highlight was EM Live!, presented by our own Craig Anderton, who created a virtual issue of Electronic Musician especially for the event, and brought the magazine to life by taking “articles” off the printed page, projecting them on a giant screen behind him, and performing live presentations for each article.

Subbing for my usual Insight editorial, Craig opened by presenting an editorial on “Why DJ Thinking Matters,” and demoed the concepts he was talking about by using Native Instruments’ Traktor Pro 2 to do a live mashup—complete with tempo-synced effects, dangerous crossfades, and more. For our New Gear section presentation, Asher Fulero from Moog Music came onstage and demoed the new MF-104M analog delay, which had just been introduced at GearFest the previous day. Now that’s new gear!

 
Fig. 4. The realtime “DAW roundup” was a highlight of EM Live! Here, Craig helps people wrap their heads around Ableton Live.
And of course, what’s Electronic Musician without one of our exclusive Roundups? Craig did a DAW compare-and-contrast (Figure 4) of Adobe Audition, Sony Acid, Steinberg Cubase, Acoustica Mixcraft 6, Apple Logic Pro, Avid Pro Tools, Ableton Live, MOTU Digital Performer, Propellerhead Reason, PreSonus Studio One Pro, and Cakewalk Sonar X1. He managed to cut through the marketing hype to give a clear, objective account of each DAW’s strengths and limitations.

Taking the place of print Q&A, guitarist Neil Zaza came onstage and was interviewed about all things guitar, but the conversation drifted toward amp sims and, specifically, Eleven Rack. Zaza’s engaging, humble, personable style was definitely a hit with the audience. Then former EQ editor and acclaimed author Mitch Gallagher closed out the interview segment by sharing his formidable expertise about guitar tone, as exemplified in his latest book, Guitar Tone: Pursuing the Ultimate Guitar Sound.

Craig ended EM Live! with a demo of a Power App using Cakewalk’s Sonar X1, but in the same way we often run out of space in the print edition of Electronic Musician, he ran out of time before he could cover everything he’d planned. But no matter: The crowd’s enthusiastic reaction made it clear that Electronic Musician could be a great live act as well as a magazine.

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