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Production Central: Go With the Signal Flow

May 11, 2010
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Recently, one of my production clients remarked on how warm, punchy, and analog my mixes sound while still remaining tough and clean like a digital mix. Funny how warm + punchy = analog, while tough + clean = digital. 


Is this a case of good vs. evil? Hardly, but it does bring up the debate about whether the technology or the technique make a great mix. Personally, I think it''s a bit of both. Here''s a little peek into some of the techniques I use to produce mixes that offer the best of analog and digital.

BACK IN THE DAY
The first part of my technique comes from understanding some differences between mixing in the box and mixing through an analog mixer. In my early days with Ming+FS, we often ran signals hot, through a channel of the mixer, pushing the preamp to slightly overdrive the signal. The audio would get colored with channel compression and a nice overdriven tone. Back then, another reason to run hot levels was signal-to-noise (S/N) ratio; gear was noisy and most home studios didn''t have pristine signal flow. I often kept levels on the hot side to mask system noise.

When working in the box, you need to reverse your thinking a bit. First, the S/N ratio for 24-bit audio is good enough that there''s no need to run your channels too hot. I try to keep levels at unity and use output groups to easily monitor the summing of my audio in stages, not just in the master bus (more about this later). Because I can''t overdrive digital audio without getting harsh and spiky artifacts, I create coloration by busing the audio in the analog domain to outboard effects such as distortion, compression, or bit reduction and overdriving those levels. Or I might use plug-ins that emulate analog overdrive, or re-amp the signal through a guitar amp.  

FIG. 1: This master-section screenshot shows both primary (beige) and secondary (green) subgroups in a mix. I often assign the vocals to a secondary group, but  here I routed them straight to the master bus.

FIG. 1: This master-section screenshot shows both primary (beige) and secondary (green) subgroups in a mix. I often assign the vocals to a secondary group, but here I routed them straight to the master bus.

A LEVEL PLAYING FIELD
Maintaining the S/N ratio was a primary concern in the analog days. But in the DAW world, where we have virtually unlimited track count, managing the levels of all those tracks and maintaining their clarity is the big challenge. To do so, I follow a few general guidelines. First, I try to record most audio at unity. If the incoming signal is a little too low, it''s okay because it''s digital and there''s unlikely to be a S/N problem.

Second, I try not to compress on input. You can always compress later, but you can''t take it away if it''s on the original recording. If I''m working with a singer who has trouble with dynamics, I''ll split the signal and record one track dry and one compressed. That way, I don''t lose any magic takes due to a channel overload. Most of the time, though, a nice conversation with the singer about vocal technique, plus a little coaching, will replace the need for the compressed input.

Third, I create subgroups for elements such as acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass, lead vocal, background vocals, etc., by busing selected tracks to auxes. (I call these primary subgroups.) From these subs, I apply group effects such as compression and EQ. Grouping tracks helps in many ways, including making it a lot easier to figure out where distortion is coming from than it would be if all of your tracks were going straight to the master. By simply muting or soloing your primary subgroups, you can usually deduce from where the problem is originating.

I often create secondary subgroups, which are constructed by busing the existing subgroups into less-narrow classifications. Typically, I have Music (all instruments except drums), Drums, and Vocals. These secondary subgroups give me another point at which to add effects. The outputs of the secondary groups go to the master bus (see Fig. 1).

Splitting your mix into subgroups, as described, helps with troubleshooting and managing levels. It also makes it simple to quickly set up alternative mixes (e.g., instrumental or TV mixes) or bounce your tracks to stems.


Ming (mingsmusic.com) is a NYC-based artist, producer, and DJ. He owns Hood Famous Music and co-owns Habitat Music.

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