Mix Bus: Using Analog Gear With Daw Mixdowns
USING AN ANALOG PREAMPLIFIER
If your overall mix lacks character or is too dry, try sending your final mixdown through class-A preamp circuitry to add the color and warmth of analog before final processing. Figure 1 shows the DAW’s output signal being sent through a pair of class-A preamps, and then to a mastering deck for adding final tweaks and getting the product ready for Red Book creation. Even if you don’t use a mastering deck and bounce back into two DAW tracks for export, the analog element still makes a difference. Most preamps (see sidebar) come with high-end circuitry that allows enhancing the sound, as well as manipulating the frequency response utilizing filters and other features. Of course, the “core” technology makes a difference as well; a tube preamp will sound different compared to a solid-state type.
USING ANALOG COMPRESSION
Another way to interject analog sound into your final mixdown is with an analog compressor and/or limiter—this makes the perfect complement to the analog preamp. A good compressor provides the flexibility to add analog dynamics control to any recorded element: individual tracks, a submix, or your final mix sent to a mastering deck (if you run out of hardware, bounce the track through the analog gear). You can send your signal from your DAW, through the analog compressor, then the analog preamp, and finally into the mastering deck—this gives the best sequence for tweaking your sound after final mixdown.
However, be very careful about applying compression in your final mix. Over-compressing your signal can make the overall product sound “squashed,” and may add hiss. Make sure you test each mix on a few different sets of monitors (including ones that accentuate the frequencies you are looking to pull out in your mix, so you can hear that part of spectrum as clearly as possible).
COMBINING ANALOG AND DIGITAL EFFECTS
Although there are some amazing plug-ins that really can augment your recordings, many would still argue that nothing adds the warmth and color obtained by sending your digital signal through an analog device. But then there’s the issue of budget, as you can’t necessarily afford every piece of outboard gear you want. Fortunately, there’s a compromise between remaining 100% digital and using tons of analog gear: Using digital plug-ins in conjunction with some carefully-selected analog equipment.
Just like the hardware mentioned in the sidebar, you can buy plug-ins that are digital remakes of celebrated analog equipment. For example, Waves is a company well-known for their quality plug-ins that many would also argue come extremely close to emulating vintage Neve, API, and SSL console sounds. With the release of their SSL-inspired line of software as a more specific example, you can use SSL filters to tighten up your sound as well as make gain adjustments to your production within your DAW. The four-band equalizer in Figure 2, modeled on the SSL G Series EQ292, is very helpful in giving your productions that “vintage SSL” sound. Nonetheless, as mentioned before it’s a good idea to infuse some true analog processes into your productions if you want to nail that sound exactly. Plug-ins are great tools, but they’re still reliant on digital technology.
There’s no need to keep everything in the digital domain, or for that matter, go all-analog. Using all of these tools together can help you produce greatsounding work, help your mixing process, and prep your work for final mastering—and provide an analog quality to a digital production.
ANALOG INSERTS IN A DIGITAL WORLD
Many DAWs now provide a way to treat external audio gear as “plugins” within tracks or buses. Basically, you insert an “external gear” plug-in that sends the signal to an unused output (or output pair) on your audio interface. This patches to your analog gear, which then returns to two unused inputs on the audio interface and appears at the plug-in’s output. The only downside is the latency caused by going through additional stages of A/D conversion and interfacing, but several programs provide automatic compensation, and with those that don’t, you can always do manual timing adjustments by moving tracks forward and backward in time. —Craig Anderton
KILLER GEAR WITHOUT KILLING YOUR BUDGET: TRY A REMAKE
Since even a single Neve channel may be too costly for many studio owners looking to expand their systems, an antidote to the huge price tag associated with high-end ‘vintage’ gear is to try a remake or emulation of products like the famous Neve 1073. Vintech Audio has come out with a great line of analog equipment, such as the X73i (pictured above), which captur1es the “vintage” sound.
The X73i is a single-channel preamp with the layout of the original Neve 1073 design. The X73i also comes with added enhancements, such as a 1/4" instrument input on the front panel and additional equalization options (e.g., expanded midrange choices) essential for both recording and mixing. Or, consider a stereo unit such as the Vintech Dual 72, which consists of two class-A, all discrete, transformer-balanced mic pres built with the same basic circuit design and components as the classic Neve 1272 module. (You could also use a pair of X73i pres—one for the left and one for the right channel.)
Once you’ve sent the mix to the mastering deck, you can further compress, limit, normalize, or equalize your final sound and lastly, make a Red Book master that retains an “analog” sound quality. A home studio owner could set up a DAW, use a pair of X73is and an Alesis MasterLink, and create amazing recordings for a comparatively low cost.