Everything's Under Control

Digital mixing makes me happy. Sure, nothing sounds as sweet as a nice, old Trident or Neve console, but I havent the space, money, or maintenance facilities
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Digital mixing makes me happy. Sure, nothing sounds as sweet as a nice,old Trident or Neve console, but I haven’t the space, money, ormaintenance facilities to deal with one of those beasts. On the otherhand, the new breed of digital mixers offers pristine sonics, extensivefeatures, and automation—all at a price I can look at without myblood draining to my feet. Modern DAWs offer real-time automation, EQ,dynamics, and other signal processing. The world is a beautifulplace.

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That is not to say that it’s a simple place. I find all theoptions to be confusing and often am left feeling (I am risking rottentomatoes here) mixed up. Can I meet all my mixing needs in a DAW alone?If not, how extensive an outboard mixer do I need? Once I have anoutboard mixer, which automation should I use: the DAW’s or themixer’s? What about the card approach, like Yamaha’s DSPFactory? That’s a lot of mixing power and a DAW rolled into oneaffordable card.

There is, of course, no single right answer; there are many rightanswers, and a number of wrong ones, too. As always, you must analyzeyour own needs and resources, and use patterns to decide which way togo; here, however, are a few thoughts I found helpful.

Mixers are very complex pieces of equipment, but their mostimportant functions break down to these: input/output, routing andcombining, signal processing, monitoring and communications, and, mostimportant, tactile control. The emphasis placed on this last functionis deliberate and significant. Tactile control is so important that anentire genre of products has grown up to meet that need alone. FromJLCooper and Peavey MIDI fader boxes to Mackie HUI, DigidesignProControl, and the like, things you can touch and move are the kernelof the mixing process. This idea is the key to deciding on mixingequipment and procedures.

Consider the DSP Factory. It provides incredible functionality, butaccessing it comfortably requires a control surface. Sure, you can usea mouse or trackball, but any serious number of mixing hours makes thenecessity of faders and knobs abundantly clear.

Similarly, your total purchase price for a card and HUI-type controlsurface is close to that of a stand-alone digital mixer (more, in fact,than some digital mixers). The system might be a great value, but thatextra cost could be a rude surprise if you fail to factor it into yourbudget.

The question of automation comes under the same scrutiny. DAWbreakpoint editing with a mouse can achieve precision and subtlety thatis difficult to achieve with a fader, but it is slow and awkward andcan be a repetitive-stress pain in the hand for general-purpose mixmoves. That’s a large reason that HUI and ProControl came intoexistence. But why should you have two control surfaces, one for yourDAW and one on a digital mixer? The addition of preset HUI-like controlcapabilities between digital mixers and DAWs would make it nearlyseamless to use the mixer and DAW automation in tandem.

There is no question that we are currently blessed with anembarrassment of riches in mixing. But purchase decisions can bebewildering unless you do your homework, and that starts at home. Takesome time to sit down and just think, while not doing anything else.Visualize yourself mixing, and make notes (on paper or a computer, notjust in your head) of the things you do a lot, the things you wish wereeasier to do, and the things for which you already have adequate tools.Armed with those notes, you will be pleasantly surprised how mucheasier it is to thread your way through the glorious maze.

Larry the O is a musician, producer, engineer, and sound designerwhose San Francisco–based company, Toys in the Attic, provides avariety of musical and audio services. He does not have a TV, VCR, cellphone, or Web page, but he holds the distinction of introducing theterm stud muffin to audio writing.