If you produce your music on a computer-based digital audio sequencer, the odds are good that you use its mixing features to some extent — probably for plug-in effects and selected automation. But have you ever considered going the whole nine yards and doing all of your tracking and mixing from your sequencer's mixing screen instead of from your hardware console?
It's an approach worth considering, because your sequencer's mixer gives you features — such as total recall and automation of volume, panning, effects, and mutes — that are beyond the capabilities of most analog boards (see Fig. 1). And by mixing entirely “in the box,” you can bounce your final mix to a stereo file without ever leaving the digital domain.
FIG. 1: A digital audio sequencer''s mixer, such this one from Apple''s Pro Logic 7, offers you powerful features including automation of volume, pan, mutes and effects parameters; recall; and the flexibility of plug-in effects processing.
But switching to a sequencer-based mixer can be a big adjustment for some, and it is not without its drawbacks. In this article, I'll examine the pertinent issues you'll face when making the transition to computer mixing.
PROSE ABOUT THE PROS
The advantages of software mixing are particularly evident when it comes to the mix phase of a project. A sequencer's automation features let you build your mixes over time without losing your settings and having to mark fader positions on pieces of tape on the channel strips.
A software mixer lets you precisely adjust levels, panning, and effects, allowing you to easily pull off complex mix moves that you'd never even dream of doing on a hardware mixer. That's particularly good news for people who work alone in personal studios and don't have anyone to help them push up a fader or turn a send knob at a precise moment in a song.
Most sequencers give you the flexibility of automating onscreen faders and knobs; drawing volume, pan, and controller curves directly into the tracks; or using a combination of the two methods. Time is the only limitation regarding how much editing you can do with your mix data.
A sequencer's ability to recall a mix down to the last EQ setting and pan assignment, compressor preset, and so forth gives you amazing flexibility. It makes revisions and alternate versions an easy option. It means that if you're burnt out on a particular mix before you've finished it (and who hasn't had that happen?), you can switch to a different project and then come back to that first mix later — something you'd probably never do if you had to manually recall your mixes.
If you mix in the box, you'll never have to go through the tedious process of writing down or drawing the settings of your hardware knobs on a piece of paper.
If you're mixing a CD project, the ability to switch between songs is a real benefit, especially if you rent your studio and engineering services to clients or work on projects that contain lots of different pieces of music, such as a films or industrial scores.
THREE BLIND MICE
Obviously, I'm an advocate of the in-the-box approach. I think its advantages greatly outweigh any negatives. Of course, not everybody agrees. The most frequently voiced complaint is that moving a mouse just isn't the same as adjusting the controls on a hardware mixer. I've found it easy to get used to mouse mixing, but if you can't live without physical faders and knobs, you have the option of purchasing a control surface, which can give you tactile control of volume, pan, effects parameters, and a lot more.
FIG. 2: The Tascam US-2400''s features include 25 touch-sensitive motorized faders and 24 rotary encoders, giving you tactile control of your sequencer''s mixer.
A good example of that is the Mackie Control Universal ($1,299). It connects to your computer through your MIDI interface and offers 9 motorized faders, a slew of function knobs, and templates for more than 12 different digital-audio sequencers.
For $1,999, you can get the Tascam US-2400 (see Fig. 2). It connects thr ough USB, offers 25 motorized faders and 24 rotary encoders, and supports major DAW software. Other manufacturers of control surfaces include Digidesign, CM Labs, Edirol, and Radikal Technologies
THE VINTAGE DISADVANTAGE
If you have vintage or other outboard gear that you want to keep using, it's going to complicate matters. You can integrate outboard processors into your DAW's mixer if your audio interface has enough I/O. Unless the outboard gear is digitally controlled and responds to MIDI (which won't be the case with a lot of older processors), however, you won't be able to fully automate it nor completely recall it.
It is perfectly valid to continue using your outboard processors while still mixing from your DAW's mixer screen. With that hybrid setup, you'll be able to recall some of your mix parameters but not others. For those you can't recall, you'll have to write down their settings. (A producer I've worked for who owns a bunch of vintage outboard gear uses a digital camera to photograph the settings of his processors, which he then downloads into his computer and saves along with the sequencer file.)
If your outboard processors are digitally controlled, you can use program changes embedded in your sequence to switch them to the correct patches. You still might have to write down front-panel knob settings, however, depending on the particular piece of gear.
If you have outboard synths and samplers that you can't part with, you can control their parameters with MIDI Program Changes and MIDI Control Change commands, which allow you to recall your settings in most cases. You'd need enough analog inputs (unless your synths have digital outputs) to bring your synth outputs into the computer for the mix. You'll probably have to record your outboard instruments and outboard effects returns to disk before you render your final mix (see the subhead “In the Bounce”).
A major issue you'll have to confront is CPU resources. To run all of the plug-ins that you'll need, a powerful computer is a necessity.
If your CPU is outdated, it might not have enough horsepower to allow you to comfortably mix in the box. If you can have only a few plug-ins open before your sequence starts to bog down, you might have to postpone the switch to software mixing until you upgrade to a faster computer. But if you already have one — such as an Apple G5, a fast dual G4, a Pentium 4, or a fast AMD-based model — you should be able to have quite a few tracks running simultaneously, a bunch of plug-ins open, and even some virtual instruments enabled without your CPU going into slow motion.
Having a lot of processing power is important if you're going to do a completely in-the-box mix, because it will be necessary to apply all of your EQ, dynamics processing and effects from your computer (unless you have a DSP-card-based system like a Pro Tools TDM setup, a TC Electronic PowerCore, or a Universal Audio UAD-1 system).
You can maximize the CPU power that you do have by bouncing tracks to disk with effects, thus freeing up computing power for other tasks (or you could “freeze” the tracks if your sequencer offers such a feature). Of course, the freedom and flexibility that you get from your sequencer's mixing features will be lessened somewhat if you have to make a lot of effects decisions at the beginning of the mix process.
To save additional CPU, consider converting your soft-synth MIDI tracks into audio tracks before finishing the mix.
IN THE BOUNCE
At the end of your mix, when you've finished adjusting levels, pans, effects, and so forth and are ready to record your mix to stereo, you won't need to send it to an external 2-track. Instead, you'll render your mix using your sequencer's “bounce-to-disk” function.
Virtually all digital audio sequencers have a function similar to this, although it might go by a different name (for example, in Cakewalk's Sonar it's called “Bounce to Track”). Bouncing is often faster than real time. You can easily print multiple mix versions with very little trouble, and your mix will stay in the digital domain.
FIG. 3: The Mackie Big Knob offers monitor switching, headphone monitoring, talkback, and input switching.
Even if you've decided to sell your hardware console and go the soft-mixer route, you're still going to need outboard hardware. Depending on the capabilities of your audio interface, you may need additional mic preamps. If you record others besides yourself in your studio, you'll probably need the capability for talkback and a way to setup and output cue mixes. Additionally, you'll want a facility for switching between different sets of monitors.
One obvious solution is to keep your hardware mixer and utilize it for these tasks. That way you don't have to shell out good money for peripheral devices (I'm assuming that you already have a multichannel audio interface), and your existing mixer won't go to waste.
If you don't want to use your old mixer, however, you'll need a couple of additional peripherals. If your audio interface doesn't have enough mic preamps built in, you could consider an outboard multiple mic pre that's designed to work with DAW systems. The market has seen a flood of such devices in the past couple of years, and there are plenty to choose from in all price ranges.
You'll also need a replacement for your mixer's monitoring section. Products such as Mackie's Big Knob (see Fig. 3), PreSonus's Central Station, and Samson's C-control address that need. They each give you the ability to connect and switch between input sources and switch between several sets of monitors. Additionally, they offer talkback facilities (including a built-in mic). Central Station has analog and digital I/O (the Mackie and Samson models are analog only), but it is considerably more expensive.
FIG. 4: The figure above shows the signal flow and components in a typical mixerless studio.
With an outboard multiple mic pre and monitor controller and your audio interface, you'll have a flexible and easy-to-use front end for your DAW (see Fig. 4).
THE DREAM MIXER
The best way to see if you're ready for computer-based mixing is to give it a try. Set your software to output only a single stereo pair — for monitoring purposes — and have at it. Use only plug-in effects and bounce your final product to disk. It may be an adjustment, but I'm betting that you'll experience a huge productivity increase by tapping into the enormous power of your sequencer's mixer.
Mike Levineis a senior editor at EM.
A COMPROMISE SOLUTION
FIG. A: The Yamaha 01X gives you the automation and recall of a sequencer''s mixer, with the physical control of a hardware console.
If you want the features of a software-based mixer but you can't give up on the hardware-mixer paradigm, a digital mixer might be your answer. Although it won't be as seamlessly integrated into your system as a sequencer's mixer, it can give you many of the same advantages when it comes to automation and recall, and you'll have real faders and knobs to twiddle (although with many digital mixers, it can take several button pushes to make a knob active for a given task).
The Yamaha 01X (see Fig. A) is a recent example of a digital mixer (see review in the November 2004 issue of EM). Priced in the same range as many dedicated control surfaces, the 01X, which uses Yamaha's mLAN technology to transfer audio and data over FireWire, gives you control-surface functionality (including templates for many top sequencers), built-in DSP (including dynamics on every channel), the ability to transfer your mixes from your DAW, 8 XLR/line inputs, and monitoring features.
Other manufacturers that offer digital mixers for the personal-studio market include Behringer, Digidesign, Event, Spirit, Tascam, and Roland.