During the past decade or so, the ubiquitous DAW/sequencer/multitrack audio recording software has truly reshaped the recording landscape like nothing else, turning many modest bedrooms into relatively sophisticated project studios. Broadly speaking, one of the finest aspects of all DAWs is their nimble mixing capabilities, especially with regard to automation. Here, take a peek at some of the best attributes of DAW mixing — and perhaps a few of you analog stalwarts will convert to the virtual camp along the way.
DON'T FEAR BIG BROTHER
Stubborn, old-school analog types out there need not fear; I'm not here to spew the typical digital-is-better-than-analog tirade. Personally, I prefer to have one foot in each world, so I pipe my preferred DAW (Apple Logic Pro 7) through a multiport audio interface that is patched to several channels across my board. This allows me to choose between mixing entirely in Logic, mixing externally or using a combination of both (which is typically what happens). But if you need to travel while working on music or don't yet own a console — or you simply like the idea of mixing entirely inside your computer — then DAW mixing is your solution. And unless you have a control surface to remote-control your DAW, your mouse will replace your hands on faders, pan, EQ, aux and other console controls. Although this technique has its disadvantages (some veteran engineers point to a lack of real-time spontaneity), it certainly has major advantages in unforeseen microcontrol, flexibility, expandability and automation.
Although my studio is outfitted with more than one DAW control surface, I still find myself using point-and-click for many microcontrol scenarios. For example, if I need a fade to be precisely placed and perfectly even (such as a fade-out at song's end) I will draw a volume envelope with the mouse instead of performing a fade with either my board or a controller. The advantage in terms of precision is obvious, and DAW edits such as this are typically nondestructive, meaning they act upon the audio but don't alter the audio files saved on disk. When you perform a manual fade with a console, the mixdown track has the fade built in, and if it's not right, you have to do it over again and again until it is. Expandability and flexibility are also positive traits of DAWs that even the most ambitious hardware purists cannot deny. What happens when you have a 16-channel board and have plugged up all 16 inputs and aux and effects returns? If you need additional tracks, you're screwed unless you can afford to unplug something or go right out to the music store and purchase another console. With most professional-grade DAWs, track count is not a problem. For instance, Digidesign Pro Tools features as many as 192 tracks, Apple Logic Pro handles a max of 244, and MOTU Digital Performer and Cakewalk Sonar both boast unlimited tracks.
Dynamic signal-routing flexibility is a unique trait of DAWs, as well. For example, say you want to put a dark, low-mid-frequency reverb on some vocals, but those tracks already sound perfectly equalized. Instead of placing reverb and EQ on the individual tracks, you can use aux sends instead and insert the reverb and EQ on the aux return track while notching out only the frequencies of the reverb. That will not only preserve the equalized sound of the original vocal tracks; you also have much more control of how much reverb you want to add per track while sculpting just the reverb tone.
Finally, automation and recall possibilities of DAWs are phenomenal, especially when compared with the total lack thereof of analog gear. If you are a perfectionist, you can get multiple fade-ins or balance sweeps to be exactly the slopes and lengths you want and save them for total recall later. Two huge advantages with this are, one, the ability to project multitask and, two, the avoidance of ear fatigue. Often, the key to success with long, complex mixing sessions is to stop and come back to them the next day or even a week later — this can bring a valuable fresh perspective to whether something is working or not.
Although this might be easily overlooked, a key feature of DAW mixing is the bounce. Say you are like The Orb: You produce epic tracks that stretch for 10, 15, 60 minutes. Once you have toiled through all of the different parts, just set your levels, automation and effects; you don't have to wait for the entire song to be redubbed to hear the final result. With track bouncing, a 30-minute song can be converted to a single stereo file in a matter of seconds, with all effects and dynamics processing, volume sweeps and so forth intact. This means more time listening to the finished product and less to the mix as it is being generated. In other words, the quicker you can burn a CD and listen to the results in the car or over a crappy boom box, the sooner you can correct anything in the mix that isn't sitting right. And if you don't already practice this, you should.
So what, if any, are the drawbacks to DAW mixing? The biggest is that DAWs are computer-based, which means that they possess finite limits to the amount of audio data that can be handled at a given time. This is the flip side of the aforementioned 16-track-board conundrum. What happens when you are in the middle of a 42-track mix, and the CPU or hard-drive meters start to peak? There are temporary solutions, but, essentially, the biggest limit to any DAW is imposed by the box that it lives in, and not much can be done about that. Therefore, your best defense is simple: Don't skimp on a powerful computer, load it with lots of RAM and get the fastest hard drives you can afford. Then, let your mouse mix out of its cage.