The great debate: digital vs. analog. I'm sure most of us can sit here all day and discuss why one is better than the other. While there are great benefits to both, most of today's top engineers such as Greg Wells, Tom Lord-Alge, Tony Maserati, and Michael Brauer, are starting to use a combination, or hybrid system, for mixing.
As technology advances, many would say the line between the two worlds is becoming very blurred. This article will show some different examples on how to set up a system that can work best for your workflow. Since a hybrid system is any combination of digital and analog gear, there is no right or wrong way to set up your system. It really depends on how you want to improve your workflow.
Why use a Hybrid Mixing set-up?
Mixing is all about feeling and a great mix has a lot of interaction between the mixer and the song. In the past, we had a large desk with EQs, aux sends, faders, and sometimes compression. This allowed mixing engineers to put their hands on everything and really "feel" the mix. In some cases, there would be three to four engineers on a desk moving faders and turning EQs as the mix is printed.
In the modern studio, most people are working on a laptop with a mouse, doing a lot of automation and clip gain. While great mixes are being done with this method, some engineers feel the mix lacks "the human touch." It's hard to make precise fader moves with a mouse or trackpad, or to close your eyes and cycle through an EQ band to find the sweet spot.
A hybrid system allows you to get the precision of the digital world with the use of automation, clip gain, plug-ins and editing functions, while also adding the analog warmth and human touch aspect of mixing that we all know and love.
As we mentioned earlier, an issue with in the box mixing is the inability to physically touch a fader or EQ. A control surface is a digital controller for your DAW, which maps all your audio channels to a digital channel strip. This is done through Ethernet, USB, Firewire or Thunderbolt. To use a control surface, you don't necessarily need the I/O of a large interface. The controller does not pass any audio through it, so it won't "color" your sound like an analog desk, but will allow you to physically push the fader, turn the EQ and pan pots, and write automation on more than one source at a time.
For a smaller home studio, the Avid Artist Mix would be a great choice for $999, which has eight touch-sensitive 100mm long throw motorized faders, eight touch-sensitive rotary encoders, and eight high-resolution OLED displays. You can cycle "Banks" between the eight faders to allow access to your entire mix. This allows you to mix with a level of speed and control that is simply not possible when mixing with just a mouse.
For a larger pro studio setup, you can look into the Avid S3 or S6. With the S6, you can customize the surface with only the modules you need for great cost efficiency and expand the fader bank to as many tracks as you see fit. You have touch-screen control to get deep DAW functions mapped out on the desk.
Slate Media Technology offers up another interesting option for control surfaces in their series of Raven products. These control surfaces, including the Raven MTI2 and MTX MK2, allow mix engineers to touch the production console’s screen with multiple fingers at once to adjust faders, pans, sends, and plug-ins. While users are still working within the digital space, Slate’s Raven gives them the option to get more hands-on with their mix.
Some people think a control surface is just a big mouse, but I think it is a great way to improve your workflow and give you more of a connection with the mix.
Computer and Console
This method is for the more advanced engineer, but it truly delivers the best of both worlds. This requires a hefty I/O setup coming from your DAW, but in the modern studio, we have many great AD/DA converters such as the Avid HD I/O, Antelope Orion 32HD, Apogee Symphony, Burl Mothership, and Universal Audio Apollo x16. It’s easier than ever to get high-quality digital signals to your analog desk.
This method also allows us to load up our tracks with any desired plug-ins inside our DAW, then send that processed signal to the desk. Pro mixers such as Michael Brauer, Tom Lord-Alge, and Greg Wells use this method on every mix. They can use plug-ins like the Thermionic Culture Vulture or Waves Manny Distortion to achieve nice thick harmonic distortions before the desk, or pre-EQ the messy parts of a signal to free up the desk EQ for more shine and focus. Using plug-ins before the desk also helps with session recall.
In this scenario, most of the heavy mixing is done inside the box, and the desk is used for its analog warmth and summing. Since the DAW will save all the plug-in presets and automation, all that is left to recall is fader position, aux sends, and some EQ.
Some great consoles for hybrid mixing setups include API’s The Box, API 1608, SSL XL Desk or Toft ATB Series. This set-up allows for an easier use of analog bus compression, some great choices for that are the Manley Vari-Mu, Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor and the UnderTone Audio UnFairchild.
Why Still Use Analog EQ?
While plug-ins are becoming very close to the real deal, they are still just emulations of the gear we have all come to love. There is nothing like adding a Neve 1073LB, API 550A, 550B or 560, MAAG EQ4, or SSL 611EQ to a track. There is a magic that happens when a signal is passed through the analog circuit, a beautiful imperfection that can't quite be matched by a plug-in.
A lot of pro mixers will say an analog EQ can handle more information than a plug-in, meaning you can send more signals to them and it will make the harmonics react in a musical way. Where a plug-in seems to "fold" when you send it too much information, you can use an analog EQ as a hardware insert in your DAW. All this requires is an open output from your interface to the input of the EQ, then back out of the EQ into your interface.
Now you may be asking, what if I only have one EQ? Waves makes a plug-in called QClone that can copy your analog EQ settings and store them within a plug-in. This allows you to save the EQ you have on track one, move the EQ to track two, then completely change your analog EQ and save that setting again as a new preset. This allows you to use one EQ as many times as you want, to get as many sounds as you want.
What About Analog Dynamic Processing?
Just like the EQ, nothing beats the sound of the real deal. Universal Audio has done an amazing job in emulating their 1176 and LA-2A in plug-in form, but having even one real piece of outboard compression can make a huge difference in a recording or mix. Unlike the EQ, compression doesn't have a plug-in like QClone that can save the compression setting, so we have to use it sparingly. Typically, we would use our nicest compressor on the most important element of a song, such as the vocal.
To achieve this in the box, we would set up a hardware insert the same as the EQ mentioned above. Now that the vocal has a present, warm, in your face feeling, we can use our DAW to fill in the rest of the compression. In the old days, we needed racks of compressors like Chris Lord-Alge has to achieve a big aggressive mix. With hybrid mixing, you can use the analog gear you have for the most important elements of the mix, and use high-end emulations for everything else. Some great compression plug-ins are UAD-2 Manley Vari-Mu, Fairchild, Tube Tech CL1B, 1176, and LA-2A or Waves CLA76 and CLA 2A.
Now we can achieve the sound of high-quality vintage microphones through modern day digital processing. The Slate VMS utilizes state-of-the-art amplifiers to produce the purest and most linear signal possible, giving the VMS plugin module the ability to transform your recordings with reproductions of classic microphones and preamps. One microphone can be used to model eight classic microphones, and for only $999, you can have one mic for any application.
At a slightly higher price point of $1,499, the Townsend Labs Sphere L22 condenser microphone provides exceptional attention to detail in the mic as well as the plug-in. This mic can be used on its own, or modeled as a variety of vintage microphones. Also offers "Re Mic" technology that allows the user to change the mic type and polar pattern even after tracking.