Tips for In The Box Mixing
The expansion of power in a DAW is drawing more and more engineers to mixing in the box. Software such as Pro Tools and Logic come stocked with all of the tools you need to do a professional sounding mix right out of the box, and also allow you to add the addition of your favorite third party plug-ins. In the blog, we'll discuss some tips and tricks for setting up your DAW to create a seamless in the box workflow.
Session Recalls - Hardware
When mixing with a large format console and racks of outboard gear, it is very hard to recall a mix if any revisions need to be made. Most artists are not present during the mix process and often times not available to sign off on the mix the moment it is done. Most facilities don’t have the leisure to leave a mix up on the desk to make the final revisions, so they have to do a session recall or print stems of the individual elements, both of these processes take a lot of time.
A session recall requires an assistant engineer to manually write down every parameter on the console from fader positions, panning, eq settings, insert notes, bus and aux sends and more. Some consoles are able to take a digital snapshot of these settings, but still need to be set back to where they were by hand. The assistant then needs to take notes of all the outboard gear parameters and the note the signal flow of all the patch points. Nine times out of ten, the recall will not sound the same as the initial mix. Something is lost when a mix is zeroed out from the desk, whether it be the small differences in fader position, the way the tubes in the console or outboard gear are reacting that day, a small difference in panning, the energy and feel that was in the room during the first mix or countless other small variables.
Creating Stems - Hardware
Creating stems of the individual elements is a safer way to pull a mix back up, but is also a lengthy process and provides less flexibility to change individual elements within those stems. To create stems, you need to solo a group of instruments (drums, bass, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, piano, strings, horns, vocals, backing vocals, etc), then run out of the consoles mix bus into one or two channels of your DAW interface to print in real time. Some engineers will solo each track individually (kick, snare, tom 1, tom 2, etc) and print stems that way, but if have a three and a half minute song with 100+ tracks, you're talking five and a half hours or more to print the stems.
Another problem that can occur in this process is the build up of your mix bus processing. When you print a final mix, you are running every channel through the consoles mix bus. Every element is working together to trigger the hardware on the mix bus chain and the warmth that comes from it is applied to all tracks at once. Every time you print a group stem or individual stem you are adding the warmth of your console and outboard gear to that stem. If you have a lot of processing going on, it can start to build up real quick. That won’t always be a problem and I’m sure in some cases it can work to your advantage, but it’s something to consider in the fact that the stems will also not sound exactly like the initial mix that was on the console.
In The Box
In the box mixing offers an unlimited amount of flexibility. Every parameter is saved within your session file, if a recall needs to be made, you can easily reopen the session and it pops up exactly how you left it. There is no room for hardware error, and zero time required to recall the session. This is extremely handy if you are working on an entire record at one time and the client sends over notes after you’ve finished mixing the project.
Sometimes a revision is something as small as “turn the kick drum down -2dB”. In a DAW, all you need to do is open the session, turn the kick drum down -2dB, do a “save as” to have this altered version as well as the original version, print the song and you’re done.
You can also use the same plug-in on multiple sources inside of a DAW. In the hardware world, if you have one 1176, all you have is one 1176. Unless, of course, you dial in the setting, then print that sound back into your DAW to open up the 1176 for another source. Problem with that is you can’t fine tune that setting as you move to other elements in a mix.
With a DAW, you purchase the plug-in one time, then that plug-in can be used as many times as you want until your CPU runs out of power. For example, If the setting on the snare isn't working once you have the electric guitars where you want them, simply go back and adjust the setting on the snare drum compressor.
Universal Audio has been one of the leading companies in designing pro audio hardware for decades, but in the last couple years they have been dedicating their efforts to create software models of preamps, equalizers, compressors, amp modeling and effects units. Their Apollo interface series, as well as their DSP Satellites have revolutionized home and commercial studio production, offering top quality AD/DA conversion and internal DSP to power their UAD-2 platform plug-ins, which reduces the strain of your CPU, allowing your DAW to run smoother than ever.
Waves plug-ins have found their way into just about every studio on the planet, offering unique takes and expanded features on some of the industries top hardware devices. They also collaborate with today’s top mixing engineers to create plug-ins that model their unique sound and mixing style, making it easier than ever to achieve a professional sound with the use of presets and a very friendly user interface.
The lines have truly been blurred between analog and digital mixes, so much so in most cases that you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between one or the other if the same professional mixing engineer did the job. They both have their strengths and weaknesses and I’m not here to tell you which one is “better,” but to offer some tips on getting the most out of a DAW for mixing completely in the box.
One of the most powerful functions of in the box mixing is having a custom template. Creating a template can help speed up your workflow and solidify your sound. It can include all of your favorite effect sends, mix bus settings, instrument groups, VCA faders, parallel processors and more. It took me a long time to finally set up a mixing template, but when I did, I couldn’t imagine mixing without one.
To create a template, you can start off by creating a new session. Within the new session, begin creating the tracks that you typically use in every session. If you are already doing a lot of mixes professionally, you will notice a trend in the most common effects, mix bus settings and parallel processors you use. If you work on a similar style of music on a consistent basis, you’ll have a good idea of what common instruments groups you are mixing.
Once the template is complete, you will do a “save session as template” which will allow you to open this configuration at any time. “Import Session Data” from this template allows you to bring these tracks into whatever mix you are working on.
I first created a stereo bus, and set up the inputs and outputs on the track. I assigned a custom bus input of “Mix Bus 1.” This makes it easy to assign all of my tracks within the mix session to come into this track. I believe labeling your bus sends and returns is very important to a tidy mix session, and will be easy to know what’s going on if you ever happen to open the session later down the road, or another engineer ever has to open that session. In Pro Tools, once you assign the bus input to the track, you can right click on it to rename the bus.
I then set the output to feed a stereo audio track labeled “Print.” The Print track is a stereo audio track that I will record the final mix to in real time. The input of the Print track comes from the output of my stereo Mix Bus aux track, and the output of the print track is feeding my speakers. In earlier versions of Pro Tools HD, and also in Pro Tools 12 Native, you have the ability for input monitoring. This allows me to put a copy of the rough mix on the print track while I’m mixing. Without input monitoring engaged, the rough mix is playing through my speakers. Once I engaged input monitoring, I am then hearing the sound of my mix. This is a great way to A/B the rough mix to your current mix, making sure you aren’t taking it in a totally different direction.
I then set up all of the inserts on the mix bus, this is creating the “sound of my console“ so to speak. I start with the mix bus compressor, which is a UAD-2 Neve 33609. I have the threshold all the way up, a 1:5 compression ratio and a 100ms release time. I want this to be compressing an average of -2dB and -4dB at the mixes loudest transients, any more than that will start to crush the dynamics of the mix. With a low ratio and the 100ms release time, this compressor works as a glue that hold the mix together.
I have a master fader set up to control the input of “Mix Bus 1.” A master fader is a great way to control how much level hits your aux busses without adjusting any levels in the initial mix, which would ultimately mess up how those tracks are responding to the inserts or their post fader sends. My master fader feeding the mix bus defaults to -5dB when I import my template, this seems to be the sweet spot on the majority of mixes to have the bus compressor hitting between -2dB and -4dB. If too much signal is hitting the mix bus, I turn down the master fader. If I’m not getting enough compression, I turn the master fader up.
After the Neve 33609 I have a UAD-2 Pultec EQP-1a set to a smiley face EQ curve, which is a boost of the low end and a broad boost of the high end. Applying a EQ on the master bus saves time and CPU while also preventing me from having to surgically EQ each individual track in the mix. It makes the entire mix have more power in the low end and a nice silky airy top before a single EQ is set. That frees up the EQ on my individual tracks to focus on the key frequencies I'm looking to enhance or cut out.
Next in line is a UAD-2 Fairchild 670. This is to help add the warmth and glow of the Fairchild compressor across the entire mix. I keep the threshold all the way up so no matter how much input is sent to the mix bus, this compressor will never engage. I keep all the other settings at their default position, but set the “mix” control to 50%. It doesn’t do too much to the overall signal, but it does add just a little bit of depth in the low end and a bit of tube warmth over the entire mix.
I then add a UAD-2 Brainworx BX_Digital V3 EQ. This EQ has mid-side controls as well as a stereo width adjustment. These settings will change from mix to mix, but I usually like the width control to be around 150, and the high shelf on the side section to be boosting 8kHz around 1.5dB. This plug-in makes the stereo image of the mix much wider and opens up the top end of the sides of the mix without messing with the EQ in the middle channels. A great trick with this plug-in is automating the width control so the intro can be more focused, expand the verses a bit, then open the mix up in the chorus.
Lastly, I use a Sonnox Oxford Limiter V2. This plug-in has the classic Sonnox Inflater circuit built in which adds additional harmonic content to the lower frequencies of the mix. I have the Enhance setting around 30-40 depending on the genre of music I'm working on, and the output trim set to -.01, which is pretty much used to keep the red lights off and prevent clipping the output of my D/A converter. Slowest attack and fastest release times to make the most transparent limiting possible.
Effects - Sends and Returns
One thing that can take up a lot of time in a mix session is creating all the custom effects sends and returns. Once you’ve been mixing for awhile, you start to have some go-to effects that appear on every mix. If you set up these effects in a custom mix template, you can import them into your session with the parameters you prefer to use as well as custom labeled inputs and outputs. Going through the process of creating an auxiliary track, inserting the effect, dialing in the settings, setting the inputs and outputs, then labeling the I/O can be a buzz kill if you are on a creative roll. Why not have them reading to roll from the moment you begin the mix process?
In my mix template, I have around 20 effects that I bring into every session. Sometimes I only use three or four of them, sometimes I use all of them depending on the style of music, but they are there if I get inspired and want to quickly try an idea.
I have multiple reverbs set up from short room tones, chamber, spring, plate, hall, etc. Multiple delays with different interval settings to tempo match the mix, 1/4 note, 1/8 note, triplet, etc. A couple delay/echos that are set to millisecond time intervals that aren’t locked to the tempo of the song but can be used to add a bit of depth. I also have an EP-34 tape delay set up to a very quick delay time so you barely hear any actual echo happening, but the input set higher than usual to drive the input to the tape circuit. This adds some pleasing harmonic distortion to whatever I send into it and can really help fatten up guitars, strings, synths, pianos, vocals, etc.
I have a couple whacky effects from the SoundToys bundle I can send to if I’m looking to creating something off the wall in the mix. I also have multiple stereo panning effects set to different directions to help create depth in the stereo field. These effects don’t have to be super present to make an impact on the mix, but a little goes a long way with those style of effects.
Group Busses and VCA Faders
Another handy template setting is having auxiliary groups for each instrument. For example, I have all the individual elements of the drum kit summed to one stereo auxiliary channel. I do this for every instrument group within the session including percussion, bass, guitars, keys, synths, strings, horns, vocals, backing vocals, etc.
The auxiliary channel is preloaded with sends to the most common effects I use on those sources, and are all inactive when I import them from my template into m mix session. This allows me to easily engage the effects to the entire group with the click of a button or be able to drag a copy of the send to an individual track within the group. This speeds up my workflow and creativity because I never have to worry about creating aux sends or returns, everything is already there at my fingertips from the beginning of the mix.
Once the individual elements are assigned to an auxiliary track, I group them all together to control the balance of the elements as a whole with a VCA fader. In my template, I have about 10 VCA channels ready to go, with the same names as the auxiliary tracks mentioned earlier.
To set up a VCA fader, you select all of the individual elements you want in the group then (in Pro Tools) hit “Command+G.” You will then name the group and in the top right drop down menu of the dialog window assign it to whatever VCA you are looking to use. I disengage the group in the group window on the bottom left corner of the mix or edit window so I can still move the individual tracks fader position independently from the group, but that does not disengage the overall VCA function.
Now, the single VCA fader will control the overall level of all the elements within the group, but still allow you to adjust individual levels within the group. This is very handy if the mix is sounding really good, but you want to turn the guitars up as a whole 1dB. Also very handy to save time during the automation process, as one fader will allow you to control the level of all the tracks within the group.
I hope this blog helps expand your function and creativity while working in the box. Creating a custom template can greatly increase productivity and creativity, but can take some time to dial in so it works for everything that comes across your desk. Be sure to experiment with different bus compressors, EQ, stereo wideners, limiters, effects, etc to find the best ones for your style of mixing and workflow.
The last thing you want is for your template to sound like your mixes start sounding as if they are coming off an assembly line. I typically change elements of my mix template every month or so to keep a fresh approach on the projects I’m working on. I always keep a copy of previous mix templates just in case the changes aren't quite working, or I need to mix a tune that is similar to an older mix I did where the template was just right.
Be sure to always demo new plug-ins that come out to stay up to date, almost every manufacturer offers 14 day demo periods of their products. If you find something that really fits your mixing style, implement it into your template and give it a shot on your next couple projects.
Need more help with understanding mixing in the box? Please feel free to contact one of our Audio Consultants via email or by phone at 888.653.1184 and they can explain the gear and process behind this style of mixing.