Over the last few years, hybrid mixing has exploded in popularity. More and more engineers are making the switch to hybrid systems to utilize the best of both worlds, combining the unmistakable sound of analog recording equipment with the lightning-fast workflow of digital audio systems.
New tools like the SSL Origin, Neve 8424, and Avid Pro Tools MTRX Studio are making it easier than ever for engineers to integrate their analog and digital workflows with versatile I/O, monitoring, and routing solutions. Whether you prefer the tactile response of a console or the familiar feel of a mouse and keyboard, these powerful tools are changing the way we mix.
We checked in with some of our favorite engineers and producers in the industry to see how they’re using hybrid mixing systems in 2020. Read on to learn how Chris Tabron, Elton “L10MixedIt” Chueng, Miles Walker, Jenn Decilveo, Nick Breton, Maria Elisa Ayerbe, and Chris Coady are using hybrid mixing systems to speed up and enhance their workflows.
Why do you prefer a hybrid set-up over pure analog or digital?
Chris Tabron (Beyoncé / Nicki Minaj / The Strokes): My hybrid mixing set-up gives me the most flexibility to respond to the source material I’m mixing. It cuts down on the little roadblocks that can slow down the creative process. I get to keep the speed of digital and the tactility of analog.
Elton “L10MixedIt” Chueng (Chance The Rapper / Noname / Smino): It’s all about the sound and characteristics for me. I love being able to use different tones, textures, and colors. A hybrid set-up simply gives me the luxury of having options to explore.
Miles Walker (Rihanna / Katy Perry / Jeezy): I honestly prefer the hybrid because I’m able to get the best of both worlds. I have the headroom and tone of my favorite analog pieces, and the ability to drive them and get that fantastic color and image of a stereo analog bus. But with modern workflows and changes happening on songs right up to the release time, the recall-ablity and flexibility of routing with digital can’t be beat. Plus, there are some amazing plug-ins in the game right now. I love to be able to take advantage of all of it.
Jenn Decilveo (Hinds / Bat For Lashes / Anne-Marie): I prefer a hybrid mixing set-up because it gives me the flexibility I need to integrate my favorite synths and outboard gear.
Nick Breton (SZA / Joey Bada$$ / Dom Kennedy): The main reasons I prefer a hybrid system is the efficiency and the low cost of equipment maintenance and data storage. I've run an entirely digital system in the past and I was always chasing a certain sound but couldn't achieve it. My main issue was with stereo width and depth. I wasn't getting my mixes close enough to the best mixing engineers in the business. I believe I am now with my hybrid rig.
Being in charge of a busy studio, I have to be mindful of what everyone needs. With only one room and no assistants, I'm always reviewing my workflow for improvements and efficiency. Although I still have some expenses with my digital gear, for the most part, it’s very low cost to maintain. The equivalent servicing of each piece of my analog gear is much more difficult and expensive.
Lastly, storing files on tape is a huge expense because of the cost of tape and the physical storage size they require. For all these reasons, I see no other option than to have a hybrid system.
Maria Elisa Ayerbe (Laura Pausini / Paula Arenas / Mau y Ricky): Hybrid mixing gives me the best of both worlds; the color and tone of analog equipment with the flexibility of digital technology. It allows me to mix and match different sounds to taste.
Chris Coady (Beach House / Yeah Yeah Yeahs / TV On The Radio): I love all three ways of mixing and choose my approach on a case-by-case basis for each project depending on the music. There is a beauty and a depth to mixing on an analog console that is undeniable. Mixing entirely digital gives a punch and an immediacy that you can’t get on an analog console no matter how hard you try. I find mixing on a hybrid set-up, which I use 75% of the time, is a happy medium between these two great sounds.
Do you use a mixing console, a control surface, or work in-the-box?
CT: I use a Dangerous Music 2-Bus+ summing amp. Sometimes if I'm working at a different facility that has a console, I might mix it on the desk, but that depends on a number of factors. Typically, if I produced and recorded something on the desk, I’ll mix it there too—or at the very least get a comprehensive rough mix going.
Then, I’ll have my assistant print comprehensive stems through the desk so I can take it back to my studio and make tweaks down the road if necessary. I have a control surface, the Avid Artist Mix, and I use that even when I’m mixing strictly in the box because it makes automation moves a lot easier to handle.
EC: I mix and master through an SSL Sigma analog summing box to give me a more detailed stereo spectrum to work with. That’s the sound I’ve been chasing for so long. The detail, the space, everything just sounds great.
MW: I actually use SPL Mix Dream summing mixers. I have three linked together to create a 48-channel summing workflow. I don’t use a control surface with it, mostly just for real estate because I haven’t seen a single or eight-fader option that covers what I would want. The new Avid S1 line might get my interest, but for now I’m just using a mouse.
JD: I run all of my equipment through two Universal Audio Apollo X8Ps, but when it comes to mixing I'm all in-the-box. I use a lot of Universal Audio plug-ins. I love throwing weird preamps or EQs or compressors on things I typically wouldn’t since I have them at my disposal. It helps me get sounds to a place that I normally wouldn’t be able to get to without that kind of gear.
NB: I work in-the-box and have an analog signal chain that I use to process the final two-tracks through before recording them back into Pro Tools. I've never owned a large format console, many big-name mix engineers prefer the SSLs and one day I'll have to rent a room to see what I'm missing out on.
I've had a few different control surfaces; Control 24, Jazzmutant Lemurs, Avid Mix and Control units, but I sold them. I've been getting more and more creative with automation, especially since clip gain game out. I love the feeling of riding faders, but since I'm usually tracking what I mix, I will do that on the way in via the output knob on the Neve and gain on the LA-2A or CL 1B.
MEA: I mainly work in-the-box and mix through a summing console at the moment, although I’ve had several set-ups in the past.
CC: I mostly mix with a trackball. For vocal rides and things like that the trackball serves as a fader when you put the automation into write mode. Sometimes I’ll go through phases where I’ll do all the fades live with a control surface just for fun. If I'm mixing on a console I’ll opt to use the console automation system because it sounds better.
What are some of your favorite pieces of analog gear that you can't live without?
CT: I’m constantly evaluating the gear that I have and doing a self-check to make sure I am using it, otherwise I’ll sell it. So when I set up my patch bay for an album, anything that hasn’t been used for a while is on the chopping block. If it’s in the rack, I use it all the time.
That said, I’ve really been diving deeper into the Undertone Audio UnFairchild 670M II. I’ve had it for a while now, but I’m still exploring ways of using it and how versatile a box Eric Valentine made. Also, the Elektron Analog Heat MK II is a really inspired piece of gear and I find myself relying on it when I’m stuck figuring out how to get some little details to shine in a dense mix.
Finally, I’ve got a pair of vintage Neve 1073s that I had you guys rack up for me that has been surprisingly good across lead vocal or drums bus; no eq, just going through the transformers. I put those on early in the mix and make my other tonal decisions through those. Speaking of decisions, I’d be remiss in not mentioning my PMC IB2-SAs monitors. I wouldn’t want to make any mixing decisions without them or my Lynx Hilo DAC.
MW: Aside from my SPL Mix Dream summing mixers, I have a couple. I really love the SPL IRON on the full stereo bus. Even without the compression, it does some tube-y goodness that just sounds really nice. I also like the Maag EQ4M. It’s such a nice lift and I love the stepped function on it.
JD: I love my Prophet-6. The presets sound exceptional, which gives you a great place to start. Plus, I record everything live through pedals and amps, and the Prophet-6 is really flexible in terms of connections. I also have a Neve 1073, an LA-2A, and a 6176.
NB: Some of my favorite pieces specifically for mixing are the Kush Audio MS EQ, Dangerous Music BAX EQ, and BURL B2 Bomber ADC. I've had to stop myself from spending money on gear as it's become quite addicting. I have a number of pieces I'm keeping an eye on for future purchases. I'm talking to Marshall/Terry Audio about a demo for the CEQ. I'm also very interested in Gyraf Audio gear thanks to my friend Felix in Germany.
MEA: The Dangerous 2-Bus has been a constant for me in recent years. It provides a sense of warmth, punch, and depth that I love. It’s a piece of gear that ultimately ends up being the "cherry on top of the pie" for a lot of my mixes. It's also really nice to have an old tape machine lying around to play with. I have a 70s Akai reel-to-reel machine for that.
CC: For mixing, I use a lot of tube gear like Highland Dynamics BG2 compressors and the Manley Labs Vari Mu. I love the Pulse Techniques EQP-1A3 EQs. I’m also still using the ADR Compex and Federal compressors for parallel compression even in the box. For mixing, I tend to prefer silver 1176 compressors over the black ones, except for on bass.
How does mixing with a hybrid set-up streamline your workflow?
CT: When I think about what gear I’m going to patch for an album, I’m thinking in terms of what tonal colors I want and what my limitations for hardware inserts are, which is 24 in my case. Once those decisions are made, I bounce around a few songs to get the breadth of what the album sounds like and I find my spots on the analog gear that I’m generally going to have everything set at.
This way, I don’t have to change the threshold of compressors while I’m in the middle of mixing. I can just put a trim plugin before the hardware insert in Pro Tools to control the amount of gain reduction there. It cuts down on recall times and human error and also makes me think in broad strokes of how to get an album to cohesively sound like one piece of artistic gesture.
For some of my more touchy gear, like the AMS RMX16, I’ll print a version of it right away before I send a mix off. That way if something happens, I’ve got some breadcrumbs to get me back to where I was. The great thing about hybrid is that I can stop thinking about minutiae and I can keep responding to the music.
On the digital side of things, I’m a big fan of automation, not just volume, but automating lots of parameters of a plugin. It’s something that I often use to shift energy or focus during a song. Plugins have come such a long way with companies like FabFilter, Acoustica Audio, and Plugin Alliance really embracing the digital domain and innovating.
MW: Recall is a big help. If there’s another version of a song or a new feature added, it’s great to not have to recall a whole bunch of faders and channels. I can keep the routing the same from the DAW session and it’ll all feed to the summing mixers. I can make updates and jump from song to song, all of which may have different arrangements and parts, but I don’t have to recall the desk for level or routing since it’s all planned ahead when building each session.
JD: Mixing with a hybrid set-up allows me to make endless edits, which really streamlines my workflow when I'm creating.
NB: The main ways it streamlines my workflow is when I’m editing audio files and exporting or transferring songs. It's unbelievable how easy it is to edit digital audio. If you want to comp a verse on analog tape the same way you do it digitally it would take 10 to 20 times as long. Some edits aren't even possible to replicate. With transferring songs, I can send an entire album over the internet to anyone anywhere in the world within a few hours. That in itself rules out full analog for me. My clients don't own equipment to play back a two-inch reel.
MEA: Hybrid mixing provides a much faster and flexible set-up. Recalls became a thing of the past and most clients nowadays prioritize time over quality. Whether we, audio engineers, agree with that or not is a topic for another debate, but a hybrid set-up definitely reduces turn-around times. Also, it allows us to get more creative as possibilities are not restricted to fixed choices, like when mixing strictly on an analog set-up.
CC: The biggest advantage is being able to keep the analog gear and summing and still being able to jump between songs. That way, while people are listening and coming up with notes and changes for the last song, I can be working on the next one. Some artists like to do many rounds of changes to find a balance that they're looking for. This could take a bit of trial and error and several rounds of notes. With the hybrid set-up, I just restore the patch and the settings on the equipment and we’re back to where we were. It's not quite as fast as loading a digital mix file, but it's the next fastest way.
How has your set-up evolved over the last few years since making the switch to a hybrid set-up?
CT: The biggest evolution that I’ve noticed in my working set-up has been that I’m able to slowly refine and polish my way of working to keep it efficient and fun. When you’ve got the best of two different worlds, you open up the space for experimentation, playfulness, and just having a good time doing what you love.
I know young engineers who are just starting out with one decent compressor and a two-channel interface, and they’re constantly printing things in and out of the box on different tracks. But hey, that’s hybrid, too! I’ve realized more and more that whatever set-up keeps you inspired, that’s the best set-up for you.
EC: I’ve mixed in-the-box for most of my career, however I’ve been fortunate enough to make the jump to incorporate more analog equipment into my set-up this past year. It’s really helped me create my own distinct sound and help the artists I work with compete on the charts. That’s all I ever wanted.
MW: The biggest evolution came from wanting more summing! I started with one SPL Mix Dream, but I wanted to be able to do drum bus compression and still have multitrack breakouts for each drum part. So, I added one more to be able to keep that in place. Then I added another SPL Mix Dream for the same reason on the vocal bus. Keeping the stems separate for delivery is important for my clients.
JD: My set-up hasn't changed all that much, I just keep adding more analog synths!
NB: I've been building my set-up for 15 years. I've demoed and purchased so many different pieces of gear and done shoot outs at my studio to determine what I'm keeping and what I want to return or re-sell. I've evolved my mic collection, my preamp collection, my compressor collection, my eq collection, my computer, my DAW, third party plug-in software, but the most important part is my understanding of all of that equipment and how to use it for my own personal taste and style. All of those components play a major role in the equation and I'm always looking for ways to evolve and grow.
MEA: When I began mixing, I was entirely in-the-box. Then I moved to an analog console-based hybrid set-up. I briefly had an analog set-up, then went back to a hybrid set up. Now I'm back in-the-box, with a touch of analog gear. These changes have mainly happened as I have moved to different cities or countries of residence. However, a few years ago I decided to move my mixing room to my home, obviously completely unaware that in 2020 we would need to quarantine at our places!
Knowing that this will eventually become our new normal, I am already looking into being more efficient and straightforward with my set-up. At home, you don't necessarily have control over the quality of the power you feed your analog gear with. You also have electrical hum, interference, and grounding issues to deal with. So then you wonder if you really need that piece of gear so much... Adapting is key in our industry.
CC: I really haven’t changed it much. The way its configured here gives me a lot of flexibility and I’m still really happy with it. Before I got this system I mixed almost exclusively on SSL G and E series consoles. I think once I get something that works, I stick with it. The music coming through here is what changes the most.