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Monday, May 14, 2007

Getting Rid Of Your Mixing Board

A mixing console — it has always been on the list of necessary equipment for the contemporary composer who wants to have his or her own personal studio. Pretty much required for the job. Yet, in recent years, changes and improvements in available technology have begun to render this once-essential peace of equipment optional, if not entirely obsolete.

What has changed? In a word, computers. These days, the host sequencer & audio software and hardware that composers depend on — Digital Performer, Logic, Cubase, and others, and of course the ubiquitous Pro Tools — all include full-featured mixing functionality. Is a separate hardware mixing board really no longer necessary for the well-equipped composer? Recently I interviewed a baker's dozen working composers, all SCL members, to get their perspective on this question.

Not surprisingly, the answers I received varied widely, as did the degree of sophistication of their rigs, and their approach to technology. I was astonished at the complexity of the setups that some are working with, yet others have been successful and made effective music with much simpler sets of tools. All had in common that they need their equipment to be understandable, reliable, and have sufficient "headroom", in terms of capability, to help them achieve their creative goals, meet deadlines, and not stand in their way. Each showed a pretty good level of technical sophistication and "studio chops".

Exploring the trend

The randomly-sampled group of composers I spoke with were split almost evenly between those who have said goodbye to a traditional mixing console, and those who still find using one to be an important part of their work flow or their "sound". And even among those that use one, most would admit to something of a hybrid approach, making use of computer plug-in effects, editing, and automation.

A common theme among those who go without a traditional mixing board is the integration of mixing into the composing process. Dean Grinsfelder reports, "I have found that by mixing 'inside the box' while I am composing a cue, I am able to produce music much more efficiently under a tight deadline. When I feel a cue is done, I hit 'record', commit it to disk, and I can move on. If the client has changes, I can instantly recall the mix, make the adjustments and print it. No 'tracking', no stemming, even no additional mastering (if I use bus mastering plug-ins as part of my standard template). For Main Title cues and larger orchestral cues (where I have recorded musicians), it usually pays off to 'stem out' the MIDI and go through a more traditional mixing process."

And there's no disputing that using only the computer for mixing can result in a setup that is simpler as well as economical. Composer John Graham sees as advantages "no mixer, no cables, no word clock, no space taken up, no money!"

Composer Alex Wurman is among those who defend sticking with the mixer. "I contemplated [going without] for the ease of it, but to my ears the sound is better if you don't ask Pro Tools to do all the busing in its DSP. Instead, spread things out into a mixer and use the power it has to offer." He uses Yamaha DM-2000 digital mixers. Ray Colcord, who uses an analog mixer, also mentioned the sound: "I think when all your tracks are in the computer and they all go through the same processing you lose breadth and depth. I like analog signal paths going through the Euphonix. It sounds fat and wide to my ears."

Some composers also cited the convenience factor. Greg O'Connor, who also uses a DM-2000: "I realized that I change templates and setups constantly since the nature of the shows I do seem to vary from cue to cue stylistically. So to load a sequence every time I change cues would take too long and slow down my work flow if I went 'totally virtual.'"

Typical of the "hybrid" approach is Ron Grant: "I still use my mixing board for a rough mix with EQ & reverb to quickly get on the 'playing field' of the mix without a host of plug-ins and automated levels. I use computer automation for the fine details and the final mix while still going through the board." And Miriam Cutler, while doing most balancing and effects in the computer, still likes the tactile approach and proven reliability of a 'real' mixer: "I just can't let go of those faders and visual aids. I started recording in the 1970's and so it was very hard to let go of my analog roots — and fear of the sound being cold." And David Schwartz: "I feel I have a lot more power and control with my hybrid system. The advantage of complete recall in an in-the-box system does not outweigh the power of having consoles for me."

Let's talk hardware

So how does it work when you eliminate the mixing board? First of all, regardless of software brand, your computer is going to need some specialized audio hardware, in order to connect to external sound sources in your studio, such as synthesizers and samplers. Even though all those synth boxes with rack screws in the corners are gradually being replaced by onboard soft synths, most have at least a few, as well as Gigastudio computers and so forth.

Audio input/output hardware can basically be divided into two categories, those that have their own circuitry for DSP sound processing and mixing, i.e. Pro Tools HD, and those that depend on the computer's processor for all audio DSP (referred to as "native" processing). This type of hardware is available in a number of brands, but the market is dominated by Mark of the Unicorn's PCI Audio and Firewire products (2408 MkIII, 24I/O, Traveler, etc.). (All of these products are suitable both for Macintosh and Windows computers.)

The first distinction between these two product categories is financial — a Pro Tools HD system of hardware and software tends to be substantially more expensive then the "native" (MOTU, etc.) type. Just to review, Pro Tools hardware can be used with any software (Logic, Digital Performer, etc.), but Pro Tools software must have Pro Tools hardware. MOTU or other native type audio converters, whether PCI-card or firewire-based, can be used with almost any software except for Pro Tools.

Regardless of brand, you'll need some way to get sound sources, digital or analog, into your main computer, and also to get sound out of it, for speakers, headphones, external devices, etc. This is in addition to separate converter hardware for MIDI and video. The more audio I/O sources you have, the more boxes you will need; most systems can accommodate several.

So what do you get when you pay the big bucks for Pro Tools? Potentially much more DSP processing power, which you may or may not need, depending upon the size and complexity of your system. Each soft synth, plug-in reverb or other device, automated mix, audio track, and video movie, requires a certain amount of processor power. If your computer is relatively new and powerful, with plenty of memory, you will get quite a lot to work successfully in a native system.

In some cases, multiple computers can help take up the slack in a DSP-hungry system. Composer Carl Johnson: "I use a G5 running DP as my main sequencer, with lots of soft synths; a separate one also running DP for video and to lay down mixes, and a third G4 just as a host for Altiverb plugin surround reverbs." Although it's gotten to be a complex system, he's relatively satisfied with it this way, and is not considering Pro Tools at this time.

Latency delay is a problem which bothers composers to varying degrees. When a "native"-hardware-equipped computer system receives an incoming audio signal from an external source such as a synth/sampler or microphone, there can be, depending on the buffer setting in the software, fairly substantial delay, up to several tenths of a second. There are ways to work around this, including MOTU's "CueMix Console" software, but that's not a perfect solution, and one must be tolerant of a bit more complicated (and sometimes confusing) signal flow. (For a detailed explanation of how to use "CueMix Console", please see the two articles on this blog page, "Beat Monitoring Latency with MOTU Cuemix, parts 1 and 2"; click in the right-hand column.) Users of "real" mixing boards, digital or analog, usually have fewer problems with latency; the same goes for Pro Tools.

Useful accessories

So, thinking about upgrading? Or perhaps you are just getting started and want to build the best system on a limited budget. If you are committed to going console-less, there are a few accessories that will smooth the way, beyond just the computer and its associated audio hardware:
  • Microphone preamp(s) — No more mixing board means no more built-in mic inputs. Unless you had an expensive mixer, those preamps were probably pretty wimpy anyway. You may want to invest in (or rent) a channel or two of premium preamps. There are many out there; an incomplete list of excellent models would include the Universal Audio 6176, Avalon VT737, as well as products by Millennia, Great River, Manley, and many more. I find models with a built-in analog compressor and simple EQ to be especially flexible and useful for all kinds of recording.
  • Monitor controller — It's handy to have some sort of dedicated device to control speaker volume, as well as route to headphones, and maybe select external alternate audio sources. Guess what else is missing when your board goes away? The talk-back button. These devices give you that as well. Good basic ones are the Mackie "Big Knob" and the Presonus "Central Station". If you need more complex features, such as surround monitoring, the Tascam DS-M7.1 is a solid choice.
  • Fader controller — When it comes to mixing, some get along fine by just using their mouse in the on-screen mixer page, but others find that having their hands on real faders gives more control and speeds up the work flow. Someone said, "Clicking on tiny pictures of faders to make a mix is a bit like clicking on a little picture of a keyboard to play a piano part. It can be done, but it may not be the best tool for the job." (Okay, it was me.) If that makes sense to you, there are good hardware controllers that work with all the settings and automation in your host sequencer software, communicating via MIDI, USB, or Ethernet. My favorite is the Mackie Control Universal. You can put it on a little roll-around stand and grab it when you need it. Other units are available from Tascam, M-Audio, and others, as well as Digidesign's Control-24 and other models (suitable for Pro Tools only).
What's right for you?

There are a lot of reasons to upgrade if you haven't done so recently: more instruments (or perhaps deleting some obsolete ones), the need for mix automation, surround mixing, the fact that 24-bit digital has become a standard (earlier-generation digital mixers may not keep up), plug-ins and soft synths, all-digital signal flow. Which way is the best choice, with or without a mixing board? Although opinions vary, here are some starting guidelines to consider:

Mixing board — you might be better off with a "real" mixer if you:
  • Do a lot of live instrumental tracking, especially with many microphones
  • See the mixing process as distinct from composing
  • Work collaboratively with a professional score mixing engineer
  • Are accustomed to "traditional" engineering techniques, or are just more comfortable having real faders, knobs, buttons, and meters
  • Have a large flow of work, and feel a larger-scale setup adds efficiency
  • Like to "daisy chain" mixes — that is, get all the track and balance settings for one piece of music and then apply them quickly to several more similar pieces (there's still no easy way to do this within computer software; the closest you can come is to save plug-in presets)
  • Already have a substantial investment in a good-quality mixer or other studio equipment
No mixing board — you might be a good candidate for mixing "in the box" if you:
  • Record only one or two live instruments at a time
  • Mix while you compose
  • Mostly work alone
  • Have a pretty good understanding of mixing signal flow, routing, effects, etc.
  • Have a high level of computer literacy
  • Have a tolerance for technical complexity within the software, including settings that may not be visible to the eye (Carl Johnson: "I seem to spend more time scratching my head, wondering 'How come I don't hear anything?'")
  • Need to get the most bang for your studio buck.
One way or the other, today's composers need sophisticated technical tools to do their jobs and be competitive, and there are more good products than ever before to fill the need, especially in computers. It's no longer always necessary to have a high budget for expensive studio hardware in order to produce music that's competitive sonically.

Special thanks to the composers who participated in research for this article, including Neil Argo, Michael Bross, Miriam Cutler, Ray Colcord, Craig Stuart Garfinkle, John Graham, Ron Grant, Dean Grinsfelder, Carl Johnson, Lennie Moore, Greg O'Connor, David Schwartz, and Alex Wurman.

This is not intended as an advertisement for any product. All products mentioned are trademarks of their various manufacturers. ©2007 by Les Brockmann

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