Mixing Inside The Box (ITB) Tips For Audio Engineers

When I was running my recording studio in Toronto in the late 90s, I had a large analogue console with many synths/rack instruments, outboard preamps, effects units and compressors. I knew my gear inside out and I could get a great mix really quickly and easily.  The only recall or automation I had were the audio/midi tracks in Cubase. But since everything was outputted to the console, I would have to take plenty of elaborate notes (effects settings, fader levels, eq settings, compression settings, etc.). I used midi controls to keep track of patches for all my controllable units (synths, effects units), but that was about it. If clients came back to request a change on a track, it was a little tedious to get the mix to where it was. But in the end, it was a great way to work and the results were always fantastic. 

I later sold my studio and moved to LA. I purchased a top of the line Pro Tools HD3 system along with nice preamps, expensive microphones and other outboard gear.  At the heart of the studio, I had a Control 24 (which is basically a giant mouse and studio interface with the most horrendous Focusrite sounding preamps I’ve ever heard (for that reason, it was only used as a control surface and for the monitor/talkback section).

I learned Pro Tools and began mixing with a few of my own sessions.  Things didn’t seem to sound right to my ears.  My mixes back home were fuller, louder, more in your face and warmer.  With mixing inside Pro Tools, I was getting inferior results.  But how could this be? I had spent well over $100,000 on my new studio. Something wasn’t right. I began mixing like a man possessed, and after much trial and error, I was getting awesome mixes, completely inside the box.

Here is what I learned:

Warm On The Way In

If you can warm up your signal on the way to your DAW, do it. Maybe run your vocal through a tube preamp, or a guitar through an analog compressor or eq. A lot of the times, getting a nice fat and warm signal will make your job a lot easier when it comes to mixing. If you have an old, vintage mixer with character, run a live drum kit through it before it hits your interface. Try different things and see if it enhances your raw audio tracks. The subtle and pleasing analog distortion that such gear adds to your signal will help your audio tracks settle into your mix a lot easier.

(Many times, even a cheap tube preamp like the Art Pro MPA II can enhance your tracks)

ART Pro MPA II tube preamp

Add Distortion And Tape Saturation

When you are mixing, try to add subtle amounts of either tube distortion or tape saturation plug-ins on many of your tracks (vocals, guitars, bass, individual drum tracks, drum busses, etc).  By adding such artifacts, you will start to get a fuller, more aggressive mix, similar to what you are used to hearing on an analogue console. 

(Cubase 7 has built in tape and tube saturation as a part of their channel strip. It’s available on every channel, and very handy when mixing.)

Cubase 7 tape saturation plugin

Parallel Processing

Mixing on analogue, I found that I did not need to resort to parallel processing tracks too often. But in the digital world, it’s a necessity. With what ever DAW you are using (Pro Tools, Cubase, Reaper, Sonar, etc), try parallel processing individual kicks and snares, lead vocals, bass, and any other instrument or track that you want to stand out.  In case you don’t know, parallel processing is basically when you take a track and process it differently on 2 channels. You can either take an existing track and send it to an additional mixing bus, or just duplicate a track and treat it differently with eq, compassion or other effects.  Let’s say you have 2 tracks of the same kick. On the first track, you might add a little eq to boost the low end and a hint of compression (2:1 ratio).  On the second track, you might eq the mids more aggressively to make them stand out, and you can compress the track on a higher ratio, with a different plugin (maybe with an 1176 compressor plugin for more character). You would then mix the two tracks together until you are happy with the results.  Try this technique on various tracks and you’ll be surprised by the results.  You’ll be on your way to getting a fuller, and dare we say, “a more analogue sound”. 

(Reason 7 has a great new feature for parallel processing. You can select a channel and right click it to create an instant parallel channel. The only flaw with Reason is that there is no automatic delay compensation. It’s great if you use the built in eq or compressor in the channel strip, but if you introduce a plugin (combinator or rack extension plugin), you may run into phase issues).

Propellerhead reason 7 mixer parallel processing

Levels

Unlike an analogue console where you can drive your signals into the red for subtle distortion effects, you can’t do this in your DAW. You will get digital clipping which will harm your mix (you’ll get a small sounding distorted mix, so don’t do it).  

(Harrison Mixbus has a great feature built into it’s DAW console, the K-meter. You can glance at it and know that you are working in the right range without clipping.)

Harrison mixbus k meter

Conclusion

These are the main things to look out for when mixing ITB.  All the other general rules and techniques when mixing on an analogue console apply to the DAW mixer.  Clean up your tracks with a low cut eq filter, and don’t muddy up your mix with over abused reverbs and effects. Focus on getting a cohesive mix that a listener can appreciate. Just because you have 1000 plugins, does not mean you have to use them all on a mix. Some of the greatest, classic recordings where mixed with no automation, on no more than 24 tracks, and with 1-2 reverb units. 

 

 

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