That’s it… I’m going digital! (Why I’m ‘ditiching’ analog and fully embracing digital audio)

To be fair, I have really always been digital. I started recording by plugging my bass into a Boss distortion pedal (fondly named ‘Captain Crunch’) and that into the line-in on the back of an old Mac. It sounded terrible, but that’s where I got my start. Now I have professional equipment, both digital and analog. There are pluses and minuses to each, and quality good sounding gear is available in abundance for both types. However, there is something a bit more fun to the analog world.

Generally, I’ve strived for a ‘hybrid’ approach. I have a Soundtracs Topaz mixing board that I use for mic preamps and EQ before converting to digital audio and multitrack recording on a computer. It’s basically the old analog workflow except I replaced a tape machine with an analog to digital audio interface and a computer. The idea is to then do any editing on the computer and add any effects, then run everything back out to the analog mixer to build a final stereo mix. That last step has never really happened. I don’t have enough analog effects to really do much other than basic EQ and setting volume. Even though I have been mixing ‘in-the-box’, I’ve still always imagined and planned my studio and gear with a hybrid approach. 

 The majority of my paying gigs have always been live recording. For that the smaller, lighter, and less gear I have to take with me, the better. An analog compressor will take up likely a whole space in my rack and weigh a number of pounds. A digital plugin compressor, only takes up an unnoticeable amount of hard drive space once, but can be used an unlimited amount of times simultaneously. Generally, it’s also cheaper to buy a good sounding quality plug-in than it is to buy it’s analog counter part.

Now, I still WANT the analog gear. It looks cool to have racked up. I like plugging things together and adjusting knobs and seeing the lights blink in rhythm with the music. It’s just not the same to see a graphic representation on a computer screen. For my true needs, though, software is much more efficient and effective.

So I am finally fully embracing the convenience and cost effectiveness of digital. It’s more of a mindset, really. I’ve pretty much been fully digital, anyways. I’m actually a little relieved to not be striving for things that just aren’t currently the right fit for me. I would still love to someday get nice hardware compressors and EQs and mix on my board. For now, I’m going to just go with what makes sense.

Mixing Music is a Performance

Something I have learned in recent years is that mixing music is a performance. Through interviews with engineers in TapeOp, on Pensado’s Place, and watching people run live sound, I’ve come to understand that mixing is much more than just setting the initial levels and letting it go. Balancing the different sounds throughout a performance is an art and just as much of a performance as playing in the band.

One particular event that really inspired me to view mixing as a performance happened when I was working for Premier Guitar. I was on an assignment to film a Rig Rundown interview with Steve Stevens, the guitar player for Billy Idol. After the interview, we stuck around to hear the first few songs of the concert before making the trek back home.

It was an outdoor show and I remember being really impressed with how great the sound was. Everything was very clear, had a lot of meat and punch to the sound without being muddy or harsh. After a couple songs I decided to go and stand by the front of house sound engineer. Watching him mix, and hearing the great sound he was making really inspired me.

The main thing I noticed was he seemed to be constantly moving faders. They weren’t drastic moves but they were effective. Not watching the sound board you’d just hear the music and know that it felt right, not realizing how much work he was doing. Between vocal passages he’d turn the guitar up just a bit, and then back down when the vocal came back in. To give a bit of a lift to the song, he’d bump up the bass guitar for more power and energy. Verses, drop everything down just a touch and back up for the chorus.

The broad strokes were made by the band and the initial dialing in of each sound. Then the FOH mixer took a tiny brush and painted on the small details, highlights, and shadows. Those small changes, made a huge difference. His performance contributed a lot, and made the emotional impact of that songs much more effective.

Live at the millHaving just recently recorded and mixed a concert that was broadcast live, it really got me thinking about this. I found that constantly making small changes throughout the night made a big difference. When a horn player would take a solo, I’d of course turn up their mic a bit, but also maybe turn down the keyboard or guitar. The mix would have sounded okay had I not made as many adjustments, you’d still hear everything just fine. However, thinking of my mixing as a performance made a huge difference. I got a number of compliments on the quality of the broadcast sound from people who’s opinions in this case really mattered. That’s always a good sign that you’re doing it right.

Laptop rigPlus, it’s more fun to move and flow with the music. It was a little difficult, due to being on a laptop and not having actual physical faders to move. I can see why so many people enjoy mixing on large consoles or using a control surface. You’d easily be able to put in a full performance when you can quickly make small changes to multiple channels at the same time.

I enjoyed the job more than usual just because of my approach to mixing, and on top of that, it seems to have improved my mix quality as well. It has actually inspired me to try seeking out more live mixing and recording opportunities. So hopefully you’ll be hearing more from me soon!