Thinking Inside The Box, Part One – Replicating A Traditional Mixer Inside Your DAW

Welcome to the latest installment of Production Tips, our new monthly feature offering, well, production tips, hosted by Simon Langford.

Mixing “In The Box” (or ITB) is something that has only really become possible in the last few years. But thanks to recent developments in technology, a real paradigm shift has occurred, and more and more people are obtaining amazing results from mixing their tracks in a home or “project” studio.

Many still feel that a big studio with a nice big desk would improve the quality of their mixing, but it is now easier than ever before to have your DAW function and actually sound like a big mixing desk, and my next three posts will be devoted to showing you how to make this happen.

In this post, we will look at replicating the form and function of a “traditional” mixer inside your DAW and how you can change your workflow to be more like working on a big desk.

Channel Strips

Anybody who has ever used, or even seen, a traditional mixing desk will be familiar with the layout. There are a series of channels, each with the same controls which may include EQ, dynamics, channel inserts, effects sends, bus assign switches, and level and pan controls. Most of you will already be familiar with this because it is already present in your DAW. But we can make them look and feel (and even sound) closer by using “channel strip” plug-ins, which provide a simple and easy to use replication of the channel strip controls on a normal desk. Some of these are modeled on specific hardware (such as the truly excellent Neve 88RS Channel Strip plug-in from UAD), whereas others just aim to give a warm, vintage character (another favorite of mine is the URS Classic Console Strip Pro).

If you use the same “channel strip” plug-in as the first insert on each channel, then not only will you start to get a bit of vintage character, but you will also find yourself working in the way that you would on a real mixing desk. Yes, the EQ may not be as flexible as your latest and greatest EQ plug-in (and the same goes with the compressor), but part of the beauty of mixing on a real desk is that you are limited, and in many ways, once you have adapted to the new way of working, it can actually work in your favor. If you really do need more precise and surgical EQ on a particular sound, then you can always add in another EQ after the channel strip anyway.

Using “Sends” vs. Using “Inserts”
In these days of super-powerful computers, we can use pretty much as many plug-ins as we desire. As a result it is oh-so-easy to use a delay effect as an insert on a particular channel, and then just insert another on a different channel, perhaps even using the same settings.

But on a real desk, while you do have channel inserts, all studios have a finite number of outboard processors (some more than others!) and probably would only have a few delay or reverb units available. Using them as inserts only gives you a few channels’ worth. As such, most tracks mixed on a desk tend to have things like reverb and delay as “send” effects to allow them to be used on a number of different channels at once.

Doing this inside your DAW doesn’t require any special setup or software, but it will require a shift in thinking. I use my “autoload” song in Logic as a template with six “send” buses: three delays (quarter note and eight note “tape delay” and a nice “stereo delay”) and three reverbs (long hall, long plate and short plate). Of course I can change these or add to these later, but I always try to use “send” effects for reverb or delay unless it is a specialized reverb or delay that I will only want on one channel.

Submix Buses
Submix buses are also a part of many medium to large mixing desks, and they can be used to group together related sounds to be able to control them (or apply further processing) to all of the sounds assigned to them at once. DAW submix buses are far more flexible than those on a normal desk because there are often far more of them. You can also route from one submix bus into another should you so desire.

It’s common to assign all of your drum sounds to one bus, bass sounds to another, guitars to another, and so on. By doing this you can not only apply further effects to each group of sounds as a whole (for example, adding a little more top end to all of your “pad” sounds at once) but it also allows you to make broad changes to your mix very easily without upsetting the balance of the individual sounds in each “group”.

Control Surfaces
There are quite a few different control surfaces on the market now. At the higher end of the market, we have the Mackie Control Universal Pro and Euphonix MC Mix and MC Control, and at the lower end are the Behringer BCF2000 and even the Korg nanoKONTROL. By adding one of these devices to your setup you can even more closely mimic the feel of working on a large mixing desk. Of course, with each of these devices, you are limited in terms of the number of faders that you have, but they all provide a way of switching between “banks” so that the limited number of faders can be used to control an unlimited number of tracks (or submix buses!)

Summary
If you have read through this and feel that what I’m describing actually reduces your flexibility when compared to how you normally work, then you might well be…correct! But as I mentioned earlier, having unlimited channels and unlimited plugins available might sound great, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is. Having the same compression and EQ (from the channel strip) on each channel and using relatively few reverbs and delays (but applying them to multiple sounds at once) will actually help to focus the sound of what you are making. It will also make it feel like it “gels” a little more.

Next time we will look at analogue summing vs. digital summing but until then, have fun rigging up your own virtual desk setup in your DAW.