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Thinking Inside The Box, Part Three – Mixing “ITB” Is Actually Better

by Simon Langford on August 11, 2010 · 0 comments

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

In the earlier parts of this series, I discussed the ways in which people can replicate the experience of working on a bigger mixing desk.

For many people, mixing in the box is the only practical option. But just because it’s the only option doesn’t mean you have to settle. In fact, mixing in the box is preferable in some cases, even if you do have access to a large console!  I know that might sound controversial, but here are my reasons for saying that.

Total Recall
If we put aside the issue of the actual sound and just look at the workflow, then the benefits of ITB mixing immediately become obvious.  The first and most obvious benefit is the “total recall” aspect.  If, at any point in the future, you need to make a change to one of your tracks, you simply load up the project in your DAW and a minute or two later there it is, exactly as you last heard it.  Try doing that in a bigger studio with outboard equipment and a large console!  This ability to make small changes quickly and easily is crucially important, especially if your clients want changes made after you’ve mixed tracks down.

Also, if you have used submix buses in your setup, there are huge benefits to be found there. Not only can you further process those tracks routed through any particular bus, but it also makes the process of creating stems that much easier.

For those of you that don’t know, stems are groups of related sounds mixed together. Record companies often ask for the delivery of “stems” as well as the final masters because this enables broad changes to be made to the mix further down the line. Think of stems as halfway between the final master stereo mix and bounces/exports of every individual track. Of course, exporting every track individually provides the most flexibility, but it does so at the cost of being harder to work with and more time consuming.

Using submix buses helps with this because the way most people set up their buses naturally corresponds to the “stems” they need to create.  For example, in my standard “autoload” Logic project I have the following “submix” buses setup:

  • Kick (routed to “Drums” bus)
  • Loops & Percussion (to “Drums” bus)
  • Cymbals and “EFX” (to “Drums” bus)
  • Drums (routed to “Instrumental” bus)
  • Bass (to “Instrumental” bus)
  • Pads (to “Instrumental” bus)
  • Arpeggios (to “Instrumental” bus)
  • Leads (to “Instrumental” bus)
  • Guitar (to “Instrumental” bu
  • Keyboards (to “Instrumental” bus)
  • “Others” (to “Instrumental” bus)
  • Instrumental (routed to Main Outputs)
  • Main Vocal (routed to “Vocal” bus)
  • Vocal FX1 (to “Vocal” bus)
  • Vocal FX2 (to “Vocal” bus)
  • Vocal FX3 (to “Vocal” bus)
  • Vocal FX4 (to “Vocal” bus)
  • Vocals (routed to Main Outputs)
  • Main Outputs

That might seem like quite a lot, but it also covers all the bases and gives me maximum flexibility.  Occasionally I might add extra submix buses in there (a “Drums Parallel Compression” bus, for example) but that always serves as a good starting point.  So when it comes time to create the “stems” I simply solo each “submix” bus in sequence and bounce the output.  Simple!

So the practical advantages of mixing ITB are more than evident but now let’s go back and put back into the equation the issue of the sound of ITB mixes.

Sound Thinking
Many people believe that ITB mixes can never sound as good as a mix done through a large-format console, and they can be very vocal about their opinion. I concede that this may have been true a few years ago, but technology these days really goes a long way towards eradicating any differences.

Last time, we looked at some plugins that add a little bit of that analogue “mojo,” and they were the tip of a growing iceberg. Today, there are plug-ins which can emulate the sound of particular “channel strip” (convincingly, too!).  There is still some hot debate about the whole “summing” issue so we can even bypass that to a great degree by using an analogue summing box to make the final stage of the “mixdown” that little bit more analogue.

There is still something to be said for working in a bigger studio, but by and large, that something is the acoustics. A studio that is equipped with an SLL or a Neve console is also likely to have been well-designed acoustically and have top-quality monitoring, and that is one area where most project studios will inevitably fall short. If I had the chance to work in a larger studio, I think I would still prefer to mix ITB for all of the reasons that we have discussed in the last few articles.

With all of the benefits and very few limitations I honestly feel that more and more tracks will be mixed ITB in the future. Music technology is always changing and this particular change has meant great things for the home and project studio owner. The future has never been brighter!

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