A perennial topic among YouTube audio production channels is whether analog is better than digital and whether or not it even makes a difference. While I’m a video editor and not a mixer, the music projects that I have been involved with have all been recorded analog. Of course, in the past 20 years audio has been increasingly recorded and mixed purely in the digital realm. Although, sometimes analog pieces of gear were used for character and color.
Produce Like A Pro is a YouTube channel that I follow. Music producer Warren Huart frequently features videos by Grammy-nominated producer/engineer/mixer Marc Daniel Nelson. Many of these videos include downloadable session tracks that enable you to remix the songs in order to learn from the process.
I found this particular video (linked) of Nelson’s intriguing, because it tackled the analog/digital debate head-on. It’s from an older session of his in which he recorded and mixed the song “Traveling Light” by artist S. Joel Norman. As he explains in the video, most of the instrument tracks were “multed” – i.e. the mic signals were split and simultaneously recorded to 2″ analog multitrack tape, as well as directly into Pro Tools. Once the tape tracks were also ingested into Pro Tools, they could compare and pick whichever sounded the best. According to his commentary, the instrument tracks that were recorded to tape were preferred over those recorded directly to Pro Tools for this song. This is in keeping with the soul/gospel/RnB vibe of the song.
Doing my own remix
Since I like to mix some of these tunes (a hobby and to learn), I downloaded the tracks, dropped them into Logic Pro, and compared. As I first listened to the soloed tracks, the digital versions sounded better to me – louder and more open. My intent originally was to mix in Logic using mainly the built-in plug-ins. Unfortunately as I started to build the mix, I had trouble getting the right sound, especially with drums. Drums are often one of the hardest parts of the mix to get right. It’s usually the largest number of mics with the most leakage. Getting a drum kit to sound right and not like someone is pounding on cardboard boxes can take a mix engineer a lot of time.
I decided to change my approach and wherever possible, switch over to the tracks recorded to tape. Instantly the mix started to fall into line. This is a classic case of what sounds great in solo might not sound as good in combination with the rest of the mix. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. This is why veteran mixers always caution beginners not to fixate too much on making each individual track sound perfect on its own.
Along with the decision to change my approach, I also abandoned the idea of doing the whole mix with Logic’s native plug-ins. Don’t get me wrong. The tools included with Logic Pro are quite good. Their compressor and vintage EQ options are designed to emulate certain models of sought-after, classic analog gear. They just don’t use the licensed branding. I did still use them, but more sparsely.
Tracks -> Stacks -> Submix -> Output
My standard track layout for these mixes is to combine each instrument group into a summing track stack (a bus) – drums, guitar, bass, keys, vocals, etc. I usually route all of these instrument stems (buses) to a submix bus, which in turn is sent to the output. This allows me to mix levels and add plug-ins/processing at three stages – the track, the track stack, and the final submix bus. I don’t add any processing to the output bus. Only metering plug-ins are applied there.
For this project, I decided to use a modified approach. All instrument stems were routed to a separate instruments bus (minus any vocals). Then the combination of instruments, vocals, and choir were routed to the submix bus. The advantage of this type of film/TV mixing style is that I could adjust all instruments as a group on a single channel and balance them as a unit against the vocals and choir.
In the past I used to rely on hardware faders, but I don’t own a control surface. I also used to write live automation passes with the mouse, but I’ve gone away from doing that, too. Instead, I surgically add and adjust keyframes throughout the individuals tracks, as well as the stems. Usually I will balance out the mix this way before ever adding plug-ins. Those are there to sweeten – not to do the heavy lifting.
Mixing with plug-ins and channel strips
My main effects tool for this mix was the Waves Scheps Omni Channel plug-in, which I applied to each track stack (instrument group). Andrew Scheps is a renowned mixer who has partnered with Waves to develop the Omni Channel. The advantage to a channel strip is that you have multiple effects tools (filters, compression, EQ, etc) at your fingertips all within a single interface. It mimics a channel strip on an analog console. No need to open multiple plug-in windows.
I also have both SSL and Focusrite channel strip plug-ins, but I prefer the Scheps version. Instead of simply designing just another SSL or Neve copy, Scheps was able to pick and choose the character of different products to create a channel strip that he would like to use himself. It sounds great, has a ton of presets, and unlike the name-brand emulations, the modules within the plug-in can be expanded and re-arranged. When applying it to instrument stacks, I can really develop the character that I want to hear.
No mix is ever finished after the first pass. When I compared my mix to the official mix that’s available on Spotify, I noticed some distinct differences. The artist’s version had some additional overdubbed instrumentation (strings and some embellishments) that I didn’t have in the download. They also chose to delay the start of the choir after the breakdown mid-song. These are all subjective choices based on taste. Of course, the release mix has also been professionally mastered, which can make a big difference.
What bothered me in my mix was the lack of a really present bottom end. This is often the difference in amateur versus pro mixes. A top-level mixer like Marc Daniel Nelson is certainly going to be way better at it than I am. In addition, he might be mixing in a hybrid fashion using Pro Tools along with key pieces of analog gear that really improve the sound and help to sculpt the sonic qualities of a song.
In an effort to increase and improve the bottom end, I decided to swap the kick drum tracks recorded to tape for the digital versions. I also dropped the bass amp track in favor of only using the bass DI track. The second thing was to use Logic’s vintage graphic EQ to boost the kick drum and bass low frequencies. This particular plug-in emulates an API console EQ and is a good choice for the low end.
In the modern era, live drum sounds are often replaced by drum samples. The samples are triggered by the live drums, so you still get the right feel and timing, but a better drum sound. Often a mixer will combine a bit of both. I don’t know whether or not that was done in the actual mix. I’m certainly not implying that it was. Nevertheless, this is a fairly common modern practice to get really killer drum kit mixes.
Dealing with recording reality
When you start playing with raw tracks, it’s inevitable that you’re going to listen to each in the solo mode. You quickly see that even the best recordings will have some wrinkles. For example, I don’t like when a singer or a voice-over artist takes huge breaths between phrases. At first, I tried to mitigate these with De-Breath plug-ins – first Accusonus and later iZotope RX. Both introduced some annoying artifacts that I could hear in the mix. So I decided on the old-school approach, simply adding keyframes and ducking the vocal track at each breath. In doing so – and paying very close attention to the vocal, I also realized that some sort of gate must have been used during the recording. You could hear a track drop to silence as a last word faded between phrases. Riding levels helped to smooth these out, too.
Working with the bass track, I also noticed some “fizz” in the 3khz range. This appeared to be coming from the bass pick-ups. Noise reduction/restoration plug-in hurt the quality too much, so I used Logic’s parametric EQ to notch out this frequency.
Circling back to the original analog versus digital debate, it simply comes down to preference and the genre of the music. If you grew up on the classic rock, country, or RnB/soul music of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, then you’ll probably prefer the sound of analog. After all, those recordings were usually made in the best studios, by mixers at the top of their game, and using the finest analog gear of the day. Can you reproduce those exact sounds on your own computer with bog standard plug-ins? Maybe, but unlikely. On the other hand, if your musical tastes go off in a different direction – electronica, hip hop, etc – then maybe digital will sound better to you. There is no right or wrong answer, since taste is personal.
The trick is starting with a great recording that gets you nearly there and then enhance it. To do that, learn the tools you already have. Every DAW comes with a great set of built-in plug-ins. There are also many free and/or inexpensive third-party plug-ins on the market. The upside is that you can apply multiple instances of a fancy name-brand emulation on each and every track of your mix, which would never be possible with the real hardware due to cost. The downside is that you have so many options out there, that a lot of users simply amass a collection of plug-ins that they have no idea how to use. This induces option-paralysis.
If you own a ton of plug-ins, it’s a good idea to ween yourself off of them. Focus on a select group and learn them well. Understand how they work and when to use them. As I’ve mentioned, I like Omni Channel, as well as the Logic plug-ins. If you are looking for a family of products, it’s hard to go wrong with any of the tools from iZotope, Sonible, and/or FabFilter. Music mixing is about taste and emotion. Be sure to preview your mixes for some trusted friends to get their feedback. After working for hours on a mix, you might be too close to it. Then refine as needed. In the end, if you are doing this for fun, then you have only yourself to please. Enjoy!
Click this link to listen to the remix on Vimeo.
©2023 Oliver Peters
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