The concept of the digital audio workstation stems from a near-century-old combination of a recording system and a mixing desk. Nearly every modern DAW is still built around that methodology. Gabriel Cowan, CEO and co-founder of Audio Design Desk, sought to modernize the approach with a DAW focused on sound design, using the power of metadata for workflow efficiency. The application was launched a couple of years ago and has since won several trade show awards for innovation, including a Product of the Year Award for audio just last week at the 2022 NAB Show.
Every video editor knows that a kicking sound track can often elevate an otherwise lackluster video. Audio Design Desk is intended to do just that, regardless of whether you are an editor, musician, or sound designer. The application is currently a Mac-only product that supports both Intel and M1 Macs natively. It breaks down into sound design (synthetic sounds, like whooshes, drones, hits, and risers), foley (real world sound effects), ambiences, and music.
As I previously mentioned, I don’t mix songs for a living, so why add this to my workload? Well, partially for fun, but also to learn. Consider it a video editor’s version of the “busman’s holiday.”
Each of the six songs poses different challenges. LEWITT’s marketing objective is to sell microphones and these recordings showcase those products. As such, the bands have been recorded in a live or semi-live studio environment. This means mics placed in front of instrument cabs, as well as mics placed all around the drum kit. Depending on the proximity of the band members to each other and how much acoustic baffling was used, some instrument tracks are more isolated than others. Guitars, bass, and keys might have additional direct input (DI) tracks for some songs, as well as additional overdubs for second and third parts. The track count ranged from 12 to 28 tracks. As is typical, drums had more tracks to deal with than any other instrument.
The performing styles vary widely, which also presents some engineering decisions that have to be made in how you mix. Move Like A Ghost was deliciously nasty by design. Do you try to clean that up or just embrace it? 25 Reasons is closer to a live stage performance with tons of leakage between tracks.
The video component
LEWITT, in conjunction with the performers, produced videos for five of the six songs. The mixes are specifically for LEWITT, not the official release versions of any of these songs. Therefore, the LEWITT videos were designed to accompany and promote the contest tracks. This makes it easy to sync your mix to each video, which is what I did for my compilation. In the case of Move Like a Ghost, LEWITT did not produce a full video with Saint Agnes. So, I pulled a stylized live music video for the band from YouTube for my version of the mix. I assembled this reel in Final Cut Pro, but any editing was really just limited to titles and the ins/outs for each song. The point is the mix and not the editing.
On the other hand, working with the video did inform my mix. For example, if a lead instrument had a riff in the song that’s shown in the video, then I’d emphasize it just a bit more in the mix. That’s not a bad thing, per se, if it’s not overdone. One quirk I ran into was on The Palace. The tracks included several vocal passes, using different mics. I picked the particular vocal track that I thought sounded best in the mix. When I synced it up to the video, I quickly realized that one vocal line (on camera) was out-of-sync and that LEWITT’s mixers must have blended several vocal performances in their own mix. Fortunately, it was an easy fix to use that one line from a different track and then everything was in sync.
Working the DAW
One of the tracks even included a Pro Tools session for Pro Tools users, but Logic Pro is my DAW of choice. Audition and Resolve (Fairlight) could have been options, but I prefer Logic Pro. It comes with really good built-in plug-ins, including reverbs, EQs, compressors, and amp modelers. I used all of these, plus a few paid and free third-party plug-ins from Accusonus, Analog Obsession, iZotope, FabFilter, Klevgrand, Sound Theory, TBProAudio, and Tokyo Dawn Labs.
One big selling point for me is Logic’s track stack feature, which is a method of grouping and organizing tracks and their associated channel strips. Use stacks to organize instrument tracks by type, such as drums, guitars, keys, vocals, etc. A track stack can be a folder or a summing stack. When summing is selected, then a track stack functions like a submix bus. Channel strips within the stack are summed and additional plug-ins can then be applied to the summing stack. If you think in terms of an NLE, then a track stack is a bit like a compound clip or nest. You can collapse or expand the tracks that have been grouped into the stack with a reveal button. Want to bring your visual organization from a couple of dozen tracks down to only a few? Then track stacks organized by instruments are the way to go.
For those unfamiliar with Logic Pro basics, here’s a simplified look at Logic’s signal flow. Audio from the individual track flows into the channel strip. That signal first hits any plug-ins, EQ, or filtering, and then flows out through the volume control (fader). If you need to raise or lower the volume of a track going into the plug-in chain, then you either have to adjust the input of the plug-in itself, or add a separate gain plug-in as the first effect in the chain. The volume control/fader affects the level after plug-ins have been applied. This signal is then routed through the track stack (if used). On a summing track stack, the signal flow through its channel strip works the same way – plug-ins first, then volume fader. Of course, it can get more complex with groups, sends, and side-chaining.
All track stack signals, as well as any channel not placed into a track stack, flow through the stereo out bus (on a stereo project) – again, into the plug-ins first and then out through the volume control. In addition to the stereo output bus, there’s also a master output fader, which controls the actual volume of the file written to the drive. If you place a metering plug-in into the chain of the stereo output bus, it indicates the level for peaks or loudness prior to the volume control of the stereo output AND the master output bus. Therefore, I would recommend that you ALWAYS leave both faders at their zero default, in order to get accurate readings.
All mixes are subjective
The approach to the mix varies with different engineers. What worked best for me was to concentrate on groups of instruments. The order isn’t important, but start with drums, for instance. The kit will likely have the highest number of tracks. Work with the soloed drum tracks to get a well-defined drum sound as a complete kit. Same for guitars, vocals, or any other instrument. Then work with the combination to get the right overall balance. Lastly, add and adjust mastering plug-ins to the stereo output channel strip to craft the final sound.
Any mix is totally subjective and technical perfection is merely an aspiration. I personally prefer my mix of Dirty to the others. The song is fun and the starting tracks nice and clean. But I’m certainly happy with my mix on the others, in spite of sonic imperfections. To make sure your mix is as good as it can be, check your mix in different listening environments. Fortunately, Audition can still burn your mix to an audio CD. Assuming you still own a disc burner and CD players, then it’s a great portable medium to check your mix in the car or on your home stereo system. Overall, during the course of mixing and then reviewing, I probably checked this on four different speaker set-ups, plus headphones and earbuds. The latter turned out to be the best way to detect stereo imaging issues, though not necessarily the most accurate sound otherwise. But, that is probably the way a large swath of people consume music these days.
I hope you enjoy the compilation if you take the time to listen. The order of the songs is:
Are you aspiring to be the next Chris Lord-Alge or Glyn Johns? Maybe you just have a rock ‘n roll heart. Or you just want to try your hand at mixing music, but don’t have the material to work with. Whatever your inspiration, Lewitt Audio – the Austrian manufacturer of high-quality studio microphones – has made it easier than ever to get started. Awhile back Lewitt launched the myLEWITT site as a user community, featuring educational tips, music challenges, and free content.
Even though the listed music challenge contests may have expired, Lewitt leaves the content online and available to download for free. Simply create a free myLEWITT account to access them. These are individual .wav stem tracks of the complete challenge songs recorded using a range of Lewitt microphones. Each file is labelled with the name of the mic used for that track. That’s a clever marketing move, but it’s also handy if you are considering a mic purchase. Naturally these tracks are only for your educational and non-commercial use.
Since these are audio files and not specific DAW projects, they are compatible with any audio software. Naturally, if you a video editor, it’s possible to mix these tracks in an NLE, like Premiere Pro, Media Composer, or Final Cut Pro. However, I wouldn’t recommend that. First of all, DAW applications are designed for mixing and NLEs aren’t. Second, if you are trying to stretch your knowledge, then you should use the correct tool for the job. Especially if you are going to go out on the web for mixing tips and tricks from noted recording engineers and producers.
Start with a DAW
If you are new to DAW (digital audio workstation) software, then there are several free audio applications you might consider just to get started. Mac users already have GarageBand. Of course, most pros wouldn’t consider that, but it’s good enough for the basics. On the pro level, Reaper is a popular free DAW application. Universal Audio offers Luna for free, if you have a compatible UA Thunderbolt audio interface.
As a video editor, you might also be getting into DaVinci Resolve. Both the free and paid Studio versions integrate the Fairlight audio page. Fairlight, the company, had a well-respected history in audio prior to the acquisition by Blackmagic Design, who has continued to build upon that foundation. This means that not only can you do sophisticated audio mixes for video in Resolve, but there’s no reason that you can’t start and end in the Fairlight page for a music project.
The industry standard is Avid Pro Tools. If you are planning to work in a professional audio environment like a recording studio, then you’ll really want to know Pro Tools. Unfortunately, Avid discontinued their free Pro Tools|First version. However, you can still get a free, full-featured 30-day trial. Plus, the subscription costs aren’t too bad. If you have an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription, then you also have access to Audition as part of the account. Finally, if you are deep into the Apple ecosystem, then I would recommend purchasing Logic Pro, which is highly regarded by many music producers.
Taking the plunge
In preparing this blog post, I downloaded and remixed one of the myLEWITT music challenge projects – The Seeds of your Sorrow by Spitting Ibex. This downloaded as a .zip containing 19 .wav files, all labelled according to instrument and microphone used. I launched Logic Pro, brought in the tracks, and lined them up at the start so that everything was in sync. From there it’s just a matter of mixing to taste.
I mixed it totally in Logic Pro using mainly the native plug-ins for EQ, compression, reverb, amp modeling, and other effects. I also used some third-party plug-ins, including iZotope RX8 De-click and Accusonus ERA De-esser on the vocal track. As I brightened the vocal track to bring it forward in the mix, it also emphasized certain mouth sounds caused by the singer’s proximity to the mic. These plug-ins helped to tame those. I also added two final mastering plug-ins: Tokyo Dawn’s Nova for slight multi-band compression, along with FabFilter’s Pro-L2 limiter. The latter is one of the smoothest mastering plug-ins on the market and is a nice way to add “glue” to the mix.
Understand that a great music mix starts with a tight group of musicians and high-quality recordings. Without those, it’s hard to make magic. With those, you are more than three-quarters of the way there. Fortunately Lewitt has taken care of that for you.
The point of any exercise like this is to learn and improve your skills. Learn to trust your ears and taste. Should you remove the breaths in a singer’s track? Should the mix be wetter (more reverb) or not? If so, what sort of reverb space? Should the bottom end be fatter? Should the guitars use distortion or be clean? These are all creative judgements that can only be made through trial-and-error and repeated experimentation. If music mixing is something you want to pursue, then the Produce Like A Pro YouTube channel is another source of useful information.
Let me leave you with some pro tips. At a minimum, make sure to mix any complex project on quality nearfield monitors (assuming you don’t have an actual studio at your disposal). Test your mix in different listening environments, on different speakers, and at different volume levels to see if it translates universally well. If you are going for a particular sound or style, have some good reference tracks, such as commercially-mastered songs, to which you can compare your mix. How did they balance the instruments? Did the reference song sound bright, boomy, or midrange? How were the dynamics and level of compression? And finally, take a break. All mixers can get fatigued. Mixes will often sound quite different after a break or on the next day. Sometimes it’s best to leave it and come back later with fresh ears and mind.
In any case, you can get started without spending any money. The tracks are free. Software like DaVinci Resolve is free. As with so many other tasks enabled by modern technology, all it takes is making the first move.
Working with plug-ins is fun, but it gets complex when you want to be consistent across multiple hosts. The built-in effects can be quite good and if you only ever work in Media Composer, Resolve, Premiere Pro, or Final Cut Pro and are happy with what’s included, then nothing more is needed. But if you work in multiple applications, then what you like in one will be missing in the other. For example, the Logic compressor is available in FCP, but not Logic’s vintage EQ. If I use native effects in FCP, I have to use different effects to achieve the same results in Premiere Pro.
That problem can be solved by purchasing a plug-in bundle that is consistent across multiple hosts. If you install audio effects that support AU, VST, VST3, and AAX, then you are covered for Macs and PCs, and nearly all DAW and NLE brands. However, such bundles and/or individual plug-ins are typically authorized for a single machine at a time, via an activation code, a licensing portal, or a USB license key, like an iLok. If you operate a multi-seat shop, then it’s complicated juggling plug-in licensing across several machines. Hence, you have to purchase a plug-in set for each workstation, which can be costly. So free options become quite attractive. Install them on all the machines and never deal with the “missing plug-in” error message again.
I’ve run across two companies with free products that I find to be quite useful. The first is TBProAudio. They offer a range of audio plug-ins, including a couple of free products. The first is the sTilt v2, which is a linear phase equalizer, also known as a spectral-tilt or tilt-shift equalizer. Think of the frequency spread as a playground teeter-totter. The audio spectrum is on a “slope” that pivots on a center frequency. As you move the dial to the right, audio frequencies above the center frequency are boosted and audio below is cut or reduced. The result is a brighter sound. Move the dial to the left and upper frequencies are cut, while lower frequencies are boosted for a warmer sound. Adjust the center frequency value to move the “fulcrum” of the tilt-shift processing.
Another one of their free plug-ins is the mvMeter 2. This classic, analog-style meter array features several metering models, including, VU, RMS, EBUR128, and PPM. I started in radio, so working with VU meters is second nature to me. Since finding this plug-in I’ve used it on nearly every mix. I find that my mixes are now more standard with more consistent levels than simply judging by the built-in full scale dB meters.
Tokyo Dawn Records/Labs
As I searched for more useful plug-ins, I also ran across Tokyo Dawn Labs, a software offshoot of Tokyo Dawn Records in Germany. They offer a number of plug-ins, including four free products. Each of the free products includes a paid GE (“gentlemen’s edition”) version with additional features. The free products are not severely limited “lite” versions, but in fact, include 80-90% of the functionality of the GE products. These include two equalizers and two compressors, which are amazingly good – free or not.
TDR VOS Slick EQ is a mixing/mastering equalizer with several emulation models – American, British, German, and Soviet. Each model mimics certain gear or console characteristics. The American model is the most transparent. Slick EQ’s general operation is like most classic, three-band EQs with hi/low pass filtering and shelving controls.
TDR Kotelnikov is a dynamics processor, i.e a compressor/limiter. It has a very smooth and transparent sound with processing that’s affected by a stereo density control. Its transparency makes this tool ideal to apply to the final stereo output or master mix bus of any mix.
TDR Nova is a bit harder to describe. TDR calls it a parallel dynamic equalizer. It looks and acts a bit like a four-band parametric equalizer, however it also includes compression. So you can use it simply as an EQ, or you can combine that with compression to create a multi-band compressor.
TDR Molotok is another dynamics processor. I haven’t tested this one, but it definitely has the most old-school UI of the bunch. TDR states it doesn’t emulate any specific vintage device, but has what they describe as eleven flavor nuances. For me personally, Kotelnikov fits the bill for video project mastering, But If I were a music producer, then Molotok would hold some appeal.
An interesting aspect to these plug-ins is that default processing is stereo, but it can also be put into a sum or difference mode. Effectively this enables mid or side signal processing. For example, if you want to only process the middle portion of the stereo signal, set the filter to the sum mode. In addition, the filter can be switched from Precise to ECO (economy) in case you are working with an underpowered computer.
In wrapping up this series of posts, I want to point out that not all application hosts treat audio plug-ins equally. Typically DAWs generally do the best job of working seamlessly with third-party audio products. That’s less the case with NLEs.
If you use a Mac, you can install both AU and one of several VST versions of a plug-in. PCs only use VST varieties. However, in some cases, the AU version may have slightly different UI properties that the VST flavor. If you use Avid products, make sure to verify that a plug-in offers AAX and/or AudioSuite versions.
Finally, if you are a Final Cut Pro editor, tread lightly with plug-ins. FCP has increasingly become touchy with third-party audio plug-ins (under Big Sur), including many that play well with Logic Pro. And, of course, not all third-party plug-ins are yet fully compatible with the new Apple Silicon-based Macs. So make sure you test a trial version before you commit to a purchase.
There are plenty of paid and free audio plug-ins on the market. They all fit into the good, the bad, or the ugly categories – some great, some not so much. One of the better developers of modern audio plug-in effects is FabFilter Software Instruments in the Netherlands. While FabFilter products are known and respected in the music recording industry, they are not as well known among video editors. Any of their plug-ins would provide you with a great software tool, but the plug-in that I felt was the best fit for a video editor was their Pro-L 2 limiter plug-in.
An audio limiter, just like a broadcast safe video limiter, is typically used as a mastering tool applied to the last stage of the audio chain. You can certainly use a limiter on an individual track, like drums in a recording session or a voice-over in a video mix. However, limiting is most often applied to the final output – the master or mix output bus. While a limiter is really just a variant of a regular compressor, it is optimized to catch and restrict all peak levels and transients in order to make sure that your mix is compliant with a given loudness target.
FabFilter Pro-L 2 Limiter
Like most third-party plug-ins, the Pro-L 2 limiter installs as an AAX, AU, and/or VST/VST3 plug-in and so is compatible with most DAWs and NLEs. FabFilter plug-ins use a license key activation code after installation, so no need to mess with separate license management applications or a physical iLok hardware key. I tested the Pro-L 2 limiter in various applications and performance and behavior was great, even in Final Cut Pro, which has lately been touchy for me when using some third-party audio effects.
At first glance, the Pro-L 2 limiter might seem like most other limiter filters, but looks can be deceiving. This plug-in is rather deep with many nuanced adjustments that are easy to overlook. The good news is that FabFilter has done a good job with video tutorials and both an online and PDF user guide.
There are three big selling points for me. First, Pro-L 2 supports various mix configurations – not just mono and stereo, but also surround, including Dolby Atmos. Second, there’s built-in loudness metering. This includes an earlier K-system metering method (developed in the late 90s by noted mastering engineer Bob Katz), as well as current ATSC and EBU loudness scales. Finally, it’s the sound. You can drive the input truly hard into gain reduction and the audio stays extremely smooth-sounding without coming across as heavily compressed or distorted.
The Pro-L2 user interface is well-designed with several size options, including full screen, as well as a compact mode that hides the audio waveform graph. Metering can be changed from standard (input, output, gain reduction meters) to full loudness. Several of the components, like the advanced control panel and output gain knob are fly-out panels that might not be readily obvious until you get used to the plug-in. As this is a minimalist UI design, there are other controls, like oversampling and true peak limiting, which are enabled by small control buttons along the bottom.
One UI tool that I really liked was the lock icon. When this is unlocked (disabled) then every time you switch between limiter algorithms or presets the input and output gain levels reset, which makes it harder to compare settings. However, when it’s enabled, the gain levels are “locked” as you toggle through the options.
One final UI feature to note is that you have control over the waveform scrolling method. The display represents audio levels, gain reduction, and peaks. There are four scrolling modes depending on how you prefer to see the waveform being drawn onto the screen.
The key to the FabFilter Pro-L limiter is how it handles sound. There are numerous presets and eight limiter algorithms designed with distinct character depending on the type of audio you are processing. The last four (Aggressive, Modern, Bus, and Safe) were newly added in version two of the limiter. So whether you want something with a little crunch or totally transparent, this limiter offers you choices.
The general operating controls are similar to other compressors and limiters. There are input and output gain controls – the combination of which determines the amount of gain reduction (limiting). Attack and release controls affect how quickly and how long afterwards limiting is taking place. In addition to lookahead (how far ahead the software is looking for predicted peaks), there is also an oversampling control, which may be CPU intensive. Sound is analog, so fast peaks can occur between the regular digital sampling intervals. These peaks can, therefore, be missed by a limiter. Oversampling is a technique to catch and process any inter-sample peaks.
Channel linking is another powerful tool. Generally, a plug-in is going to process the left and right sides of a stereo signal equally. But what if your track has harder peaks on one side or the other? That’s where the channel linking controls come into play. The Transient control knob alters the amount of linking on short transients. 100% is equal on both sides, but then you can dial down the percentage of linking from there. When working with surround, these control knobs change to add functionality for the C (center) and LFE (subwoofer) channels. When these buttons are engaged, the C and LFE channels are integrated into the linking process.
One feature that is supported by most DAWs, but not by most NLEs, is side-chaining. This is a method by which the dynamics of one track control the compression/limiting being applied to a different track. For example, you could apply the limiter to a music track, but use a voice-over track as the side-chain input. This technique can be used to duck the music under the voice every time the person speaks.
Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of music ducking in the first place, because I don’t think it sounds good compared to riding the levels manually. However, it is available. I tested this with the Pro-L 2 in Logic Pro. Quite frankly, using the same process and the native Logic Pro compressor yielded more pleasing results. That’s not surprising. Although compressors and limiters are audio cousins, they do process audio a bit differently. Since it’s not a method I use anyway, it wasn’t a big deal, but still worth noting.
FabFilter Pro-L 2 offers a lot of depth and you really need to go through the user guide to fully appreciate its intricacies. That being said, it’s super easy to use. But for me, the quality of the sound is the key. I was impressed with how hard I could drive it when I needed to and still maintain good sound and proper loudness levels. That makes it worth the price of admission.
As a developer, FabFilter Software Instruments seems to be on top of things. If you are a Mac user, these plug-ins are already Apple Silicon-compatible. That not true of every audio plug-in maker. If, like me, you work across multiple NLEs, then it’s nice to have a consistent set of plug-ins that work and sound the same regardless of which NLE I’m working in. FabFilter Pro-L 2 definitely fits that bill.