Mixing – Analog or Digital?

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.

Final thoughts

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

Audio Design Desk

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.

Click here to continue this article at Pro Video Coalition.

©2022 Oliver Peters

Think you can mix… Round 2

A month ago I discussed LEWITT Audio’s music challenge mixing contest. While there’s no current contest, all of the past tracks are still available for download, so you can try your hand at mixing. To date, there are six songs running about 3 1/2 minutes each. LEWITT has selected a cross-section of eclectic European artists, showcasing styles that include R&B, rock, jazz, folk, swing, and punk. I mixed one of the songs for that first post, but decided to take my own suggestion and ended up mixing all six. I have posted that compilation to Vimeo.

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:

The Seeds of your Sorrow

Spitting Ibex

25 Reasons

Louis Berry and band

The Palace

Cosmix Studios session

featuring Celina Ann


Thomas Hechenberger (guitar)

Valentin Omar (keys)

David Leisser (drums)

Bernhard Osanna (bass)




Marina & the Kats

Move Like a Ghost

Saint Agnes

©2022 Oliver Peters

Think you can mix?

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.

Logic is great for this type of project, because of its wealth of included plug-ins. Logic is also a good host application for third party plug-ins, such as those from iZotope, Waves, Accusonus, and others. Track stacks are a versatile Logic feature. You can group a set of tracks (like all of the individual drums kit tracks) and turn those into a track stack, which then functions like a submix bus. The individual tracks can still be adjusted, but then you can also adjust levels on the entire stack. Track stacks are also great for visual organization of your track layout. You can show or hide all of the tracks within a stack, simply by twirling a disclosure triangle.

I’m certainly not an experienced music mixer, but I have mixed simple projects before. Understanding the process is part of being a well-rounded editor. In total, I spent about six hours over two days mixing the Spitting Ibex song. I’ve posted it on Vimeo as a clip with three sections – the official mix, my mix, and the unmixed/summed tracks. My mix was relatively straightforward. I wanted an R&B vibe, so no fancy left-right panning, voice distortions, or track doubling.

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.

If you decide to download and play with the tracks yourself, then check out the different versions submitted to the contest, which are showcased at myLEWITT. For a more detailed look into the process, Dutch mixing/mastering engineer and YouTuber Wytse Gerichhausen (White Sea Studio) has posted his own video about creating a mix for this music challenge.

In closing…

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.

©2022 Oliver Peters