DAWs and Hybrid MixingFive Engineers, Five Approaches 5/01/2004 8:00 AM Eastern
Alert: The following may alter or validate your views on audio production — or even make you mad.
Let's start with a basic fact: Like any product-maker, DAW manufacturers want your dollars. Emagic, Digidesign, Steinberg, MOTU, Cakewalk, BIAS and others regularly duke it out, raising the bar for each other in the process. The hope is to entice new users and keep old ones. Philosophies vary from product to product, but apart from the basic approach, they all offer — some insist — that you can stay “inside the box” throughout your mixing project.
For many users, this makes perfect sense. The dizzying pace of software and operating system upgrades, the ever-increasing speed of processors, the variety of plug-ins and application's ease of use make all-in-computer — based mixing a more valid way to work than ever before. Professional projects ranging from band demos to Hollywood feature films are all being produced entirely in the box. Although many do choose this route, there are also a lot of engineers who opt to take a more crossbred approach to mixing and production. The people we spoke to for this article have adopted this hybrid approach.
In our discussions about hybrid styles, a common thread encountered echoes the sentiments heard from other engineers and Mix readers and on audio Web forums — not everyone agrees with manufacturer's claims. Despite what a white paper, spec sheet or an ad may say, a user's experience in reference to track counts, the sound of the mix bus, the ability to easily get around the interface, latency and other DSP issues differs — sometimes greatly — from the company line.
Those interviewed here have a variety of high-end production tools, both analog and digital, at their disposal and have based their gear choices on listening tests, personal preferences and work styles developed over long careers. Of course, they all take advantage of the DAW's strong suits: editing, processing and accurate level manipulation of audio. But where the DAW fits in the chain varies from person to person and for differing reasons, ranging from “I think it sounds better this way” to objecting to a company's basic design philosophy. No matter what the opinion, it all makes for an interesting read.
Erik Zobler has worked as George Duke's engineer since the early '80s. Most recently, he has mixed for Everette Harp, Britney Spears and the group Impromp2. On many Duke projects through the years, Zobler has worked with a combination of linear and nonlinear digital recorders with various consoles. However, when working with other clients, Zobler relies almost entirely on his own Pro Tools rig.
Zobler runs a six-card Pro Tools|HD system using a custom-made expansion chassis from Chris Papastephanou at ChrisMix. The expander has four slots for SCSI drives and seven PCI slots. For his setup, Zobler needed to jump between old and new Mac operating systems with minimal headaches. To accomplish this, he uses two internal drives running off an ATTO card: one carrying OS 9 and the other OS X. In addition to his single 192 I/O, which he prefers to clock using an Apogee Big Ben, Zobler employs Lavry Engineering 44/96 Blue converters. All of this runs off a Mac 733MHz G4 with 1 Gigabyte of RAM.
Track counts have not been a problem for Zobler, as he often goes well over 96 without a hiccup. And though he owns analog gear from Manley, GML, Neve and more, for the most part, he stays inside the box, citing convenience as the motivator.
While working with Pro Tools, Zobler has performed many listening tests, one of the most interesting occurring when mixing a record for jazz guitarist Doc Powell. He took three mixes to mastering: one printed internally to Pro Tools, the second sent out via the AES digital outs of his 192 I/O to a Masterlink and the third through the Lavry converters to an ATR-102 half-inch 2-track. After a blind playback of the mixes for three engineers, including mastering engineer Stephen Marcussen, they all chose the internally printed mixes. “They all sounded good, but my mixes sounded more like my mixes coming back over Pro Tools,” Zobler says.
Although he relies heavily on “the box” when mixing, he still feels that there's room for improvement. “I just wish the summing sounded better. While I think that HD summing has improved dramatically over the previous version, it's still not good enough.”
Engineer Chuck Ainlay uses a combination of technologies in his production style, holding on to his analog past and combining it with Nuendo. We caught up with him in London, where he was working on an upcoming release for Mark Knopfler. The project was tracked to twin 16-track Studers and then transferred to Nuendo at 96k for comping and overdubs. Ainlay believes that given their druthers, most engineers who have used analog in the past would use a combined approach similar to his. “It's different for the kids who don't know any better,” Ainlay says. “They will just make it sound good and will never miss the air and sweetness of analog tape processing and summing.”
That said, Ainlay doesn't think “vintage” when it comes to computers. His rig comprises a hot-rodded PC built by Racksaver that uses dual AMD Opteron 64-bit processors, 4 Gigs of RAM, a built-in 800-Gig SATA raided drive and a Studio Network Solutions fiber drive. I/O is provided by 24 channels of Mytek converters, 24 channels of Steinberg converters and three Lynx AES 16 cards. A Lucid SSG 192 acts as the master clock.
Ainlay relies on Nuendo for editing, sequencing and even some mixing. “My track counts generally exceed the 48-track output capabilities of my machine, so some mixing is done internally,” he says. “Also, there are times when it's more relevant to use the automation in Nuendo rather than on the console. This way, I can get more precise or use it to automate pans, especially when doing surround.” Ainlay processes a lot of overall gain changes in Nuendo, keeping the console automation tasks relatively simple. He sometimes prefers this method to riding faders, which makes it hard to resist making a lot of moves. He finds that processing gain changes in the box preserves the artist's original intent.
Ainlay uses a combination of analog and digital processing, relying on plug-ins such as Wavemachine Labs' Drumagog, Antares Auto-Tune and other titles from Steinberg and Waves. He also uses a Mackie UAD-1 card to access Universal Audio's DreamVerb and Fairchild compressor plug-ins. With his rig, DSP overhead is not a problem. “I was trying to get it into trouble recently by piling on plug-ins while mixing a couple of albums at 48k,” Ainlay says. “I couldn't get the VST processor meter to 30 percent.”
Three-time Grammy nominee David Rideau is a Pro Tools power user who has worked with the popular DAW in numerous ways, the common theme being using a variety of analog outboard gear. His system comprises an HD3 system, two 192 I/O interfaces with analog output expansion cards and twin Glyph SCSI drives, all running on an 800MHz G4 with 1.25 Gigs of RAM.
For his mix signal chain, Rideau chooses not to use Pro Tools' panning and summing unless necessary. Instead, he runs 16 analog outputs of his 192 I/O directly into the Dangerous Music 2-Bus, and then stereo out of the 2-Bus into a Waves L2 hardware processor, a Tube-Tech SMC 2A and, lastly, into an Alesis MasterLink. “I'm using the SMC 2A as a compressor and to hold the tone of the song,” says Rideau. “It tightens everything up overall and makes it sound more open.”
On individual outputs, Rideau uses various compressors to get what he calls his “meat-and-potato” tracks (kick, snare, overheads and percussion) out of the box and into the 2-Bus. For instance, his 192 I/O output 1 always carries the kick drum sent through a dbx 165A compressor into the 2-Bus. Output 2 is the snare, traveling through another 165A, and outputs 3 and 4 carry his overheads and stereo percussion through a Studio Electronics C2s compressor on the way to the summing box. Other important mix elements, such as the lead vocal, bass and other lead instruments, ride on their own output directly to the 2-Bus.
Rideau also relies on a few outside reverbs for various duties. He uses the digital outputs of his 192 I/O to get in and out of a TC Electronic System 6000 and a Lexicon PCM70 for other time-based tasks. His battery of plug-ins includes the Waves Diamond Bundle and IR-1 reverb, Massenburg MDW EQ, various Sony plug-ins and the McDSP filter bank.
Although Rideau often works without a large-format console, he would almost always prefer to mix using one. However, he finds the large-console room vs. the engineer-owned Pro Tools suite to be a trade-off: What you gain in studio toys, you lose in time. “There's nothing like being able to ride each band of EQ all the way through a lead vocal,” says Rideau. “But you simply don't have the time to do that in the studio.”
Re-recording mixer John Ross has been an early adopter and creator of many computer-based audio innovations. He's mixed both inside and outside the box and is always experimenting and improving his production workflow. Ross was first attracted to Pro Tools instead of the Synclavier and Fairlight platforms because of what he calls its comparatively “nonmonolithic” nature. Ross has been a Pro Tools user for years (working five HD rigs), using it most recently to mix the film The Butterfly Effect, which was mixed entirely inside the box.
Over time, however, Ross became fascinated with Nuendo, ASIO and VST because of their more open architecture. According to Ross, “In the beginning, we used Pro Tools because it let us design our own formats, use as many monitors as we liked and create networks. Today, the Nuendo system is more along the lines of the nonmonolithic system because of the use of host-based processing, which has become very powerful.”
Ross just finished mixing De-Lovely, a Cole Porter biopic, using three Nuendo systems linked through MADI to a Euphonix System 5 console. He likes using the System 5 because it's easy to have a large physical system that is designed to interface with a lot of inputs and from which you can run automation.
The Nuendo systems used for the De-Lovely dub mix used three dual-processor Athlon machines: one for dialog, one for effects and the third for Foley and backgrounds. Each machine had 1 Gig of RAM, two 73-Gig SCSI 320 drives, Gigabit Ethernet hooked up to a Gigabit Ethernet router inside the rack and MADI cards for digital I/O. A separate Athlon computer was used for DV video playback and other systems on the stage for editorial — all hooked up through the same hub.
Although Ross lauded Nuendo for its mixing and processing power, to him, the networking capability was even more important. For example, editors could build elements on the fly as the session was rolling, and then with Nuendo's built-in networking protocol, they could sync the stage playback and editorial systems and port the elements directly to the System 5's mix position in real time through MADI.
For offline processing, Ross used various VST and Nuendo plug-ins because he could commit them to the sounds. The System 5 was used more for global sweetening. For example, because the film was shot in the UK, there was a lot of 50Hz-based hum to deal with. Ross used Elemental Audio's Eqium plug-in to notch out the fundamental and any offending harmonics. Ross also used Firium to match ambience for ADR. (See his power tip on page 41.)
As for track counts, Ross finds Nuendo a stellar performer. (He claims that predubs and playbacks from De-Lovely would have choked other workstations he's used.) Of course, track count is system-dependent, but Ross' point is, with nonmonolithic systems, the user decides how big the track count needs to be and how much money and effort they want to put into making that system.
For Ross, it's a matter of being able to keep up with the technology. Even though his systems are only seven months old, processor technology has already improved significantly. “By leaving the world of dedicated DSP, you can straddle Moore's Law more effectively,” says Ross. “The performance that we're getting from the people that are building systems for other purposes is fantastic. We're just along for the ride. Their resources [for R&D] go into the hundreds of millions a year, whereas the resources for the dedicated DSP companies is nowhere near that.”
Engineer/musician Robert Brock, who wrote the Apple Pro Training Series book Logic 6: Professional Music Creation and Audio Production, splits his time and tasks between Logic and Pro Tools. Brock's rigs vary from a G4 laptop up to a 1.25GHz G4, and he generally gives Pro Tools the nod for final mixdown duties. The reason he works this way is because of basic design philosophy. “Logic, DP and Cakewalk all grew up as musicians' tools focusing on the sequencing side,” says Brock, “whereas Pro Tools was designed by and for engineers.” Although Brock will do some mixing and even tracking in Logic, he finds some basic features lacking for his needs. For instance, when you create a stereo track in Pro Tools, you get two panners: one for each channel. In Logic, you only get a single balance control when working in stereo. Another of Brock's Logic peeves is the way it addresses busing for headphones. “Pro Tools is a much more intuitive interface,” he says.
According to Brock, Logic shines in getting ideas together as a writer and/or arranger, including premixing. When mixing in Logic, he uses many of its unique features and plug-ins; for instance, Logic allows him to display numerous automation parameters on the screen for the same track. This also includes plug-in parameters. Brock also likes the included list of plug-ins that comes with the new Logic Pro package, which includes Emagic's convolution reverb, Space Designer. “Space Designer is an excellent reverb, and I think that Logic's channel EQ is the best-sounding I've heard from any DAW,” he says.
Brock's work method is to first start a track in Logic and do whatever EQ'ing and processing he wants to get the basic tracks together. After that, he'll use Logic's Freeze function to port them over to Pro Tools. Freeze lets you render a track with its plug-ins as an audio file to save DSP, or to take them to another application, much like Bouncing to Disc in Pro Tools. As to how Logic handles track counts and DSP allocation, Brock has some strong feelings. “Basically, with a 64-bit optimized version of Logic and a dual-processor G5, it's simply awesome,” he says. (For more on Logic and the G5, see “Taking the G5 Live” in the February 2004 issue of Mix.)
The “art” of audio production has never been more emphasized. Engineers choose their colors and styles in the form of recording formats, platforms, sample rates and software. The one conclusion that you can draw from these opinions, styles and mixing techniques is that there is no single solution in audio production. A computer is a tool and just because you can use it to do every task doesn't mean you have to. As for the varying means of production — vive la difference.
Kevin Becka is Mix's technical editor.
In listening tests, Erik Zobler has discovered that when bouncing to disk in Pro Tools, his mixes sound better when coming through buses rather than through the interface. To make this easier, he duplicates the outputs of the individual tracks in his session to two outputs of his interface that go directly to his speakers, and then to a pair of buses. To mult the outs, first choose your regular stereo pair of interface outputs from the channel's output selector. Then, holding the Control key, choose a second pair of output buses. (The Option key will force the output choices across all channels.) Both pairs are now active (denoted by the “+” sign before the name on each channel's output window). When you bounce to disk, choose the buses as the source.
By using Nuendo's Events Editor, Chuck Ainlay can quickly edit multiple takes and create a comp track. First, he records numerous passes on the same track and then uses the Object tool to select all of the tracks. Then, he pulls down the Audio menu and selects Events to Part to create the Events track. Double-clicking the track opens the Audio Parts Editor, placing all of the takes in different lanes, with the last take at the bottom. The tracks can then be edited in sections and listened to using the Mute tool. Once the best bits are found, he drags them down to the comp track, which always plays, ignoring the tracks above. If the comp doesn't feel right, it's easy to audition alternatives and drag them down for an update.
Engineer David Rideau uses Pro Tools' volume editor and a Massenburg MDW EQ to do offline de-essing. First, he views the waveform on the Edit screen in Volume mode and finds an offending “ess” in the track. Next, he precisely dips the volume by inserting a “v” over the sibilant area. If this isn't enough reduction, he'll then automate the gain on a band of the MDW, choose the frequency and Q that best reduces the sibilance, and while viewing MDWs gain over the waveform, dip the frequency momentarily by creating a “v” over the sibilance.
Using Nuendo's built-in sampling reverb and Elemental Audio's Firium plug-in, re-recording mixer John Ross is able to very accurately match and apply ambience and EQ curves from the movie set to ADR tracks.
First, Ross uses Nuendo's built-in sampling reverb to capture some of the ambience created from the clapper used on the set. Then, he brings in Firium's spectrum matching feature to “learn” the harmonic content of his sampled source track. Ross then saves the “learned” EQ curve as a preset and applies it to the ADR track with the sampled reverb created from the clapper. The outcome? Very believable ADR tracks.