Outside the box, and eventually…IN
April 12, 2014 § Leave a comment
Think outside the box they say…
So for today, little time for video editing so let’s talk about something that needn’t not live examples- mixing inside vs outside of a computer system.
In years of yore (2005-2009?) many, even big names started throwing out a lot of their rack gear and large format mixing desks for an entirely computer-driven set-up (also known as “in the box” recording or ‘stand-alone DAW [digital audio workstation] ). Right when this started happening I listened carefully to some recent recordings done this way, and as best I could compared them to prior productions of those making the change to ‘in the box’ systems. The first thing I noticed was an increase in bass, and also a clarity that was almost off-putting. I also noticed that some of these albums had very *inconsistent* bass response overall at differing points in an arrangement. When visiting family there is a large home theater setup I’ve often used to get a better idea of various productions. I put on Sting (Nothing Like The Sun) and compared it in bass response to these newer recordings. The Sting record for it’s time has less bass, but the fidelity on the larger system is outstanding. Particularly of note was how *consistent* the bass response was across the whole record- there was never a time when something came in that was out of place or ‘boomy’ or distracting. Not so for those transitioning to ‘in the box’ systems.
Now mind you (and myself:-) I am comparing very different albums that represent a wide range of sound and arrangement. However, I think there has ought to be a consistency no matter what. Nothing is ever perfect, but to me not having to adjust anything when listening is a plus. In my car, where I do most of my listening, as well as some amount of referencing, I can also tell immediately if something has too much, or uneven bass, and as well whether the mixing and mastering is too hyped or loud- those old speakers in the back of the car + the tweeters in front is all I use (the front speakers were taken out years ago because I hated them). Albums that are ‘over mastered’ are easy to pick out and critique on this car system.
Back to mixing in the box and how all these changes affected what I do on my own productions. In 2007 I purchased a wide variety of older digital synths and a larger digital board (Ramsa DA7). In recent years I added some mid to higher-end outboard reverbs as well. There was a big learning curve, but what I discovered was that keeping my outboard synths “live midi” on the board rather than bouncing brought a wider berth of sound, and a slightly richer but “blurred” sound which I really liked. Before I had been working mostly in the box (The Tide Decides) and you can hear a major difference in sound from The Tide Decides to Tomorrow Will Tell The Story. Part of that was me simply getting better at what I do, but the other part was mixing out to the console and using a lot more outboard gear (and some of it not terribly expensive outboard gear at that!).
Now in 2013 and 2014 I’ve made another album (Not the one nearing release, but something else entirely for later release) that was mixed almost entirely in the box, but with using the outboard reverbs as the sole outboard gear. From comparing the mixes / masters of A Priori Memoriae (nearing release this summer) to this other record for later release I learned a lot. The ‘blurring’ of sound is largely gone for the latter release, but the higher-quality outboard reverbs make up for this somewhat. There is more bass overall in the second recording, but it’s leveled properly and consistent which was a major concern for me- I love bass, but I want it to fit the music and not be overpowering.
In the end, I love the sound of A Priori, but in moving forward in the current music economy and life in general, I need to be able to work much faster, which going in the box provides in theory. I can’t be concerned with breaking cables, rewiring, console automation (yes, I actually did use it on A Priori Memoriae!) and everything that comes with working ‘old school’ and mixing out to a console. The amount of time needed to make an album like A Priori or Tomorrow Will Tell The Story, doing them the way they were done is much greater due to troubleshooting time needed. Those albums, even though made on very tight budgets I am very happy with because of the ‘eclectic’ nature of how they were produced and recorded. There were so many pieces to the puzzle, but each piece fits wonderfully and compliments the whole, end result unlike The Tide Decides which was a much more ‘sterile’ production, both in composition, arrangement, engineering methods and more-
One thing that concerns me going forward is that actually working on an “out of the box” and with a more complex system effects the creative output and end result in a positive way and I don’t want to loose that- because you have to work so much harder, it actually helps you limit yourself on a musical level, and that can be a very powerful thing- It means everything you do has to count for something in the end result. There is less time to beat around the bush, and the one thing I fear with going to a much simpler ‘in the box’ set up is that I will be given way to much opportunity to experiment! Hopefully, as we mature this becomes less of a problem. But to think what younger musicians have available at their fingertips without even touching anything tape-based or even learning a mid to large-format console at all- There are things to learn within the ‘older’ methods that are sorely lost with modern DAW production (the difference in routing paradigms and the absence of any real separation between channel and monitor path is just the beginning). What we gain in convenience we loose in other areas. It is debatable whether learning an SSL automation computer is worthwhile (especially in today’s audio world) but I think on a human and learning level there is much to be gained from knowing where it all came from, and immersing oneself it for at least a number of years.