I’m definitely a gear freak when it comes to hardware so needless to say, I have a lot to share. I started writing this blog thinking I was going to focus on specific gear but it turns out that sometimes it's more than a piece of gear, rather often the conditions you create to apply the gear that are the most important.
Despite there being a few obvious differences between mixing in the studio and mixing live, the fundamentals are basically the same. This post will focus on studio mixing, and you can click here to read about live mixing must-haves.
Here are the 5 things I can’t live without in the studio:
- Good D/A and A/D conversion: This conversion is at the point where the sound waves become numbers and numbers become sound waves, so it’s a very important process and having the right gear can make a huge difference in what you hear and what your finished product will ultimately sound like. In my studio I am currently using a system comprised of Universal Audio Apollo’s. They sound great. Precise and literal, and are reasonable in price point for what you get. Many people are doing the entirety of their work in the box (ITB). But it’s important that what you’re sending out of your computer to monitor from is a great representation of what is actually happening in the box. This gear delivers. I’m doing a lot of analog summing with analog inserts these days so I bus everything out of the computer as stems using the Apollo 16. The converters sound great and I know I’m getting a really good representation of of the sound ITB, leaving the computer for me to process in the analog world. I also have a Burl B2B DAC which I use to convert ITB mixes for monitoring on occasion when I choose to work that way or to process that 2-track through analog compression and eq. And whether I’m summing multiple audio sources in analog of simply sending a 2-track mix out to be processed in analog, I want to convert back to the digital world with the best possible conversion also. That said, the next piece I’m planning to add to the studio will be a Burl B2B ADC so I can get that sound and clarity when I go back into the computer with a mix converted back to digital.
- A computer that will keep up with your work flow: Before you ever convert anything from analog to digital or vice verse, you need to have that main terminus for all of that to happen within. Whether you are working at home, in a studio somewhere or you’re mostly working on the go, having that machine is going to be the most important piece you have. I personally feel that Apple is the best platform to work on for music. Years ago I worked on a Windows PC for a long time but had a lot of problems with crashing, gear compatibility and other myriad problems. That may not be the case anymore but I don’t honestly know because I was a Mac convert a long time ago. Having a good powerful Mac in my opinion is the way to go. In my studio I’m using a 2017 Mac Pro. This machine is 3 years old and works great. The CPU is solid. But if you don’t have the budget for this, a MacBook Pro now has about the same exact specifications as this MacPro has. So you can have a compact and portable solution that will get you the results you need. This is the heart of your system so it needs to be as powerful as you can afford.
- The right software to do the job: There are endless discussions about which DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) to use. This maybe the most subjective topic in music production. Protools, Logic, Abelton, Digital Performer, Nuendo, Cubase are all great programs that do great things some of which the others don’t do or don’t do as well. But they all serve different purposes and suit people’s needs differently. I mix in Protools but find that if I want to write or create music, Logic suits my workflow better. I’m starting to learn Abelton which is a totally different approach aesthetically and functionally. But they all serve different purposes. Whichever DAW you find that you want to know how to use, learn it inside and out. Your computer is the heart of your system but the software is the brain of your system. And it’s powerful. It used to be the case that you would create ideas then go in the studio to record them. Now it’s the case that you use the studio and those tools to create. Plug ins are another important world of software for creating, shaping, controlling your creation. And that world is huge. From software instruments (Arturia, Native Instruments, Roland Cloud, Etc.) to effects (UAD, Sound Toys, Plugin Alliance, Valhalla, Fabfilter, Waves, Sinevibes, etc.) you have so many tools at your fingertips to create and shape your sound. More than ever before. Emulations of analog gear, completely from the ground up designed plug ins, etc. the possibilities are actually endless.
- Bus processing: Whether you’re summing in analog outside of the box or mixing completely in the box, I personally find it important to add a little analog goodness over the mix. I just finished a live record for LP who I toured with last year mixing her live shows. The record was mixed in a hybrid sort of way. Channel effects like eq and dynamics were done in the box while bus processing including main bus processing was done in analog. I used a Smart C2 compressor then ran into a Dangerous BAX EQ. That’s my current master bus processing but I would like to add a Black Box Analog Design HG-2 very soon. This is a perfect case of using the plug in and finding it so indispensable that I want the hardware. The C2 and BAX really glued the whole mix together. Smoothed everything out nicely. Whether it’s with plug ins or analog gear, the process that everything goes through before you reprint or bounce it, is very important to make it all nice and cohesive. Obviously there’s much debate about master bus processing and whether or not to use it because some would say that’s what happens at mastering and then what to use. But I like having that process in place for a few reasons. Having the compressor set and perhaps never adjusted gives me a sense of how loud I’m mixing on my system and where the overall level is. It’s in addition to output metering of course but every reference matters. Also because I mix into the compression to find the pocket that I like for my mix.
- A good comfortable space to work in: You’re going to spend a lot of time creating, working, listening, reflecting and listening some more. You want the space you’re doing all of this from to be a comfortable place. A safe place if you will. Somewhere that can help draw inspiration. Somewhere that is very comfortable. It also should sound good. Not too many people can afford an acoustical engineer to come in and treat your room but there are some things that are widely regarded as standard practices for getting a room to sound as optimized as possible. Study how to properly place absorption versus reflection and even diffusion. These are all simple principles that are based in geometry and physics. They are quantifiable and calculable. You probably may have a measuring tape somewhere and if you’re doing anything music related you must already have a decent idea of mathematical concepts whether you know it or not. It’s the fundamental basis of music so you are already halfway there. There are so many budget ranges for accomplishing this. Auralex foam, Primacoustic insulation panels, green glue, soundboard, countless companies that build diffusers. There are also many videos on how to build your own diffusion if you want to take the time to do so and in the process save some money. And then there are professional installers who will come in and analyze your room and treat it, build a room within a room, and more. Whatever you do, make the room sound great. Eliminate standing waves, create bass traps and optimize your listening position. You’re going to spend a lot of time sitting in that spot so make it a spot you want to spend a lot of time sitting in.