Mixing on a console vs in a DAW

I’m a big mixing console user, and would say ninety percent of my mixes feature the console.  Of those ninety percent, my favourites by far have most of the sculpting from analogue tools and processors.

Lately I’ve been asking some questions about whether I still need a console, and how far I can get without it.  I’ve done some ‘proper’ testing – measuring what the console adds and attempting to replicate it in the box.  More telling is the ‘real-world’ testing, where I mix the same song on the console and then in the box.  After a dozen or so rounds of this I can confidently say the console is still the king for me.

First Time Behind The Wheel

I’ve had access to consoles for roughly half of my career, starting with an SSL 4000E.  I remember the first time I ran a track through it and pushed up the faders; there was a pronounced increase in the size of the mix, and instantly everything sounded bigger.  The sound filled the room, with more front to back depth, and it felt like I could reach out and touch the instruments.

It was also really, really fast.  I was mixing as soon as I hit play.  There was no copying plugins, importing templates, creating auxes.  It was so fluid, with an extra fidelity to the audio from running through the circuits in the console.

I’m not the only one who feels this.  Michael Brauer is one of the most prolific mixers and a big console devotee.  Other notable console advocates are Chris Lord-Alge, Tom Lord-Alge, Jimmy Douglas and Andy Wallace.

Yet letting go of the unlimited workflow of mixing in the box is difficult.  There are (virtually) no limits; you can have an endless number of auxes and effects, duplicate tracks to process them differently, and have perfect recalls.  Once on the console the limitations of a fixed amount of physical faders and auxes quickly caught me out.  It meant things that were easy to deal with in the box suddenly require more thought to accomplish, and meant coming up with a whole new workflow.

Five Years Later

It’s taken me a few years to perfect, but I now have a very powerful approach that marries the freedom of working in the box with the wider, punchier sound of an analogue mixing console.

 I have a wonderful vintage Neve 8232 at The Motor Museum and, combined with my Pro Tools HDX system, gives me the best of both worlds.  You can see this in studio’s equipment list, with lots of valve outboard and tonnes of plugins.  Chaining a lot of outboard off the console helps me carve the sounds from the start of the mix.  I also trim the multitrack in Pro Tools to control how hard to hit the inputs of the console – hitting it harder gives me more impact!  I solve the lack of recall by printing detailed stems; to me it’s more productive to recall a session of ten to twelve stems, rather than sixty or more individual channels.  It stops me from doing too much tweaking and undo’ing an already great mix.

Mixing on a console is a very expressive way to work; it allows me to manipulate the sounds based on instinct and reaction, removing the distraction of having to use an intermediary device (a mouse) to access the shape, volume, and dynamic of an instrument.  It’s a luxury and requires attentive maintenance, but I won’t be changing any time soon!