Friday, June 11, 2010

Lessons from Old School Mixing

Recently, we participated in an experiment with engineer, Roy Hendrickson, who wanted to deliberately mix a song he is producing, the “old-fashioned way” - on an analog console using two Studer A800 24-track tape machines with the Pro Tools rig turned off. Roy wanted to see how the mix would come out given the limitations of a non-DAW mix situation, the way he used to work prior to the year 2000.

The first order of business was to take 103-tracks of music from the DAW and whittle them down to 46-tracks. This meant coming up with a mixing strategy and making many decisions on what to combine at what levels and committing to those choices. This sub-mixing process is crucial step number one.

The multi-track was then transferred to 46 tracks on two synchronized 2-inch tape recorders. This is crucial step number two. As an illustration of how analog tape changes the general sound, Roy took an output of the DAW, recorded it on a 2-inch tape machine, and set it up so that he can A-B the playback of the tape with the direct output of DAW. Running it through tape seem to “widen” the sound with fuller lows and highs.

Two Studer A800 machines were set up to be controlled by an SSL-4000G+ console. Each track was mapped to the console and labeled. At this point, the DAW was “turned off” and Roy started mixing working solely on the console.

What struck me while watching Roy work was how much “better” one listened and how much more he was able to concentrate on the creative or artistic aspects of mixing. Let me explain. Without having to stare at the screen and having to concentrate on visual information, he was focusing his full attention on hearing. I’m sure I can find evidence from studies that visual stimulation will take up a disproportionate amount of processing power of the brain and thus taking a lot away from the other senses including auditory. The physical act of mixing was like a dance using whole body movements covering the span of the console. The tactile nature of making fine adjustments seemed to invite experimentation, which in turn generated more ideas. This was crucial step number three.

The pauses that occurred between tape rewind and playback actually seemed to enhance the experience by allowing the mixer time to contemplate a move or review the last one, and to provide a brief break between listening. The tweaks became more deliberate and one concentrated more on listening to the changes. Of course, this is only an impression and cannot be scientifically proven, but the pacing seemed more natural and in rhythm with the flow.

Needless to say, the final mix sounded great. Whether the same result could have been obtained while working in the box is debatable. However, the time spent in consolidating the tracks and working strictly on the console, definitely shortened overall mix time for the track. I will leave the details of technical and workflow findings to Roy, who will write up his own observations and publish them on his Web site.