In just the last few years, “mixing in the box” has become a standard practice for home studios. It means doing all your recording, mixing, and effects in a computer. You use no external effects or mixers.

In contrast, many engineers like to combine computer recording with external analog processors and a passive analog mixer, such as the Dangerous Mixer (www.dangerousmusic.dedownloads/sheet_mixer.pdf). That device is used to mix the stems or submixes created in computer recording software. And hey, it’s just fun to twirl real knobs.

Dangerous Mixer, an example of an external summing mixer.

Let’s consider the advantages and disadvantages of mixing in the box.

PROs


Sonic Purity

When you keep your entire project in your computer, there is only one analog-to-digital conversion, and only one digital-to-analog conversion. Your audio interface converts analog audio signals from your mics and DI’s into digital signals. The audio stays in digital form throughout the entire project, avoiding the sonic degradation that occurs with each A/D, D/A conversion — such as when you send a signal to an outboard analog processor.

The digital audio signal converts back into analog only when played on the listener’s CD player or MP3 player. The result is pristine audio quality that only digital can provide.

Also, cable connections to outboard gear can pick up a little hum and radio-frequency interference. That doesn’t happen inside the box.

Simplicity

Your signal path, and your control room, become much simpler when you mix in the box. The only equipment you need in order to record, process and mix is an audio interface and a computer. You omit the hassle and ground loops of connecting external gear, and you can stay in front of your computer monitor for most of the project.

Low cost

Another advantage: Software plug-in effects are far less costly than the equivalent hardware boxes. In fact, many plugs are included with recording software packages. If you want to use a compressor on each of 10 tracks, you don’t need to buy 10 compressors. Just buy (or download) a compressor plug-in, and insert it as many times as you need.

Plug-ins enhance the sound-processing capabilities of the host recording software.

CONs

Why would anyone not choose to mix in the box? Well, it does have some drawbacks.

Less analog “warmth”

The reason that many engineers use outboard processors and mixers is to add some of the analog warmth and euphonic distortion that digital recording lacks. Yes, you can use a tape simulation plug-in to restore some pleasant grunge to digital tracks. Or you can tweak EQ to take the edge off the highs as a tape recorder would. But many engineers prefer to employ real analog devices. They claim that their mixes sound less harsh and less sterile when mixed externally rather than in the computer.

The shrinking studio

Before computer recording  became popular, my studio sported a large mixing console and racks of effects. But now that I mix in the box, my studio is not so impressive to customers. Gone are the effects racks: they are all plug-ins in the computer. Gone is the mixing console: it’s in software now.

What to do? I wish there were a fake mixing console with lots of lights and displays, but with nothing else inside. When placed next to your computer monitor, such a low-cost pretend mixer would make your studio look like it can do a lot, even though those features are actually in your computer. It’s all for show.

In any case, whether you mix in the virtual world or with real hardware, the final sound you get depends on your skill with the tools you use.

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AES and Syn Aud Con member Bruce Bartlett is a recording engineer, microphone engineer (www.bartlettaudio.com), and audio journalist. His latest books are “Practical Recording Techniques 6th Edition” and “Recording Music On Location.”

Originally posted 2010-12-22 20:19:04.