DAW Control Surface • Part II: Unifying Digital Sense & Analog Sound

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In my previous blog entry, “DAW Control Surface • Pt I: Today’s Studio Command Center,” I explained the functional benefits and capabilities of having a DAW control surface as the centerpiece of the studio. I left off on the subject of sonics with the question, “How can a digital control surface possibly compete with the warmth and size of an analog console?” Here in Part II, I’ll be discussing at length how to unify the digital sense of a DAW control surface with the analog sound of a vintage console.

One question that might come to mind in regards to choosing a control surface over an analog console is, “What about the front end when recording a band?” I have to admit, I still love recording through an API console, and an analog console is certainly still practical for tracking. Analog on the front end is more essential now than ever in order to achieve the warmth and size that only analog can provide (and that digital severely lacks). The solution for this is having quality outboard gear racked up and ready to patch in on the way to the A/D converters. I can tell you honestly, I get a better sound tracking a band live in my personal home studio with the D-Command as the centerpiece and utilizing outboard gear as the analog front-end than I do tracking in a less familiar space with a fully analog API console. I know the gear, I know the speakers, I know the space, and this accounts for more than you can imagine.

“What about the analog warmth generated from mixing through a console?” (Sonics aside for a second, the convenience of being able to switch the console from one mix to another instantaneously with total recall is nothing short of a miracle. It’s damn near impossible to recall a 32-channel mix on a vintage analog console without “Flying Faders” or some other form of automation once the faders have been zero’d out. And as far as ALL the other components, echo, all the sends, outboard gear, etc., it’s nearly impossible to do a total 100% recall.) Back to the question, summing analog is essential in terms of sonics and I highly recommend using an analog summing device to sum the outputs from the DA converter down to a stereo mix. I use 2 Roll Music Systems RMS216 Folcrom Passive Summing Devices for a total of 32 channels of analog summing. The Folcroms are passive devices, which allow the engineer to choose his or her “flavor” of gain-stage via a pair of mic pres (Neve, Avedis, API, BAE, etc.). See more about the Roll Music Folcrom at my previous blog post “Under the Hood: Roll Music • Folcrom • Passive Summing”.

Analog compression on the stereo buss is another way to add analog warmth, size, punch, and dimension to your mixes. From the Folcrom summing devices, I use two BAE 312A’s as my gain stage and run it from there into either a Manley Variable-MU Stereo Comp/Lim for clean tube compression or a pair of BAE 10DCF Compressor/Limiter for more aggressive mixes.

In addition to the stereo buss signal path, any outboard processing can be used on individual instruments in the mixing process. EQ, compression, etc. can be patched in between the DA converter and the summing mixer. So in terms of sonics, it sounds just as analog as a vintage console because, at that point, a number of the instruments have seen analog compression and or EQ, and then all 32 channels have been summed analog, gained analog, and compressed analog.

If your preference is an API console, you can always get a few API channel strips in the form of 500-series modules; my personal choices are BAE 312A mic pre + API 525 compressor + API 550A EQ. Another advantage of outboard gear is that you can vary it up with different options like Neve, Manley, Avedis, etc. This may seem expensive, but it’s loose change compared to having a studio-quality analog recording console, and you can piece it together over time. Start with just a few channels of quality gear so you can record top-notch vocals, acoustic guitar, etc., and then work up more channels as you go along. (My example of that is back in 1980 when I built one of the biggest studios here in LA, “Record One,” which is still in operation in Sherman Oaks, Ca. I spent 3.5 million dollars building it way back then…Studios are expensive.)

For drums, I recommend having 8-10 dedicated preamps so that you can reserve your other pres for vocals and other individually mic’d instruments when tracking a band live. I have a custom-made 10-channel Valley People Trans-Amp rack that I have always used on drums in place of API pres anyway. If you’re tech-savvy, parts alone would run you about $200 per channel, but the most difficult part would be finding 10 Trans-Amp cards. I know there are a number of 8-channel mic preamp units out there on the market. One of those could be a good place to start for drums too.

There are two items that I have brushed over that deserve further attention in regards to unifying the digital and analog domains, and those are the patchbay and converters. The patchbay is where every piece of equipment (including the computer via converters) is connected, and where you designate how the analog domain will be utilized in terms of signal flow. The patchbay makes it easy to utilize all of the gear you have available, and this is essential because convenience is a big factor when you’re running a session. You can’t be getting behind pieces of gear, disconnecting and reconnecting cables. The patchbay is plug and go. If the patchbay is set up correctly, it should be about as easy as throwing a plugin on a track.

The A/D and D/A converters are where the analog audio signal gets converted to the digital domain and vice versa, and quality converters are absolutely essential in terms of maintaining sonic integrity when entering (and leaving) the digital domain. A crappy A/D converter will significantly degrade the size, depth, and warmth of your audio, no matter how great sounding your original analog signal is. I use and highly recommend the Apogee AD-16X and DA-16X with the firmware upgraded for use with PT12 or Apogee’s new Symphony, and the AVID HD I/O. There are certainly other high-end converters out there, but in the A/B testing that I’ve done, these have held their own. The Apogees are a bit warmer and smoother, while the HD I/O seems a little more transparent and punchy. Both are great options.

That about sums it up in terms of unifying the digital sense of a DAW control surface and the analog sound of a console. Have any questions or comments in terms of utilizing outboard gear in the digital age? How do you incorporate the analog domain into your recordings?
Feel free to leave questions and comments below.

Until next time,
Val Garay

500-Series Racks

500-Series Racks

Outboard Gear

Outboard Gear

Folcrom Summing Device - Pic 1

Folcrom Summing Device: 1-16

Folcrom Summing Device - Pic 2

Folcrom Summing Device: 17-32

Valley People Trans-Amp Mic Pre Rack for Drums

Valley People Trans-Amp Mic Pre Rack for Drums

Patchbay

Patchbay

Manley Vari MU & Converters

Manley Vari MU & Converters

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