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Once recording and editing are finished, audio engineers can take advantage of the training in Mixing and Mastering with Pro Tools to punch up the final output. Digidesign Certified Expert Brian Lee White covers all the basic mixing tools that every producer and engineer should know, from using EQ to add clarity and focus to using compression and limiting to maximize track levels within a mix. Brian stresses the importance of setting up a solid mixing plan prior to any work in Pro Tools, and gives advice on the best plug-ins for each stage of the process. Exercise files accompany the course.
So one reoccurring negative comment made about the DAW method of recording is that it doesn't have any warmth or character, or that it sounds lifeless and cold. Well, the truth is that with today's tools, digital recording is actually extremely accurate and transparent, allowing the engineer to capture every detail that existed during the recording process and nothing that didn't. But as it turns out, the stuff that didn't exist is the stuff we ended up missing from the analog days. Why is this? Well, you see the analog equipment, both tube and solid-state, add subtle nonlinearities to the dynamics and distorts the frequency balance of a recorded signal in a way that's actually quite musical and pleasing to the ear.
If you think about tape, the way that tape treated the dynamics in a special way acting as almost a compressor or a limiter as you push it to the extremes kind of make thing sound a little bit fatter. All right, you got a little bit of compression when you tracked in. Another example would be tube gear. Tube gear added ear-pleasing, very musical harmonic distortion to the signal as you pushed the tubes. And even solid-state mixers in the 80s added a certain character to the quality of the tracks as their circuits were pushed.
A good example that you can relate this to is the difference between, let's say, shooting a movie on film and shooting it in digital HD. You've probably seen some sports in HD and it looks much better that way than in film, whereas some movies that film grain and the contrast and saturation actually works better to tell the story. So it's not that digital is cold or taking away something. It's that the analog side was adding in things that we ended up liking, and now we miss it.
And a lot people will ask, so why do we like hearing these old emulations and the saturation? Well, we're creatures of habit. So we have our favorite record sound a certain way, we are going to seek that out in the records that we make. And I have heard people argue today that there are younger people getting used to the new sounds and actually liking it. I have heard of an experiment where younger kids actually prefer the sound of compressed MP3s over the CD version. I am not lying here. This is the truth.
So things change over time, trends change. But right now in making music, especially in Pro Tools, we still like to add a little bit of grit in, and there are some secrets as to getting that grit back without going overboard. And I personally like being able to choose where and when and how I add that saturation. So the digital domain is perfect for that. What do you need to know about using Saturation plug-ins? Well, there is a few different types of Saturation plug-ins that we can use, tape-based saturation and compression, tube based, and then solid-state.
So for something like tape, if I wanted to add sort of a tape saturation to my drum bus, I would use something like Analog Channel 2. So this is a plug-in from McDSP. It's been out for a while and what it does is it simulates the characteristics of tape. So it simulates the dynamic characteristics or the compression that you get as you drive it, but it also simulates the bias, the tape head, the tape speed, and the certain flavor of a specific tape machine.
So I have Modern, Vintage, the different ips, and I can control the bias and sort of that bump that we get from tape. And in the presets, there is actually a lot of different tape machines that you can recall, whether it's a Swiss, Japanese, sort of Otari, Tascam, MPEGs, stuff like that. And each one of these different tape machines had a little bit different quality to them and so it's going to lend a different quality to the sound. Now the trick to using these plug- ins is you actually have to drive them.
The digital world has a finite amount of headroom, and if you exceed that, we hard clip, whereas the analog world have that kind of gray area between sort of normal operating conditions where everything was sort of linear and what came in was represented accurately coming out, into that gray area, where you would start getting unique changes in the dynamics and the frequency response. And so with these plug-ins, they actually have thresholds much like a compressor that are fixed within them that sort of tell the plug-in when to start applying the characteristics to the sound, and the secret to using them is using their Input and Output controls to drive that threshold.
So how am I going use a plug-in like Analog Channel? Is I'll switch to Gain Reduction here on the meters, and I'm just going to kind of push the Input as I listen. (Music playing) So I'm driving the circuitry of the plug-in.
Now if I didn't manipulate that Input knob, it really wouldn't do much. I wouldn't really hear much other than maybe the tape had bias and how it was affecting the frequencies. If I really want to get that tape crunch or that compression, I need to drive the Input. That's how most of these saturation plug-ins are going to work. You are going to have to sort of push it into an invisible threshold and get the sound that you want, and then bring the Output back down so that you are leaving at sort of roughly the same level that you came in.
You want to go ahead and read each plug -in manual to make sure sort of where that threshold sits and how and when it's saturating the signal. Some don't have Gain Reduction meters. Some just have lights that tell you what range they are working in. So this one has a green, yellow, and red light. So you can see what's going on. Another option for tape saturation would be the Reel Tape Saturation from Digidesign.
And again, this is doing the same thing. It's sort of modeling the characteristics of the tape formulation as well as the playback head, and the speed of the tape, and you get that bias. One of the unique things about tape besides the unique dynamics characteristics is that from a frequency standpoint, it didn't record frequencies equally across the frequency range or this frequency spectrum. And so it weighted it more towards the low end, and so for your high end you would actually have to at playback kind of EQ that to even it out.
This EQ that it added kind of lended its own unique quality to the sound. And again, every tape machine kind of sound different. So you can play with these, and get those cool tape style effects, everything from very subtle to overdriven. So for tube saturations something that I might use is the Antares' Warm plug-in. They used to have one called Tube; now they call it Warm. I'll go down here into Other. It's in the AVOX bundle.
So this is going to simulate some of the tube saturation characteristics of tube amplifiers. So it's going to add in some of those additional musical harmonics. And this one again, you do need to drive it, so there is an Input and an Output and sort of where that threshold sits, you can kind of see this range in here, where that's going to work. So let's play this back. (Music playing) Now this one actually has a feature called OmniTube and what that does is it sort of activates the harmonic distortion for the whole signal Input.
So it doesn't have to breach the threshold. When this is off, it's only adding that saturation to the transients that push into that realm. When OmniTube is on, it's adding it to the entire signal and so that can yield a different quality. With a real tube what you are gaining is sort of when it's pushing to certain extremes, it's adding more saturation. The OmniTube is trying to make that a little bit more uniform across the entire signal. So you can play with that to get the quality of the tube saturation that you are looking for.
And the last thing I want to talk about is console emulation or solid-state saturation. And this is something that sort of came out of the 80s large format consoles, the SSLs and the really expensive half-a-million dollar consoles. And when those were pushed, even though they were designed to be super clean and transparent, when those were pushed, they even added qualities to the mix that we don't get from a digital mix bus. Now the other side of analog channel is Analog Channel 1, and this is actually console emulation.
So this is actually going to emulate a few different types of consoles and SSLs and Nieve and it's sort of hybrid model. I'm going to use this the same way that we used the tape saturation simulation, and if I go to Gain Reduction here... Again, I'm going to drive the Input until I start seeing it move a little bit, until I start seeing these little LEDs move. And then I'll adjust the Output. (Music playing) (Male singing: We hit the town.) (Male singing: And I'll never forget that sound.) (Male singing: Tonight I fell asleep at the wheel.) (Male singing: I woke up just in time, with chills darting down my spine.) (Male singing: So take me down, take me down and my feet will follow, wherever my heart goes.) Now my goal is to get this leaving kind of in the yellow zone.
I can go overboard. This was sort of an extreme example so you could hear what it was doing to the audio, but generally I'm going to use a very subtle effect, just so it peeks into the yellow every once in a while. I usually start with one of their presets that emulates a specific console and I do want to watch because I'm applying it a lot of times to my whole mix bus. I do want to watch the Output. I don't want to clip that. Sometimes I use the Auto button, which sort of automatically adjust the Output based on the Input settings so that I don't have to worry about adjusting the Output manually.
You can actually use this as sort of a compressor. Now the way I would like to use the saturation plug-ins a lot of times is to mix into them as opposed to applying them later. So if you think about how an analog mixer would approach mixing with these tools, they wouldn't have the choice to sort of A/B between clean and saturated. If you think about mixing on an analog console, you can't just sort of switch that console off and say what would it sound like if it was in the digital world? Maybe you could if you switch it over to Pro Tools, but generally what an analog mixer was doing is he was using these tools like it was playing back from tape into an analog console through all the analog Output gear that was adding saturation at each little stage.
And they were making decisions based on what they were hearing through that console and through that gear. So as the tape was attenuating some of the high end, eating up some of the sparkle, they were driving some high end on their EQ. So as the console was giving them a little bit of push back, a sort of just clipping the tips of the transients, they were making decisions about how their compressor would work or how their EQ would work. So they were actually mixing through this coloration as opposed to adding it on later.
And so a big mistake I think people do in the digital world, not necessarily a mistake, but an approach is that if you add it on after the fact, a lot of times it might sound worse. So you hear something like you see something in HD and then you go with a film grain, and you are like, hmm. Instantly, you move your gravitate towards the clarity, whereas in the bigger picture of things that saturation is going to slowly add up to give you that warm mix that you are looking for, that retro sound.
In the end, I really do like having the option of turning these on or off and what I'm looking to do sort of a vintage style mix or more of a mix that sounds like it was mixed in the analog world, I'll start with these plug-ins already on and mix through them. I'll make all my EQ, compression, limiting, reverb, and delay decisions with these plug-ins running from the get-go. It's really cool. Try it sometime and turn it off at the end, and see the difference that it makes in your mixes.
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