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Traditionally, records were made using entirely analog equipment, from the tape machines that recorded the tracks to the mixers that sum them together. While there are many advantages to completely analog workflow, like the warmth, saturation, and nonlinear qualities of tape and tube gear, engineers often found it hard to edit tape-based material, recall complex mixes, or collaborate and share ideas outside of the studio. Not to mention the fact that this analog recording gear was generally extremely expensive, making high-quality recording only available to a select few.
If we fast-forward to today, because of the speed and power afforded by modern computing, it is not uncommon for the recording process to take place entirely inside the compute--or in the box--from start to finish. While we will still continue to use many analog tools like microphones and speakers that we still need to interface with the digital realm, it is safe to say we are fully transitioned into the era of the DAW, or Digital Audio Workstation. So what is a DAW? In the DAW world, we're replacing most of the components of the analog studio with DAW software and an interface running with a computer.
So the DAW is replacing the recording medium the tape as well as the editing environment--let's say the razor blades that cut that tape--as well as the mixing and effects. So the console and the outboard gear are replaced by the DAW's mixer and plug-ins. Now there are quite a few advantages to working this way. First of all, we have complete recall ability. So that means we can be consistent. Your mix is going to sound the same today, next month, next year because we can simply save and reopen our session. And it's going to sound exactly the same.
In the analog days, recalls could take hours to patch all the cables back together. Today I can save a session and recall it a month later in an entirely different city, and it's going to sound exactly the same. And I find that this allows me to develop my mix over time. Now another thing that I really like about DAW's is the amazing automation. You can automate anything. Try automating a real 1176 or a pull tech EQ in the analog environment. You can't really do it. Now Pro Tools has probably the best automation package available in any mixing environment, both analog or digital.
The best thing about the DAW world is the price to performance ratio. Those with the right skills can make it sound like a million-dollar studio with basically a few thousand dollars and a laptop. Now some people will say there are some disadvantages--or I like to say considerations--of mixing in a DAW. First of all, the lack of tactile control that you get with the analog world-- the buttons and the knobs--is a little bit weird. Now control surfaces have allowed us to supplement this by giving us faders and knobs that allow us to change parameters in our software without having to use the mouse, but I find that a lot of my peers are just fine mixing entirely with a mouse.
So it's really about what you're comfortable with. Another knock that DAWs get often is the lack of built-in warmth or saturation that you would traditionally gain with analog gear, like tubes and tapes. For me this is not necessarily a bad thing but just a fact of working in the box. The mixer is not going to add any default coloration like an analog mixer does. So I need to add it by taste, using the saturation plug-ins and processing to get just the feel I want. And I actually prefer it this way.
The bottom line is you can get a great mix inside of Pro Tools, so don't let highbrow articles and fancy advertisements get you down about mixing in the box or not using analog gear. What works for one person might not work for someone else. At the end of the day, a strong mixer can create a great mix inside or outside the box, and no one would be able to tell either way. I used to supplement my plug-ins with expensive outboard gear, but I've been mixing entirely inside of Pro Tools for the last four to five years, as I find that I value recall ability and flexibility more than any slight advantages I gain by tying my workflow to a physical piece of equipment.
Is that to say that using analog outboard gear or summing mixers is a waste of time or money? Not at all. Everyone has to find what works best for their style and voice as a mixer. For me personally, I find that mixing in the box inside of Pro Tools offers the greatest amount of flexibility in my work for providing an excellent sounding environment to creatively shape the mix exactly how I hear it in my head.
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