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Getting Outside "The Box" – Hybrid Recording And Mixing

Plugins are great, they’re very close to the real hardware counterparts, sometimes better. I don’t want to debate that. This article is all about options for getting electrons flowing through gear to get better mixes. There are very few (if any) professional mixing engineers that work 100% ITB (in the box), at some point you’ll need to get outside.


One of the problems inherent with digital recording is latency. Today’s modern audio interfaces are way better than just a few years ago and we can get it to the point that it’s barely noticeable, but you can do better than that. Most USB interfaces have a direct monitoring option or simply a mix knob to get around the problem of input latency.

mix knob

mix knob

By turning the mix knob to the left you are listening to just the inputs of the interface, latency free, and by turning it to the right, you hear the output of the software, with the latency. Most of the time you are probably just listening from the software outputs, which is fine, if you can deal with the latency. If you use the direct monitoring function and put the mix knob in the middle you can get benefit of zero latency and still be able to hear the output of the software for the tracks you are playing along to. The trick here is to mute the track you are recording to. For punching in on takes, you’ll have to record to a new track and comp the parts, it’s worth the extra effort.
Many firewire interfaces have a software mixer to route signals around before the DAW and you can use this for your direct monitoring.

Another way around the input latency problem is by using a small mixer and before the interface and monitor directly from that along with a stereo return from the DAW.

Unfortunately this only works when you are recording with mics, when recording direct guitars into Guitar Rig or Amplitube, you won’t be able to monitor the effect, so you have to reduce the buffer size to an acceptable latency.

Guitar Pedal Effects

Software effects are great, but there is something really cool about effects pedals, something that plugins can’t capture. Hopefully you didn’t sell all your guitar gear to pay for your home studio, you can use those stomp box effects for mixing too.
If you have a re-amp kit or a couple of passive DI boxes you can integrate your pedalboard into your software. Go out from your interface into the re-amp box, or passive DI box, going Low impedance to high impedance, then go into your effects. The output of the effects goes into any DI box, or an instrument input of your interface.
Again latency can be a problem, so I would record the return of the pedals to a new track and then snap it into time to match the original track.

Master Bus Effects

We’re starting to get into a hybrid approach to mixing, combining hardware and software.
The next step would be to get a good master bus compressor to get some analog mojo back into your mix. Most console and compressor manufacturers make stereo compressors with some nice color and character. The SSL G-Series Compressor is a standard for rock mixers.

Summing Mixer

The next step would be to get an analog summing mixer. Essentially you take 8 stereo stems out of your interface, put them into this box, it combines the signals in the analog domain into a single stereo mix, which you’d then send to the bus compressor and back into the DAW. Google: “Summing Mixer shootout” to get an idea of what a summing mixer can do for your mixes. The Dangerous Music D-Box is one of many worth checking out.

Dangerous D-Box

Analog Console

If you don’t want to go the Summing mixer route, you can get a real mixer. There are a few great smaller format consoles like the Toft ATB that are great for a hybrid approach in the home studio. Use the automation in your DAW and use the mixer for it’s eq, integrate hardware insert effects easily, get the benefits of analog summing and when you’re tracking, latency free monitoring. Plus they take up a bunch of room on your desk and impress people when they walk in. ;)

Do you use a ‘hybrid’ DAW system? Tell me how you do it and what you like about it.

Thanks for reading.

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