Resources for the Recording Musician
December 13, 2016

Mixer effects not being recorded

Hi Stephen,
I came across your article; “Inserts vs Effects Sends – Which to use for what” and seeing the amount of knowledge you have on the subject I thought I'll try my luck asking you a question. I've recently bought my first ever mixer, Soundcraft Signature 12MTK which I wanted to use for multi-track recording with Ableton. Multi-track works fine,However, I was very surprised when I recorded some tracks and then during the playback I couldn't hear any of the mixer's internal effects which I was using during recording. I've tried changing some settings around in Ableton and I also tried different buttons on the mixer but to no avail. Finally I emailed Soundcraft's support and I was told the following "unfortunately there is not a way to record the internal FX on the Signature consoles. The USB send is directly after the mic pre so FX will not be included ". This reply really floored me. I'd really appreciate if someone else could confirm the above statement, but also perhaps there's another way of achieving this ?
Your answer is much appreciated.

Hi Bob,

I won't go into specifics on that particular mixer, since I don't own it, nor do I know anything about it other than a quick glance at the product page with a quick Google search after you submitted your question.  Instead, I'll discuss why you are not able to record the effects (FX), and why this is something you usually would NOT want to do during tracking anyway.

First, let me link to the article you mentioned: Inserts vs Effects Sends – Which to use for what

For anyone else reading this, it's important to have the background from that article first.

As mentioned in that article, things like reverb and delay/echo, are usually set up on an FX send, so that they can be used from multiple channels (so you can put a bit of reverb on the vocals AND the drum channels, for example, and control the amount of reverb on each using the send knobs).  However, these FX are NOT being returned, or "inserted", into the individual channels. Instead, the outputs from the various FX are all on their own channels, or buss.

To understand a bit further, lets go back to the mostly analog days of recording (when I got my start). You had a big analog console with many individual channels, that were usually mono, and sometimes you had some extra stereo busses to work with, but usually just the main stereo output, and then possibly some dedicated FX return busses.  Each channel on the boards had analog inserts that came up on a patch bay, plus built-in EQ (usually), and usually a certain number of FX or Aux send knobs. The FX or Aux send knobs could be used for setting up headphone mixes as well as for sends to FX units.  The actual output of the send busses was usually also on the patch bay, and so you had to physically connect it to wherever you wanted it to go via a cable. Sometimes one or more of those send busses would be "normalled" to certain pieces of gear, such as a plate reverb or other FX unit in the studio. In those days, we had very limited number of FX units, because each one was a physical piece of gear.

So, think of how this works if you have just one or two FX units to share for your entire mixing or recording session.  You want to be able to have reverb on more than just one track, so you would NOT patch the reverb on an insert on just one channel. Besides needing to use the reverb for more than one channel, if you inserted it on just one channel, then your reverb would be mono (assuming, like most mixers, that all your channels with mic inputs are mono) -- so, you would lose the stereo width of the reverb or other FX you were trying to use if you inserted it on a channel.  Instead, since you are trying to use that FX for more than one channel of audio, you connect one of your master FX send outputs from your mixer to the input of the FX. Then, the corresponding FX send knob for each channel becomes a separate mini-mixer where you can "send" different amounts of signal from as many channels as you want to that FX unit.  Now, you have to connect the output of that FX unit, which is usually stereo, back to your mixer somewhere. As mentioned above, some mixers have dedicated FX return channels, which are usually very simplified channels with just an volume knob or fader and no inserts or sends of their own. But, you could also connect the outputs of the FX up to two regular channels on the board, panning one left and one right for stereo, and maybe have a bit more control since they are on full channels. Or, you might have some other stereo busses on the mixer that you can use.  It doesn't matter where they are connected, but it's the fact that they are connected to separate inputs on the mixer. It would not be possible, without a big signal splitter/distributor, to connect the output of the FX to every individual audio channel on the mixer (so that the reverb would be blended back in with the original audio, such as the vocal). Plus, it wouldn't make sense to do that anyway, since the output of the FX would be the effected sum of ALL the channels that sent some signal to that FX via the FX sends.  So, for example, if you sent a lot of vocals into a reverb, plus some of the snare drum, then the output of that reverb would have vocals AND snare drum reverb!  It's just ONE FX unit, and it can't possibly separate out the different signals coming into it (especially since they have all been pre-mixed via the various FX sends knobs and corresponding FX send master output).

So, even in the "old days" of analog consoles, when we were recording to multitrack recorders, you would route individual channels to individual tracks of your tape recorder (professional analog recording consoles usually had 24 record busses that were directly connected to the 24 inputs of our 2-inch, 24 track tape machines).  The output to the recording buss was after the inserts and built-in EQ, but before the faders (so you could use the faders to set up a monitor mix without affecting the levels going to tape). We would often use our FX to add some reverb to the vocals or other instruments while recording, just because most artists are used to hearing things that way when they record, but this was just for monitoring. Since these are FX on sends/returns, they didn't get recorded to the tape machine. If you wanted to record those FX while recording, you had to patch the FX return into their own channels on the board and then route those channels through recording busses to one or two tracks on the tape machine (depending on if you wanted mono or stereo).  Any EQ we used, plus any processing we inserted via channel inserts (usually some compression), would get recorded to tape for each channel that used those as the EQ and inserts were usually wired before the record buss.  But, since FX are entirely separate, they are NOT recorded unless you specifically hook them up in a way that you can record the outputs.

Back to the future! So, now that everything has become largely digital, your mixer may be a combination of analog and digital components and busses, but the basic architecture is pretty much the same.  Many of these modern mixers have one or more built-in FX engines for things like reverb, chorus, and delay. For example, looking at the specs of your specific Soundcraft mixer, it says it has a single FX engine.  So, that's basically the same as us having just a single FX unit (hardware) in the "old days".  You need to be able to share those FX among many channels, so it's configured as an FX send/return, and the output is NOT going back to any of the individual channels. Thus, those effects from that single processor can NOT be recorded via any of the individual channel outputs that are using it as a send/return device.  If you wanted to actually record the output of the FX, you would need to see if your mixer allows it to be returned to its own separate channels, OR if the FX output shows up as separate inputs in your DAW (through USB, since that is how your mixer connects). Usually, those type of built-in effects do NOT show up on their own outputs and can NOT be re-routed to individual channels. The only option in that case would be to record the MASTER stereo buss output, but that would include the entire mix that you are monitoring, so that's usually not a good option either. That would only work if you are doing something like a solo vocal and not monitoring any background music (or if your mixer allows you to set up a headphone mix from other aux sends, and allows you to route only certain things to the stereo master).

Part 2 - Should you record with FX?

This should probably be its own article, but it applies to your question, so I'll put it here for now.

The question of whether or not you should record with FX is a common one, and one that is sometimes hotly debated.

There is one school of thought that says you should make your decisions on how you want things to sound and commit that sound to tape (hard drive these days). The other side says you should never record FX with the original audio, so that you can more appropriately choose and blend the right FX during the mixing stage when you can hear how everything works together.

The only real answer to the question is: It depends!

Let's create a quick list of some reasons for both sides of the argument:

Possible reasons to record with FX:

  • All you have is hardware (or a single FX processing unit in a digital mixer, with no decent DAW plugin alternatives), and the same FX unit needs to be used to created different FX for different tracks
  • Your DAW (or other recording/mixing setup) doesn't have enough power to handle multiple FX during mixing, so you need to record/commit at least some FX during recording
  • The FX are an integral part of the sound, such as a special delay that is a big part of a sound, or things like guitar FX that are part of the sound of that instrument
  • You like to make your mix decisions early in the process and commit to tape/disk while recording so you don't have as many choices/decisions to make during your final mix

Possible reasons to record without FX:

  • You have better plugin FX in your DAW than any hardware or built-in mixer effects
  • You want the full control of choosing the proper FX and the amount to blend in during the final mixing
  • You've got a powerful DAW with more than enough FX and power to handle as many FX as you need during mixing
  • You just aren't sure what kind of FX are going to work in the full mix when you are recording
  • You have an artist (singer, musician), who likes to hear a LOT of FX during recording, but you know that is way more than you are going to want when you mix

My Personal Opinion:

I almost never record with FX.  Mostly that applies to reverb, chorus, delay, and other "time based" effects. Those type of effects are hard to judge correctly until you are doing the final mix and can listen in context of the full mix.  Plus, I almost always end up automating those types of FX, bringing echo/delay up and down throughout the mix (or on/off for special echos), as well as automating the amount of reverb in different sections of the song. I'll usually do that in my DAW by automating the send levels or send enable/disable to various effects.

I especially do not like it when people send me tracks for mixing, and they already have a ton of reverb on each track. At that point, there is not much I can do, as if I try to add any additional processing (such as compression), it also affects the reverb. Plus, I can't "clean up" the mix or give it more clarity if it's already muddied up by excessive reverb. Excessive reverb and chorus are my pet peeves, and most synth patches are just swimming with lots of both of those to make those sounds sound better on their own (but rarely sound great in the context of a full mix). I have much better reverb FX than most artists who are sending me tracks to mix, so I want the tracks as "dry" as possible.

The exceptions for me are when the FX are a big part of the sound. That's mostly things like distortion on a guitar (or synth) that is a big part of the sound, or maybe even a rhythmic delay that is crucial to the sound.  Even if an artist has some FX on a track that they really love (that was NOT recorded, but applied later via inserts), I will often ask them to send me a "dry" version along with the "wet" version (with FX). That way, if I think the amount of FX they put on the track was too much for the mix, I can use their "dry" version to either blend in more of the dry signal, or to totally recreate the FX using their wet version as reference and blend to taste.

Is that your final answer?

Bob, there's a very long winded answer to your question!  Based on the quick scan of the product page of your specific mixer, I don't think you are missing out much on not being able to record the FX from that single built-in FX processor, as it seems they also include the Lexicon plugin that you can use in your software.  I would save your reverb, chorus, delay, and other FX decisions until the mixing stage and be happy that they included that plugin for free. That plugin should have pretty much the same FX as what you have in your mixer, but allow you to use any many instances as your computer can handle (so you can have different reverb, delays, etc. all going at once), probably with a lot more control over the settings.  Use the built-in effects for what they were intended, which is just to allow some reverb/delay for the artist "comfort" in their monitors while recording, but save the final FX decisions until mixing when you will have much more control.

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