Resources for the Recording Musician
September 1, 2008


Hi Steve,

I was watching some free samples of a mix training DVD, where the guy mentioned he always puts McDSP AC-1 on the mix bus and does his entire mix through it to add subtle distortion to make it sound like a record.  Is this something that you do and would recommend as well?  I am thinking of giving it a try to see how it works out.

This whole mixing business is very tough!  Like learning a new instrument.  I don't even have decent equipment, but I just do what I can with what I got and trust my ears.  What I do have in some respects is a lot better than what many great albums of the past were mixed with.

I really don't go into mixing with any preconceived notions of what I'm going to do.  I listen to the song and the parts that have been recorded, and try to do what I feel is most appropriate for that song and style of music, taking into account how all the individual tracks were recorded and how they work together.

I usually don't mix "inside the box", so I can't strap a plug-in across the stereo buss when I'm mixing.  I take all the track outputs individually into my Yamaha O2R96 digital mixer and use it for mixing.  Most EQ and Compression I do "in the box" though, before taking the channel outputs to the O2R96, since the plug-ins I have are much better sounding than those on the O2R96.  So, the O2R96 is basically my summing mixer, and what I use to automate volume for all the channels (I like its automation better than the automation in the computer, although sometimes I use a combination of both).  Also, I have some great outboard hardware effects, particularly the Kurzweil KSP8, which I love for reverb much better than any plug-ins, and it's much easier to interface that with the O2R96 than routing back and forth to the computer.

However, I also have four very nice analog hardware compressors, namely an API 2500, a Drawmer 1968 Mercenary Edition, and two Cranesong Trakkers.  Many times while mixing, I'll use one of those as a stereo mix buss compressor by making a loop from the digital output of the O2R96 through the Universal Audio 2192 D/A converters, to the compressor, and then back into the Universal Audio 2192 A/D side, sending the digital output back into another track in Nuendo.

I pick the compressor based on the type of sound I want to impart.  Technically, anything you put in your signal path is adding some sort of "distortion" to the signal.  If I drive the output of the API 2500 hard, or drive the tube output of the Drawmer 1968 hard, I can definitely impart a bit more tone/color or distortion, if desired.  If I drive them at much more reasonable levels, or run through the much cleaner Cranesong Trakkers, I get a more clean sound.

However, even when doing this, I always print two copies of the mix.  I set up two tracks in Nuendo for recording the mix.  One is patch in straight from the digital output of the O2R96 before it goes through the D/A-Compressor-A/D loop, and the other is processed with the compressor.  That way, if I change my mind later, or if it goes to a really great mastering house with even better compressors, I have the "clean" and "compressed" versions to work with.

But, getting more to the point, I don't believe that simply adding subtle distortion to a mix makes it "sound more like a record".  If I was doing rock or metal or something that I needed to sound very aggressive, then I might think about adding some type of subtle extra distortion, but I'd probably save that for the mastering stage if I couldn't get what I wanted out of my compressors.  However, I think a lot of the time, I could get all the distortion I needed from individual tracks, or groups, within the mix.  For example, I might do a parallel drum buss thing where I have a submix of the drums totally squashed/compressed to the point of distortion, and blend that in subtly with the regular drums.  Typically, the guitars will already have distortion, but I might add some distortion to the bass guitar if it was recorded clean.  Usually I don't like distortion on vocals, but there are some occasions where you can give the vocals some edge by again doing a parallel buss or effect send/return with some extra distortion for the vocals that is blended in for certain parts of the song.

Some people are still searching for that magical plug-in or processor to make their mixes suddenly sound better.  I don't really think that exists... it's really just a LOT of hard work and practice for many years until you get good at it!  However, many of us who grew up with stuff recorded in the days of analog, are used to that certain analog sound, which certainly had an amount of distortion and phase shifts and all sorts of other problems that went along with it... but, that sounded like "music" to us.  Now that we are digital, people are searching for that sound again, and companies are making lots of money selling us various pieces of hardware and plug-ins to try to get that old analog sound again.  But, you have to remember that they are all just tools, and they all have a sound to them, and you have to pick what is right for what you are working on at the moment.  One way isn't necessarily better than another.

Yes, like you said, mixing is like learning a new instrument.  To get good at it takes as much time, practice, and experience as it does to be a good guitar player, or piano player, or any other instrument.  The problem these days is that too many people are spreading themselves too thin trying to do everything themselves, and then end up being just mediocre at best.  There is that old saying that still holds true "Jack of all trades, master or none"!  I even wrote an article on this site several years ago about just this idea called "Can You Really Do It All Yourself?".  If you haven't read that, it's worth a read.


Thanks for your detailed reply.  For some reason I was under the assumption that you mixed entirely in the box.  As much as I try, I don't think I will ever be able to do it all myself.  I think that if I didn't spend a lot of time refining my musical arrangements, my mixes would be a lot worse.  It also helps that my wife is a talented vocalist and only needs one or two passes to get a good take.

2012 Update/Response:

As of the last couple years, I have actually been mixing mostly "in the box", but not completely.  My approach now is a hybrid one.  I no longer use the O2R96 as my summing mixer and automation device, however it does work great as a control surface for Cubase & Nuendo (Yamaha owns Steinberg).  Software these days is good enough, and the internal automation easy to use and update quickly, and the plugins these days are really great sounding.  However, as mentioned in my recent post of some of my favorite things, I still choose to use hardware inserts to put my real analog compressors in the signal chain.  The API 2500 is still my favorite mix buss compressor, and the 1968 gets called into action for drum group compression, while the Trakkers will often get used for vocals or solo instrument tracks.

I guess my method pays off since was one of the winners in the very competitive Sound On Sound - Dave Pensado mixing competition a couple years ago.  Of course, I attribute that to the over 20 years of experience and mixing expertise that I have, rather than crediting any particular equipment.

I still maintain that mixing is one of the most important parts of any recording project, and one that you definitely should not skimp on.  This is not just my opinion, but is shared by many others.  There is a good reason why most artists don't try to mix their own songs, and that superstar mixing engineers still command a high price!  A good mix can make or break a song.  Don't skimp on this by trying to mix your music yourself!  It takes lots of practice and many years of experience to become a good mixing engineer, and much more to become a great one.  It's not something you are going to learn how to do well in the course of recording your own album project at home.

I will put my mixing skills up against the best in the business, and I invite my readers to contact me if they are interested in having me do a very high end, major label quality mix, at a much more reasonable price!  I love mixing, and I'm very good at it!  I will give you a reasonable flat rate price per song to mix for you once I have heard your music and can estimate how much time it will take to mix.  Since I love mixing, the rate that I use to determine my flat fee is actually quite a bit less than my normal hourly rate... and, if I REALLY love your song, or you have a huge audience already, I may discount my rate even more.  I'm not trying to compete with those bedroom laptop people who charge $20 to $50 per song, so if that's what you are looking for, don't bother contacting me... you get what you pay for!  However, I do promise that for a very reasonable price, I will work with you until you are completely satisfied, and you will end up with a mix that is ready for release on any level.

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