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Analog vs. Digital Mixing: A Sound Engineer’s Perspective

Analog vs Digital Mixing - A Sound Engineer's Perspective

The eternal question for those of us working in sound: analog mixing or digital mixing?

Analog Mixing: Analysis of the Mixing System

Regarding the mix itself, the SSL console which I use daily gives the impression of having a vast signal path, allowing for tight and dynamic mixes with a wide dynamic range. The SSL lacks Recall, so mixing sessions must be completed in a short period of time, with the understanding that no one else will use the console to avoid altering EQs, dynamics, volume faders, panoramas, gains, inserts, and so on.

To insert external analog compressors or equalizers into a channel on the SSL, you need to patch the CUE SEND of the channel you want to process to the input of the compressor and the output of the compressor to the CUE INSERT of the same channel. Then, you just have to press the “IN” button in the EQ section of the channel to listen to the insert.

The console’s equalizers are precise, and even small adjustments make everything sound better. The knobs are very precise, and the effect they produce is quite pleasing. For instance, you appreciate being able to equalize the toms with the well-known SSL Channel Strip, which adds body and depth without being intrusive.

The same applies to the console’s compressors; they work smoothly and fulfill their purpose. For controlling snare hits, they work well, capturing the transients nicely while allowing you to manage the flow of hits.

Finally, the Genelec 1038 monitors deserve mention. They deliver powerful and defined low frequencies while maintaining beautiful highs.

There are no significant downsides to mixing on the SSL. Perhaps, it would be appreciated if it had a functional Recall system, although, as previously noted, mixing sessions are usually completed in one or two sessions, so this does not significantly affect the process.

The famous SSL Master Bus Compressor stands out, providing significant help in mixing. It adds the power and punch that is often sought, especially for achieving massive drum sounds.

However, you must be careful when using it, as you’re essentially mixing against the compressor from the beginning, and this requires a gentle adjustment of its parameters.

In my case, the final mix occasionally exhibited a “pumping” sensation when the cymbals and bass were quite prominent, so you must know how to control it.

Digital Mixing: Analysis of the Mixing System

In this setup, you can insert a digital Master SSL Bus, just like the analog version. However, you still need to adjust the compressor correctly to avoid ruining the mix.

Speaking of the positives, the most significant advantage is the total Recall system in Pro Tools. Your session is always saved correctly, and you can revisit it later with no changes to the settings. In-the-box mixing is much more versatile, providing the option to experiment with numerous plugins and auxiliary tracks.

Physically, the SSL has limitations due to the number of available channels, and you might have to group guitars or other instruments onto a single track. Inserts are easily manageable with plugins, and you can save their parameters for use in another session or to compare settings with A/B.

As for negatives, in my opinion, the results of a plugin cannot be directly compared to any analog processing. The warmth often attributed to the analog world is entirely real.

While audio plugins do deliver impressive results and have come a long way in recent years, they are essentially emulating devices operating based on electrical signals and tensions, whereas analog works with a multitude of ordered numbers through mathematical algorithms.

Therefore, the results cannot be identical, although they can be very similar.

Comparing both mixes, we draw the following conclusions:

The SSL’s Master Bus and parallel compression in analog summing mixing make the kick drum (double pedal) very prominent in the mix. On the contrary, the Genelec 1038 monitors perform excellently in low frequencies but might have caused the bass to be less present in the mix done on the SSL.

The digital mix sounds sharper, precise, and pleasant with higher intelligibility. However, it lacks the power of the electric guitars passed through the SSL and the Master Bus squeezing a few dBs.

Analog warmth is palpable, which may be to your liking or not. Some prefer analog mixing for its warmth and the tactile nature of working with a console. There’s also no denying the tactile difference between physical faders and virtual faders in Pro Tools. In my personal opinion, the analog mixing had more positive aspects compared to digital mixing.

This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better, as this is an eternal debate. Personally, I prefer the analog mixing system due to its workflow, signal routing through patching, and the tactile experience. Still, to achieve good results, you must have control over the console, not the other way around.

Mixing the same track in analog and digital, I’ve recognized the positive and negative aspects of each. To begin with, let’s talk about the convenience of each system: generally, digital is much more convenient for managing projects and workflows, with the advantage of revisiting a mix at any time, making it a great asset for mixers today.

When it comes to mixing with a console like the SSL, you have the opportunity to see your project in front of you and manipulate it physically. Equalizing, compressing, or adjusting volumes with both hands to make everything fit (or at least try) is something I’ve never experienced before.

In the digital realm, you can’t achieve the same thing unless you have a high-quality control surface. In my experience, the process in the digital mix felt colder and less sensitive when controlled only by the mouse.

As for sound, there are noticeable differences. Analog feels like you can push it as far as you want, even reaching the limit, and if you surpass it, you might end up liking it even more.

In digital, when you reach the limit, everything beyond that tends to sound harsher and less flexible.

After the comparison, I have been able to confirm or change some of the differences I believed existed between analog and digital.

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