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Boxing match: DAWs versus consoles for mixing

The digital audio workstation has revolutionised the way sound editing and post-production is done, making it more an equal partner of the mixing console than the tape recorders of the past. But can it really take over from the desk when it comes to mixes?

Today’s modern technology is sold with the promise that people need only one device to do everything for them. A computer is able to store large amounts of data and run different programs that cover most things a business or individual might want them to do but the reality is that to do a specialist job properly – games playing, data inputting, accounts – you need a machine with the right amount of memory and processing power.

That’s particularly true of the digital audio workstation (DAW). Music recording and editing software can be loaded on to a home computer but to really have the power and flexibility needed to record, edit and mix a lot of tracks these programs have to be on a specific machine that doesn’t do anything else. That’s how professional post-production works but even with the right equipment there is still argument over whether the DAW should be used for mixing, to the point where, as is claimed by some manufacturers and even engineers, it can replace the audio console for some jobs.

The Avid (formerly Digidesign) Pro Tools has epitomised the idea of being able to do everything, including mixing, ‘in the box’. “About ten years ago some professional mixers discovered the benefits of mixing in the box but were hesitant of talking about it for fear of being ridiculed by their peers,” comments segment marketing manager for pro audio Tom Graham. “The situation is different today, with people routinely preparing pre-dubs and 5.1 pre-mixes in DAWs, ready for the final mix on a console or control surface.”

As Avid now produces control surfaces for Pro Tools and has integrated Euphonix’s consoles, along with the EUCON Ethernet control protocol, into its ranges, the company does not dismiss mixing desks completely but does see the DAW as a capable standalone device in certain circumstances. “In post and broadcast, mixers like to have some sense of the DSP involved for monitoring, as well as having a second layer of processing for the DAW,” says Graham. “This hybrid capability is the best of both worlds in being able to mix in the box with EUCON or using the console’s DSP, which also gives full monitoring control.”

Merging Technologies, manufacturer of the Pyramix DAW, is not affiliated to any particularly console or controller and has seen a dramatic uptake of in the box mixing, often for practical and financial reasons. “In the last three to four years users have realised they are able to have ultra high track counts, up to 384 channels, all within the DAW,” comments software products manager Johan Wadsten. “That means they don’t have to buy another expensive console like a DFC to do additional mixing.”

As would be expected console manufacturers stoutly argue the case for a separate control surface or mixer. “The DAW has definitely become a more widely used tool, both for audio processing and mixing,” comments Dan Page, sales application specialist at DiGiCo. “However, the physical, tactile control provided by a console makes the mixing process much more intuitive. Imagine mixing hundreds of channels internally in a DAW with a mouse and keyboard; it would be virtually impossible.”

There is the perception that younger engineers are more accepting of mixing in the box and using a mouse and keyboard to operate virtual faders, while older sound editors and mixers are inherently opposed to the idea. Robbie Weston, former owner of Silk Sound, once lamented the sight of audio suites that had a TV monitor, loudspeakers left and right and only a computer and a keyboard in front of the operator. Writing a fade, dragging a line, typing in some numbers – I just despair!” he said.

But this view is also held amongst many of today’s leading practitioners. “You cannot create a mix in a DAW you can only create a balance of different levels between elements,” observes Chris Turner, a sound designer at London post house Jungle. “To mix, levels need to be adjusted throughout to highlight the most important sounds at any given moment and some elements need to fade away to create the space for these sounds not to become muddy.”

Laying up tracks and pre-mixes “in the box” makes sense but for everything else don’t expect the altar of sound to go anywhere anytime soon.