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Something about summing

As with all brave new worlds, the digital audio revolution has yielded a few disappointments along with countless technological and workflow benefits, writes David Davies. On the one hand, setting up a compact and cost-efficient studio with the capacity to bring in multiple projects at any one time has become considerably easier; on the other, there are many who have missed the 'warmth' and other perceived strengths of analogue.

Bringing analogue summing into a digital workflow is nothing new; indeed, standalone summing boxes have been on the market for the best part of a decade. But, in recent years, the rate of adoption has grown as some producers and engineers have become more vocal about their reservations concerning mixing inside the box, leading them to try to bring together the best of the old and new worlds.

This trend has manifested itself in two primary ways: an increasing number of standalone summing mixers that allow engineers to incorporate analogue mixdown before taking audio back into their DAW for the final stages; and the incorporation of analogue summing into larger configurations that may also be deployed with separate controllers.
 Accepting that the difference in the end product as a result of analogue summing is very much a matter of individual opinion, it’s nonetheless interesting to note a variety of emphases when it comes to user motivation. Some stress the ability to bring a warmth and ‘analogue-y-ness’ to a digital recording; others focus on the capacity to render mixing a more manageable, block-by-block-style process.
 But what does seem to be beyond question is that some users are drifting away from mixing purely in the box. As Dangerous Music president Bob Muller observes: “We always felt that the hybrid studio was where [the market] was going to end up once the dust had settled.”

What’s that all about, then?

As a studio owner-turned-president of a company that manufactures a range of specialist recording and mixing gear, Muller is well placed to track the resurgence of analogue summing. Yet even after nearly a decade of producing summing mixers, he still gets “people coming up to me and saying, ‘I just heard about summing outside the box. What’s that all about, then? How do I do it?'”

Confused definitions

Conveying a simple explanation is not made easier by the fact that, in Muller’s view, the very definition of a summing mixer has become rather confused. As far as Dangerous Music is concerned, it’s multiple channels in, set up in L-R stereo pairs/stereo out with fixed pan and fixed gain on each channel. Anything more elaborate, he suggests, and you need to rethink the terminology.
 “A lot of manufacturers missed the point of the summing mixer concept,” believes Muller. “The panner and the level control already exist in the DAW mixer. You absolutely do not want to repeat in the hardware the functions that you already have in the software; otherwise you would lose the DAW 100% recall capability and be running your audio through unnecessary electronics.”
 As of 2010, Dangerous Music has a three-strong product range of summing solutions for the DAW environment: the original 16-in, 2-out 2-Bus; the 2-Bus LT, featuring a similar but slightly trimmed feature set to enable a lower price point; and the D-BOX, which combines an 8-input summing section with full monitor and cue-talkback sections to yield an all-in-one solution ideally suited to the space-restricted studio set-up.
 All three are “selling very well, year in year out”, says Muller, who readily admits that his move into manufacturing was not exactly the result of rigorous strategic planning. As the former co-owner of New York studio facility Dangerous Music, he had received an increasing number of requests from customers eager to achieve “the Dangerous sound” in smaller mix rooms or home studios. This led to the development of a custom summing box that, in 2001, became the 2-Bus – a product that both kickstarted Dangerous as a manufacturer and led to a whole slew of specialist outboard.
 “A company that has a reputation for a particular colour will produce a box that has their signature sound,” observes Muller. “Our background is in mastering, so for us it’s all about making the summing path very clean. The objective is for it to be musical without being coloured, and for it to be clean without being sterile. Fortunately, Chris [Muth, Dangerous designer] is a genius at achieving that balance.”
 Although understandably keen not to revisit old disputes, Muller admits that analogue summing for DAWs was initially surrounded by controversy: “Some people perceived that we were saying ‘analogue rules, digital sucks’ – which was absolutely not the case.” This kind of sectarianism is now much less in evidence, replaced by a recognition that, ultimately, it all comes down to individual preference: “Simply, [your set-up] has to make you smile when you output the music. It’s all about what works for you.”

Fat, warm, analogue-y

It stand to reason that manufacturers’ individual hallmarks will exert a considerable influence on the sonic character of their summing solutions. Nonetheless, there are some common adjectives that are brought to most discussions about the effect of summing mixers, and they include ‘warmth’, ‘punch’ and ‘impact’.
 “It’s basically about bringing analogue warmth to a recording,” says Tony Larking, MD of TL Audio, which until recently manufactured the Ebony Series A4 summing mixer and is planning to launch a successor product in 2011.
 “Benefits for the sound?” muses Kevin Walker, who handles international sales and marketing for Fat Bustard/Little Bustard summing solution manufacturer Thermionic Culture through his role with Unity Audio. “Well, with these units, it’s all about the sound: making it fat, warm and analogue-y. It sounds a bit corny, but it’s true!”
 A simplified version of its bigger brother, the Little Bustard is a 19-inch 2U valve summing mixer with 16 input channels arranged as 6x stereo pairs incorporating fixed gain at unity level with on-off switches, 4 mono inputs with mute switches, and pan pots that can be defeated by another switch adding an extra 6dB of gain. Meanwhile, the master output section has independent left right 31 position output indented pots with a gain range from 17dB to +2dB. But the range leader remains the Fat Bustard, which combines an input section comprising 4x stereo pairs and 4 mono, all with mute (the mono inputs also have pan pots), alongside a host of “sound shaping possibilities”, encompassing bass (50Hz), treble (10KHz), Stereo Width and Depth controls, as well as the Attitude distortion section and Thermionic Culture’s Varislope EQ technology.
 “When it was originally developed, Fat Bustard was going to be an 8-channel summing mixer, but along the way [Thermionic Culture founder/designer] Vic Keary decided to put some additional processing on the stereo bus,” explains Walker. “Consequently, it’s not a traditional summing mixer, and those [extra features] have really set the unit apart from everything else.”
 Perceived “disgruntlement” with mixing in the box aside, Walker says that the Fat Bustard has struck a chord with a range of users seeking to getting away from being confronted by a “zillion tracks” in favour of “more manageable chunks – like premixed sections, really”.
 “As summing mixers have become more popular over the last few years, a lot of people have experimented with mixing in the box,” says Walker. “So for example, someone working in Pro Tools might have six or eight channels of drums that they can put through a summing mixer like the Fat Bustard to get the sound they want before printing back to two channels of Pro Tools.
 “I’m not suggesting that this is how everyone approaches it – lots of people do want to mix [entirely] in the box – but it is a kind of halfway house. In a sense, it’s like going back to the days of four-track tape machines when you would bounce down to one or two tracks, then record some more.”
 Looking ahead, says Walker, Thermionic Culture is considering the possibility of bringing its summing technology to “something a bit more substantial” – specifically, a modular system entailing a larger frame console and a summing mixer. “It’s still in development, but people would be able to configure the console with the features and the size that they want,” he reveals.

Beyond summing…?

AMS Neve is also contemplating the changing expectations of analogue summing as part of a DAW set-up. The company continues to find an enthusiastic audience for its 16-channel 8816 summing mixer, whose spec includes 16 input channels, four monitor sources and a variety of controls, as well as an analogue-to-digital conversion option that supports standard sample rates to 192kHz and direct conversion to DSD. The mixer can be used as a standalone or in conjunction with the 8804 Fader Pack, which is equipped with Neve’s proprietary Recall utility software to enable the user’s Mac or PC to recall all of the 8804’s settings.
 “Alongside one of our mic pres, the 8816 has really been one of our staples,” says David Walton, who is product manager of the Neve outboard range. “We’ve probably sold 1,000 units since it was introduced in 2005, [going into] everything from bedroom-type operations to major commercial studios.”
 Walton thinks that standalone summing mixers like the 8816 will continue to have an enduring appeal – “they are easy to place in any recording environment” – but adds that Neve is mindful of the trend towards increased flexibility of workflow control.
 “People still want an external box, but they want to control it from the workstation,” he says. “Also, advances in technology mean that, very soon, it should be possible to control external boxes from the workstation itself, or from a dedicated controller that speaks to the workstation. That external box – such a summing mixer – may or may not be integrated into the equipment itself.”
 Dan Duffell from SSL also highlights the increasing desire to combine analogue summing and workstation control, pointing to growing sales for three of its leading products in this regard: the Duality, a classic SSL-style large-format analogue console and DAW controller; the AWS924/948, a medium-format analogue console and DAW controller; and the Matrix, which combines a 40-input mixer and workstation control surface with a software control analogue patchbay.
 The popularity of these multi-function products for commercial studios, suggests Duffell, has its roots in the requirement of many commercial studios to process multiple mixing projects in a single day. “While a lot of engineers have clearly been attracted by the workflow benefits of workstations,” he says, “and have been able to set up smaller, more cost-effective studios, many have ultimately found that they are maybe missing something sonically – the missing part being analogue summing.”
 But while Duffell envisages increasing integration of related functions, he notes that SSL continues to do good business with its 16-input, 8-fader X-Desk summing mixer and its X-Rack modular system, which can be used as a summing mixer when combined with a master bus module.

Summing up

An increasing variety of summing solutions now confront the potential purchaser: to pick just one further example, Drawmer‘s Three-Sum accepts a stereo signal and splits it into three different frequency bands. These three stereo bass, mid and high audio signals can then be processed and re-summed back in the Three-Sum.
 But if all this is merely to scratch the surface of the analogue summing resurgence, it seems clear that, increasingly, hybridisation is the name of the game. And, ultimately, it’s inspiration is rather straightforward, as Duffell observes: “More and more people are realising that the summing can actually bring back some of the sonic edge to their mixing, or add it if it was never fixed on the console beforehand. It’s essentially taking what is very old school console technology and reapplying the best bits to a modern workflow.”