Effective Mixdown With MOTU's Digital Performer

Digital Performer Notes & Techniques

Published in SOS June 2006
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Technique : Digital Performer Notes

Your next project might be a four-track demo or a 100-track surround mix for cinema. Either way, at some stage you're going to have to mix it — but with DP on your side, that doesn't need to be a headache.

Robin Bigwood

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By submixing audio tracks to Aux tracks, via DP's busses, you can control the level of many tracks with just one fader, and economise on plug-in use in the process.
By submixing audio tracks to Aux tracks, via DP's busses, you can control the level of many tracks with just one fader, and economise on plug-in use in the process.

The mixdown stage of a project can be exciting — it's often a moment when things start to sound really good and individual tracks begin to work well together. It's also the stage at which you can confidently bring into play all those fabulous plug-ins we all shell out so much for! But start off in the wrong way and managing multiple tracks can become tricky. It's all too easy to be overwhelmed by so many mixer channels, become swamped in plug-in windows and end up feeling as though you're going backwards. So this month we'll take a look at how some of DP's features can help you make light work of mix management, and how some different approaches to mixing can make your mixes quicker and better sounding.

The Mixing Board

This might seem rather obvious, but if you're going to mix you really need to know your way around the Mixing Board window. As is the case with most features in Digital Performer, the Mixing Board is highly configurable, hides a few tricks up its sleeve and repays some 'power user' knowledge.

If you're using DP 4.5 or later, you should know that the Mixing Board is an option for display in either the central or 'side-bar' cells of the Consolidated Window. This is a great feature for providing ready access to the mixer while you're working on your project, but for me (and most other DP users I know) the better visibility and flexibility that comes with the Mixing Board being 'popped out' into its own window is far preferable when it comes to actually mixing. It's easily achieved: just click the Mixing Board title-bar button that looks like an arrow pointing up and to the right, and in the new window that appears click the 'Zoom' button (a small square superimposed on a bigger square) to make the Mixing Board appear full-size.

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A surprising amount of customisation of 'look and feel' of the Mixing Board is available from its mini-menu. This is also where you can easily create Track Groups and set up MIDI control of faders and pans.
A surprising amount of customisation of 'look and feel' of the Mixing Board is available from its mini-menu. This is also where you can easily create Track Groups and set up MIDI control of faders and pans.

You can also click the Mondrian-esque 'Expand' title-bar button (or hit Alt-Apple-E) to show (or hide) the Track Selector List, which allows you to choose which tracks are visible at any time. If your Mixing Board shows no tracks, you can be confident that's because no tracks are highlighted in the Track Selector List, and you can quickly reveal them all by clicking on the first track in the list and dragging down to the last, rather than laboriously clicking each individually.

Other features of the Mixing Board are accessed from its mini-menu. The topmost options of this menu provide a way to customise your view of the Mixing Board, hiding or showing individual sections. If you're not using any sends, for example, these can be hidden, and you might decide to hide 'Fader Readout' if you're happier using your ears and don't want to be bothered with exact track-level values. If only you could do the same for Pans...

The next group of mini-menu options is very useful. Auto-resize, which is 'on' by default, causes the popped-out Mixing Board window to resize automatically every time you hide or show tracks with the Track Selector List — very tidy. The 'Set Number of Effects Inserts' and 'Set Number of Effects Sends' options are great if you're into more complex and extensive mix architectures (of which more in a minute), allowing for a rather overwhelming maximum of 20 insert and 20 send slots. You'd need a big monitor! The 'Use Narrow View' option (Shift-Apple-N) is useful for everyone, as it cuts the width of any Mixing Board view by about a third, squeezing more tracks on to your screen. You lose fader scales and send buttons, but nothing else.

Finally, in this little examination of the Mixing Board's nether regions, I can't speak highly enough of the mini-menu's 'Lock Layout to Track Order' option. This simply keeps track ordering in the Mixing Board, Tracks Overview and Sequence Editor window harmonised, so that changes to track order in one are reflected in the others. For big mixes, where you'd probably have a concept of left-to-right or up-and-down grouping of tracks into drums, guitars, vocals, and so on, this is invaluable and means that tracks are always where you expect, whichever window you're using.

Knowing your way around the Mixing Board is crucial, but how you actually set up your mix, and the strategies you employ for handling signal-flow and routing, are what can determine whether you — and your computer — cope with a mix or not! So read on for some suggestions regarding good mix practice, which make the most of DP's signal-routing and effects-handling features.

Quick Tips
The Name Game: Track colour can help you navigate your Mixing Board, but there's nothing like good track naming to take away the last vestiges of uncertainty. Just Alt-click a track name in the Mixing Board, Tracks Overview or Sequence Editor to rename it. DP can cope with very long track names, but bear in mind that anything over about 11 characters will be abbreviated in the Mixing Board.
On The Busses: If you habitually use a lot of busses for creating submixes and handling Aux Send routing and other tasks, it can be confusing keeping track of which you've used and which you haven't. If this bothers you enough, you can actually name busses and buss pairs, making configuration in the Mixing Board much clearer. This is done in the Audio Bundles window, accessed from the Studio menu, or with Shift-U, under the Busses tab. Just Alt-click a buss name to rename it. In the same place you can also delete unused busses and set up many new ones in one fell swoop.
Auxiliary Power

DP uses busses to mix multiple signals together, just as in an analogue mixer. Often you'll be using Main Out 1-2 or Built-in Audio 1-2 as an output for all your audio tracks, as these are busses that are already 'wired-up' to your audio hardware. However, DP also has busses that aren't, such as 'Buss 1-2', and these are for routing signals from place to place within the Mixing Board. So what has this got to do with mixing? Well, by configuring related tracks (such as all your drum tracks) to output to their own buss pair, and then creating a new Aux track with this same buss pair as an input, you create a drum 'subgroup' that combines all your drum tracks into a single channel. The overall level of your drums can then be adjusted using a single fader, and plug-ins can be placed in the subgroup's insert slots rather than on all the drum tracks individually. It doesn't stop with drums, either — you can usefully end up with subgroups for guitars, backing vocals, software instruments, percussion, and any other group of related tracks. For a big mix, it can mean the difference between dealing with six faders and dealing with 60.

The screenshot at the start of the article shows a simple subgroup setup: a 12-track recording of drums and guitars (coloured blue and red respectively) equipped with two subgroup Aux tracks (coloured yellow). There are a few interesting things to note from this typical setup:

First, you need separate buss pairs for each subgroup aux you want to create: here, drums are submixed to buss 1-2 and guitars to buss 3-4.

Second, while both subgroup Aux tracks are carrying plug-ins that treat the entire submix, the individual tracks can still have their own plug-ins where necessary — note the reverb on the snare-drum track and EQs on the guitar tracks.

Third, because the submixes are taking place via stereo busses, the pan positions of the tracks that feed them are preserved in the Aux track subgroups.

Finally, not every track needs to be submixed. In this example, the bass guitar track stays directly routed to the Main Outs.

Setting up subgroups is easy. Just create an Aux track and set its input to be an unused buss pair and its output to be your main hardware output pair (such as 'Main Out 1-2'). Then, for any track you want to submix to this Aux, choose the same buss pair for its output.

'W' Is For Wonderful
DP's Track Groups are tremendously powerful (see page 210), and you can read more about them in the Performer Notes column from April 2003's Sound On Sound (www.soundonsound.com/sos/apr03/articles/performernotes0403.asp). However, there's an additional keyboard shortcut that's incredibly handy in many mix situations — the 'W' key. In the Mixing Board, if you drag a fader while holding down the 'W' key, all other visible faders also move, maintaining their relative positions. This works for Pan controls too, and for Mute and Solo status, and for Automation record and play. This little shortcut makes it fast and easy to control multiple mix elements without bothering with Track Groups, and if you use the Track Selector list to control which tracks are visible you can decide exactly which tracks are included in the temporary group.
Send Secrets

If submixing using busses and Aux tracks can make your mix more manageable, bringing in Aux Sends can be even more useful, and can have a dramatic positive impact on processor usage.

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Here, 16 tracks are utilising their Aux Sends to share a single reverb and still retain individual control over reverb levels — a flexible and very economical arrangement. The Mixing Board is shown in its narrow view mode, with a cut-down insert and send section.
Here, 16 tracks are utilising their Aux Sends to share a single reverb and still retain individual control over reverb levels — a flexible and very economical arrangement. The Mixing Board is shown in its narrow view mode, with a cut-down insert and send section.

Consider a mix featuring 16 tracks of bass, guitars, drums, piano and vocals, all recorded dry but all needing reverb to help them blend together and to create a realistic feel. You could add a reverb plug-in to every track, but as well as taking forever to set up and being really cumbersome to adjust en masse, those reverbs would represent an enormous processor hit, enough to bring an older Mac to its knees. You could also submix the lot and put one reverb on the Aux-track subgroup. This would be great in terms of processor hit (one reverb instead of 16) but terrible in terms of controllability, with all tracks picking up exactly the same amount of reverb. Fortunately, there's a third way.

The idea is that you create an Aux track, set its input as an unused buss or buss pair and its output as your main hardware output, and place in one of its insert slots your reverb of choice. Then, in the Mixing Board, configure on all your tracks an Aux Send, with the same buss as you just chose for your reverb Aux track. These Aux Sends 'split off' a duplicate of the original dry signal from each track and route it to the Aux track carrying the reverb plug-in. Because the amount of signal split from each track is controlled by the Aux Send level knob, you decide how much reverb signal is added to individual tracks.

This is a great way of working with reverbs, and it works equally well for various delay effects, too. It's important to note, though, that you'll achieve the best results if you set your Aux reverbs or delays to output a 100 percent wet signal. This is because the dry signal is already accounted for in the original tracks' signals (which are still routed to your main outputs in the normal way). You don't need the plug-in to add any more dry signal.

Essential Mix Plug-Ins
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DP's bundled plug-ins, freeware VST or Audio Unit offerings and full-price third-party products all have their place in producing a great-sounding mix.
DP's bundled plug-ins, freeware VST or Audio Unit offerings and full-price third-party products all have their place in producing a great-sounding mix.
General mixing techniques aside, what specific plug-ins are best to use for different tasks? Here's a quick run-down of the ones I personally can't live without:
EQ & Compression: Masterworks Equalizer is fabulous for general EQ use, and using its Type III curves can give a really punchy sound. The low-cut filter is also superb for reducing unnecessary low end. Don't be afraid to use it on all your tracks! For conventional wide-band compression its probably best to look at third-party plug-ins. For a freebie, Blockfish (www.digitalfishphones.com) is remarkable, while Trackplug (www.wavearts.com) is an immensely useful channel strip. Vintagewarmer (www.pspaudioware.com) seems to make everything sound better, and can operate in single- or multi-band modes, so it's useful on individual tracks as well as submixes. Don't overlook the Masterworks Compressor either: it works beautifully on submixes.
Reverbs: Although it's no Lexicon 960, I do make use of Everb rather a lot, especially its early reflections component. Otherwise, I tend to choose Plate (often using decorrelation and pre-delay), the shareware Ambience (www.smartelectronix.com) or the wonderful Altiverb (www.audioease.com). Renaissance Reverberator (www.waves.com) is also rather nice, and is more flexible than most other non-convolution reverbs.
Delays: Echo and Delay are useful, but for more creative stuff and flanging I'd recommend PSP Audioware's PSP42 and PSP84. For chorus, the freeware Monstachorus (www.betabugsaudio.com) is great, and the likes of Audioease's Deep Phase Nine and the freeware Supaphaser (www.smartelectronix.com) will both more than fit the bill for phasing. **4
Mix Management

One of the problems with all DAW software like DP is that the mouse only allows you to adjust one fader at a time. So unless you blow some cash on a hardware control surface, what can you do? The answer is: a lot! For starters, DP has various Track Group features that allow you to adjust many tracks by working with only one. Track Groups can encompass selection and editing, but for mixing our needs are less extensive. Here's something to try:

1. With your Mixing Board open and all your tracks displayed, go to the mini-menu and select Create Group, or hit control-N.

2. The mouse pointer turns into a chunky cross-hair, and you can now click on any faders, pans or send knobs that you'd like to group together. Try clicking on several faders. They should start flashing green.

3. Now hit Return. The New Track Group dialogue box appears, confirming that you're about to make a Custom group consisting of volume faders, and inviting you to name the group.

4. Name it, then click OK to close the dialogue box.

 

You'll find that the faders you clicked are linked together, so that when you move one, they all move. If you need to adjust just one, drag it while holding down the 'G' key.

You can create as many groups as you like in this way, and it's easy to suspend or delete them, too, if you later find you don't need them. You simply choose Track Groups from the Project menu, and in the Track Groups window (which can form part of the Consolidated Window) click the box next to the group name to deselect it. You can also click a group name and choose Delete Track Group from the mini-menu, to get rid of it for good.

DP News
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For current owners or prospective purchasers of MOTU audio hardware with Audiodesk software, the upgrade pricing for DP5 is particularly tempting.
For current owners or prospective purchasers of MOTU audio hardware with Audiodesk software, the upgrade pricing for DP5 is particularly tempting.
It's a pretty quiet month on the Digital Performer front, except for the official announcement of DP version 5 on www.motu.com. This gives the lowdown on all the features previewed at the NAMM and Sounds Expo shows earlier this year, and also confirms an upgrade cost of $195. MOTU's UK distributor Musictrack are showing an upgrade cost of £135.13 for owners of any previous version of DP and £199 for users of the Audiodesk software. This pricing brings up an interesting comparison. Apple's Logic Pro 7.2 is typically available for £630, but for the same money you could get DP5 and a MOTU Ultralite Firewire audio interface, by using the MOTU Audiodesk to DP5 upgrade offer! Only a little more would get you an 828MkII or Traveler and DP5. And what completely changes the landscape is DP5's bundled instruments: DP can no longer be criticised as lacking in this area. Some interesting times ahead, I think...
MIDI Control

If you have any sort of MIDI control surface, or even a knob-equipped MIDI controller keyboard, you can easily use this to control DP's Mixing Board and gain the advantages of hands-on mixing:

1. In the Mixing Board mini-menu, choose Attach MIDI Controller.

2. With the resulting cross-hair mouse pointer, click on the fader, pan or send knob you'd like to control via MIDI. The control becomes surrounded with a flashing red box.

3. Now wiggle the knob, wheel or slider on your MIDI controller to 'teach' DP the MIDI message to be associated with it.

4. If necessary, continue to click and wiggle to set up extensive MIDI control, and hit Return when you've finished.

DP can only use continuous controller messages for MIDI control of the Mixing Board, not pitch bend, note or 'switch' data. Cancelling MIDI control is even simpler than setting it up: just choose 'Clear MIDI Controller' from the mini-menu and click on the faders or knobs you no longer want to be remotely controlled, before hitting the Return key. 

In Glorious Colour
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If you use track colour to your advantage, track grouping and routing in the Mixing Board becomes easier to understand at a glance.
If you use track colour to your advantage, track grouping and routing in the Mixing Board becomes easier to understand at a glance.
Newcomers to DP often find the idea of track colour, most conspicuous from the 'Col' column in the Tracks Overview window, rather quaint and a bit 'System 7' (long-standing Mac users will know what I mean!). But track colour comes into its own during mixing, because the colours set in the Tracks Overview are very prominent in the Mixing Board, at the bottom of each 'channel strip'. A couple of seconds spent grouping your tracks by similar colour in the Tracks Overview can result in glorious clarity in the Mixing Board. I generally choose a common colour for each instrument or vocal group, separate colours for Instrument tracks, and different colours again for Aux and Master Fader tracks. This, combined with sensible track naming and ordering, can in itself improve the manageability of a mix no end, and possibly even contribute to it ultimately sounding better.

DAW Tips from SOS

 

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