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Getting The Most From Yamaha's Digital Mixers

Insider Tips & Tricks From The Pros By Paul White
Published November 1999

Getting The Most From Yamaha's Digital Mixers

The flexibility of Yamaha's popular 0‑series digital mixers means that there are as many ways to use them as there are owners. Paul White passes on some tips from both Yamaha insiders and professional users.

Ever since the launch of the Promix 01, Yamaha seem to have been on a crusade to take digital mixing to the project‑studio market. Today they have the low‑cost 01V, the powerful but affordable 03D and their flagship 02R, all priced to appeal to various segments of the private studio marketplace. These are powerful mixers, with onboard effects and dynamics processing that only a few years back would have cost rather more than the mixers themselves — but for the user making the move from analogue, they can appear intimidating. Instead of a control for each function, normally familiar operations, such as EQ, are often accessed by a single knob, and what would normally be the channel faders now control aux send levels, bus output levels and master effects levels as well as channel levels. When you sit down and look at the sheer number of knobs that would have been needed to access the controls of such a mixer conventionally, you can understand why Yamaha, and other digital console manufacturers, have taken this route — the tiny 03D, for example, would probably be over two metres wide if everything had its own knob, and that's not counting the rack of outboard effects and dynamic processing that would be needed. Of course some top studio console manufacturers provide exactly this kind of analogue lookalike interface, but the cost is astronomical and the consoles themselves are huge.

The flipside of all this power is, of course, that the learning curve may seem daunting if you're moving from an analogue setup, but having worked with a Yamaha 03D for several months now, I can say with all honesty that finding your way around the controls very quickly becomes second nature. However, the quantity and flexibility of the O‑series mixers' features mean that even when you know how to achieve the results you're after, it's easy to overlook other features and possible ways of working. Similarly, the main reason people buy digital consoles is because of their ability to save snapshots or scenes of all the control settings and to automate mixing, but if you've never mixed this way before, it can be difficult knowing the most effective way to work. To try to help you steer a course through the many different possibilities offered by these mixers, we asked some people who work with Yamaha digital mixers for their suggestions and advice on how to use their facilities to best effect.

The Inside Story

Few people know the O‑series mixers better than Terry Holton, the UK‑based designer behind the Yamaha mixer range, and Alan Johnson, product specialist and Pro Audio Marketing Manager at Yamaha‑Kemble UK. "For me, the 02R is almost like my main instrument," insists Alan. "It's a major part of the creative process of making music. For example, if I'm working with a basic sample loop, I may compress it and EQ it straight away using the facilities on the 02R before I start on the traditional phase of the mix. I set up all the EQ and dynamics first, followed by any scene changes, then I bring in the dynamic automation towards the end of the mix because by that time, I have a picture of what I want in my mind. For me, the automation has to come last, because if you work in chunks, it's quite hard to start piecing it all back together. If I feel the need to make subsequent changes to the arrangement, I'll usually use my hard disk recorder to chop up and edit the mix.

"Yamaha's Terry Holton.Yamaha's Terry Holton.

When you first come across mix automation, there are so many options that it can be difficult to know how best to proceed. The traditional way of doing it is to do the first pass in absolute mode, then use relative mode to fine‑tune those moves. "That's true," agrees Terry, "though we've discovered that a lot of people buying our mixers don't know much about the traditional ways of using automation. Even at the APRS show, we spoke to a lot of 02R owners who had never used the automation at all."

Alan Johnson.Alan Johnson.Alan explains: "The way the automation system works is that everything starts from your first scene memory, so it's worth spending some time getting that right. The more care you take here, the less you'll have to redo automation moves later. For example, I tend to make use of the onboard libraries to save EQ settings for specific applications, so if I'm working on a dance track using familiar sounds, like bass drums and hi‑hats, I'll usually load in EQ settings that I've saved earlier and that I know will work either as they are or with very little adjustment. Usually I'll just insert a Channel Strip Library — for example, a 909 bass drum library, EQ, Dynamics and levels all saved as per my liking. However, this is just a starting point, so once things start building, adjustments are made to most parameters to get the sounds to sit in the mix. The point is that very quickly I can build up a starting point for the whole song.

"A lot of my mixing starts with my MPC sequencer, so I find it helps if I don't start to use Automix too early on in a project. Likewise I don't like to get involved with off‑line automation editing if I can help it, because although Yamaha make it as easy as they can, it's still pretty tedious and it's usually much quicker just to write that part of the automation again. As the first scene is being built up and fine‑tuned, I tend to save it at regular intervals, just as you would with a sequence you were working on.

"Of course there comes a point when you need to use the Automix, and in my opinion, that gives the 02R and the other mixers in the range a lot of creative power. However, you need to have a fairly clear idea of what you want to do, otherwise you'll spend more time fiddling about than you have to. Fine‑tuning the fader moves to keep the levels balanced is something you need to do early on, but I also like the way the effects send levels can be automated, as it allows me to do rhythmical things that would be impossible without automation. Within the musical genre I like to work in, I use a lot of fader movements, so the mixer becomes part of the creative music‑making process — it's no longer just something for mixing and balancing sounds."

Terry: "In the 02R and the 03D, you can isolate the faders from scene changes, so that fader automation is not affected when a new scene is called up during a song.

As well as automating individual parameter changes within a song, it's also possible to call up complete scenes at any point. This may sound drastic, but has advantages in some situations, as Alan explains: "I use a lot of scene changes, but that's maybe because of the style of music I like to write [ie. dance music]. In theory you could have separate scenes set up for verse, bridge, chorus and so on, but in conventionally constructed music, it might be more efficient to use the automation to call up channel libraries rather than complete mixer scenes. Most of the time you won't want to change everything in a mix, so loading in new channel settings from the library is an effective way to work."

Terry adds: "In the 02R and the 03D, you can isolate the faders from scene changes, so that fader automation is not affected when a new scene is called up during a song. The other thing that's useful is that you can put fade times into scene recalls so that instead of getting an abrupt change, one scene merges into the next over a period of time. If an Effect retains the same algorithm but includes modified parameters, the change will happen immediately. However, if the Effect is changed to one using a different algorithm, the Effect will mute momentarily while the new algorithm is loaded."

With the 02R, you can also set a different fade time for each fader — with the 03D and 01V the fade time is global. As Alan said, if you get something wrong, it's usually easiest to go back and do it again rather than get into off‑line editing, but you should also be aware that there's a relative automation mode, so if you have a lot of automation moves written, you can go back and just nudge the overall level up or down as you need to.

"I think it's also worth mentioning that you can use some automation during the overdub process, for example where a musician wants to have a certain instrument drop down at a certain point. Normally, you'd have to do this manually every take, so why not use the automation, even though it may not be something you'll use in the final mix?"

One limitation of the 03D is that it can only hold four different Automixes before you need to save the Automix memory via a MIDI dump. In most instances, the number of song memories runs out way before the actual Automix memory capacity. a friend of mine working with this desk gets around the problem by calling each reel of ADAT tape a single song for Automix purposes, then brings in a new scene at the start of each song on tape to set the starting conditions. I asked Terry if this is the best way of getting round this.

"I can't see any reason why you shouldn't do that," he replies, "though it's often just as easy to dump each mix via MIDI when you want to save it. We sell a lot of MDF2 and MDF3 MIDI data filers that people use for this purpose, because it means they don't have to repatch the MIDI leads connected to their sequencer every time they want to save a mix. We have software for both the Mac and PC that can be used for managing you mixes, but of course any sequencer that can record SysEx can be used. The Zeep software is particularly good for 02R users, not just for storage but also for providing visual representations of the control settings. You can find out more on the Yamaha web site."

Compressors/EQ: Digital Differences

Having used an 03D for a while, I've noticed that the way the equalisation section behaves is very different from a traditional analogue equaliser. Similarly, the compressors on Yamaha digital mixers work very transparently for providing 'invisible' gain control, but this very lack of side effects means that they don't sound like most analogue compressors. I asked Alan and Terry if they recommended using the onboard EQ and dynamics in a different way from analogue units.

I think with both EQs and compressors, people will do better with digital mixers if they take a fresh approach...

Terry responds: "I think with both EQs and compressors, people will do better with digital mixers if they take a fresh approach rather than trying to dial in the settings that they used to use on the analogue equivalent. Instead, you need to use your ears because, with a digital desk, you can use a lot of EQ gain without introducing phase anomalies and such things, and you may end up using a lot more EQ gain to get the result you want. I suspect a lot of the people who express dissatisfaction with the EQ on a digital desk do so because they are locked into an analogue way of thinking and don't understand why the same settings don't always work on a digital EQ. It's the same with compression: if you take the settings you've been using on your Dbx or Drawmer boxes, they won't sound the same. Instead you need to adjust the controls until it sounds right. The compressors in the 02R and 03D are excellent for transparent gain reduction, but are perhaps less strong when you want to use compression as an effect. They do sound different if you drive them really hard, and you can also use the limiters to produce a hard edge to the sound if you want that.

"The metering on these mixers is done on the DSP and if a single full‑scale sample is registered, then the clip light comes on. But the nature of digital audio is that you don't hear clipping unless there are several consecutive samples clipping, so you shouldn't be afraid of driving the system fairly hard.

"One powerful feature of our digital EQ is the way you can stack all the bands at the same frequency if you want to. This doesn't make much sense for boosting, but if you need to set up a really deep notch filter to take care of some problem, it's very useful."

With equalisation, the difference is not only that you may need to use different amounts of EQ gain to get the results you want; often I find it's the phase response of an analogue EQ that produces its sound. For example, when you roll off the high end with a good analogue EQ, it sounds smoothed‑off in some way, whereas with the 03D EQ, the level of the high frequencies goes down, but the sound doesn't have that same 'smoothed over' character. I asked Terry if this is a deliberate design feature of the 03D's EQ algorithms, or just the way it happens to work.

He replies: "By design, digital EQ is typically very precise, with no unexpected interaction between gain boost or cut and the shape and value of the Q, as often occurs with analogue EQ. This precision can be a real strength of digital EQ, but it can also require a slightly different approach to adjusting EQ parameters to achieve the desired result. Since every band of EQ in a Yamaha digital mixer is fully parametric, users should find it beneficial to experiment more with the Q value settings, particularly when applying large amounts of EQ boost.

"However, you can still use favourite outboard processors when mixing. Though the mixers don't have insert points on the tape returns, there's no reason not to take the analogue output from your multitrack, feed it through a line‑level processor such as an analogue equaliser, then feed it into one of the mixer's analogue inputs. You can also use an analogue EQ to process a signal as you record, and that sound will be preserved once the signal is in the digital domain.

"Another thing I'd like to mention about EQ is the libraries. Sometimes users think these are just for storing useful EQ settings, and of course they can do that, but they can also be called up during an automated mix as small snapshots of EQ changes, rather than calling up an entire scene. You can call up settings from the EQ library, the dynamics library or the channel library during an Automix, so you don't always have to bring in completely new scenes. In many cases, you only need one scene to set the initial conditions for a song, then the necessary changes can be handled by bringing in settings from the various libraries or using the dynamic automation."

Clock Watching

A common source of confusion when using a digital mixer with other digital equipment is the necessity for clocking. Terry Holton explains: "I'm pretty sure there are users who aren't aware of all the implications of transferring signals in the digital domain. It isn't enough to set both devices to the same sample frequency — one device must be the master while the other(s) must be set to external digital sync so that they lock to the clock of the master device. If you don't do this, you might think you're getting away with it, but there'll almost certainly be clicks and glitches in the audio.

"In a system that uses word clock to provide a master sync source, you'll normally get the best results if the word clock master is the same device as has the A‑D and D‑A converters in it — usually the mixer. However, if you have a really high‑quality external word clock generator, you can use that to lock all your digital equipment, including your mixer."

Steve Levine

Producer and Yamaha digital mixer enthusiast, Steve Levine.Producer and Yamaha digital mixer enthusiast, Steve Levine.

Yamaha's digital mixers, especially the 02R, have become very popular with professional producers and engineers as well as in the project‑studio market. Among the fans is producer Steve Levine, who uses an 02R in conjunction with an 01V configured as a submixer. I called him to ask if he had any tips to pass on, not realising that Steve's experience with these mixers could fill a book!

"There are lots of little things you get to learn when using these mixers," he explains. "One useful trick with the 02R involves channels 17/18 and 19/20, which can be configured as either digital or analogue inputs. If you go to page 5 of the Dig I/O page and assign input 19/20 as a digital input routed directly to the stereo bus, you'll find the analogue channels are still available to use as well. The only control you get on the digital input is an attenuator, but if you're only bringing in a submix, as I do from my 01V, that's fine.

"I love the automation on the 02R, so I make no excuses for going on about it. One useful feature in the 02R is 'Write to End', which is handy if you've just replaced some old automation data with a new fader move and then you want that fader level to carry on until the end of the song. Normally you'd have to play the sound right through to the end to overwrite the old data, but by using 'Write to End', you can stop anywhere in the song and have that fader level automatically written through to the end of the song.

"Another aspect of these mixers that's underutilised is their ability to function as MIDI remote controllers. For example, the 02R can be used to control the Pro R3 and Rev 500 reverbs, a GM synth, another 02R or 03D, XG synths, to send MIDI Machine Control or even to control the levels in a Pro Tools system. Furthermore, you can get hold of MIDI maps to allow these mixers to work with most audio sequencers, so you can control the levels of the audio tracks using faders rather than a mouse. The 03D (and 01V) may also be used in this way, though they have a more limited number of built‑in control templates.

"On a more creative level, the track delay functions may be used to enhance effects. For example, you can delay one channel of a stereo chorus effect to produce a wider‑sounding result. Real drum ambience can be delayed by a few milliseconds to make the room sound much bigger than it really is, and I have used the key triggering of the internal gates (keyed from the kick and snare channels) to gate the ambience.

"Another effects trick is to set FX1 to tremolo and then feed it into FX2 set up as an auto‑panner. This can produce a great modulation effect for Rhodes sounds.'ll normally get the best results if the word clock master is the same device as has the A‑D and D‑A converters in it — usually the mixer.

"If you need extra outputs and you have an ADAT card fitted, you can use an external ADAT machine (in input monitor mode) as an outboard converter. This is often useful if you need more effects sends or you want to route a signal out of the mix, through an external 'insert' type of effect, then back into the mixer. It's worth noting at this point that using a 20‑bit sound source does produce better results than a 16‑bit source in situations where you have several tracks, all undergoing processing of some kind, whether it be levels, EQ, dynamics or effects. The 16‑bit version sounds noticeably grainy compared to the 20‑bit version, so the new 20‑bit ADATs are definitely an improvement when working with these Yamaha mixers.

"Before leaving this subject, I've also found that using high‑quality interconnects can significantly reduce the occurrence of digital glitches. For S/PDIF, I've been using the Apogee ready‑made cables; for optical, the VDC light‑pipes with the metal connectors seem better than the usual plastic ones, though the Apogee heavy‑duty plastic‑ended light‑pipes are also rather better than the usual ones.

"My own system incorporates quite a few pieces of digital equipment, so I use an Apogee AD8000 master word clock generator that locks my BRC and 02R. The other units then connect via the BRC and 02R and I use coloured word clock cables to help keep track of how things are connected. My own convention is to use green cables for clock inputs and red cables for clock outputs. I've noticed an improvement in sound quality since installing the master word clock generator."

Quick Tip: Fader Assignment

Des Tong.Des Tong.Former Sad Café bassist Des Tong now produces music for videos and computer games. A dedicated 02R user, he passes on a hint for those struggling with the initial learning curve:

"I think the first and most important tip I found with the 02R having such a multi‑function screen was always to check in the top section of the display as this always tells you what function is selected. There were plenty of times when I first started using the 02R when I found myself trying to push the level with a fader and nothing happened. Eventually I realised I was in Aux mode. An elementary mistake but it's a common one to make if you're new to digital consoles.

"I do lots of voice‑over sessions," he adds, "and always have a scene memory set up ready for a basic session. That way I can set up the desk, all ready to record, in seconds just with the press of a recall button."

Quick Tip: Instant Recall

Game music producer Richard Wells with his 02R.Game music producer Richard Wells with his 02R.

Richard Wells uses his 02R to produce video game music and film soundtracks. He explains one of the features on which he is most reliant: "The most important aspect of the 02R for me, working as I do in computer games and film music, is instant recall. This is easily achieved when there are free scene memories, but what do you do when all the scene memories are full? The maximum number of 96 scenes may sound like a lot, but on the feature film Razor Blade Smile alone there were 62 separate music cues. Other than writing over old scenes, what can you do?

"The answer is to indulge in a bit of good housekeeping by using the MIDI bulk dump request facility to back up individual 02R scene memories directly to your sequencer. To do this, connect the MIDI In and Out of the 02R to your sequencer's MIDI Out and In, press the MIDI button on the 02R and go to page 3/5. Select 'TYPE' Scene Memory. Go to 'NUMBER' and select the number of the scene you want to dump. Put your sequencer into record and press EXECUTE bulk dump. After recording, you can check the process worked by changing one letter of the original scene's name, saving the scene in the 02R, then pressing Play on your sequencer. If all is well, the scene memory should change back to its original name (the one you backed up in your sequencer.)

"It's important to remember to name the scene memory and its number in your sequencer, because when you come to reload, the scene will return to its original location. I feel this way of working is a good habit to get into for three reasons. Firstly, it gives you a backup of all your scenes in the most convenient place — your computer (assuming you use a computer as your sequencer). Secondly, it reminds you of what the relevent scene is called whenever you recall a song. I often have scenes named 'theme', 'theme remix', 'theme remix2' and so on, and after a couple of months it's easy to forget which is which. Thirdly, if you ever have to remix on another 02R, all you need to take is your song disk with the MIDI dumps on it!"

Terry Holton's Additional 02R Power User Tips

  • Adjusting Fader Groups (requires v2.0 or higher 02R software): To quickly adjust a fader's relative level within a Fader Group, press and hold the channel's SEL button. While holding the SEL button, move the fader to a new relative level within its Fader Group.
  • Resetting EQ: Simultaneously press the Low and High EQ buttons in the selected Channel Module to reset all the channel's EQ parameters to their default settings (flat). It is also possible to set a single band of EQ to flat by double‑clicking on a band's access button (for instance, Low‑Mid) in the selected Channel Module.
  • Making Global Parameter Settings: To set all sends to an auxiliary to be pre‑fader, set one channel to Pre and then double‑click the parameter with the Enter button. a dialogue box will appear asking for confirmation to set all the sends to pre‑fader. The same method can be used to globally set parameter values for Channel Delays, Digital Attenuation, Scene Memory Fade Times, and so on.
  • Dynamics Processors on Buses: All eight output Buses on the 02R have their own dynamics processors available, although this is not always obvious to all users. To access the dynamics processors for the Buses, press the SEL button for the Stereo Master channel. From the Dynamics editing screen, use the cursor to select B1 — B8 and then apply and edit dynamics as usual.
  • Quick Stereo Pairing: Simultaneously press the SEL buttons for an odd/even pair of channels. a dialogue will appear allowing the channels to be paired together. All parameters will be linked together, although each channel's pan can remain independent. The panpots can be ganged together by simultaneously pressing the L and R buttons in the Pan section of the selected Channel Module. Aux sends can also be quickly paired together by pressing a pair of Aux send buttons in the selected Channel Module.
  • Audio Subgroups (requires v2.0 or higher 02R software): a number of channels can be routed together to be processed as an audio subgroup. For example, route the relevant channels to a pair of Buses (for example, all drums to Buses 1/2). Using the Input Patchbay (Scene 4/5 page), assign Bus 1/2 to either Tape Return channels 1/2 or Line Inputs 17/18. The drums can then be processed as an audio group through that pair of channels with EQ, compression, and so on, and can be controlled from a single fader. This subgroup can then be routed to any auxes or Buses, including the master Stereo Bus.
  • Fader Touch Edit (requires v2.0 or higher 02R software): The 02R's automix system can behave similarly to a much more expensive touch‑sensitive fader automation system by activating the Fader Touch Edit mode. With this enabled, simply moving any fader will cause it to go into write mode and overwrite any previous data for that channel. Use the channel's SEL button to exit fader editing.
  • MIDI Remote Control (requires v2.0 or higher 02R software): a number of external MIDI devices can be remotely controlled from the 02R's motorised faders, and the TC UnitY effects card is also controlled in a similar way. Up to four devices can be configured for remote control. To quickly access the banks of remote devices, press and hold the FLIP button for half a second. Once you have accessed the MIDI Remote devices, you can step through the four assigned devices by pressing and releasing the FLIP button. Press and hold FLIP again to return to controlling the 02R's internal channels.