Make mixing in Cubase Pro 8 that little bit easier with VCA Faders.
Back in SOS October 2014 (http://sosm.ag/cubase-vca-1), Matt Houghton expressed a wish for a true VCA-style fader/automation system in what was then Cubase 7.5. Matt devised a workaround solution that still applies for anyone using a ‘lite’ or older version of Cubase, but Cubase Pro 8, which was released shortly after that article was published, includes VCA fader facilities. These provide some useful options for streamlining your mix and automation processes, and are well worth exploring.
There’s no great mystery to the advantages of voltage-controlled amplifier (VCA) faders. In suitably equipped mixers (hardware or software) you can link any group of standard channel faders to a VCA fader: adjust the VCA fader and it automatically applies the same gain change to any of the linked channels while preserving the relative level differences between those linked channels. Used to manage levels of particular instrument groups (drums, guitars, bass, vocals and so on), it means far fewer faders to worry about when setting your overall mix balance. And, in systems where the VCA faders can be automated, the process of creating your mix automation is also made that much easier.
You can achieve similar things by using sub-group channels, and Cubase has had its Group Channels for quite some time. There’s one important distinction to note, though: Group Channels involve the routing of audio from the various standard channels through to the new submix/group channel and, from that submix channel, on to the master output. With VCA faders, there is no additional routing involved; all the VCA fader does is control the gain of the standard channels that are linked to it.
The combination of Groups and VCA faders presents you with some useful choices. For example, consider a typical multi-channel drum recording. If you use the individual channels just to balance the kit (with or without insert effects on individual channels) but wish to apply some kit-level compression and reverb, a Group Channel might work best. The audio from your individual drum channels will all be routed to the Group Channel, onto which you can (a) place a compressor insert effect and (b) set a send to your reverb effect — job done, and your Group Channel fader will control the overall level of the kit quite happily.
However, if you want to apply send effects only to specific individual channels of the drum kit (for example, reverb to the snare and toms but not to the kick), the Group Channel approach is perhaps not ideal. As you adjust the Group Channel fader to adjust the overall level of your kit, the amount of post-fader send levels in the individual channels are not changed. Lowering the Group Channel fader to zero will silence the kit, but the individual channels will still be sending audio to any send effects — so you’d still hear elements of the kit on the reverb on the effects channel.
Using a VCA fader rather than a Group Channel fader to control the overall volume brings a different, and in this case, more desirable result. As the VCA fader directly changes the audio levels for the individual drum channels, when the VCA fader is lowered, so is the audio contribution to any post-fader sends that you’ve configured on the individual channels. Lower the VCA fader to zero and, not only do you silence the kit, you also stop any signal from the individual channels reaching the reverb effect via their sends.
Behind the scenes, the new VCA faders aren’t entirely new: they’re actually an extension of the existing channel-linking features in Cubase Pro 8. Having selected a series of channels in the Mix Console, right-clicking opens a pop-up menu from which you can select Link Selected Channels. This opens the Link Group Settings panel where you can configure which channel properties will become linked. The panel also includes the ‘Use VCA Fader’ option and, if selected, a new VCA fader channel (with a green fader head) will be added to the project. If you want to bypass the Link Group Settings panel, there is also an ‘Add VCA Fader to Selected Channels’ option in the pop-up menu.
New link groups are numbered by default but you can rename the link (at the top of the VCA fader channel) and rename the VCA fader channel itself (in the standard virtual scribble strip at the base of the channel). You can also re-position a VCA fader channel in the Mix Console by moving it within the Project Window’s Track List. It’s also worth noting that VCA faders are not just for use with audio channels; instrument and MIDI channels can also be included in a Link Group and controlled via a VCA fader.
An individual channel can only be linked to one Link Group (and therefore one VCA fader) at any one time. However, you can still ‘nest’ VCA faders. For example, taking our multitrack drum kit example again, if you assigned your various snare mics to one VCA fader and your multiple kick mics to a second VCA fader (and so on), this provides you with a series of VCA faders for easy balancing of your various drum kit elements.
You can then select these VCA faders and, via the same process as described above, control these VCA fader channels using a further VCA fader, which becomes your ‘drum master fader’ for balancing the overall kit level relative to other elements (guitars, vocals, bass and so forth) in your mix. With complex projects featuring lots of tracks, using VCA faders — nested or otherwise — provides an excellent means of reducing the number of individual faders you have to deal with during the mixing stage.
It would be great if every mix was simply a case of pushing faders until each instrument was at a suitable level, but in most cases these days some mix automation is required. This might require you to automate levels (or other settings) for your individual channels, of course, but you can also automate VCA faders.
If you apply level automation to both individual channels and VCA faders linked to those individual channels, the automation data is ‘summed’ to produce a level envelope (a feature that wasn’t easy with Matt’s workaround). This can take a little while to get your head around but, as shown in the screenshot, for the individual channel (in this case a kick drum) you see both the individual channel’s automation data (the thin — editable — line within the lane) and a thick line that shows the resultant volume changes once any VCA fader automation is added to the individual channel automation data.
VCA fader tracks also display volume-envelopes automation lanes, and you can edit these. As you do so, you can watch the thicker resultant automation curve change within any linked individual channel.
There are three further things to be aware of. First, if you have ‘nested’ VCA faders (as I have in the screenshot with an individual kick drum channel, a ‘kick master’ VCA fader and a ‘drum master’ VCA fader that controls the whole drum kit), the top-level VCA fader shows a single (editable) automation envelope while the nested VCA fader shows both its (editable) automation envelope and a resultant automation envelope (in this case, the result of the ‘kick master’ and ‘drum master’ VCA faders). However, in the individual channel (in this case the kick drum), you still only see two automation curves; one from the individual channel and the resultant envelope which, in this case, is the resultant of the individual envelope plus a combination of all of the nested VCA faders.
Second, if looking at all these multiple volume envelopes gets your head spinning, you can clean up the display of the data. From the VCA fader’s pop-up menu, simply select the ‘Combine Automation of VCA and Linked Channels’ option. This converts any individual channel’s resultant volume envelope into the actual (editable) automation data for that channel and resets the VCA fader’s automation data to a static value of zero. This is actually quite useful if you like to do your VCA level automation in a number of passes in that it allows you to visualise more clearly the changes you are making with each pass.
Third, some care is needed if you use VCA faders for automating mute or solo operations. When adding volume automation via a VCA fader, you only need to activate the ‘write’ status for the VCA fader concerned. That automation data will automatically be applied to any channel linked beneath that VCA fader. However, if you want to use the VCA fader’s mute and solo buttons to add automation to the individual linked channels, you have to also engage the ‘write’ status of any of the linked channels that you wish that automation to apply to. I’m not sure if this is ‘by design’ or just something of a quirk, and I’ll leave better minds than mine to work that one out!