When a Grammy winning mixer and long-time analog advocate moves from working on a Neve console to a system that fits in a backpack you know the In-The-Box revolution is in full swing.
I met Andrew Scheps (Adele, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jay-Z, Metallica) on the set of Pensado’s Place last summer and sat through his interview when he dropped the news to Dave – he had moved 100% in the box.
Initially I was shocked, since I’ve known him as a console mixer for so long, but as you’ll see, he has some great reasons for the switch.
Photo by Brian A. Petersen
D/A Conversion Is The Worst Part Of Any Digital Chain
The thing that was getting at Andrew the most about using outboard gear (including his favorite compressors) and running his Pro Tools sessions through the console was the fact that he had to convert all of the audio from digital to analog, and then back to digital again.
During his interview (which you should watch in its entirety) Scheps explains how much better it is to keep the audio in the DAW. In his own words:
The D/A conversion is the worst part of any digital chain by far [so now] I don’t go through any. I feel like I’m sonically gaining something by never coming out [of the box]. – Andrew Scheps (U2, Justin Timberlake, Green Day)
Andrew brings up a great point. While good conversion is necessary for quality outboard processing or summing, it’s not just the A/D part of the conversion that’s important (bringing the audio back in to the computer), but what happens to the audio when it leaves the digital domain in the first place.
All your audio must leave its perfectly quality digital state and be “processed” back into analog only to be “processed” again on its way back in.
Just more and more signal degradation. Getting further away from the original sound you were given to mix.
Nobody Could Tell The Difference In My Mixes
The biggest fear for a guy like Andrew when it comes to moving all in-the-box is whether or not the quality of his work will suffer. Will people notice a change?
I wouldn’t be [mixing in the box] if it weren’t that for me at this moment my mixes sound better. When I started to send mixes [that were done in the box] to the clients and all I got back were normal mix notes, I knew that this would work. – Andrew Scheps (Beyonce, Ziggy Marley, Black Sabbath)
He brings up another good point. When the bands, labels, and occasional friend hears one of his in-the-box mixes and don’t say “Hmmm, something is weird about this mix, it doesn’t sound as good as your normal stuff…” you can be sure that mixing that way isn’t a downgrade in quality.
In fact in another fantastic interview, Andrew mentioned that he mixed a project on the road on headphones!!) and the mastering engineer didn’t do anything to it:
One of [my mixes] was mastered at Abbey Road, and they have amazing gear there and the guys are great – and when I sent the mix I warned them “I don’t know guys, let me know if you hear any problems,” and when the A&R guy walked in the room 30 minutes after mastering began the engineer said “I mean you paid for another hour so we can run it through some gear if you want but I’ve already done a flat transfer of the mix because it’s done – there was nothing to change. – Andrew Scheps (Audio Slave, Bon Jovi, Lady Gaga)
Dude is mixing major label projects on headphones, on his laptop, while traveling, and the mastering guys at Abbey Road can’t find anything wrong with it. Impressive.
What Can We Learn From This?
More and more top level mix engineers are leaving the hassle of analog and jumping head first into in-the-box mixing. Andrew Scheps is just one of the most notable in my mind because of his history of strong advocacy for analog mixing.
On the Avid forums he wrote:
I am painfully aware of my legacy of quotes referring to mixing using analog equipment. That is how I mixed. For years. I was an evangelist for it; as much for the ergonomic, visceral workflow as the sonics. Now I mix ITB. It’s a completely different way of working. I still love mixing and try and make every mix I do super exciting and musical. – Andrew Scheps (Kid Rock, Our Lady Peace, Josh Groban)
So how does this apply to us home studio (and almost all of us) in-the-box mixers?
It simply reinforces one thing: the gear you mix on is not the bottleneck holding you back from sonic greatness. You are.
And that, my friend, is fantastic news!
It means that you don’t NEED a Neve 88RS or an SSL4000 console to get a pro sounding mix. You don’t need racks of boutique outboard comperssors.
So why do his mixes sound so great if he’s using the same kind of gear you and I have in our studios? Two reasons: great raw material and some ridiculous mixing chops.
If you were to focus all of your energy on recording better sounding tracks – tracks so good that when you pull up the faders they virtually mix themselves – and then improving your mixing abilities, you’d start delivering final mixes that you are proud of.
Yes it will take time to get better.
But improving yourself as an engineer is the only guaranteed way to improve your final mixes. Gear will never do that for you.