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Gear Corner: A Case For A Hybrid Workflow

Posted on May 15 2018

In the second episode of the Soul Surplus Podcast, Wes and I discussed methods for creating a better workflow in your sessions. We covered everything from organizing files in your DAW to managing your hardware and using templates. It is pretty informative, so if you haven’t checked it out yet  I’m sure you’ll find something useful. Nevertheless, in this installment of “Gear Corner” I want to touch on a particular kind of workflow that has it’s hand more in the creative aspect of production. This kind of workflow lives in both the digital and the analog realm. It takes advantage of the speed of software, and the sound of hardware.  What I am talking about is a hybrid workflow! What does it mean? Working hybrid (in the audio world) simply means combining the use of analog hardware, and digital software. When most engineers talk about using a hybrid setup, they are referring to mixing with hardware inserts, and/or routing the outputs of their console back into Pro Tools/DAW of their choice.  I will touch on hybrid mixing, but I also want to touch on the use of analog gear (instruments and outboard processing) along with software while recording, and the effect it can have on your music!

We are living in a time where tomorrow’s next hit song will be made with headphones, a laptop, and Garageband.  Engineers refer to this as, “in the box,” meaning that it is being done completely with software, on the computer.  It has been well proven that working completely ‘in the box’ is a legitimate and merited way to work. Metro Boomin’ is a producer that has landed numerous Top 10 Billboard songs over the past several years using only Fruity Loops (FL Studio). When it comes to mixing music ‘in the box,’ companies like Waves and Slate Digital have found their way by recreating plugin-emulations of real analog hardware pieces that are inaccessible to the modern bedroom music producer. Some of these emulations include compressors like the LA-2A, 1176, Fairchild 670, equalizers such as the Pultec EQP-1A, 1073EQ, and more. Creating and mixing with digital tools is pretty much the standard for today’s engineers and producers. It is fast, efficient, and can yield professional results. However, where this sort of workflow lacks is in sonics. Digital emulations are just that—copycats of the real thing.  We get asked questions here at Soul Surplus about what VST’s we use, and one question was specifically about the Roady Sample Pack. Our response has always been that we use real analog synthesizers to capture the sound that we do. Out of curiosity though, I watched a demo for a Crumar Roady VST emulation, and I was immediately able to hear where the digital version fell short.  As the owner of both 1176, LA2A, Pultec, and 1073 style analog hardware, and their digital counterparts, I can tell you that their plugin emulations are very useful and sound great but cannot compare to the lush, warm sound and feeling of an ‘all analog’ signal path.

On the flip side, there are purists who use only analog gear as a means to create and record music. There isn’t a computer in sight, from the instruments to the tape machine humming in the corner of the studio. Recording only analog, or “out the box” is a valid and incredibly rewarding way to capture your music. You don’t need to look far to find classic albums that were recorded this way. Thriller, Purple Rain, Paranoid, Rumours, Hot Buttered Soul, Nevermind, I could go on and on about what I love about each of these albums just as a music fan, but that is worth a whole other blog post! From a technical standpoint, these albums are revered for their high sound quality and masterful engineering. While they range in genre and era in which they were recorded, they all hold in common that they were recorded to reel-to-reel tape. A good analogy for tape is the function of your DAW—it records everything you play into it. You can edit, chop and punch over certain parts of your recordings. The difference is that tape imparts a desirable color, and subtle saturation into your recordings, especially as you stack up your track count and drive the tape machine to produce those beautiful harmonics.  The other difference is that recording analog is expensive ($200-300 for a reel of 2-inch tape) and time consuming. I’ve spoken with many engineers who prefer recording to tape not only because it sounds better, but because it forces the musician to have to record the right take without stopping too many times. This is because editing on tape is a painstakingly long and tedious process. I agree that tape many (not every) times sounds better depending on the genre, but the digital workflow will always win when it comes to efficiency and speed.

Mixing with analog outboard processing, or a console also imparts a pleasant sound to a recording.  When watching the Sound City documentary, based on the famous recording studio that housed legends like Fleetwood Mac, Nirvana, and Rage Against the Machine, one can notice that they place a great amount of focus on the importance of their Neve 8025 console.  Back in the day, the console was the centerpiece of every recording studio, because nearly every instrument was processed through it.  The input and output transformers, and EQ/Dynamics processing on the board gave each element of the song a measure of warmth, and glued the track together as a whole. The biggest weakness of mixing through a console or outboard gear, is recalling settings. This is something that is easy to take for granted in the digital world of today, because as soon as we open a session in our DAW, the computer recalls every single setting down to the 3.32 ratio of the compressor on the background vocals. Routing channels and sends is a no brainer digitally while working analog requires you to know how to use your studio’s patchbay.  

The way I came to the realization that a hybrid workflow worked best for me was through analyzing my own strengths. My creativity functions best when I understand my tools inside and out, and I become more handy with outboard gear/synthesizers/pedals when I can physically use my hands to change parameters. I also work pretty fast, so I need to use a recording format that is intuitive and equally as fast as I am. I’m also admittedly a bit of an oldtimer when it comes to the kind of music I have an affinity for.  When I have an idea and I want to reference another song that has similar elements, it usually is a classic record that has been recorded using analog gear. Using outboard processing and vintage synthesizers help me reference the old while creating the new.

Many of us work hybrid and are not even aware of it. In my eyes, as soon as you use any kind of analog processing or instrumentation, and record it into your DAW, you are already deep into the hybrid world.  I knew VST’s wouldn’t cut it for me personally after hearing the Port Rich Vol. 1 sample pack.  The sound of the Moog Opus stayed with me and I could never forget how it sounded, until I decided to pony up a few bucks and get the Korg Minilogue. This was the first analog synthesizer I ever used on my recordings, and it transformed my music as a whole to this day.  Analog synthesizers punch forward in a way that I have not heard many VSTs accomplish. I am unashamed to say that I am truthfully not much of a keyboardist, but this is where the benefit of hybridity excels for me. A lot of my keyboard tracks in Logic have a few edit marks and crossfades in them.  Since I’ve been practicing, the amount of edits needed have thankfully decreased, but being efficient at editing in my DAW has allowed me to work as fast as I want to, while not being slowed down by the process of editing mistakes. I don’t make as many mistakes while I’m playing guitar or bass, but many times as I’m playing, the mixing side of my brain tells me to throw a plugin compressor or a filter on a track as a placeholder for an effect I will use when I am actually mixing the record. Many times, the placeholder plugin stays as the actual effect.  With the recent addition of some hardware gear, the amount of post-production processing has decreased. Some engineers swear against it, but I would rather process my signal heavily on the way in, because I know the pieces of gear I have pretty well, and I also have a pretty good idea of the sound I want to hear in the final mix. If I am unsure at the time of recording, during the mix phase I can just route a signal to an output of my Apollo into my analog signal chain, and mix using what is called a “hardware insert.” Recording in 96k combined with the use of analog processing creates a sound that rivals tape in my opinion. I would describe the results I get from this hybrid workflow as being the ‘best of both worlds.’  The clarity and punch of digital, with the color and warmth of analog.

If you are someone who works primarily ‘in the box,’ or ‘out the box,’ I would suggest maybe adding some new elements to your workflow. You might stumble across a new style that you enjoy.  The biggest takeaway I hope you all gain from this is that whatever works best for you is what you should always do. Some engineers mix with a console into Pro Tools, while others are still recording straight to reel-to-reel tape. Some producers use only their laptop, while others have a beautiful array of analog synthesizers at their disposal (like our producer Joel, hence the creation of Synth Pack Vol. 1).  If you find yourself in a bit of a creative rut, going hybrid can help you discover a new world of processing that connects the tangible with the intangible!

Thanks for reading!  Let us know how you prefer to work and what software and hardware you’re using. Check back for more in the Gear Corner!

- John Smythe


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