Digital Mixing with Hardware Effects - How It’s Done

Given the infinite list of plug-ins you can add to your DAW these days, it’s easy to forget that, back in the day, every single effect was a separate bit of kit that needed to be hooked up. Not only that, parts could break and spilling a cup of tea was a serious job hazard. That being said, hardware-based effects are still made to this very day. In fact, nostalgia seems to have grabbed hold of various manufacturers, resulting in welcome – and more importantly – affordable reissues of legendary units like the UREI 1176, the Teletronix LA-2A and the Pultec EQP-1a. Next up, I’ll tell you exactly how you can integrate any of these hardware effects into your digital set-up and workflow.

Integrating Equalisers and Compressors

Got your hands on a good compressor and/or an equaliser? Sweet! Those will come in handy when you’re recording, but it’s important to realise that both compressors and equalisers should always be placed after the microphone preamp in your signal chain, which is an issue when it comes to all-in-one devices like audio interfaces since most will stick your signal through the preamp before routing it directly to the analogue-to-digital converter. Generally speaking, audio interfaces rarely give you the option to re-route the sound before it’s sent to the converter, so usually, your only option is to run a separate microphone preamp and set up your chain as follows:

Microphone -> Separate Mic Preamp -> EQ -> Compressor -> Audio Interface Line In

» Microphone Preamps
» Microphone Channel Strips
» Compressors & Gates
» Enhancers & Exciters
» Effect Processors

Digital Mixing with Hardware Effects - How It’s Done
A microphone preamp

In-the-Box Mixing

Elektronisch muziek produceren: in the box of lekker DAWless?

Mixing music using nothing but a desktop computer or laptop is also known as in-the-box mixing and comes with an undeniable mass of advantages. First of all, effect plug-ins are much cheaper than their physical counterparts, and secondly, you can basically run as many plug-ins as your computer can handle. Hardware-based equalisers, on the other hand, can only be fed a single channel at a time, meaning you’d need more than one to tweak two things at once.

Then there’s the issue of recalling settings. When you work in-the-box, you can always save any mix you’ve been working on and load a different project whenever you feel like it, which is one of the many perks of modern technology. If you’re working with hardware, however, you’ll have to manually adjust every setting whenever you switch from one project to another. As such, it’s vital that you document the settings for each of your projects, either by keeping a recall sheet or taking pictures of the control panel. On top of that, you will also need to patch your cables correctly every single time.

» Effect Plugins
» DAW Software

The Analogue Way

In a completely analogue mixing set-up, the computer is simply used as a kind of tape machine. After you’re done recording, every track is sent to a separate mixer channel, so this requires a converter or audio interface equipped with a large number of outputs. Here, the mixer is used to route the tracks. Inserts can be used to stick individual tracks through an equaliser or compressor, while sends can be used for effects like reverb, chorus and delay. When the mix is finished, the stereo output of the mixer needs to be linked to two available audio interface inputs so the mix can be recorded using a DAW – a process that’s commonly referred to as printing.

» Analogue Mixing Desks

Digital Mixing with Hardware Effects - How It’s Done
Blueprint of an all-analogue set-up where the computer is used as a tape machine

Hybrid Mixing

Something that a lot of audio professionals do to combine the flexibility of a DAW with the singular sound of analogue gear is using analogue EQs and compressors for the most essential parts of the mix like the lead vocals and drums, while using plug-ins for everything else. Virtually every DAW can run an I/O-style plug-in that allows you to send an audio track to any analogue output of your audio interface before routing the signal to one or more hardware effects and then finally back to the input of your interface. You can then select the same input in your I/O plugin to send the signal back to the audio track it originally departed from. This AD-DA roundtrip does usually come with a bit of latency, which is why many I/O-style plugins feature a ‘ping’ function for offsetting any latency. It’s also important to note that you won’t be able to expert offline (or ‘bounce’) like you normally would with your DAW when you’re running outboard gear. Instead, you’re simply going to have to record the audio to a new track. As soon as you’ve done that, the external effects will be embedded into the signal, leaving you free to unplug your effects again and use them for something else.

Digital Mixing with Hardware Effects - How It’s Done
A possible routing for hybrid mixing set-ups


When the number of hardware effects you have starts to add up, it’s usually a good idea to pick up one or more patchbays so you don’t have to crawl under your desk every time you want to hook up a bit of kit. While plugging a sizable collection of gear into a patchbay will initially take some time and effort, once you’re done, you’ll be able to quickly patch effects as needed depending on the project.

» Patchbays

Digital Mixing with Hardware Effects - How It’s Done

A patchbay

Summing Mixers

The reason why a lot of studios continue to use mixers isn’t just because of the routing options, but the sound. Every channel is supported by dozens of transistors, condensers and transformers, every one of which has an effect on the sound. Also, the sound will be slightly different from one channel to the next since no electrical component is ever 100% identical. As a result, mixers make mixes sound fuller while ensuring enhanced channel separation.

Even if you mostly mix in-the-box, you can still add that analogue edge to your mixes by sending all of the tracks of any mix to physical mixer channels. Make sure to leave all of the faders set to 0 but pan your stereo tracks hard left and hard right before recording the master outputs on a fresh stereo track.

Not everyone has space or cash to spare for a studio mixing console, not to mention that getting one is a bit of a waste if you’re only going to use it to sum your tracks. Fortunately, summing mixers are also a thing. A summing mixer is a stripped-down mixer that’s designed for one thing only: packing mixes with that sought-after analogue charm. Most summing mixers are compatible with standard 19-inch racks and only cost a fraction of what you’d pay for an SSL, Neve or API console.

» Summing Mixers

Digital Mixing with Hardware Effects - How It’s Done
A summing mixer

See Also

» Peripheral Studio Equipment
» Mixers
» Summing Mixers
» Patchbays
» Effect Plugins
» DAW Software

» How to Record a Whole Band: Audio Interface, Recorder or Mixer?
» Recording Singer-Songwriters: How it’s Done
» How To Avoid Mic Bleed
» What is Direct Monitoring?
» What’s a Loadbox And What Does It Do?
» How to Beat Latency When DAW Recording

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