Demystifying Music Technology: Putting The Musicians In Their Place

Demystifying Music Technology: Putting The Musicians In Their Place

Improving your virtual ensemble. 

Christopher Steller
Melbourne, Australia

Demystifying Music Technology: Putting The Musicians In Their Place

Improving your virtual ensemble. 

This isn't an exercise in dressing down or humiliating your virtual ensemble. I'm actually going to delve deeper into the functionality of your DAW software and introduce some basic concepts of those functions. 

In a traditional recording studio everything revolved around the mixing console, and for a very good reason: it controlled everything! The musical performances were all routed through the mixing console, and then sent off to an external recording device (multitrack recorder). After all of the recordings were done, the individual tracks were fed back to the mixing desk, where the production team would decide the overall balance and tone of the piece (the mixdown). After that's done, the stereo mix was sent off to be mastered, so that it was perfectly presented for pressing to vinyl or CD. 

The steps can all be reproduced within your DAW software, with a little bit of research and an understanding of the reasoning behind the steps. Even if you are only recording or emulating a small ensemble, the mixing process is a make or break step in the overall result.

Figure 1: a Pro Tools mix in action - the small grey squares at the top of the strips are inserted effects.

Figure 1: a Pro Tools mix in action - the small grey squares at the top of the strips are inserted effects.

If you look at a mixing console for the first time, many people immediately comment on the complexity of the whole thing, and often make remarks such as “you’d need a pilot’s licence to operate that thing”. However, if you look closer, you'll see that the knobs are arranged in strips, with a microphone plugged in at the top, with the audio signal going through various stages until it reaches the bottom, usually ending with a fader for volume. Looking from left to right, this is repeated multiple times, depending on the configuration of the mixer, i.e. 8, 16 or 24 channels, etc. If you know what one of these channel strips is doing, you know what all of them are doing. 

Okay, so what is this channel strip doing? There will be many minor variations to this description, but we’ll describe a basic channel and run with that for the moment.

Just below the input there is a knob called gain or trim - this determines the input volume of the audio source, microphone or instrument. If the signal is weak you turn it up. Following the gain section is the EQ section - this is an important process because the sound can be equalised with complex treble and bass controls to make the sound blend in better. The next section is commonly marked as the AUX section - it has auxiliary audio paths to extra devices such as echo and reverb effects, which can be blended back into the track. Further down below the AUX section is the ’pan pot’ - a potentiometer is the technical gizmo that a knob is sitting on, and this one is designed to give you a left to right panorama to place your instrument in the stereo mix. So the panoramic potentiometer (pan pot) allows you to place the first violins in your mix on the left, with your violas roughly in the centre, and your cellos on the right. Finally, you see the volume fader, which allows you to make cool wave patterns on the mixing console when you do publicity photos for your studio (or balance the levels of each individual instrument in your mix).

The virtual mixer in your DAW software has many advantages and disadvantages to this arrangement: you only get a channel strip when you create a track, so if you only have four tracks, you only get four channel strips - simple. The disadvantage is fitting all of the features of a channel strip an on a computer monitor. Each different DAW has its own way of dealing with this problem, with buttons to hide the EQ and AUX sections to avoid clutter on the screen. This is one of the reasons most studios use two or three monitors.

Figure 3: Logic's drop down menus allow for more selections to be temporarily accessed.

Figure 3: Logic's drop down menus allow for more selections to be temporarily accessed.

The most realistic channel strip in my software DAW selection is in the Reason mixer - it is based on a famous English mixer, and is the most intuitive to work with. Logic, Cubase, ProTools and Studio One have variations on this with their own variations of drop-down menus, or opening/closing sections.

That is definitely enough this time. Next up we’ll talk panning, EQ and effects.