Foolproof method to giving digital instruments an analog feel | mixing

To keep this blog short I skip describing anything I already described in the 'fool proof method to mixing and mastering in the box' and 'fool proof method to gain staging', so for more info, read these blogs.

Listen to some non-remastered recordings from the 50s, 60s and 70s. Even though there's more noise and distortion, there's a certain quality to them that a lot of later recordings lack.

A lot of music producers try to add a little – or a lot – of that flavour to their productions. Productions with sufficient budget can be done with a mixture of old and/or new analog hardware, analog consoles and dedicated computer systems, productions with less budget will have to be done analog hardware emulation in the box. Some emulations have become so good that even the experts cannot recognise productions that have been done in the box only. There are also producers who use stock plugins in DAWs to emulate what analog hardware does to sound.

I played a track for two pianos of one of my students into my computer, one on The Grandeur from 2014, the Steinway D that's part of Native Instruments Komplete, and the other on the New York Grand, its predecessor, originally introduced in Akoustik Piano in 2006. I decided to experiment a little. Using only Waves plugins, I set up Logic to work like a 1960s analog console with analog outboard gear from the 50s, 60s and 70s. Here's how.

The first step is gain staging. Next, listen to the mix in mono and mix all instruments in.

For stereo recordings, go back to the gain plugin to check what channel – Left or Right – is the most important. Raise that side a little. Logic's Gain Plugin can bring up one level while lowering another. Bring up the most important side while listening in mono, check in stereo. A stereo tool like S1 or Logic Direction Mixer can be used to manipulate the direction of the channels if the left/right balance is good in mono and unbalanced in stereo. If the volume changes in the recording are very big you can also automate the gain to make the recording more level – old mixes were made loud with fader riding mostly, not with compressors or limiters. The loudness will change after these tweaks so check the VU again.

with and without left/right balancing:

Full mix versus rough mix:

After the rough mix sounds good, start the Top Down technique. Emulations of analog mastering gear are very characterful, so it's a good idea to mix into them just to be safe. I started with Abbey Road Vinyl at almost minimal settings. You can also go for tape emulation here. Whatever plugin you use, test and turn all knobs and settings while checking in both mono and stereo.

With and without Vinyl:

Next – console emulation for analog summing. I went for the EMI TG12345 in NLS. The Buss plugin in the second slot on the Two Buss, NLS Channels on the last slot on the channels. If you use NLS, take some time to find the channel number you like most on your instrument, they're all different.

With and without summing:

Next – Two Buss EQ & Compression. To stay with the EMI TG12345, I placed Abbey Road TG12345 between NLS Buss and Vinyl. All it does is a little bass reduction, a small amount of slow parallel compression and a small boost at 10kHz, in that order. I like the sound of this plugin so much that I processed the overtone samples in the Sea Trumpets with them.

With and without TG12345 on the Two Buss:

You might like excitement too, I added a small amount with Aphex Vintage Exciter after TG12345, another plugin I used for the Sea Trumpets.

With and without exciter:

More console emulation, like mic preamps, can be inserted after the gain or stereo plugins on the channels. I threw in more TG12345 in mid/side. I gave the Grandeur less bass in the side, more treble, faster parallel compression and different presence boosts in the mid and side. I gave the New York Grand less bass in the side, less treble, less 1.2kHz in the mid, a boost at 4.2kHz in the side and a little narrowing of the stereo image.

With and without TG12345 on the channels:

HP filtering and low shelf EQ-ing can be done with a plugin like VEQ4, an emulation of a Neve 1018 EQ. I gave the Grandeur a little more high boost.

With and without VEQ4:

Almost there. Tape-style saturation is one of the most important elements of 'analog' sound. I went for the J37, an emulation of a '65 Studer, after the VEQ4. NLS Channel follows the J37, so it's like the pianos are recorded through the desk and an outboard EQ to Tape and mixed on the same desk to vinyl, through an exciter.

With and without tape:

Reverb. Route channels to one or more reverb busses. Plate reverb was the way to go for high quality productions in the 60s and 70s. The Abbey Road Plates sounds so good I processed reversed Sea Trumpets samples with it and reversed them back, aligned them to the original samples and added them to the instrument. Put an EQ before the reverb. I used a HP filter at 400Hz and a LP filter at 6kHz. You can also put another NLS channel on the reverb.

With and without reverb:

The mix should be done now, on to mastering. To get the optimal level for the Two Buss plugins, put a VU meter in the first slot and adjust the channel faders or replace the meter with a gain plugin after you know what adjustment to make. Tweak all plugins from first to last, add a limiter and a LUFS meter to raise the mix to the desired loudness. Keep an eye on the reduction meter in the limiter. If reduction is more then 3dB at some points it might be worth it to automate the gain or the fader of the channel that causes that peak and lower it around that point.

I used L316's EQ for a half a dB boost at 313Hz, by the way.

With and without L316’s EQ:

That's it!

P.S. – I’m not being paid by Waves, I promise. I got more Waves plugins on my wish list though, so if you want to buy a Waves plugin or bundle, you can use this link to give us both a 10% discount.

Download this guide in pdf format: