Music Tech Special: The ins and outs of ITB production
29.03.2022

Music Tech Special: The ins and outs of ITB production

in the box mixing
(Image: Techivation/Ben Jacquier)
Words by Brett Voss

Everything you need to know about working in the box

DAWs have changed the music production workflow considerably over the last 20 years. Working on a recording project ‘in the box’ has become a widely accepted approach to getting the job done, with artists and producers working within the medium that suits their personal preference or circumstances.

Digital technology has arguably reached the point where you can get an equally good result mixing in the box. While there may be differences in the overall sound, some suggest that one is not necessarily better than the other. The convenience and low cost of working in the box often outweighs the more traditional studio route for many, particularly those developing their music production skills.

Summary:

  • DAWs have changed the music production workflow considerably over the last 20 years. Working on a recording project ‘in-the-box’ has become a widely accepted approach to getting the job done.
  • Many producers opt for a sort of hybrid model, giving them the convenience of mixing in-the-box combined with the addition of some quality front-end processing.
  • One of the best things about mixing in the box is the ability to fine tune aspects of the mix. It’s really important to listen to the mix through multiple devices.

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My recollections about what it was like to mix a project before we had access to DAWs might demonstrate how far we have come in terms of automating the process of mixing. I have vivid recollections (even flashbacks) of working on an album project before the advent of DAWs. During the mixing of one song, my role was to assist the mix engineer by manually changing the compressor threshold on the snare drum during the chorus. Meanwhile, the engineer was riding the desk’s faders in an attempt to get the perfect pass of the mix. Often, this took multiple attempts to get the mix to a point where he was happy.

We’ve moved a long way in terms of convenience, through automating processes that were in hindsight quite cumbersome. In the box recording has eliminated a number of these tedious tasks that translated to hours of lost productivity and studio budget.

If you’ve decided that working in the box is going to suit your production approach, then what considerations do you need to address in comparison to more traditional studio workflows?

Many producers opt for a sort of hybrid model, giving them the convenience of mixing in the box combined with the addition of some quality front-end processing. It is definitely true that developing a great recording starts with a great foundation. Using quality instruments, quality microphones, and a decent preamp (if it’s within budget) goes a long way towards getting a professional result. Working towards capturing something that’s going to require less processing at the mix stage is going to benefit the overall outcome. The reality is though, that without focusing on creating great performances it doesn’t matter how much your microphone, preamp, and plugin collection cost. A performance that’s fine-tuned, rehearsed, and delivered with energy is going to ultimately deliver something that’s going to engage someone to listen to the finished product. 

Mixing in the box can be daunting. There are that many tools and options available within most DAWs and sometimes it can become really complex and confusing to navigate. So, it is important to focus on listening and thinking about the process, rather than focusing on grabbing another plugin to make it all better. Having said that, it is also important to build your arsenal of tools. Take time to explore and develop your knowledge of the effects, plugins, and settings that you have available to you within your DAW. When it comes to mixing it’s often important to have a process or routine that you follow, to give yourself structure. This will keep you focused, as it’s way too easy to get side-tracked on other issues. Develop a template for mixing. All DAW’s have the ability to save a template, so take some time to develop and save a template with routing for effects that you will use routinely as part of your workflow.

I’d suggest that preparation is the key for mixing in the box. Prepare the session ahead of time, by getting rid of alternate takes. There are many successful producers that suggest making and committing to a range of creative decisions early, eliminating the need to make too many of these while attempting to finalise the mix. When preparing to mix save a version of your session file that has deleted all the additional takes, mic set-ups and other parts that aren’t going to make the final cut. It can sometimes also be good to commit to some aspect of the sounds within the mix.

Perhaps you’re using an emulation of an electric piano that’s sucking a lot of CPU processing. It can free up some of your processing power to bus the audio across to a track and record it. This will then allow you to bypass the plugin and the software instrument track. This will also save you from procrastinating about that aspect of the final mix, so be brave and commit to the sound early on. It’s about making an informed choice based on the tools you have available and the sound you’re after. It is way too easy to second guess these decisions if you’ve left it all till the end of the process. 

There are also a range of technical issues to navigate when working in the box. Latency was once a major issue when it came to mixing digital audio, with the phase coherence of the mix often compromised because of plugin processing. The major DAW players today all feature automatic latency compensation, so this should no longer be an issue. However, be mindful when tracking overdubs if you’ve already started a mix, as this latency compensation could be problematic when you monitor your performance. This can be addressed through bypassing plugins prior to tracking the overdubs, then reactivating when you commence the mix.

Digital headroom is also not as much of an issue these days, with most DAWs having the capability of at least 32-bit floating point arithmetic. Still, it’s important to avoid hitting the digital peak of 0 Dbfs, as this is an absolute peak, with no headroom possible past this point. Keeping your master fader low will help you to achieve greater depth in your mix and help avoid clipping when you’re bouncing in lower bit depths. If you don’t leave enough headroom for your master fader there is the potential for clipping to occur when you render in non-floating formats like 16 or 24 bit. 

Mixing on headphones at least part of the time is also highly likely when working in the box. While it’s difficult to replace an acoustically treated listening environment and quality audio monitoring you can still achieve a professional result using headphones. There are some aspects of working in headphones that need to be understood before you take the plunge. Fundamentally listening to music through headphones is different to listening through monitors because of the proximity of the ears to the source of the sound. Having a mix sound great in the headphones won’t automatically mean that it will sound right through speakers. Avoid the temptation to start the mix on headphones but try to get the mix sounding as good as possible on monitors before trying to fine tune some of the spatial aspects on headphones. Headphones are going to give you a much closer listen to particular aspects of your mix, like listening to reverb or noise issues in the mix. Ultimately the final product is going to be listened to a lot over headphones, so it is really important that it translates well in that medium.

One of the best things about mixing in the box is the ability to fine tune aspects of the mix. It’s really important to listen to the mix through multiple devices. I always find listening in the car system helps my perspective, given that I listen to a lot of music in that environment. Always make comparisons with material that’s coming from a similar genre, or something that you know sounds good across different listening environments. Headphones also tend to have characteristics that can make them difficult for judging low or high frequencies, so it’s best to be aware of these characteristics and compensate for them appropriately.  

Check out our tutorial on organising your DAW for faster mixing for more in the box tips.