Feature: Hybrid mixing systems

It doesn’t matter what area of the pro audio world you come from, we all share a level of inner-geek. Just thinking about routing some analogue electronics in a signal flow leaves us all struggling to contain the excitement. We will of course, each hold different views about how, what, where and why, but as a community, there’s a lot of love when the old school meets the new school.

Digital is good. In fact, digital has become very good indeed. In this article however, I’m not going to start discussing the science or any philosophies around analogue vs digital. I’m going to look at how our digital and analogue worlds have come together, in light of hybrid product offerings and developments. Specifically, let’s focus on the console market and what manufactures have been doing to tempt us into their camp.
Go Green.

While the car world is pulling its hair out over losing fossil fuels, thankfully we already have some outstanding digital equipment. Some of which sounds just like a V8 with twin turbos. However, our equivalent to home garages; the project studios, are continuing to develop exciting and interesting combinations of hardware and software.

There are enthusiasts hidden everywhere, building setups that might just include one or two choice pieces of hardware across the master bus, right through to some of the largest analogue setups. We all know someone who’s spent a lifetime collecting everything needed for an analogue setup, probably with a Pro Tools rig bolted on the side.There’s a lot of choice out there too.

If you’re thinking about building a hybrid setup in a home or commercial studio, broadcast studio or even for a live tour, then budget is really the only limit. There are cheaper solutions around, including some sensibly priced 500-series units and the odd DIY kit which sound great. Keeping hybrid solutions in mind though, products such as the very cool Tegelar Audio Schwerkraftmaschine, make these dreams realistic around workflows of today.

With all this going on, what are the console manufacturers doing to harness this obvious love affair we have with digital and analogue combinations? Sure enough, anyone can take an analogue desk and throw an AD/DA converter at it, along with whatever outboard they choose. This method could be the source of an article by itself.

For some people, it’s as much about the look and feel of a console as it is the sound. For this however, several manufacturers are of course producing DAW controllers, so we can avoid turning a virtual dial with a mouse and keyboard. This too could be an entire article. Here however, I want to focus on the products that combine all of these aspects into a truly ‘hybrid mixing system’.

Interestingly, this seems to immediately cut live sound and broadcast solutions from the picture. There are modern digital live and broadcast consoles that support a number of features that could be considered hybrid. These would include multi-track recording connections via MADI, USB or AoIP, as well as some surfaces having a DAW control mode.

While analogue outboard equipment can be used with a digital console, there isn’t an off-the-shelf solution that also incorporates analogue electronics in the live or broadcast worlds. It should be mentioned however, that some recording facilities are starting to use digital consoles as the hub of their operation more than ever before. This is probably because the sound quality is so good now and they provide economically sensible complete toolkits.

From The Top
Starting at the high-end and therefore the expensive side to the market, there’s actually a lot to choose from. This does of course naturally bring us to two manufacturers; AMS Neve and Solid State Logic. Although these companies have their routes firmly planted in the analogue domain, they are the pioneers of this hybrid market. Engineers have always aspired to use their consoles, often only leaving personal taste or loyalty to choose between the two.

To learn more about their offerings and the vision of each company, I spoke to a specialist from each camp. Flying the SSL flag is none other than Paul Mac, who many will know from his many years as AMI’s editor. He started off by telling me that SSL have been manufacturing analogue equipment for 40 years, and digital for 30 years. This might be a surprise for those who aren’t aware of their broadcast solutions, but leaves SSL with the tools and lessons learnt to combine analogue and digital workflows.SSL combine their digital audio knowledge and analogue pedigree in nearly all of their modern studio consoles.

At the top is their flagship; Duality, which is essentially an analogue board with their Delta Control. This permits DAW control, analogue automation from your DAW and of course total recall. While SSL are always going to manufacture and sell many of these consoles, they are out of most peoples budgets. More reasonably priced is their AWS 948, which Mac told me continues to be extremely popular.

The AWS is a desk I’ve been fortunate to spend a few years with and continue to come across. I’m not surprised that this is one of SSL’s best sellers. Its small format manages to offer so many features, and most importantly the sound of SSL’s larger desks, alongside several modern workflow tools. These include the DAW control, total recall and now with the delta control software upgrade, analogue fader automation from within your DAW too.

The total recall that SSL offer was quite a remarkable move forward when we think about hybrid mixing systems. The ability to accurately and reasonably quickly recall a mix onto an analogue board is a significant improvement compared to marking down settings or taking pictures of the desk. The new delta control, which is now available across SSL’s product line, is the latest leap forward in true hybrid mixing. Automation drawn in Pro Tools can now be converted to analogue automation, for that true SSL analogue mix.

Most significantly the 948 with it’s dual input channel strips offers an environment that suits modern production techniques with stereo stemming, as well as some clever in-line mixing and tracking tricks. All these features of the AWS have meant it’s hugely popular with EDM producers as well as small to medium sized studios. Mac mentioned Nicky Romero as an example of a producer who uses their AWS simply for mix-down rather than as a recording tool. SSL believe the AWS is priced well, offering something to those who are moving “out of the bedroom”.

SSL also offer a few alternative options in the hybrid market too. The Matrix2 is a very clever product that offers SSL’s console architecture and analogue summing, combined with a smart method of managing insert points. The inserts can be mapped anywhere on the desk via software, saving you from patching any hardware in your studio for each mix. While this desk is the perfect option for many project studio installations and offers several hybrid style features, it’s almost in a product band by itself. It could be argued that it isn’t strictly a hybrid mixing system, as there aren’t any on-board analogue processors besides the summing.

Their Sigma almost falls in the same category as the Matrix, being a rack-mountable summing mixer with digital control. This obviously isn’t a console, but worth a mention for anyone who’s tight on space or budget, but is looking for some intelligent analogue summing. For those that are considering the slightly more bespoke hybrid solutions, but want to recall settings easily, then SSL’s X-Rack compliment both the Sigma and Matrix2 for a complete solution.

Finally, SSL have the recently re-vamped Nucleus2. This is perhaps the most compact and affordable hybrid solution available from SSL. Again however, I’m discarding it from our true hybrid mixing solutions as it doesn’t contain any analogue processors or any analogue summing. SSL have also entered the hybrid market from the other side. By licensing certain plugin manufactures, and developing plugin emulations themselves, nearly everyone has access to the SSL sound in some form or another. Interestingly, this hasn’t diluted the market and SSL is still producing a lot of hardware. Mac’s closing comment was; “if you’re trying to chose between a plugin or an analogue console, just come and have a listen – we are confident you’ll hear the difference”.

I then spoke with AMS Neve’s David Walton, who discussed their various hybrid mixing systems. At the top end of, well, nearly anyone’s budget, is their flagship 88RS analogue console. This is an analogue console and doesn’t really compare to a Duality in the same way. However, there’s a new feature out this year. You can now have built into the specification, a control feature allowing a DAW to control the analogue faders, pans and mutes. Does this qualify the 88RS as a hybrid mixing system? I’ll let you decide.

There are two products that definitely do qualify as hybrid mixing systems though. There’s the Genesys and the Genesys Black. First came the Genesys which is essentially a smaller format analogue Neve console, but with DAW control. Then in 2013 came the Genesys Black, which is arguably the AWS’ biggest rival. This console takes hybrid mixing to an impressive level.

The concept for the Genesys Black was to wrap an analogue console around a digital audio workstation. They’ve done exactly that with the centre section featuring a computer monitor and work surface for the often-forgotten keyboard and mouse. Walton informed me that the 16 or 24 pre-amp variants are their most popular, often going into private, or small to medium sized commercial studios.

The Genesys Black offers many features within its surprisingly small form factor. It has three operating modes; either fully analogue, fully DAW control or part DAW control and part analogue. Just as with the AWS 948, AMS Neve are finding many EDM producers are using the console as their workstation of choice. Thanks to the built-in converters, it’s even easier to get mixing on a Genesys Black as you only need a MADI connection from your computer. No need for troublesome wiring and/or patch-bays.

Walton explained that the electronics inside the Genesys Black sound the same as their flagship 88RS, even harbouring the same bussing architecture. The difference with the electronics however, are some digitally controlled parameters such as the EQ’s. Due to the digitally controlled hardware, the complete state of the desk can be recalled in only 2 – 3 minutes. There are a handful of controls that have to be manually moved into place, but the majority recall automatically. The snapshot information includes the position of all the controls, providing a visual representation of those that need to be moved by hand.

Anyone else?
Well, there are a handful of near-misses in my opinion. Audient came close with the ASP 2802, which Focusrite then bought and re-labeled as the Control 2802. This has to be the smallest product I can think of that fits our definition of hybrid mixing consoles. However, I’m not sure how successful they were, or are now. Buying one new or second hand might prove difficult. It’s a shame really as I think there are many project studios that would work well around a modern version of this desk. The routing of audio in and out of the console wasn’t the most logical, which probably puts many customers off at this level.

There are of course several analogue desks that have built-in converters, but I’m not sure if they’re really deserving of being labeled hybrid mixing solutions. There’s no interaction with the digital domain except the passing of audio. Presonus market their recent consoles as hybrid solutions, which they are to a point. They process audio internally, but where digital control is introduced, the processing is digital. Their efforts should be appreciated for compiling single channel strip processing, into a standard. This standard that they call a “Fat channel”, has allowed them to mirror processing from desk to desk, and desk to workstation. However, this processing is digital. The closest they’ve come to a hybrid mixing solution which incorporates analogue electronics are their smaller AR consoles. However these lack any recall or DAW control.

Moving up the price bracket very slightly, is Allen & Heath’s GS-R24. This is a truly hybrid mixing console that can be fitted with AD/DA converters and supports DAW control. I’ve recorded an album with one of these consoles and it functions extremely well. I wasn’t enamoured with the built-in converters, but otherwise it provides a great working environment. I’m not sure how quickly I would rush to process a mix-down on one of these desks though, as the audio quality doesn’t hit high enough against the loss of any recall feature.

There are two more products however, which I believe will continue to be as successful as the AWS and Genesys Black. In the API camp of course, there’s the famous 1608. The 1608 is the desk of choice if you’re after a hybrid solution with the API sound. Ultimately it could be considered an analogue console, but has a P-Mix Automation optional extra. This can be specified at the time of purchasing the console, or field-fitted afterwards. The P-Mix Automation is like any analogue console automation but with the significant difference that it can be driven from your DAW. This also permits the 1608 to act as a DAW controller. Lastly, but certainly not least, is Audient’s new Heritage Edition of the ASP8024. This latest revision is based on the same console and circuit design which they’ve employed for the last 20 years. 

These consoles have a recognised sound, earning much respect throughout the industry. The ASP8024-HE is still an analogue console at heart, but several new features result in this being a fantastic hybrid option. The desk can be specified in a number of sizes and layouts which include a patch-bay and producers desk as options. There isn’t any method to recall the analogue controls, but DAW remote control is possible via it’s “Dual Layer Control”. Conclusion

There’s a surprisingly short list of hybrid mixing systems developed as off-the-shelf products. I believe this is partly due to the customisable nature of working in this fashion, with each producer/mix engineer choosing a different tool set. A different tool set can even be used for different projects, with some magic coming from the various adaptations. The rarity of these all-in-one consoles simply has to be down to supply and demand. Successful hybrid mixing systems, in the sense we have discussed them here, tend to be relatively expensive.

Whatever your views are around analogue vs digital, in-the-box mixing has become highly refined. If you’re going to indulge in a project with some analogue loveliness, it already assumes a level of commitment and budget. While the likes of SSL and Neve are proof these systems are highly successful, it seems unlikely there will be a successful budget option. A Soundcraft Ghost version 2 with built-in converters, DAW control and automatic recall could be interesting.

Hybrid mixing systems hold their place in the market where modern workflow is vital. Mixing in analogue is fast, perhaps faster than with plugins. However, couple it with modern technology and workflows, and you can be presented with a list of issues. Thanks to the developments from manufacturers in this field, we have some very smart solutions. Perhaps one of the biggest attractions for anyone building their own hybrid facility is the return on investment. Not only are you setting a precedent as ‘hopefully’ someone that knows what they’re doing, but the depreciation of the equipment is less than, or even not applicable, compared to digital hardware or software.