Ryan McCambridge: Why I mix ‘in the box’

Ryan McCambridge tells us how a listening session with Grammy winner David Bottrill inspired him to go digital.

There was a time not too long ago when admitting that you mixed a song in the box was seen as committing high treason to the audio monarchy. “Off with his head!” the audiophiles would shout. “There is no reverb worthy of mine ears to hear such a noisy tail.” And I was right in there, ready with a rotten tomato in hand.

I own a lot of analogue outboard gear, which I love. I once asked Wade Goeke of Chandler Limited to turn my TG1 into a tombstone for me when I die because I dare not live without it, even in death! Being the gentleman that he is, Wade agreed. All those knobs and metres and the touching and turning – I couldn’t get enough of it. I used plug-ins but I didn’t really keep up on the advancements. People will always say “you’ve got to try this new (insert audio thingy) because it’s (insert positive adjective).” I had always known that there were people working ITB, but I didn’t really think too much about it. I just wanted to keep working and my beautiful tubes and transformers were serving me just fine in doing that.

Then one day I heard a mix that changed everything for me. My friend, colleague and mentor, David Bottrill (Tool, Peter Gabriel, Muse, Smashing Pumpkins, etc), asked me over to listen to a mix. I knew that he had built a home mixing room but I didn’t know much about it. He’d amassed tons of drool-worthy vintage gear over the years and had spent much of his career in front of an 80-channel SSL, so I just assumed that we were in the same analogue camp. We listened to this mix in his car and it was incredible. I honestly couldn’t believe how good it sounded. Then the punch line came: it was mixed entirely in the box. In that moment I heard the capacity of digital tools and completely understood that they’d come of age.

Then came the soul searching. Cue me wandering the streets in the rain in a saxophone-supported montage where I look off into the distance a lot. There may have been a scene where I was crying in bed with my TG1. I had spent my life collecting gear and now here I was thinking about reducing it to an interface and some monitors. “Off with his head!”

Half-heartedly, I tried it and it was strange and unforgiving and I so wanted my outboard gear. So I started inserting a few compressors and EQs into my digital world and committed to keeping my master bus analogue, and then I breathed a sigh of relief. “I’m progressive,” I thought, patting myself on the back. That continued only for a short period of time though because I quickly started feeling neither here nor there, all while the imperfections of what was left of my analogue world were becoming more and more apparent.

I would be asked to do mix recalls and I’d catch myself being annoyed that I’d have to change settings on my outboard. “I’m in the middle of something else,” I thought. By this time I’d grown comfortable with the different approach needed to mix digitally. The tools were there, and they were great, but they were all just a bit different. I was re-learning to use my ears, because I constantly wanted to use my eyes, and I discovered that headroom and gain-staging were everything in a digital mix. It was time to take off the training wheels.

I think that at this stage of digital development, debates of analogue versus digital often miss the point. It’s really easy to get dragged into endless arguments about the sonic differences or get lost in lofty proclamations like how having 20 Fairchild emulations in a song really gave it “that magic”. But there are so many more interesting aspects to the debate and they’re all answered by personal preference.

I know, for me, my workflow became faster and more efficient, and I was able to jump between many projects, which was a huge advantage. That made it easier for me to take on smaller gigs, mainly because I could fit them in between other sessions, or I could do prep work from home or on the road. Not to mention that creating templates that suited my mixing and writing workflows meant that I could be up and running quicker than ever. All of these things are important to me. But I know people who are still working on 2in tape who will cite the same sort of advantages within their medium. Sure, I miss turning knobs and pressing buttons, but I feel that I’ve gained a lot of other things that I really appreciate. And my contact cleaner bills have gone down, which is a nice bonus.

In the end, I saved my relationship with my TG1 – who’d grown quite jealous of my affair – by always reaching for it and all my other analogue gear when I’m tracking. Even in my love for my Mac and my Universal Audio Apollo, I still get that tingly feeling when I see my outboard’s VU metres lit and pumping.

I’ve made my choice through trial and error, and who knows, one day my workflow may change again. The important thing is that we stop debating and each just work however we feel comfortable. As far as I’m concerned, we have reached the promised land of digital audio, that place that we knew was out there but just hadn’t found yet. I love it here and thankfully I can keep my head while I’m residing. 

Ryan McCambridge is a freelance audio engineer, writer, producer and programmer from Toronto, Canada. He has taught audio production in workshops and universities, is the creator of the production blog Bit Crushing and is the frontman of A Calmer Collision. To find out more, go to www.bitcrushing.com or www.acalmercollision.com.

Twitter: @RyanMcCambridge