Now that more mixers are moving inside the box, we’re going to focus on a mix-bus plug-in setup that will give you excellent results. Since plug-ins now model the behavior of analog equipment, a good starting point would be to set up a mix bus the way you would work in a studio with a large-format console going to tape. If you have console and tape emulation plug-ins, you can set up a mix bus to model a widely used studio setup that spawned a thousand hits.
Start with a Clean Slate
In our example, we’re going to use the Slate Virtual Mix Rack with a console mix bus module (the gray one that says “MIXBUSS”). You can set the console model to one of 6 emulations, including two famous SSL desks, an API console, the legendary Trident A-Range console, or a custom RCA tube console. Next, pull up a UAD model of an SSL 4K bus compressor. From there, insert a tape emulation plug-in, from either Slate or UAD, depending on which you have or prefer. The settings are those that would normally be used for a 2-track master. For example, the Slate tape emulation plug-in gives you the option of choosing between 16-track and 2-track machines, two models of tape; Ampex 456 (FG456) and Quantegy GP9 (FG9), and 15ips or 30ips tape speed. For a master mix, select 2-track, FG9 tape for more clarity and punch, and 30ips tape speed to preserve transients. Set your console emulation and tape emulation to operate at nominal levels (0dB UV average).
Master and Compressor
Now that we have our large-format console mixdown emulation, how do we set the SSL bus compressor? The trick is to barely touch the compressor. Set the ratio at 4:1, slowest attack (30ms), fastest release (.1s), and set the threshold so that the needle just wavers slightly. Gain makeup should be around 1dB. You can stop there, or you can make things more interesting by adding other compressor plug-ins for their tonal quality. Here is where you can begin to craft your own final mix sound. For example, after the tape emulation, you might choose to use the Slate FG Red, which emulates the Focusrite Red 3, or perhaps a Sonnox Inflator. In either case, you’ll hear another increase in body.
The one recurring theme is to barely hit the compressor. The advantage of this approach is that you can boost your level one or two dB at a time with each instantiation and not overload the mix bus.
If you hear a resonance you’d like to tame, or a magical frequency you want to bring out, you can insert an EQ after the compressors, such as the UAD Manley Massive Passive. Just make sure it’s a high-quality EQ plug-in.
Expanding Your Horizons
The last component in the signal chain is a limiter, which is where you get your biggest volume boost. Some excellent choices would be the FabFilter Pro L, UAD Precision Limiter (if you’re looking for very transparent gain), and the McDSP ML4000 multiband limiter. While McDSP now has an 8-band limiter, the beauty of the ML4000 is that it’s now much more affordable and enables you to shape the tone of the entire mix via its expander modules. The expanders push more signal into the peak limiter section, filling out your mix in ways that the compressors don’t. (It’s actually quite surprising.) The ML4000 will give your mix a competitive level in relation to commercial releases, enabling you or your clients to hear what the mix will sound like after mastering—or, you just may wish to leave it that way and send it off to mastering.