Embracing The Pro Tools Generation

| Mixing, Pro Tools, Tips

I am proud to be part of the Pro Tools Generation. And when I say Pro Tools, I don’t mean just Avid’s Pro Tools software, but any recording/mixing software. I am part of a generation of mixers and producers who have grown up with and have learned on a DAW rather than an analog console. And today I must address why this is an important distinction to make.


Via Jérôme Choain Flickr

DAWs Are Here To Stay

Like it or not, I think we can just about all agree that DAWs are here to stay as part of our recording and mixing workflow. They cost less than consoles and outboard gear, they don’t break down as easily, they are more portable, and they have instant recall on all aspects of the session. With computers getting more powerful every year and 24 bit converters sounding as amazing as they do now, we can expect to be working in DAWs for a very long time.

That however, is not my point. What we must address is that there is a real difference between a once analog guy who now mixes in Pro Tools or at least has Pro Tools as part of his modern workflow, and a young digital only mixer (like myself) who has always only mixed in Pro Tools and the like. We are two very different animals.

The Digital Generation

If you’ve grown up mixing in a digital platform like Pro Tools then you aren’t really interested in trying to recreate that “analog sound” in your DAW. You may like songs that were mixed on analog consoles to be sure (I know I do), but as far as what your ears have been framed to know and like as a mixer you are purely digital. I cut my teeth as a mixer and engineer in Pro Tools so Pro Tools is my standard. As I learned more about EQ and compression my mixes got better, in Pro Tools. Never once have I felt that I was “missing” something analog. And that is because I’ve never known it.

And that is OK. That’s my point. I’m not of the old school analog generation that could never mix in Pro Tools. Nor am I part of the hybrid generation that was mixing in the 80s and 90s on analog and were smart enough to move over to a digital platform at some point, but still want to incorporate an analog signal path somewhere in their workflow. Nope. I’m neither of them. I am purely a digital mixer because that was the dominant tool when I began to learn this craft and therefore it sounds perfectly normal to me.

Don’t Take My Word For It

A good example of this Pro Tools generation is pro mixer Robert Orton (Lady Gaga, Usher, The Police, Marylin Manson). In a Sound On Sound interview he describes mixing “in the box”:

I mix in the box entirely. For me, the quality I get is every bit as good as when mixing on a board. You get a slightly different sound, perhaps, but it’s certainly not worse. I think that there’s far too much emphasis placed on whether a mix is done on the board or in the box. All that matters is finding a way to articulate the message in music, so listeners can understand it. In the end it’s about how you have learned your chops.

How This Affects Learning From The Analog Guys

Now, as a blatant member of the Pro Tools generation I am not so foolish and arrogant as to think that I have nothing to learn from the analog and semi-analog guys about mixing. On the contrary, we have EVERYTHING to learn from them about technique, workflow, and musical sensibilities. These guys are the pros for a reason. They know what they are doing and have developed a great ear from years of experience. Soak up everything you can from them.

However, when the conversation turns to things like the sound of tape, consoles or analog summing, remember they are of a different generation than you and therefore have a very specific “norm” of a sound they are going for that perhaps is not part of your make up as a digital mixer. They aren’t wrong, it’s just that you will be ill served if you go on this “holy grail” quest for that analog sound that you don’t even know. Instead focus more on implementing proper EQ, compression, and mixing workflow to your sessions and you’ll come out better for it.


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26 Responses to “Embracing The Pro Tools Generation”

  1. Jonbalitis

    I defiantly agree with you Graham, there’s too many Wabalo beeaps running the DAW perspective of the cultural “Normative” quote on quote, How then can we.. being followers of that institution, understand the consistent Chacha of the table mentality. Incrob lithlob graystorpickle and ehcti more than gikl jout poty. shsacmabaghals!

  2. BHG

    I personally first recorded multi-track at home with a Tascam porta 414 4-track tape recorder 1999 then went digital in 2004 with the tascam 2488 24 track machine, then 2005 went the computer daw route with pro tools le 6 and mbox 1. At the time protools le came with a demo disc of Ableton live 4 & propellorhead reason 2.5 I’ve since ditched pro tools and the mbox and instead use Ableton Live version 8 propellerhead reason version 6 and line 6 pod HD for usb interface and guitar & bass amp emulation and mic preamps. As qweird as it seems I think I was more creative when i just had the 4 track tascam tape machine

  3. Santo

    You said ALL with your last sentence Graham: do thigs right and try to find out a mix that you like. I think that’s the only thing that matters!

  4. Andrew Bauserman

    Graham – 3 comments:

    1) Re: old school analog guys: Hey – I resemble that remark :^\

    2) Re: in-the-box vs. out-of-the-box mixing/summing: To paraphrase Paul: “[Q]uarreling about words…is of no value, and only ruins those who listen.” Or as Swedien said “Nobody leaves the studio humming the console” 😉

    3) “Analog” is really just short-hand for high sample-rate, large bit-depth digital signals with a high-entropy source of dither 🙂

    I love analog – but I do live mixes on a Yamaha digital console, and I ain’t going back!

  5. Bertrand Grichting

    Well said, i absolutely agree. I’ve started mixing over 20 years ago of course on all analog gear. Worked for some years but then followed a different career path for many years. Four or five years ago i started again using ProTools and first i thought that i would not be able to use much of my previous knowhow. But that was not the case. It might be digital today and of course lots of new stuff is around, but as you said, workflows, concepts and basic recording an mixing knowledge did not change that much (thankfully).

    But i was never on the quest to sound analog once i’ve startet using ProTools. The possibilities are just so great these days and to be honest, i like how my PT HD Rig sounds. Of course i still use good (analog) preamps to get the best sound in the box, from then on i will stay in the box, no analog summing or such things.

    And there are more and more great mixers who are not afraid to make the statement that they are not using million-dollar consoles for their mixes instead they mix-in-the-box more and more often.


  6. MKai Audio

    Well said Graham. I think if people search for that analogue sound, they generally end up missing the point of the mix and it sound worse than if they left it in the digital era. I think we should embrace the change over and start to define the digital sound for the generations of audio people who come after us. Maybe someday they will be trying to emulate the sounds we have defined.

    Great post

    James – MKai Audio

  7. Jordan Rowland

    Great post Graham. I like the quote, and I think another way to interpret it would be, “Your dinner wont taste any different if you brought home your groceries in a paper bag, or a plasic bag”

    It really comes down to the music, that’s the honest truth.

  8. Greg

    Graham, your post is right-on. I linked to your column and commented about it on my site mystudiolove.com. Keep up the good content. I reference it all the time when mixing my own music. Thanks.

  9. Roger

    My turntable and cassette recorders really made a lot of “miles” in a time when there wasn’t any other option.
    My first recordings with bands were made with 4 track Fostex recorders, and the best recording that we made as a small and young band at that point were made with a good regular 2 track cassette recorder and a VHS Hi-Fi VCR, bouncing between the two and adding ‘tracks’ in real time over that. We really had to be careful with the levels (not only because we couldn’t change the guitar level at a later stage, but also because the noise floor was too high), and I do believe that we had to be creative in order to pull that out with any kind of success. But I miss that as much as I miss the time when I only could hear music on vinyl or cassette tapes – nothing at all!!!
    Today we can play the same song/file 100 times and it will always sound the same. That sure wasn’t true for analogue. The money equivalent to what a entry-level home studio can buy today wouldn’t do much more that buying a low quality 4 track recorder, a poor microphone and not a lot more. Forget about multiband equalizers, forget about compressors/gates, etc. Imagine a Pro-Tools rig with only 4 tracks and not a single insert, a signal to noise ratio of ~60 dB and losing quality as you were recording over that same tape on a “session”.
    Yes, we had to be creative in order to pull out a decent recording with that, but today we have a final result that’s in a totally different league, and as we’re all married, we are still able to do it with a very small percentage of free time compared to what we had in those days.
    Today is when we really are creative, because we have the tools to do it so there’s no excuse not to be creative, and we are a lot more that before.
    That being said, I would say that my favorite decades in music were the 70’s and the 80’s (and I wasn’t even alive in the early 70’s). But it has nothing to do with sound quality, it’ due to the music itself, and like Bruce Swedien says “It’s all about the music”!
    So if you’re in 2012 with all the technology and you’re having trouble in getting ‘that sound’ from the recorded and mixed guitar, don’t think that you’d solve it by going back to the old analogue world. As a matter of fact, it would only make it harder.
    We can’t deny that a tube pre-amp has a different sound, and we can take advantage of that difference (like in any other gear or instrument), but I would never go back to the analogue days, not even as a music listener, going back to the vinyl route).

    • Mike

      Hi Roger,

      I enjoyed your analog/digital narrative and you are correct, creativity can be assisted greatly by today’s digital technology. I still think we are missing something.

      I notice that recordings back in the analog days brought me emotionally closer to the music than today’s recordings do. They just sounded more like music to me than current recordings.

      Am I hearing things that are no longer there?


  10. Lo Mei

    Always glad to be lumped in with Pro Tools users. Thanks.


    For those of us without the means to provision, operate and maintain an analog studio; digital is good enough. But, what does it really matter how well digital measures up to analog? In the scheme of things, the recording medium is pretty close to the last thing we should be concerned with anyway.

  11. Cameron Norman

    My dad mentioned that my last recording was very clean, and that was a negative for him.

  12. Thom Rayne

    Graham, I am glad I discovered you, brother. I am one of those grey beards that started on reel-to-reel in the 60s (when I was a wee lad) learning to record horn sections on my grandfather’s big red Akai (7″ reels) he used when he recorded his sermons during “rehearsals.” Like “Roger” said we went through years of trying (in vain) to get quiet recordings when you had to bounce tracks between machines to build a song, using dBx NR or Dolby C, if you could afford that, and generally having to stop layering tracks when the noise floor grew to levels that rivaled the hi-hat! I still use a Mackie 8-bus in my loop, but track mostly to Sonar and HD24XRs (for live stuff) and *totally* agree with you that the analog chic thing is mostly sparkle and little substance. With a good “tube” plugin you can get a really close representation of that kind of warmth/saturation. Looking backwards is good for perspective, but the tools we have now are better that most of what expensive rooms could do just ten years ago, and for the home studio, there’s really no reason to go there. Thanks for your insights, brother. I always love hearing the praise songs you use for your tips. Good stuff. 🙂


  13. Elias

    ya…..I guess its about the gear, digital, analog, or whatever……but at the end of the day if you do not have a great song…it’s crap…digital or analog…….and if you do have an amazing song…it’s going to be fantastic…digital or analog. Its NOT about the tools, and it will NEVER be…it’s the creativity behind the human being. Period.

  14. Andy Clark

    I started on analog gear and resisted the digital age all the way up until the mid 2000’s but finally embraced the digital age.I like to still try to add analog touches to my songs.even if it’s small touches

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