I hang onto this idea for a week or two in early October. Since I seem to be buying a new computer, this fires up my semi dormant case of GAS, or gear acquisition syndrome. Every year around this time I start thinking about what I might add to the studio because business investments can be subtracted from your income and lower your taxes. Now, GilderSound is very well equipped, but I always have a running list of items that will make the place that much better. This year I have two big items on the list, not counting the computer/Pro Tools situation which has pushed itself to the front of the line. Item #1 is a Bricasti M7, which is arguably the finest hardware reverb on the planet. By “hardware” I mean a physical piece of gear, not software. The other item on my short list is a Rascal Audio Tonebuss summing box. Unless you are a gear geek like me, you are no doubt asking “what the heck is a summing box?”. Well, until 16 months or so ago I was asking the same question.
Let me explain. Before Pro Tools and other DAW’s came along, we used mixers and tape machines to record, manipulate, and eventually mix all of the sound together. This equipment added tonal color to the music, like filters and lenses affect the color of photos and film. In the 80’s and 90’s sound engineers often characterized digital recording as “cold” and analog as “warm”. Much of this had to do with digital to analog conversion not quite capturing all of the details of sound, but some of what was missing was tonal shaping provided by analog electronics and tape. Around the beginning of the 2000’s conversion got much better, and digital became a pretty transparent medium to record in. Combine that with low cost and great editing capability and pretty soon everyone was using computers for some or all of their recording process. Still we crave our analog warmth. I love stuff with tubes in it- guitar amps, mic preamps, compressors, etc. because they add some of the “secret sauce” to recordings. But all of us recording folks were still looking for more depth and dimension in our final mixes. Some of the high end mixing engineers were still using large analog mixers and argued that the trip through the mixer combined the tracks in a more pleasing way than staying inside the computer. There was no way a mid level guy like myself could afford a nice mixer, since that would be an investment 10’s or even 100’s of thousands of dollars.
The companies who make products for people like me got going and created some solutions. They built some smaller, high quality mixers and came up with a category of product called summing boxes. Part of me wonders if this is like the drug companies coming up with solutions for conditions I never knew existed, but obviously lots of people have them since they advertise on television. Anyway, with a summing box you send stems, or groups, of your tracks out of the computer into the warm analog world where they happily combine into a stereo track you record back into the DAW. I must admit I was skeptical, since I was already sending some tracks out to external hardware during mixing. Still, I wanted to check it out, so in November 2009 I bought Dangerous D-Box, and among other functions, it has 8 channels of summing. It was actually several months before I was able try mixing “out of the box” however. I bought a patchbay to route signals around and it turned out to have some gremlins, but the company eventually sent me a new one that worked. So, on a Tuesday evening in May, the previously mentioned Andy LaCasse and I did a mixing shootout. We took one of our Kilter songs and mixed in and out of box versions. We were somewhat surprised, but both of us agreed that we liked out of the box better.
So this revelation pushed me in a whole new mixing direction. The D-Box is kind of limited in the summing area and I soon decided bigger and better one was in order. But that’s another chapter. Thanks for sticking with me during my longish foray into the history of digital audio.