What Is Audio Mixing In The Box? | Gearless Mixing In 2023

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What Is Audio Mixing In The Box? | Gearless Mixing

Running a studio can be a costly affair. While there is a lot of equipment that you will need, the truth is that most of beginners can’t afford the luxury of buying expensive outboard gear. Audio engineers are always looking for new ways to make their studio equipment more affordable, convenient as well as improving the quality of their sound. This is where “audio mixing in the box” comes into play.

Mixing in the box is a phrase that refers to mixing audio without using external hardware such as mixing consoles and outboard audio equipment. The phrase is meant to be used as a way of distinguishing mixing in traditional hardware based methods from mixing in more modern, software oriented methods.

A lot of audio engineers are changing their workflow and decide to “move in the box”, even though they have access to expensive mixing consoles and outboard gear. Let’s discuss what mixing in the box really is and how you could benefit from it.

    Table Of Contents

    1. What Is Audio Mixing In The Box?

    2. The Philosophy Behind Mixing In The Box

    3. Mixing In The Box vs. Outboard Gear – Advantages And Disadvantages

    4. Reasons For Mixing In The Box

    5. Tips For Mixing In The Box

    6. Embrace The Future Of Audio Production

    1. What Is Audio Mixing In The Box?

    Recording, mixing, and mastering can be a daunting task. Sometimes you will see people state they would prefer “mixing in the box.” What does that mean? Let’s take a look into what it means to mix in the box.

    Mixing In The Box vs. Outboard Gear

    Audio mixing in the box is a recording studio term that describes the ability to record, edit and mix audio files digitally, in the computer rather than using a hardware mixing console. It is a term used to describe the process of mixing audio primarily using  audio software on a computer. All summing and processing is happening on the computer itself.

    A lot of people are using this term in contrast to the fact, that audio processing used to happen on analog hardware consoles and physical outboard gear in times where the “digital world” simply didn’t exist.

    Today, when mixing engineers work on a project, they usually are mixing in the box, at least most of the time. This means that the majority of the mixing will be done without the use of analog gear. It is possible to mix in the box without using any physical input devices or outboard gear at all. You can get started with the most basic software and basic tools.

    In order to mix in the box, in it’s simplest form, you need a computer or laptop, a soundcard or an audio interface, audio software and playback devices like studio monitors or a pair of headphones. These are the basic tools at your disposal.

    2. The Philosophy Behind Mixing In The Box

    In a modern world of high-end equipment and sprawling studios, expensive outboard devices and magazines full of audio gear, the concept of mixing in the box seems to be “too good to be true”. So a laptop, a pair of headphones and an audio interface is enough to mix a hit song? The simple answer is: “Yes!”

    This statement is the part where some music producers and seasoned audio engineers who work in a “fancy” studio will get a heart attack.  In the words of Greta Thunberg they would scream “How dare you!”.

    But the plain truth about mixing in the box is:

    Neither the physical gear, nor any software or computer produces a hit song. These are only tools. Quality results  always derive from the collaboration between the artist and any audio engineers involved. Skill, musical experience and taste make a hit song.

    There are numerous audio engineers who are changing their workflow and decide to “move in the box”, even though they used to mix on hardware consoles their whole life. They realize that having access to expensive gear doesn’t make a difference any more.

    As an example, you might want to hear what the experienced and well known audio engineer Andrew Scheps (Adele, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Metallica)  has to say about mixing in the box. Andrew used to mix on a high-end Neve console before he decided to “to move in the box” several years ago.

    Andrew Scheps About Mixing In The Box Vs. Hardware:

    3. Mixing In The Box vs. Outboard Gear – Advantages And Disadvantages

    Even though we stated that both “hardware mixing” as well as “mixing in the box” can produce the same quality results, there are some differences between the workflows. In addition to that, both ways of processing audio have advantages and disadvantages which need to be discussed.

    First of all, we need to clarify that there are essentially three ways of processing audio (see graphic in point 1):

    • Hardware Based Only (True Analog)
    • PC & Software Based Only (True Digital)
    • Hybrid Solutions (Mixing In The Box + Using Analog Audio Gear)

    Let’s start with the classical “old school” way of audio processing: mixing on a console while using connected outboard gear like preamps, equalizers and compressors. Many mixing engineers spend their whole life in front of one console. There are “boutique” old school consoles from well established brands like Neve, Harrison or Solid State Logic (SSL) as well as more modern ones from let’s say Avid Audio.

    Professional Mixing Console With Outboard Gear

    The advantages of working with a console can also be disadvantages, depending on the workflow you prefer. Touching faders, the haptic component while turning knobs and switches, these are things mixing in the box can’t provide.

    Sitting in front of a console in a big studio is a feeling. Even though it doesn’t make a lot of sense, most engineers feel more “important” and “exclusive” while being in such an environment. But it is exactly that feeling, especially when dealing with clients in a studio, that creates the perfect atmosphere needed for creating art.

    While some mixing engineers like Chris Lord Alge still prefer to mix on a console, other ones have fully migrated over to mixing in the box. In most cases it’s a matter of what you have been used to and what you have access to. Nothing more, nothing less.

    Sonically, analog gear is often associated with a pleasing, natural sound often described as “warmth” or “fullness”. These sonic characteristics derive from the odd and even harmonics as well as the saturation and distortion analog devices add to the sound. It can be very pleasing to drive a signal “hot” in an analog console.

    Another big difference between mixing on a console and mixing in the box lies in the amount of available headroom. We will discuss that aspect while looking at the aspects of mixing in the box.

    The disadvantages of working with a console are often related to the device itself. First of all, a console is expensive, it is hard to obtain, transport, install and you need the proper space to operate it. Maintenance and energy costs as well as the immobility are additional aspects to consider. These are massive disadvantages in modern times and the reason why mixing in the box came to life pretty succesfully.

    A Computer Screen In A Mixing Session

    The advantages of mixing in the box are manifold. To give a clear advice right away: you can and probably should mix entirely in the box.

    “Entirely in the box” doesn’t mean you should avoid any outboard gear. It simply means that you can achieve tremendous results by using basic equipment and tools.

    Things You Need To Mix In The Box:

    • PC / Laptop
    • Audio Interface
    • Audio Software (DAW, Plugins)
    • Playback Device (Headphones, Studio Monitors)

    You can go ahead and maybe add a decent preamp (which are often part of the audio interface) as well as a microphone, in case you want to add recording capabilities to your setup.

    The advantages of mixing in the box are the direct solutions to the disadvantages of mixing on a console: despite the fact that modern PCs and the necessary audio software can be pricy, costs are massively reduced. Availability, transport, installation and operation space are no issues. Maintenance and energy costs are also drastically reduced.

    The workflow can increase regarding efficiency as well, as digital operation allows numerous time saving features. Mobility becomes an option, when using a laptop with a mobile audio interface. In terms of results, audio mixes created in the box are often non distinguishable to mixes created on a console.

    The disadvantages of mixing in the box are mostly related to the difference between anlog and digital audio processing.

    When we are mixing in the box, we’re dealing with math and numbers (digital ones and zeroes). Years ago, digitally processed audio used to sound some kind of sterile, linear and not as pleasing as the analog sound people were used to.

    This issue was solved by implementing software (plugins), emulating the characteristics of analog gear like tape emulation, saturation, and distortion. Nowadays it is possible to add the desired harmonics of an anolog device to digital audio. Some software plugins are even able to emulate the specific sonic characteristics of chosen mixing consoles.

    Audio Processing Plugins Emulating Outboard Gear

    The biggest problem mixing in the box has is the lack of huge amounts of headroom like a mixing console has. Headroom is a term used to describe the amount of space between the nominal level and the maximum level that a system or signal can handle without being damaged. This safety zone allows for audio peaks to exceed the nominal level without causing any damage.

    In the digital world, we don’t have infinite headroom. Exceeding the headroom results in unwanted clipping and distortion, often ruining recordings and mixes. It is crucial to always leave enough headroom and gainstage your audio material properly, while processing in the box.

    To wrap things up, hybrid solutions are always possible and common practise while processing audio. For example you can process audio in a digital audio workstation before sending the signals to a console or analog summing device.

    Another common scenario is to send a digital signal to analog outboard gear and the processed signal back into the audio software (DA/AD).

    4. Reasons For Mixing In The Box

    Gearless mixing in the box is an approach that is getting a lot of attention these days. It is a popular choice for those who can’t afford to have a studio full of gear or want to avoid the hassles of working with outboard gear. The benefits of gearless mixing in the box are many. To sum things up, here is a list of reasons why you should mix in the box.

    Reasons For Mixing In The Box Compared To Mixing With Outboard Gear:

    • Equal Audio Quality
    • Modern Audio Processing Solution
    • Lower Overall Costs For The Audio Processing
    • Better Availability Of Products
    • Easier Transport, Installation And Operation
    • Less Maintenance Issues
    • Less Space Needed
    • Mobile Solutions Possible (Laptops)
    • More Efficient Workflow

    5. Tips For Mixing In The Box

    While mixing in the box, you should pay attention to some critical aspects in order to avoid sonic problems and to get the best audio quality possible. Furthermore, take advantage of the modern capabilities digital processing has to offer.

     Tips For Mixing In The Box:

    • Consider Buying A PC / Workstation With Sufficient Processing Power
    • Keep In Mind That PC-Fan Noise Can Become An Issue
    • Make Sure The Recorded Audio Files Are Properly Gainstaged
    • Leave Enough Headroom In Your Tracks And Mixes
    • Avoid Clipping Of Your Audio Tracks (Especially On The Mix Bus)
    • Monitor The Loudness Values Of Each Audio Track
    • Work With Personally Customized Templates And Presets
    • Manage Your Audio Files And Provide Enough Storage Space For Them
    • Implement Digital Backup Solutions For Your Projects
    • Frequently Look Out For Available Driver And Software Updates

    6. Embrace The Future Of Audio Production

    Audio mixing can be a complex and challenging process. Nonetheless, mixing in the box can drastically increase the efficiency of the workflow while producing state of the art audio results.

    After reading this article, you should be able to evaluate the advantages of mixing digitally vs mixing on analog gear. If you are a beginner at audio processing, mixing in the box offers tremendous opportunities to get started right away.

    If you want to learn more about mixing and mastering or processing your own audio projects, we highly encourage you to read through our blog or join our courses in the near future.

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    Hopefully you found this blog post to be helpful and informative. Feel free to contact us anytime with any questions or concerns about the topic.
    Thanks for reading!

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