My GO TO…Mix Bus: Three Pros Share Their Secret Weapons

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In this edition of the GO TO series, we’re focusing on the big picture. Specifically, your mix bus or master fader as it relates to mixing music.

Whether you’re mixing on an analog console, in the box (ITB) through your DAW or a hybrid of the two, the one constant from project to project will often be your mix bus. Every engineer has a unique chain of gear they rely on for their mix bus and a unique workflow for how they attack their mixes when it comes to the final master fader.

Joining us to discuss are veteran mixers Nadim Issa from Let Em In Music in Gowanus Brooklyn, Hip-Hop specialist Paul “Willie Green” Womack and the legendary Frank Filipetti, who mixes primarily out of his facility in West Nyack, NY.

Pay close attention and you may be mixing in a sweet spot like Frank Filipetti's -- The Living Room. More on that later on...

Pay close attention and you may be mixing in a sweet spot like Frank Filipetti’s — The Living Room. More on that later on… (Photo credit: Zach McNees)

Over the past decade, the technology for ITB mixing has grown immeasurably thanks to huge leaps in 64bit DAW technology and an ever expanding list of world class plugins. Once thought to be vastly inferior to analog console mixing, working ITB has arguably become the preferred way to mix for even the most seasoned veteran mixers.

For me, ITB mixing has always been about saturation and harmonics. That goes double (literally) on my mix bus. I will say that when it comes to the master fader, I am a creature of habit. Out of the five plugins that normally live on my mix bus, only a few things get tweaked regularly from song to song. The rest, are simply a reliable chain of gear that provide unique sonic enhancements that I mix through right from the start.

So what is my mix bus chain? See for yourself!

Behold the ZMMB! (Zach McNees Mix Bus) (click to enlarge)

Zach McNees lays out his personal mix bus (click to enlarge)

My typical chain:

Slate Virtual Console Collection

I love the VCC. It’s my first line of defense sonically and gain-stage wise for sculpting my tracks. I tend to use the different consoles on a channel-by-channel basis depending on the sound of the track. Some consoles like the Ψ (Trident) really push the top end crunch while others like RC Tube provide a very warm and rolled off sound. More on the VCC in my Sonicscoop Review.

Slate Virtual Tape Machines

The first listen to VTM on my mix bus was a huge WOW moment for me. VTM is doing some truly amazing things to the low end on my mixes for that really sub harmonic thump. I typically work in ½” 2 Track mode at 30 ips with FG9 tape type. Depending on the track I might work a little on the gain staging with the input and output knobs. I typically work at around 1.5 to 2dB of input gain on VTM.

Waves JJP Collection EQP-1A This is a very subtle top end boost. I tend to like the way the 12K boost sounds on the JJP Pultec more than most EQ plugins I’ve heard. It’s very musical sounding.

Slate Virtual Bus Compressors (typically the FG-RED)

This is the newest edition to my mix bus chain. Once again, spot-on replication of some truly classic hardware units. I just love how the FG-RED compressor glues my mixes together. I always mix through my compressor from the very start. My gain reduction VU meters in VBC rarely hits 3. I’m usually compressing very lightly on my mix bus to just help blend everything together nicely while retaining dynamics.

Izotope Ozone 5

More on Ozone below.

Massey L2007 Used only in the reference phase for clients to provide a close to mastering level mix without doing anything damaging to the dynamics.

Of all the plugins on my mix bus currently, the one that provides by far the most sonic enhancement to my mixes is Izotope Ozone 5. My use of Ozone focuses primarily on EQ, Harmonic Exciter and Stereo Imaging modules. The harmonic exciter is in “Tube” mode crunching mostly the high and mid band with slight coloration in the low end. The same relative processing per band is used in the stereo imaging module to spread the high end and the mid range slightly adding a more exciting feel overall to the mix.

I’m a huge fan of Ozone. I really can’t mix without it these days. It adds so much to the overall sound of my mixes to glue everything together harmonically. I’m always a little terrified at what my mixes sound like when I bypass Ozone on the mix bus.

But enough from me! Let’s see how some of our veteran mixers are treating their master fader…

Nadim Issa

Nadim Issa of Let 'Em In.

Nadim Issa of Let ‘Em In.

First up is Nadim Issa, producer/engineer extraordinaire and owner of one of my favorite studios in NYC, Let Em In Music in Gowanus Brooklyn. Nadim is currently working on the second full length for Lady Lamb the Beekeeper and just finished up producing and engineering the upcoming Pearl and the Beard album “Beast”. Other recent projects include Sophie Madeleine and Ingrid Michaelson and the spectacular debut album from Lady Lamb the Beekeeper.

Nadim is also a completely ITB mixer who works exclusively in Logic. A typical mix bus chain for Nadim looks something like:

Brainworx bx_digital EQ

UAD SSL G Buss Compressor

UAD Ampex ATR-102 Mastering Tape Plugin

Waves L2

On mix bus technique: “For me, processing on the mix bus is about breathing a little more life into the mix, making sure it moves properly and has cohesion. I try not to leave too much to the imagination of the mastering engineer. If there’s anything I can think of that might make my mix sound better by processing the 2 bus, I will go ahead and try it.

As such, I might employ one or two layers of compression, EQ, stereo widening or narrowing, reverb, tape plugins, etc. I stop short at heavily limiting the bus. In fact I normally just use a Waves L2 plugin as a safeguard to avoid clipping the bus here and there. Occasionally, I’ll crank the L2 just to hear what that would sound like, but I don’t ever mix into it like that.”

On the mix bus chain: “The Brainworx bx digital EQ is a fairly new one for me. I find that a little tweaking goes a long way with this plugin. It is an extremely handy and multifaceted tool that I’ll often use to stereo enhance the mix thanks to its mid-side processing. I tend to be light-handed with my mix bus EQ-ing. I’ve always been conservative about brightening up my mixes, preferring to leave that up to the mastering engineer.

However, the high shelf on the bx digital is not at all harsh to my ears and as a result I’m comfortable doing some brightening myself.  I’ll often brighten up my sides more than my mid. The ability to solo the mid, the sides, and whatever band your EQing is brilliant. I’ll play around with adding and cutting bands and based on what the bx reveals I find myself going back to EQ individual tracks as a result. The mono-maker knob, which makes everything below a designated frequency mono, can be nice for cleaning things up a bit and avoiding having bass-heaviness on either side. The de-esser is stellar as well when encountering some harshness.”

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  • DPrty

    Great article. More like this one please.

  • Zach McNees

    Thank you! I’m always open to suggestions on future GO TO ideas!

  • Glenn Brown

    NLS Spike is a SSL4000G and not a API but is right about the flat respons as compared to the EMI and Neve……

  • ex3

    The Waves NLS is on sale right now too for $99. Here’s a coupon link for an extra 10% off too!

  • Bones Howell

    I would have liked to see more discussion with mixers who work completely out of the box when it comes to 2 buss. kind of depressing to see how many pro engineers are using a bunch of plug ins.

  • VictorSpoilz

    Great article, thanks. Food for thought. The moral of the story is: do what works for you but tread lightly is always a good watchword.

  • great article! Thx guys

  • Robert Jason

    Just curious as to why you’d insert VTM so early in the chain, when logically your print to tape would be the last operation…post all but any Limiting.
    Truly, I do a MIX with just VCC and VTM, dither to 24 bits, leave at 96 k. That rendered export is then imported for the Mastering process. Different strokes, I guess.

  • Judas Sleaze

    It wouldn’t be the last operation, if you’re mixing a session tracked to tape then it’s already there!