Mixing with the Console Emulator

Mixing with the Console Emulator

Snake oil, or useful processor? Read on, and find out

by Craig Anderton

Console Emulator plug-ins are controversial. First, a lot of people are convinced they don’t really make a difference. Second, there’s the philosophical question of whether emulating a console is a good thing—after all, you’re emulating imperfections. And third, there’s the question of which console you want to emulate.

However, before you can judge whether a console emulator is going to be useful, you need to know how to use it correctly…so let’s investigate.

About Console Emulation

There are legitimate reasons why analog consoles can sound different compared to mixing “in the box,” and also, legitimate reasons why some might consider these differences desirable. Technically speaking, there are two main differences compared to digital summing.

First, analog circuitry has inherent non-linearities (or in less polite terms, distortion). As a signal goes through multiple analog stages, these non-linearities add up although the end result can still be extremely low-level. Because there are differences between the left and right channels, this tends to “widen” the image and create the appearance of a wider soundstage. If the distortion is relatively high, as can be the case with older consoles, distortion generates harmonics in the audio spectrum’s upper range. With increased highs, and given that highs are more directional, this can widen the sound even further.

Second, consoles often use audio transformers and it’s not an overstatement to say that transformers are some of the most complex signal processors ever introduced into a signal chain. What’s more, the transformer’s characteristics are dependent on the circuitry that surrounds it—such as the source impedance, capacitive loading, resistive loading, and the like. For example, the external circuitry may damp some of the “ringing” that occurs when passing square waves through audio transformers. Transformers also generate distortion (primarily odd-order) that’s highest at lower frequencies. While the effect of all of these variables is subtle, many people like the sonic characteristics transformers can impart to a signal. Overall, good transformer implementations provide a somewhat “fatter” low end, and can add “warmth.”

Inserting Cakewalk’s Console Emulator

As with any processor, there are no rules if you want to get creative—so take the following as personal preferences, not as “rules” that must be followed.

Prior to mixing, I’d recommend inserting a Console Emulator Channel plug-in (CEC for short) last in the ProChannel for every track, and a Console Emulator Bus plug-in (CEB for short) in the master bus. The easiest way to do this is with the Quick Grouping command: in the Console view, open a ProChannel in a non-selected track. Then while holding the Ctrl key, right-click within the ProChannel, select Insert Module, and choose Console Emulator Channel; this places the CEC last in every audio track. You’ll need to insert the CEB in the master bus manually, as Quick Group works only across similar track types.

To ensure that the CEC is last in the chain, place the ProChannel post-FX bin (right-click in a blank space or effect header in the ProChannel, then select Post FX Bin—see Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Placing the ProChannel post-FX bin, and inserting the Console Emulator plug-in as the last effect in the ProChannel, guarantees that all effects in the track will go through the Console Emulator.

Of course, this may not matter because with SONAR you can also place FX Chains within the ProChannel; this means you can position any VST or DirectX effects you’d normally place in the FX Bin anywhere you want within the ProChannel signal chain.

Then again, some SONAR users prefer putting the CEC or CEB first in the ProChannel chain, while others like adding one at both the beginning and end of the chain. Hey, whatever works—but I’d recommend starting with a “plain vanilla” setup (Fig. 2) as you learn what the CEC and CEB do.

Fig. 2: The Console Emulator Channel comes last in this chain, after the EQ and Concrete Limiter. Note the clip “LEDs” to the left of each module’s bypass button; make sure these aren’t lit solid red, as that indicates distortion occurring within the ProChannel.

The main point is you want to mix while the Console Emulation plug-ins are active. How they affect a sound isn’t something you can necessarily predict, so you’ll want to make your EQ and dynamics decisions with the CECs and CEB in place. Also remember that you can use Quick Grouping to bypass/enable all CECs simultaneously for comparison, as well as select the CEC type and control settings. Remember, though, that Quick Grouping using a CEC won’t affect any CEB modules.

Dialing in the Sound

Start by choosing your emulation. To my ears the S-type console is the most subtle, the N has the most “character,” and the A type lies in between. As a very rough rule of thumb, I like N for rock, S for electronic (which already tends to have some “sizzle,” and benefits from the S-type’s “rounder” sound) and A for primarily acoustic projects to add a bit of a high-end “lift” and where “fatness” isn’t as essential.

These are very subjective opinions, but they can be borne out somewhat objectively. I generated sine waves at various frequencies and processed them through the emulations to find their essential characters, as well as how the controls affected the sound (check out Fig. 3 to see how the waveforms are altered at 100Hz).

Fig. 3: The non-processed, “control” sine wave is at the left. The waveforms for the S, N, and A types are to the right.

It’s well worth taking the time to run some tests of your own; Sound Forge, WaveLab, and Audition can all generate high-quality sine waves, and you’ll learn a lot when you hear how the console emulation controls affect the sound. Of course, you wouldn’t judge a Console Emulation by how it processes sine waves, but you can get a handle on how it affects particular frequency ranges.

There are two main controls, Trim and Drive. The Drive control sets how much of the dry signal is affected by the emulation process, with higher levels producing more of an effect—think of this as a “character” control. According to Cakewalk, Drive is designed to produce the most realistic emulation with settings between -6 dB and +2 dB; the additional range beyond those limits allows for more exaggerated effects.

Trim adjusts the input level going into the CEC so for example, if you have Drive for two modules set similarly but one is dealing with a lower-level signal, you can turn up Trim to compensate. I tend to keep this at 0 unless I need more input level, but if you want to really blow out the saturation, then turn it up. At that point, the CEC becomes more like an obvious saturator effect. (Note that the CEB doesn’t have a trim control.)

Again, remember that you can Quick Group the CEC controls to adjust all instances of a parameter simultaneously.

The Component Tolerance switch strikes me as one of those “what the heck, why not?” controls. In theory, it emulates component variations among channels, but I leave it off because I don’t feel the need to have variations among channels . . . life is random enough!

For best results, pay close attention to gain-staging within the ProChannel. There’s a clip “LED” to the left of each module’s enable/disable switch within the ProChannel—make sure no module’s clip LED lights solid red. Even a little bit of distortion can negate any Console Emulator benefits; you want carefully-controlled non-linearities, not splattering digital distortion.

But Can You Hear a Difference?

To hear a song that uses the Console Emulator on all channels, check out “When the Grid Goes Down” on my YouTube channel. I also posted an excerpt with A-B comparisons, both of which were discussed in the SONAR forums. Some people heard a definite difference with the A-B comparisons, while others didn’t. But what was interesting to me was that sometimes the transition from processed to unprocessed is obvious, and sometimes, it isn’t. Overall, though, there’s no question that when I bypass all the Console Emulation plug-ins, the sound becomes slightly less “alive.”

One aspect that makes console emulation both controversial and enigmatic is that it’s not a broadband effect; it affects different frequencies differently, particularly with respect to transformer emulations and varying input levels. As a result, it’s one of those “mojo” effects that’s difficult to explain. When I first started using console emulation, I wasn’t all that impressed. But as I learned how to tame it, and how to mix through it, I started using it more and more—sometimes the results are very subtle, but the end result is better than not using it.

And that’s what matters, right?

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