Is Your Interface Coloring Your Sound?

Interfaces are supposed to offer a level of consistency and transparency for your recording sessions. While interfaces offer built-in preamps of various quantities and qualities, the converters are supposed to be one of the cleanest elements of your setup. When you’re running a microphone & preamp combination you know the sound of, the last thing you need is the interface changing that tonal quality.

For those that exclusively mix or master music, the dependence on a clean and transparent interface is magnified exponentially. You’re relying on what you hear to guide your decisions. For that to translate well across all playback devices, you’re once again relying on consistency.

So with your interface touching every single element of your song from start to finish, how do you handle your sessions in a way that negates interface coloration?

Start With What You Need (And Can Afford)

While the interface is essentially the brain/central hub of your recording setup, I’m not one to advocate for spending ludicrous amounts of money on one. In the past, I’ve gone into some of the drawbacks and limitations we face with recording interfaces, particularly with their DI features. Instead, I tell engineers two things when deciding on a new interface:

  •      Only buy what you need
  •      Only buy what you can afford

It doesn’t take crazy expensive hardware to get a good sound, and you’ll never need 100 inputs and outputs when you’re just starting out as a home-based producer. Be realistic and focus on where you’ll see the biggest results.

If you’re buying your first interface, stick to one or two channels and make sure they’re the best one or two channels you can afford. Too many engineers seem to think starting with 8-12 channel interfaces is necessary if they want to work on big sessions, but if you don’t have the mic collection and space to make use of them, what’s the point? Instead, build the chain you need to get the best sound in your environment.

Your sessions and clientele will grow, and as they do you can upgrade along the way. Just remember everything else that goes into a good recording beyond the interface; you’ll need good mics, good preamps & good monitoring if you want to get the most out of that big interface you’re aspiring to own.

Neutralize Your Interface

Your interface and converters should already be pretty neutral elements, but if they’re not, there are still steps you can take to achieve great results despite them. Even if you’ve got transparent converters, these few tweaks to your workflow can help keep things streamlined while adding your “signature stamp” to each and every mix.

I like to look at these few tweaks as “padding” around my mixes, but not in the same way a traditional audio pad works. This padding acts as a buffer between my DAW and my interface. It gets applied to audio on the way in, and it’s the last thing my mix touches before the converters on the way out.

Trim On The Way In

During tracking, I’m constantly keeping an eye on levels to make sure I’m not clipping accidentally anywhere. Regardless of my signal chain, I want to be hitting my converter at a nominal level. Mixing in the DAW might require these levels to change drastically, but that’s only an option if I’ve captured it right at the source.

Assuming things have been recorded correctly (either by myself or someone else), some padding might still be necessary to get the sound ready for mixing. For me, this means controlling the input level going into my first plugin. Since my first plugins on a track are usually dynamic processors, we’ve built Input & Output Trim controls into everything from Gain Reduction to Transify.

By having this level of control, you can be sure you’re hitting every plugin at the perfect level, and can properly maintain your sound from the start.

Glue On The Way Out

It shouldn’t come as any shock to those of you that keep up with the blog, but I’m a huge proponent of mix bus compression. It’s the easiest way to add some polish to a final mix.

It also helps standardize your sound, regardless of the interface you’re using.

Consider your master fader/mix bus the last stop before release, even if your song still needs to be mastered. It’s your final spot to really set listener expectations and your last chance to give them something that sticks with them.

By using a plugin like BG-Mix from the Bus Glue series, you have the opportunity to create consistency and dexterity in your mix. This final bit of compression brings all of your grouped elements together into a complete, mixed song. Setting your audio up in this way makes it hard for any type of poor conversion to break it down because you’ve locked everything in place where it should be.

Does this cure poor conversion? Absolutely not, but it negates it enough to make your mix sound consistent – whether you’re listening through monitors in the room, headphones, or playing it back through laptop speakers. That’s all you can ask for as a mixer.

Do You Need A New Interface?

If you’re finding yourself running out of inputs session after session, I feel for you. It might be time to make that jump if you can’t find a way to parse down some of those inputs.

If you think you need a new interface because your mixes don’t sound right, you might want to think again. I’ve found that engineers usually don’t have the tools to inspire them if they aren’t happy with their mixes (and trust me, while a new interface can be exciting, the enjoyment can fade fast if it’s not doing something new for you).

What do you think? Can a new interface cure a creative slump, or do you find yourself getting more inspiration out of a new effect, instrument or technique? Come join the discussion in the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum to see what others are saying.