Is Less Really More…?
In the analogue world there was always a direct link between the size of a mixing console and the scale of the mix it could produce. Digital mixing software like Pro Tools, Logic Pro, Nuendo, Cubase and others, completely changed that relationship. Although big films and TV shows still tend to be mixed on very large desks, it’s quite possible for a control surface to mix many more audio channels than it has physical faders. For a while I’ve been using an 8 fader control surface and by stepping through the fader banks, 8 channels at a time, it’s been able to handle mixes of well over 100 tracks.
The funny thing is, I’ve realised that I was actually spending quite a bit of time and effort just figuring out which track corresponded to which fader on which bank. When I first saw the FaderPort I started to think about a single fader possibly being more effective than a group of eight.
The kind of mixing we do at The Film Bakery tends to involve a lot of jumping around between say, a couple of dialogue tracks near one end of the mixer and a music track down the other end and then maybe some FX tracks in the middle.
I’ve been testing the FaderPort on exactly this kind of mixing and it’s been a real awakening. The great thing is that the single fader is always representing the active channel, so if I look at the track layout and see the sound effect that I want to tweak, I just click and select that track and I know the FaderPort is now that channel. With an 8 fader control surface this would require finding the effect in the track layout, checking the track name and then switching through the fader banks to find that track then taking note of which fader that is before hitting play. On the FaderPort, it’s just select and play.
Film & TV Mixing with FaderPort & Logic Pro
I have heard of some people having issues with the FaderPort and Logic, but it’s been an absolute pleasure for me and as we migrate from the, now defunct, Soundtrack Pro as our workhorse (STP doesn’t support FaderPort) I’m finding the pairing or Logic & FaderPort to be a very capable combination for audio post. Once it’s been added as a control surface the unit springs to life whenever I start Logic.
The metal faceplate and the backlit buttons are solid and they remind me of the build quality of the analogue broadcast gear I learned on.
There is a feeling you get when you sit in front of a bunch of faders, even an 8 channel unit, that isn’t there with the FaderPort. In it’s place though is a more direct connection to the material.
I recently completed the mix for the Westpac Rescue Helicopter TV Commercial (pictured above) with the FaderPort. For the 60 sec. charity ad we had:
- 19 Stereo Channels
- 31 Mono Channels
- 4 Stereo Fx Sends
- 5 Stereo SubMix Channels
While this mix could have been economised down to many fewer tracks and with an 8 Channel control surface I would have been tempted to do a bit of that. With the FaderPort, I was comfortably able to spread out and put a lot of elements on their own track which really simplified and sped up the process. For example, we ten different helicopter sounds and I put these on ten different tracks, without having to worry about cycling through tons of mixer banks to find something. With the tracks vertically zoomed to their smallest size in Logic I am getting up to 74 tracks on my Mac screen at once, so on this project I was able to instantly get to any track with a single mouse click and no scrolling.
I’m finding that I’m even doing a certain amount of mixing in the arrange window, without even having the virtual mixer on screen. For me, this is a very different mixing experience where I’m finding myself more focused on the elements of the mix rather than the positions of all the faders and the levels on the vu meters. It’s actually a more intuitive mixing process where you can see the elements of the mix while feeling your way with the fader, pan and transport controls.
The FaderPort also has dedicated buttons for different automation modes. Read, Write & Touch directly activate their respective modes while pressing the active mode button switches Logic to the automation Off mode. The unit also has an Off automation button which leaves the software in it’s current mode but switches off the actual fader – great if you don’t want the sound of the fader moving to interfere with listening to the mix. This is great to have although less important with a single, fairly quiet fader than it is with a lot more faders buzzing around.
The fader itself is a really high quality one from Alps Electronics who make touch sensitive faders for a lot of large, high end desks and it has the kind of feel that suggests. It’s fast and responsive when reading and in touch mode it switches instantly when you make contact with the fader. The 100mm long throw of the fader is a big deal because for film mixing it allows you to be very subtle one moment and very dramatic the next, which is a very common requirement. Although the unit draws it’s power from the USB it also requires an external power supply to get the moving fader working.
Another function that works really well with Logic is the Mix button in the Window View segment of the FaderPort. This simply toggles the Logic mixer on and off. I’ve found myself using this button constantly, to have a quick look around the mixer and then switching back to mix in the arrange window, where I can see my whole mix at once.
The transport buttons work well and in Logic pressing Stop once, pauses playback and pressing again returns to the start, while pressing Play while playback is rolling returns to the last place the playhead was positioned. This works well for fine tuning a section while not wanting to loop. Speaking of Loop, there’s a dedicated button for that too as well as Mute, Solo and Record arm buttons for the active track.
There’s also Channel Select buttons that can toggle between moving one track at a time or by selecting the Bank button, moving 8 channels at a time. I’ve found myself mostly using these buttons when moving between adjacent tracks, like between music elements or chopper sound fx tracks. As you switch between tracks every element of the FaderPort panel adjusts instantly to the new track including illuminating which Automation mode is selected, the Mute / Solo / Rec status and current fader position.
Real World Mixing
Let me start with what I don’t think the FaderPort is suited to. For a fast turnaround, regular production like a TV series that uses fairly consistent track layouts, having a bigger console where the mixer can reach straight for what they want would be a huge factor. Equally, in a lot of situations where the client needs to see an impressive room and lots of stuff happening, the FaderPort for all it’s build quality, doesn’t look the part.
That said, for doing a big mix, anything over 16 or maybe 24 tracks (so most of what I do) that doesn’t have the big desk requirements I’ve mentioned above, the FaderPort actually has an edge over a lot of 8-Channel control surfaces.
For anyone wanting to do a bit of simple mixing without the cost or desk space of a bigger surface the FaderPort is ideal. But for mixing something big, where you want to have a high degree of control and functionality on each channel, the FaderPort really comes into it’s own, allowing you to jump around a big mix without spending time working out which fader is doing what.
Having one really good quality fader is also a big plus. True, it doesn’t allow you to mix several channels in relationship to each other at the same time. For someone who’s mixing full-time, this might be a bigger factor. For me, I usually find myself wanting to focus on one track at a time anyway. In fact, I’m finding it encouraging me to really get each track right first and rely less on tweaking things at the submix stage, which is probably a good thing too.
You’ll notice I haven’t talked much about moving up from mixing with a mouse, which is probably what the designers of the FaderPort first envisaged as it’s purpose. For me, mixing with a mouse is like doing landscaping with a pair of chopsticks – if you stick with it, you will get it done… one day. I’ll take my hat off to anyone who can do mixing without a control surface but the advantages of being able to control the mix in real time with dedicated controls are hard to overstate.
For the WRH test project, we designed a mix that would have required 87 single channel faders in the analogue world. That’s a big desk to handle a 60 second spot!
With the FaderPort it’s a more intimate connection with the mix with more freedom in the track layout and that’s something I’m really enjoying.