We talk with Carl Craig about the sound of DAWs, summing in the box with Harrison Mixbus, and making sure your music has character.

We always wanted to know: do DAWs really sound different from each other? Over the course of two articles, we explored just that, running tests on Ableton Live, Logic Pro X and FL Studio 20. While some plugins did behave differently in each DAW, overall we found these differences to be minimal. According to our tests, DAWs really don’t sound different from each other.

Here are the articles if you haven’t read them yet:

These experiments generated quite a bit of discussion online, with readers generally divided on whether they do or don’t sound different. A number of artists got in touch as well to offer their opinion, including Carl Craig. We arranged to speak with the techno legend over Zoom from his studio in Detroit to hear more.

Seeker Of Sound

While talking, it becomes clear to us that Carl Craig is passionate about sound. Not just sound quality – which he is concerned with as well – but that certain sonic characteristic that helps make a good song great. “The mixes that I’ve done as 69 – 4 Jazz Funk Classics, all that stuff – I did it on such bad equipment, but it had character to it,” he says. “What was super important is that it sounds like it’s something. It sounds like itself.”

Carl Craig in his studio.

We know exactly what he’s getting at. The songs that mean the most to us, that matter the most, often aren’t technically perfect. But they do have a sonic quality, a quality of sound, that makes them unique. “If you look at music in the same way as art,” he continues, “you might like to have a Warhol… because it has that character, and it’s always going to have that character. And that’s the way that I want my music to always be, whether it sounds perfect, or whether it sounds flawed. I’ve had tracks that weren’t very well engineered that did very, very well. But the song had character and it was saying something.”

We agree, noting that there’s a real drive towards technical perfection in music these days, even at the expense of emotion and originality. Craig concurs. “One of my favourite groups growing up as a kid was the B-52s,” he says. “They were like, perfectly imperfect. I think Ricky Wilson didn’t even really know how to tune up his guitar. He just tuned it up, whatever worked by ear and that was it. He had different guitars because the tuning was specifically for that song in particular. And I love that. I love the fact that things can be so imperfect.”

Songs may be imperfect but – at the end of the day – they still have to sound good. We get into it about gear and all the changes that Craig’s studio has been through over the years. He’s a seeker of sound. Some artists set it and forget it but Craig is not one of them. His studio is in flux, with new gear often coming and going, all in his search for the right sound. Currently, it’s a hybrid setup, with digital equipment sitting alongside analogue gear.

.Photo by ©Christie Goodwin
Carl Craig performing live with the Chineke! Orchestra. (Photo by ©Christie Goodwin)

“I got rid of a big console a long time ago,” he explains. “I still have a small one that I use every so often. It’s an Amek BC 10 or something like that. I did a lot of mixes on that. The Theo Parrish track (‘Falling Up‘) was done on that. But I’ve had Neve, I’ve had a small SSL, a Matrix.” Now, he’s added a rackmount SSL Sigma for summing.

Of course, he still maintains a collection of analogue synthesizers and drum machines: a Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, Sequential Oberheim-6, Roland Juno-106, Sequential Circuits Pro-One, and Roland TR-909. He also mentions the Studio Electronics Code. “With the Moog cards it’s like having eight Minimoogs together,” he says, his eyes lighting up.

Outboard gear also plays a part in his signal chain, with Pultec, Tube-Tech and SSL compressors all tickling his tracks. “I found that I liked the idea of having smaller things too,” he continues. “So I had a lot of 500 Series stuff for a while. Then I sold a bunch of them and kept only certain things. I kept a couple of Moog analogue delays and a couple of Inward Connections EQs and a bunch of Radial (Engineering) stuff, which I use to make sure that I can patch in pedals.”

Craig points out his Mesanovic speakers.

His studio restlessness extends to his speakers as well. He currently has two sets wired up, one by PMC and one by Mesanovic, a local Detroit company. “They sound really good,” he says of the Mesanovics. “They’re pretty true. They’re actually truer to me than the PMCs are. The PMCs are $120,000 speakers. And for some reason, I’m still on the fence about them. It’s just one of those things. I have a DSP to put it into place (in the room), but I’m still on the fence about it. But the Mesanovics, (they’re) going to tune them up with DSP to the room and then they’ll be really good.” His room, by the way, was designed by Walters-Storyk Design Group, which was founded by John Storyk, the man who built Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland Studios.

You know, you can kind of hear when people work in Ableton, and there’s something about the processing that’s a trip.

Carl Craig

Next, our conversation turns to DAWs. Unsurprisingly, Craig doesn’t restrict himself to just one. “I have just about all of them. I have FL, I have ProTools, Logic, and Ableton. I like Logic the best out of all the ones I mentioned because Logic runs better in Mac than all of them to me. Runs because it’s made by them. It’s not ported out from PC or from Amiga or whatever,” he says, laughing. “I find myself working a lot in Logic, but Ableton I was using quite a bit. And I have a lot of sessions in Ableton, but, you know, the sound of Ableton…” And now we come to the heart of the matter, the reason Carl Craig reached out to use in the first place.

“With soft synths,” he continues, “Ableton has something that just kind of, just doesn’t…” It’s difficult to put it in words. He tries again. “You know, you can kind of hear when people work in Ableton, and there’s something about the processing that’s a trip.”

Craig goes on. “When I see those posts that everybody argues about whether something has a sound or something doesn’t have a sound. Or it all sounds the same, or it doesn’t really all sound the same. To me, it all sounds the same if you don’t use any plugins. But the minute it has to do some processing, then it’s going to sound different. You use something like, say, an SSL channel strip in Ableton. It’s supposed to give you the SSL sound, but I think it is going to sound a tad bit different in Logic.”

With Harrison Mixbus, because everything’s in line, it’s like you’re using a DAW that’s a console

Carl Craig

For mixing, Craig is a fan of Harrison Mixbus, a mix-focussed DAW made by Harrison, who are best known for their hardware mixing desks. “With Harrison Mixbus, because everything’s in line, it’s like you’re using a DAW that’s a console. You don’t have to worry about putting in a UAD API on every channel, or using (Softube) Console 1.”

What he particularly likes is the simplicity of it. “With the routing, everything (is) set up to be a really simple mixing situation. You don’t have to use a lot of stupid plugins if you don’t really want to. Of course, you can use 20 plugins on a channel if you want, but if you don’t want to do that, you just turn the knobs and tell it what bus you want it to go to. You can add dynamics, you can add all those things to the channel itself, to the bus where you mix them, and then at the end, and then you get this whole kind of Harrison sound.”

Craig likes it so much, although he has plenty of high-quality hardware gear, when he mixes through Mixbus he doesn’t need to do any outboard summing. “Mixbus is set up to be a really good summing mixer,” he enthuses. “It’s just a good sounding thing, you know?”

Mixing With Harrison Mixbus

Could it be that we had things the wrong way around? Instead of checking to see how transparent DAWs were, maybe we should have investigated how good they sound. We decided to follow Carl Craig’s advice and try summing audio through Harrison Mixbus. (Note that Harrison Mixbus comes in two versions. We’re using the more expensive Mixbus 32C, which models the Harrison 32C mixer including its famous EQ stage.)

We started with three loops from the UNDRGRND Sounds’ Warehouse Techno pack, ‘US_WT_132_Drumloop_Finalised_stp.wav’, ‘US_WT_132_Bassloop_Helicopter_A#.wav’, and ‘US_WT_132_Padloop_Cave_A#.wav’. We arranged them in Ableton Live and set the levels for a good volume balance but didn’t do any additional processing.

Next, we bounced them out and then imported them into Harrison Mixbus 32C. We used it as a summing mixer, adding EQ and a little compression along the way. We didn’t need to do too much as the loops already sounded good going in.

Lastly, we did the same thing in Ableton, this time using an instance of Waves’ SSL G-Channel Strip plugin on each channel plus the master bus for EQ and dynamics control.

Here is the loop bounced from Ableton Live with no additional processing.

Here is our summed mix through Harrison Mixbus.

Lastly, here is the Ableton SSL mix.

The difference is subtle, but to our ears, the Harrison Mixbus mix sounds warmer with more detail. It’s especially apparent on the highs. Do note that we only used three tracks with minimal processing – with a full mix, the results will likely be more pronounced.

In the end, it doesn’t matter what DAW you use. DAWs are just tools. What matters is the character that you impart to your music. How you do that – via a hardware desk, a hybrid analogue/digital system, entirely in the box – is up to you. Just make sure that, like a Warhol or one of Carl Craig’s tracks, it has character.

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Author Adam Douglas
5th March, 2021

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