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Roundtable: Myriad Methods Of Effectively Utilizing VCAs, Subgroups & More

In your mixing workflow do you tend to use subgroups, VCAs, or both? How do you tend to organize them, and what advantages are afforded by that workflow?

“In your mixing workflow do you tend to use subgroups, VCAs, or both? How do you tend to organize them, and what advantages are afforded by that workflow?” Our panel has a lot of ideas on this and related subjects. Enjoy.


Nicholas Radina: VCA/DCA and groups = robot hands! One common method I use when mixing musical theater is to create a “actor” group and also a “music/band” group with inputs assigned accordingly. I place a compressor on the music/band group that’s keyed/triggered from the actor group. This helps keep the dialog and singing on top of the music/band. (Tip: take this a bit further by using a dynamic EQ with a wide Q around the critical intelligible range – 2 to 5 kHz – keyed the same way.)

I also create a “principal” and also a “ensemble” VCA/DCA. This allows me to quickly keep the principal dialog on top of the ensemble by using small fader movements.

When mixing bands, I’ll set up a kick/snare group and a lead vocal group, putting a high-ratio compressor on each of these groups and cranking down the threshold, which results in a heavy gain reduction. Keep in mind, the channels I’ve assigned to these groups are still routed to the stereo bus groups kick/snare group. I’ll sneak in these “crushed” groups to the original signal when a bit more definition or weight is needed without adding significant volume. Pay attention to any processing delay/latency that may be present with some plugins when combining these signals.

Robot hands – I’m a fan!

Ken “Pooch” Van Druten: I split everything out into groups (or stems). This gives me flexibility to make custom mixes for record or broadcast. Most groups are assigned to the mix bus, but if I make parallel compression groups I assign them to a single stereo bus, that then gets assigned to the master. For example: drum bus and parallel drum bus get assigned to a single stereo bus labeled drum record, so I’m able to send a stem that includes both drum bus and parallel drum bus. Drum record is what is assigned to the mix bus. I also do a bit of bus compression on other instruments and having everything broken out allows for this.
It’s a lot of busing but ultimately gives you fast options when asked. I never want to tell a client that I can’t do something, or sorry that is going to take a while to set up. I’m ready for anything when asked.

I use control groups or VCAs to handle most of my mixing. I usually set up a band control group and playback control group, so I have fast access to instrument versus vocal relationship. I also break out instruments, where the drum control group controls the drum group and the drum reverbs – control over the entire instrument plus any FX linked to it. I usually have a vocal control group and a separate FX control group related to the vocal. I want quick access to vocal versus vocal FX relationship.

Ales Stefancic: Working with a large number of channels can be quite daunting. But using smart grouping and DCA controls is a part of my regular workflow, where I try bringing the entire count of relevant faders to no more than eight. I tend to group channels for processing in subgroups (drums clean, drums compressed, bass, keys, guitars, backing vocals, lead vocals) which allows me to build a mix quite quickly and provide additional processing. If I see I have too many groups to control in terms of faders (stereo groups can be especially fader hungry), then I assign the groups to DCA controls and have less faders controlling the mix.

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There are two things I always think about. The first is the pre/post fader relationship when using DCAs, because they can influence the sends of your channels to FX buses and tilt the mix out of whack. The second is the difference in path length when using groups or additional routing, because that introduces more latency in the digital domain and you can end up with serious phasing issues between various channel paths.
That said, when working in really restricted time scopes, I use DCAs only, just to avoid any possibility of messing up channel routing and causing a mess for myself down the line.

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