Audio Nerd Controversy: Are Analog Summing Devices Beneficial or Snake Oil?

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There’s no way around it: the music industry has changed drastically over the last 10 to 15 years. Save a few exceptions, gone are the multi-million-dollar recording budgets and the in-depth development deals for new artists while major studios are being shuttered around the world. Albums are now being completed in home studios, and smaller professional studios are cropping up that might have great mics, great outboard gear, but no large-format console such as a Neve or SSL with which to record and mix.

With lack of a console, most mixing is relegated to the digital realm. As converter quality and plug-ins have dramatically improved in the last ten years, many mixers still long for the analog world. The common trend has become a hybrid setup, where analog outboard gear is integrated with digital plug-ins while tracking or, more often, mixing. However, this approach on its own doesn’t fix the last piece of the puzzle that not having a console leaves: analog summing.

Analog summers are often rack-mountable devices that will take the analog output from your converter, usually 8 or 16 channels’ worth, and sum those tracks down to a stereo pair, which you can then record back into your DAW. Different manufacturers offer different features, and some are simple input/output devices, like the Dangerous Music 2-Bus LT, while others offer panning, volume control, and inserts, like the Neve 5059. So where’s the controversy?

Dangerous Music 2-BUS LT, front.

Dangerous Music 2-BUS LT, rear.

Rupert Neve Designs 5059 Satellite, front.

Rupert Neve Designs 5059 Satellite, rear.

Many people claim that these devices don’t do all that much, and point to A/B mix comparisons of the same song mixed ITB (in the box) versus run through a summing device, which sound very similar. Proponents of summing devices point out that summing in the analog realm gives them more headroom while mixing, which affects the decisions they make. They also appreciate the ease of integrating outboard gear into a mix when a summing device is involved.

The fact remains that talented folk are creating great mixes, both entirely ITB, and through a summing device. If you have a collection of outboard gear that you integrate into your DAW when mixing, a summing device might appeal to your workflow sensibilities. However, if you’re entirely ITB, the difference in results you get from a summing device might leave you feeling a bit underwhelmed. As with so much in audio, there really is no one correct answer, and the best gear available isn’t going to be the same for all.