The era of plugins has made us lazy. If you want reverb on a track, you probably have a dozen just a few clicks away. But if you’re recording music, you likely also have lots of other signal processors laying around (outboard rack gear, guitar pedals, etc) that you can use in creative ways to get unique sounds.

While this will all seem obvious to savvy veterans, many producers and engineers these days only have experience with in-the-box mixing. The concept of hitting outboard gear, like a preamp, on the way into your DAW is relatively straightforward. Why, then, is the thought of running recorded audio back out, through outboard equipment, and back into your DAW so intimidating? This short article will cover what you need in order to do this, how to make it happen, and a few cool tricks that you can utilize even if you don’t have conventional outboard gear to work with.

Interface Outputs

In order to mix out-of-the-box you’ll be able to send audio out of your DAW and back in again simultaneously. Cheaper interfaces often just have stereo outputs, but most interfaces these days will have additional outputs (the Focusrite Scarlett 6i6 is a great, affordable example); this allows you to still keep your monitors in play, while utilizing the additional channels to route your signal out of the computer.

Practical Application

Let’s say you want to add some distortion to a vocal track. Within your DAW, select the vocal track, and set the output to one of your additional line outs, let’s call it Output 3. Then, run a cable from the “Output 3” jack on your interface out to an outboard signal processor, let’s say an Electro Harmonix Big Muff Pi. Run another cable from the output of the pedal and back into an open input on your interface, let’s say Input 1.

Now, set up a new track in your DAW, and set the input for this new track as “Input 1”. Now all that’s left to do is get your levels right and hit record! The original audio will be sent out to the pedal and back in via the interface, with the effected audio being recorded to the new track.

The Sky’s the Limit

Now that you’ve got the signal routing part down, the sky is the limit! I highly encourage you to experiment with any ideas that come to mind – run signals back through a preamp at high gain for extra distortion. Send a snare track out to a speaker, placed on top of another snare, and crank the volume for a meatier snare sound. Run background vocals through a stereo delay pedal. There’s really no limits to what you can do!

About the Author:

Rob Dobson is an LA-based musician, composer, and engineer, as well as Press & Content Coordinator at Westlake Pro. He earned a BA in Music from Virginia Commonwealth University, where he spent his spare time experimenting with recording techniques and obsessing over liner notes to his favorite records. In addition to several years working as a recording engineer, Rob has experience with sound design, voiceover work, and live sound. Rob spends as much of his time in the studio as possible, composes music for film and television, plays guitar and bass as a session musician, and leads a rock band called Big Air.