Because of the positive feedback to my really long article, The Only 5 Things to Think About When You’re Mixing, I thought I’d take a step back and write an even more comprehensive one about how you start a mix.
It’ something I’ve been asked about a lot so I thought I would give you some ideas to think about when you’re getting ready to mix.
Of course, I can only tell you what I usually do. If that method works for you then great! If not, then know that your methods are also perfectly acceptable because it’s not always the methods that matter, it’s the result that’s ultimately the most important thing.
When Does Mixing Start?
So let’s talk a little about what it means to “start mixing.”
Some people look at mixing like a entirely separate aspect of the production process. If you get multi-tracks to mix then you would be right to treat it that way. Somebody else did the production and the tracking, and somebody will probably handle the mastering. So your job is simple: pull up the faders and get to work.
But if you’re involved in the entire project from start to finish the lines get blurred a little bit. If you’re tracking the project and deciding on the sounds and production of each instrument you’re kind of adding a bit of your mixing mentality to the entire project. You have an idea of how things should sound in the end so you basically do everything with the end in mind.
Either way is cool, there’s just an interesting mentality shift in your thought process depending on when you get involved in the process. You’ll end up doing a lot of the same things to the mix regardless of how much you’re involved but you’re still coming at it from two different points of view.
Now, either way, you can’t start slapping plug-ins and processors on until the recording, production and editing process is over. So before you even start moving the faders around make sure you clean up all the crap in your tracks.
1. Do the Dishes So You Can Cook in the Kitchen
Here’s an analogy for you, let’s see if you can keep up.
Cooking is great. Doing the dishes afterwards is terrible.
And it’s even worse when you leave them in the sink until the next time you have to cook.
Then you not only have to do the dishes before you cook, but you ALSO have to do them afterwards!
It’s the same with mixing. If you clean up your tracks before you start mixing you’ll have a more enjoyable experience. You don’t want noise creeping through the vocal tracks during the solo.
So before you start mixing, do these two things:
- Trim the regions and delete the “noisy” silences between parts.
- Add fades to all the regions so they don’t abruptly pop in.
Going back to doing the dishes, if the kitchen is clean I know where everything is and I can grab it immediately. If I leave the dirty dishes in the sink, I’ll inevitably have to scourge through the dirty dishes to find that one utensil I specifically need for my cooking.
If you don’t edit your tracks first, you’ll run into similar problems.
You’ll notice an annoying click somewhere, a misaligned drum hit or background noise you should have edited out. This hinders your workflow because you’re constantly going back and forth between the mixing and the editing phase.
If you’re always changing hats then you’ll never fully focus on one aspect of your production. Edit first, then focus on the mixing.
It’s better to cook with a clean kitchen. Having a full sink of plates and utensils you might need is just going to rob me of the pleasure of making my meal.
The same goes for editing. You’ll rob yourself of the joys of mixing if the editing phase is constantly nagging at you in the back of your mind.
Like dishwashing, editing is pretty boring. It’s tedious and usually pretty uncreative. But if you gloss over it and ignore it, you’ll be left with a sub par production.
2. Simplifying Makes Sense
Once you’ve gotten all your tracks cleaned and edited it’s time to simplify.
This is where bussing comes in. It’s definitely the easiest way to make sense of a really big arrangement.
If you have 50+ tracks in your mixer it’s hard to keep track of all that. You waste a lot of time scrolling from one side to the other looking for the guitar parts. That’s why submixes are so great.
But don’t take my word for it, here’s how Chris Lord-Alge does it:
Chris Lord-Alge, if you haven’t heard of him, is one bad-ass mixing engineer.
He has over 750 credits to his name. He’s mixed artists as diverse as Bruce Springsteen, Deftones and Avril Lavigne.
He’s generally known for his hard-hitting and loud mixes. They’re punchy and compressed but still clean and pristine.
But his secret isn’t his use of compression.
His secret is the way he approaches his mixes. He simplifies everything. I’ve never seen so much comping, grouping and bussing going on.
For example, in one of his mixes he took a recording of 159 tracks and comped it down to only 44 tracks!
That’s a crazy amount of simplification.
But there’s a great lesson in here.
Essentially, he’s grouping together tracks and bouncing them to stereo tracks to use as stems.
Like he says himself:
“There were 26 Pro Tools tracks of huge marching snares and rooms and ambience, which we called the March. It’s comped down to a stereo pair.” (Sound on Sound).
Simplifying your mix by creating a ton of submixes can help you navigate your mix easier.
I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t even know where to begin with 159 tracks. At least 44 sounds doable.
If you do this you end up with a more manageable mix. And all the same principles of EQ and compression apply. Just think of it like a cross between a mixing and a mastering session. Because you’re making all the submixes sound great on their own as well as together using buss EQ and compression.
That’s the secret. That’s his professional approach to his mixes. You can easily do the same thing.
Break It Down Into Its Elements
Take this mix I was doing the other day. It had about 60 recorded tracks.
For someone not experienced with mixing it might make you hyperventilate a bit, but once you look closely at the tracks you realize there are only four groups of instruments:
- Guitars (including bass)
- Keys and other synths
Even with close to 60 tracks that’s really what you’re balancing together in your mix.
So breathe, don’t worry about the enormity of the session. Once you’ve broken the mix down into a handful of different elements your perspective on the session will change.
Simplify With Routing
Once you’ve drilled the session down you can simplify it even further inside the respective elements.
Say you have all these drum tracks that even by themselves are overwhelming.
- Two kick drum tracks
- Top and bottom snare tracks
- 4 toms
- Overheads and room mics
You can simplify those tracks further by combining things into busses.
- Combine the kicks into one bus
- Combine the snare into one bus
- Combine the toms into one bus
- Combine overhead and room mics into one bus
That simplifies your 12 drum tracks into 4 tracks you can play with.
You’ve cut your hyperventilating down 66%!
Of course, make sure you balance each track into the bus before so that you have control over the sound that you want, but if you do it in stages and one track at a time you’ll end up with a session that’s much easier to handle.
What About All the Fancy Overdubs?
You’ll have sessions that include all the necessary foundational instruments like guitars, bass, keys, drums and vocals.
You know, those instruments that make up most of the song.
But then you’ll also have solos or lead fills here and there that only play for a limited time during the song as “sweetening.”
Sometimes these tracks can make up a good chunk of your session so it might seem like there’s a lot of tracks but there’s actually not that much going on most of the time.
It’s a good idea to calm your brain down by completely ignoring these instruments until it’s time to mix them in with everything else.
Usually you can group and process those tracks together fairly quickly so worrying about them is pointless when you should be focusing on the mix as a whole.
Work on simplifying your mix in broad strokes first. Then focus on the little stuff.
3. Train Your Brain To Jump Around the Mixer
Once I’ve bussed everything together I usually move all the busses to the right of their respective tracks so if I need to tweak an individual track as it’s going into the buss I have it all conveniently located in one place.
Needing to jump from one side of the mixing window to the other to tweak one element of the mix is incredibly inefficient. Having all the individual tracks and their respective busses in one place makes it easier to do simple tweaks without wasting time.
Another thing I do to save time is color-code my tracks. It helps my eyes and brain jump right to the correct track later on in the session.
It’s a good idea to stick to the same color schemes when you’re mixing so that you train your brain to know exactly what is what in every session.
I’ve started sticking to more or less to the same color scheme, especially for the most common instruments:
- Drums and percussion are Red
- Bass is Purrple
- Acoustic Guitars is Orange (nice earthy orange)
- Electric Guitars are Green (which is something I picked up from Andrew Scheps)
- Vocals are Dark Blue
- Keys and random pads and such are Purple
This is something I learned from another award-winning mixing engineer, Andrew Scheps.
Like he said at one of the AES conferences:
“Anything green is guitar…”
But he took it one step further to get even more detailed:
“Anything brighter green is cleaner”
I thought that was very interesting. Instead of making one green color dominate any and all guitar tracks he differentiates them based on gradient.
You’ll work faster because you’ve given your eyes visual cues to help you locate anything you need to focus on during your mix. I don’t get that fancy with the gradients but I understand how it can help.
Like it or not, mixing has become a visual experience. So make it easier on your brain and focus on making your songs sound good. Take some pressure off your eyes and color code your tracks for an easier mixing experience.
4. Do the Static Mix
Once you’ve done all the prep work and the housekeeping (and the dishes!) you can start your static mix. But before mindlessly pushing faders around, take a step back and decide what the song needs.
- What are the most important instruments?
- What’s driving the song?
- What should you try to enhance?
- What can you leave in the background?
Going into the mix with a more artistic approach than a technical one can help you understand what you should focus on.
For instance, the most important instrument is usually the vocal but then you also have other instruments that really help support the vocal so you need to focus on them as well. Think of it like a sitcom, there are the main characters and then there are the supporting characters. Find your main character and then mix the supporting roles around them.
Once you’ve figure that out you can start your rough mix.
An Alternative Way of Creating a Static Mix
If you want to get a static fader mix done pretty quickly but you have too many tracks (even after simplifying) you can try mixing in the arrangement window.
Set all your faders a little bit below unity gain so you have some headroom to work with and then flip over to the arrangement window
Here’s why I think it’s helpful
Seeing the waveforms on the tracks as you scroll up and down the arrangement window is incredibly useful.
You can tell what tracks will be playing next so you can be ahead of the mix, knowing exactly which fader you need to work on before the track starts playing.
Using the inspector window in Logic it’s easy to simply click on the track and raise or lower the volume of the fader to where you think it sounds good.
Of course some instruments might get lost during the first pass but it’s a quick and easy way to get a good static mix going.
So try that the next time you’re firing up your next mixing session.
Ready to Start Adding Plug-ins?
Once you’re done with the basic balancing and rough mixing it’s time to start adding plug-ins. And if you want to get the biggest results and improve your mix the most with only the least amount of plug-ins there are only five you need to really know how to use.
We’ll start talking about those tomorrow. Stay tuned.