Don’t Start Mixing Before You Read This
I believe mixing should be fun. You’ve recorded your tracks and you’re ready to make them shine.
But if you don’t do the necessary prep work, or pay close enough attention to the technical details of your tracks, your final mixes will suffer.
So in this guide, I’ll guide you through an important series of steps you need to take before you start mixing so that you can finish and release more records.
Getting Started with Your Mix
This step-by-step process applies particularly well if you’re getting tracks to mix from someone else, but it’s also useful if you’re mixing tracks you recorded yourself.
These steps will help you establish a strong workflow for any song you’re working on.
Importing and Organizing
Whenever you mix tracks that other people have recorded, the first step is to import them into your DAW.
I often receive a batch of tracks from my readers and subscribers, which include a wide range of instruments and elements. From kicks and snares to guitars, synths, and vocal tracks, these files are the building blocks of our mix.
The key to efficient mixing is organization. You should have a clear understanding of what each track represents. Hopefully, when you receive tracks to mix they’ll be labeled in a logical manner, like “Kick,” “Snare,” “Hi-Hat,” and so on. These labels make it easier to identify each element.
And if you get sent a big zip file with everything labeled Audio1.Wav, Audio2.WAV, etc, it’s best to simply block that sender from your life and never collaborate with them again.
Creating New Tracks
My mixing template consists of lots of different buses and aux tracks. So once the audio tracks are imported, they all get routed to their respective buses. If you do the same, you may have to create new ones or rename certain buses to accommodate the instrumentation you’ve been given.
Color-Coding Your Tracks
It’s also a good idea to color-code your tracks because it makes it easier to recognize each element in your mix. For example, you may color-code your tracks as follows:
- Kick: Red
- Snare: Red
- Hi-Hat: Red
- Bass: Purple
- Guitar: Green
- Piano: Purple
- Lead Vocals: Blue
- Background Vocals: (A lighter shade of pale) Blue
Why is color coding essential? Simple, it helps streamline your workflow.
When your mix grows with new parallel tracks, effects busses, and the like, you’ll want to identify and locate elements in your session quickly. By color-coding, you’re making it easier to see each element of the mix, saving time and reducing errors.
When listening to your mix, seeing the waveforms associated with each instrument or vocal track can provide valuable insights.
For instance, if the vocal suddenly jumps in amplitude in one part of the region, that’s a red flag that you need some gain adjustment. By naming and color-coding your tracks appropriately, everything becomes easier to see and react to as you listen to the song for the first few times in the arrangement window.
Making Track Names Work for You
Creating a good shorthand for track naming is another way to become even more efficient.
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to this, and each engineer may do it differently. I’ve adopted a naming strategy that works for me, but it might be odd for others. The key is to have track names that make sense to you and help you quickly identify each element.
For instance, I often abbreviate common terms to keep things concise. Instead of writing “Electric Guitar,” I might name the track “EGTR.” It’s an efficient shorthand and a system that enables your brain to process information faster and make your mix preparation more efficient.
For example, working with a complex mix, you may keep track names short while conveying the essential information. Here are some examples:
- Bass Guitar: BX (or 808)
- Background Vocals: BV
- Overhead Drums: OH
- Kick Drum: Kick
- Snare Drum: Snare
- Toms : T1, T2, T3
The point is to have a naming convention that makes sense to you and supports your workflow. Consistency is key.
Mixing Prep and Workflow
Setting up your mix this way saves valuable time when you start making adjustments. When you open your session, and everything is named and color-coded intuitively, your brain doesn’t need to work as hard to find the right tracks and make sense of your mix.
Now that we’ve set up our mix session let’s talk about a few other technical issues, especially regarding phase and polarity.
Mastering Phase and Polarity
Phase and polarity are essential concepts in audio engineering.
Phase refers to a waveform’s position at a given time. If two audio signals are “in phase,” their waveforms match up perfectly, resulting in reinforcement and a more powerful sound. However, if they are out of phase, their waveforms are misaligned and can lead to frequency cancellations. This often results in a weaker, thinner, and more hollow sound.
You can hear this easily by simply duplicating the waveform of a guitar, for instance. Move the waveform slightly ahead of the original waveform and play them back. You’ll hear them doubled, and parts of the signal sound weaker.
Sometimes people do this anyway because they want a “double-tracked sound” but don’t want to record the part again. If you pan each part hard right and hard left, you’ll minimize the effects of the phase cancellation. But you’ll still have issues if your mix gets summed to mono.
Polarity, on the other hand, deals with the orientation of a waveform. In simple terms, it’s whether the waveform is moving in a positive or negative direction. Essentially, is the wave going up or down relative to the other waveform? If they’re both going up simultaneously, they’re “in polarity.”
Reversing polarity changes the direction of the waveform, affecting how it interacts with other audio signals. Returning to our example of the guitar, if you duplicate the waveform of a guitar, copy it to another track, and reverse the polarity without moving the waveform, they will cancel each other out, and you will hear nothing. The crest of one waveform perfectly coincides with the trough of the other, resulting in a complete null of sound.
I think the reason people use phase and polarity interchangeably is this: If you were to move the out-of-polarity waveform ahead or behind the original waveform, they would be neither “in-phase” nor “in-polarity.”
I’d recommend using the most correct term at all times unless you want to anger the trolls in the audio forums.
Addressing Phase/Polarity Issues
You’ll often receive multitrack recordings that involve several microphones capturing the same source, such as a snare drum or a guitar amplifier. Ensuring all these tracks are in phase and polarity is crucial for a cohesive mix.
For example, you’re working with a snare drum recorded with two microphones. In the waveform view, you may notice that one snare track has a waveform moving upward while the other has a waveform moving downward. This is a sign that these two tracks are not in polarity with each other. The best way to fix this is to insert a plug-in that reverses polarity (often a Gain plug-in or an EQ).
Additionally, the overhead and room microphones must be in phase with the close mics on the snare, toms, and cymbals. Ensuring proper phase alignment across all drum kit elements enhances the overall sound.
So when figuring out which snare track to reverse the polarity, consider the rest of the drum tracks and pick the snare track that is going in the opposite direction of all the drum tracks. That way, you’ll get a thicker sound overall because the drum track pushes and pulls simultaneously.
If you reverse the other snare track instead, you’d get a snare sound that pushes the speaker while the rest of the drums pull, which is just a recipe for problems.
Phase Check For Other Tracks
Correcting phase issues isn’t limited to drum recordings. You should also check for phase coherence in multi-miked instruments like electric, acoustic, and bass guitars because these issues can significantly impact the clarity and punch of your mix.
Optimizing Your Mix
If you’ve followed along with your own sessions, you’ve organized, named, and color-coded your tracks. And you’ve also addressed any technical issues with phase and polarity.
Finally, the fun can really begin!
And if you’d like an in-depth look at mixing better music from your home studio, check out Step By Step Mixing: How To Create Great Mixes Using Only 5 Plug-ins.