There's a lot of terminology in the world of audio engineering, and the term “group” often carries several meanings. If you've ever been confused by the term group/grouping when it comes to editing and mixing in digital audio workstations, or you want more information to make better use of groups in your DAW, you've come to the right place.
What is a group in a digital audio workstation? In the context of digital audio workstations, a group typically refers to the linking of user-defined functions between specified tracks. These functions include fader control, insert duplication, editing, automation, alternative/playlist selecting, panning, solo, mute, and record arm.
In this article, we'll discuss groups in more detail and touch on the other uses of the term “group” in audio engineering.
What Are DAW Groups?
Many digital audio workstations offer group operations, whereby multiple tracks can be grouped together for linked functionality.
This type of grouping is not directly used for signal routing, unlike the more traditional sense of the term—more on that later in this article. Rather, in modern digital audio workstations, it has to do with linking specific parameters and controls between the tracks/subgroups of the group.
Once tracks/channels are set up in a group, we can choose the functions we'd like to link between the tracks/channels within the group. For each linked function, altering that function on one track within the group will cause relative alterations (or identical alterations, depending on the function) in all the other tracks of the group.
The most basic and common example here is linking the faders within a group. Let's say we have three tracks on one group and the only function linked is the fader:
- Track 1's fader is at unity (0 dBFS)
- Track 2's fader is at -6 dBFS
- Track 3's fader is at -12 dBFS
With all three tracks grouped together, we can push Track 1's fader up to +3 dBFS, causing Track 2's fader to move to -3 dBFS and Track 3's fader to move to -9 dBFS automatically (a change of +3 dB in all tracks even though we're only moving the fader of Track 1).
Similarly, we could pull Track 2's fader down to -12 dBFS, causing Track 1's fader to move to -6 dBFS and Track 3's fader to move to -18 dBFS automatically (a change of -6 dB in all tracks even though we're only moving the fader on Track 2).
The idea here is that we can maintain the relative balance between all the grouped tracks as we make adjustments to the track faders in the mix.
Using groups to link faders gives a similar result to linking tracks to a VCA fader. However, in the case of grouping, we're actually moving the faders of the original tracks rather than controlling their levels through a separate VCA fader.
Now that we have a general sense of how groups work, let's move on to the many other functions that can be linked beyond the faders.
The Common Functions Linked Through DAW Groups
Once we have several tracks grouped together, we can set a multitude of options so that altering one track will produce the same relative results in the other track.
Changing one parameter of one channel in a group changes that parameter in all channels of the group (whatever parameters you choose to link). Groups are great for editing and getting bulk mixing moves done quickly.
Let's discuss the various linked control options in this section.
Linking editing functions in a group means that any cuts, crossfades, nudges/moves, clip gain adjustments, etc., made on one audio track will be made on all other audio tracks.
This can be incredibly useful for editing once we've established strong phase and timing relationships between our tracks.
It can also help if we're using any sort of flextime quantization of the audio tracks within the group to quantize them to the same beats quickly.
Linking the input function of a group means that changing the input of one track will change the inputs of all other grouped tracks to match. This can be useful if we're recording multiple versions of the same performance or if we want multiple effects returns or parallel channels to be fed by the same bus.
Honestly, linking the inputs of a group doesn't offer much benefit in terms of saving time.
Linking the record arm function of a group means that arming one grouped track to record will arm all other grouped tracks to record. This is useful for quickly arming multiple tracks for recording (for example, all the drum mics).
Linking the record arm can be especially beneficial if we're hopping back and forth between different DAW projects to record overdubs or specific instruments (requiring multiple channels) in a single session.
Linking the aux send function of a group means that setting up an aux send on one grouped track will set up that same send on all other grouped tracks. Furthermore, adjusting the send level on one grouped track will cause relative adjustments on all other grouped tracks.
Linking aux sends is useful for maintaining the balance between different tracks being sent to the same aux by controlling the signal levels going into the aux track. Otherwise, we could adjust the fader of the aux track, which would maintain the balance. The difference here is in how much signal level is fed through the inserts of the aux track (if any).
This has to do with gain staging, which I have a dedicated YouTube video on. You can watch it by clicking here.
To learn more about gain staging, check out my article Mixing: What Is Gain Staging & Why Is It Important?
We can also quickly switch all the grouped tracks from pre- to post-fader or vice versa.
I discuss how to use effects sends/returns and the benefits of doing so in the following YouTube video:
Linking the panning function of a group means that adjusting the pan position on one grouped track will cause a relative pan position adjustment on all other grouped tracks.
As previously discussed, linking the fader function of a group means that adjusting the fader position on one grouped track will cause a relative fader repositioning on all other grouped tracks.
Linking the output function of a group means that changing the output of one grouped track will change the output of all other grouped tracks to match. This can be useful for quickly changing the bus a group of tracks is routed to.
Honestly, linking the outputs of a group doesn't offer much benefit in terms of saving time.
Linking the solo function of a group means that soloing one grouped track will solo all other grouped tracks automatically. That way, we can easily solo in on a group of tracks rather than having to select each individual track for soloing or soloing them one at a time.
Of course, we could opt to route the tracks to their own subgroup and solo the subgroups. However, using groups gives us greater flexibility by allowing us to group tracks within and without the subgroups in question.
A good example of this could be linking the bass and kick drum tracks to a group for easy soloing even though the bass tracks are sent to the bass subgroup, and the kick drum tracks are sent to the drum subgroup.
Linking the mute function of a group means that muting one grouped track will automatically mute all other grouped tracks. That way, we can easily mute a group of tracks rather than having to select each individual track for muting or muting them one at a time.
Like linking the solo function, having the mute function linked gives us control beyond the mix subgroups.
Other Uses Of The Term Group In Audio Engineering
Perhaps the more common (and certainly the more traditional) use of the term “group” in audio engineering refers to the summing of multiple tracks on a bus that is then sent to a dedicated subgroup or “group” channel, complete with its own pan and fader control and sometimes its own inserts and sends.
In analog mixers limited in routing, the subgroup channels are generally laid out between the audio tracks/channels and the main output channel(s). The outputs of the tracks can then be routed to whichever subgroup is available, often selected by a push button.
In digital audio workstations, the subgroups are typically user-defined through an auxiliary track since the routing/bussing is so versatile.
For more info on using bussing in your mixes, check out my YouTube video here.
With subgroups set up properly, we can effectively combine the different groups of instruments together and process and mix the audio in groups rather than in individual tracks. This offers a simplified, more top-down approach to mixing, allowing us to do more mixing with less processing.
I have a YouTube video on top-down mixing you might be interested in. You can check it out by clicking here.
To learn more about subgroups, check out my article What Are Subgroups? (Audio Mixing, Recording, Live Sound).
The other obvious uses of the term group related to audio are groups of musicians. This applies to the band members of a specific “group” and also to grouped performances being recorded and mixed, notably “group vocals”.
If you'd like an in-depth discussion on routing, check out my detailed video below: