Mix preparation is an often overlooked yet incredibly important part of the mixing and music production process. In fact, it's so critical that I wrote an entire ebook on it as part of my Mixing With Series (you can check out ‘Vol 1: Preparing The Mix' here).
Here are the 7 key steps for preparing your mixing sessions:
- Import the multitracks into your session
- Organize the tracks and session
- Fine-tune any production/editing issues (bonus)
- Set up preliminary routing and inserts
- Gain stage the tracks
- Import reference mixes
- Simplify the session view
Let's dive into each of these steps in greater detail to help simplify the mix preparation process and get you started on the right foot to achieve superb mixes.
1. Import The Multitracks Into Your Session
The first step in preparing a mix session is to open your DAW, create a new session, and import the multitracks. This is fairly obvious but still warrants some discussion.
First, we should consider whether we'll be working from a blank session or from a template. I always advise that people find a dedicated workflow and style of organization that they can generally follow from mix to mix. Designing a template (or multiple templates) can help to dramatically cut down time in our quest for consistency.
Mix templates will often have the following aspects of mix preparation and session organization already taken care of:
- [Prospective] tracks labelled
- [Prospective] tracks ordered
- [Prospective] tracks colour-coded
- [Prospective] routing (subgroups, effects returns, VCAs, etc.)
- [Prospective] effects/processes inserted on tracks and aux tracks
We can create a single master template for our mix sessions, or we can get a bit more specific with our templates. For example, we can have album or project-specific templates if we're working on multiple mixes for the same artist. Furthermore, we can create genre-specific templates if we happen to mix multiple genres of music.
I have a video on the topic of mix templates that you can watch here:
Second, when importing multitracks, the audio files may be at different sample rates than our session. In most cases, our digital audio workstation will prompt us to change the project/session sample rate to accommodate the files.
Otherwise, if, for some reason, we need to work at a specific sample rate (which I wouldn't advise), we would want to convert the sample rates of the multitracks before importing them.
Third, the multitracks may contain metadata that the session can read. This data may be able to set the proper tempo and time signatures, which can help save us more time and be more accurate in all future mix endeavours.
That's about all I've got on the relatively simple task of importing multitracks.
2. Organize The Tracks And Session
Here's where we really start making the mix session our own.
Organization may seem dull, but I promise you it's worth it. I'll repeat my previous point that creating and using templates can reduce the time spent doing this “dull” work.
Another objection you may have to mix organization is that it will stifle creativity if every mix we do is organized in the same way. I beg to differ, and in my personal experience, having everything organized in a consistent manner has actually allowed me to be more creative as I spend less time trying to find what I'm looking for in the session and more time bringing my ideas to life in the mix.
The smoother the interface between our brains and our mix session, the better. It wastes less time and energy and can keep us in the flow state.
I hope I've convinced you of the importance of mix session organization. Now we can move on to the steps involved.
I'll reiterate a few points mentioned in the previous step as we go through mix session organization here. I'll also share some of my typical organizational actions to help give you some ideas (feel free to copy mine if you'd like).
Label the tracks
Labelling the tracks properly will make finding what you're looking for so much easier once you're in the mixing process. I recommend sticking to a simple shorthand that remains the same from mix to mix.
For example, my snare top and snare bottom tracks are consistently labelled “snr top” and “snr btm”, respectively. My acoustic guitars are labelled “agtr” while my acoustic guitars are labelled “egtr”, though I may denote them differently depending on the session — sometimes by numerical value (egtr1, egtr2, egtr3, etc.), other times by pan direction (egtr L, egtr R, agtr L, agtr R, etc.), and sometimes by a combination of the two.
Order the tracks
Ordering the tracks in the mixer and arrangement window is another worthwhile step for improved organization.
My advice here is to group similar instruments together (drum tracks with drum tracks, guitar tracks with guitar tracks, vocals with vocals, and so on). I would also recommend ordering tracks the same way in each of your mixes, at least as much as that's possible.
For example, I will order my tracks as follows (starting from the first channel):
- Electric guitars
- Acoustic guitars
- Orchestral elements
- Lead vocals
- Background vocals
- Special effects/miscellaneous
Of course, I work on plenty of mixes that don't have tracks in each of these above-mentioned categories. However, I'll order my tracks in this manner regardless of the mix, making it much easier to find the tracks I'm looking for while mixing.
Taking things a step further, I'll order my drum tracks as follows (again, if the tracks are available):
- Kick (inside)
- Kick (outside)
- Kick samples
- Snare top
- Snare bottom
- Snare samples
- Rack toms
- Floor Toms
- Close-mike cymbals
Colour-code the tracks (set icons if you'd like)
Once the tracks are ordered (or before, depending on your preferred workflow), it's a good idea to colour-code them by their group. We can even go as far as adding icons to specific tracks if that helps us identify our tracks more accurately during the mix.
To reiterate the ordering of my track groups with the addition of their colours, I generally set them up like this:
- Drums: red
- Bass: purple
- Electric guitars: light blue
- Acoustic guitars: dark blue
- Keyboards/Pianos: orange
- Synthesizers: pink
- Orchestral elements: gold
- Lead vocals: dark green
- Background vocals: light green
- Special effects/miscellaneous: brown
Set the tempo(s) and time signature(s)
Setting the tempo(s) and time signature(s) of the song within the session can make a huge difference during the mixing process, especially in the cases where the song was recorded on beat to a click track.
As a recording engineer, you'll likely know the tempo, the time signature, and any changes in these aspects before getting into the mix.
If you're working strictly as the mixing engineer, you can ask the artist or recording engineer to provide this information, though it's often easy enough to figure it out yourself. We can count out the time signature and tap out the tempo in our DAW or in online resources like All8.
Now, I've worked on progressive metal before that had numerous time signature changes. However, in these technical genres, the artists will generally be able to provide you with either a click track or a tempo/time signature map to help you with all the changes.
Having the proper tempo and time signature mapped out will help us visualize the song along the timeline or arrangement of the session. Sections and measures are often based on 2, 4, 8, 16 or 32 bars, and having the tempo locked in will allow the ruler within our DAW to mark these bars appropriately.
Markers act as written indicators that we can insert at specific points along the session timeline/arrangement view. They can be used to help us find our place in a mixing session by clearly marking the different sections within the session and can also be used for cueing playback during mixing.
Markers can be used to note verses, choruses, bridges and any other sections that you'd like. For example, a super-simple pop song could have the following markers, in order:
- Verse 1
- Chorus 1
- Verse 2
- Chorus 3
- Chorus 3
Setting these up before we begin mixing will give us yet another tool to help us stay on course and not waster time trying to find specific sections of the song.
3. Fine-Tune Any Production/Editing Issues (Bonus)
I've added this section in as a “bonus” because, in an ideal world, the production and editing will be completed before the mixing stage. However, we don't like in an ideal world, and so it's important to consider than a bit of editing may be necessary before getting into the mix in order to achieve the best results.
Poor tuning, timing, arrangement, and recording can lead to sessions that are virtually impossible to mix.
We should listen through the song a few times to get a feel for what it's all about. If there are any issues with tuning, timing, arrangement or recording (noise and artifacts), we can address them before attempting the mix.
This isn't an article about editing and producing, though I figured I should add a few resources here to help with these issues (if they need to be addressed at all).
For tuning, I personally use Ceremony Melodyne Studio (link to check the price at Plugin Boutique), though there are plenty of other options out there, including, in many cases, the stock option in your digital audio workstation. Antares Auto-Tune (link to check the price at Plugin Boutique) is perhaps the most popular option for tuning software.
For timing, cutting, nudging and time expansion/compression (also known as flex-time) are your best friends. We should also be using groups when we need to edit the timing of multiple tracks together. For certain instances, like time-aligning vocals and horns, my go-to time-saving plugin is Synchro Arts VocAlign (link to check the price at Plugin Boutique). When cutting digital audio, be sure to crossfade everything to avoid digital clips and popping artifacts.
In terms of arrangement, there's not a whole lot we can do if it's part of the artist and producer's vision, though we should remember that the mute button is a mixing tool, too (hint hint, wink wink). More often than not, it's worth trying your best to mixing what has been presented to you and only altering the arrangement when certain tracks just won't fit into the mix.
And finally, in terms of noise, bleed and artifacts, there're quite a bit we can do with high-pass and low-pass filters (if the issues are in the low-end or high-end, respectively). However, in many other cases, we may need specific restoration plugins to help us out (if we can't mute the track or get it rerecorded). I personally use iZotope RX (link to check the price at Plugin Boutique), though there are plenty of other excellent plugin suites for audio restoration.
4. Set Up Preliminary Routing And Inserts
Setting up the basic routing is another step we can take during mix preparation. Notably, we can set up our subgroups, VCAs and prospective effects returns/aux tracks. Let's discuss each of these briefly.
Subgroups are groups of [typically] similar tracks/channels summed together. The outputs of these tracks are bussed together on the same bus, and the subgroup is the channel with that bus as the input.
From there, we can process the subgroups channel and thereby affect all the tracks feeding into it. This helps to “glue” the tracks together with equal processing and also reduces the time, effort and CPU required to mix (a top-down approach, if you will).
If we take our track groups (in order and with the addition of their colours), we can send them each to their own subgroup like this:
- Drums: red —> bus 1 to Drum Subgroup
- Bass: purple —> bus 2 to Bass Subgroup
- Electric guitars: light blue —> bus 3 to E Gtr Subgroup
- Acoustic guitars: dark blue —> bus 4 to A Gtr Subgroup
- Keyboards/Pianos: orange —> bus 5 to Keys Subgroup
- Synthesizers: pink —> bus 6 to Synths Subgroup
- Orchestral elements: gold —> bus 7 to Orc Subgroup
- Lead vocals: dark green —> bus 8 to Lead Vox Subgroup
- Background vocals: light green —> bus 9 to BG Vox Subgroup
- Special effects/miscellaneous: brown —> bus 10 to FX Subgroup
Now, there are a few ways to go about routing our subgroups. My preferred method is to follow the same format throughout all my mixes, though this can sometimes be a bit messy.
For example, personally, if I only had drums, bass, electric guitar and lead vocals, I'd still output them on buses 1, 2, 3 and 8, respectively, leaving the other buses unused. Furthermore, even if I only had single tracks for bass and vocals, for example, I still like to route them to their own subgroups. To me, it helps maintain my consistent organization.
To you, it may not make sense to do it this way. You can easily make an argument that sending a single track to a subgroup is a waste of routing (and it certainly would play a bigger role in hardware mixers where options are limited). Additionally, it makes perfect sense to use buses sequentially rather than sticking to a set bus for each potential track group.
What I'm saying is that it's important to route things the way that makes the most sense to you in order to help you mix more efficiently.
Next up, we have VCAs (voltage-controlled amplifiers) that act as simple faders that control the outputs of multiple tracks at once. We can set up our VCAs (virtually in the case of DAWs) to effectively control the output of multiple tracks (at the fader level — post-processing) with a single fader. This can allow us to dial in the relative balance of layered tracks (for example, the kick in, kick out and kick sample tracks, or the snare top, snare bottom and snare sample tracks) and be able to control their combined output (before the subgroup) with a single fader.
Finally, we can opt to set up the effects returns we think we'll need in the mix. This isn't necessary, though it can help us save time during the mix.
For example, I'll typically work with aux tracks for parallel drum compression along with a few delays and a few reverbs. Why not set those up beforehand so I don't have to take time away from the mix when I'm in a flow state.
I'll typically have the inputs of my effects returns start sequentially at bus 11, and I'll preemptively set up the send pots from the tracks I think I'll be sending to each effects return.
To learn more about these routing options, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• Audio: Buses Vs. Subgroups, Aux Sends/Returns, VCAs & Groups
• What Are Subgroups? (Audio Mixing, Recording, Live Sound)
• Mixing/Recording: What Are Auxiliary Tracks, Sends & Returns?
Going a step further than setting up the effects returns, we can also preemptively insert the specific processors/effects we plan on using within the mix.
As you mix more and more, you'll develop a list of go-to plugins that you pretty much know will get you the results you want. It can save time and energy during the mixing stage to go ahead and set these up now — remember that we can always swap them out if they don't work in the mix at hand.
We can set up our inserts on the individual audio tracks, subgroups and effects returns if we'd like.
For more information on inserts in mixing, check out my article Audio: What Are Inserts? (Mixing, Recording & More).
5. Gain Stage The Tracks
For one reason or another, gain staging is a controversial topic in modern digital audio workstations.
Yes, I understand that it's not absolutely necessary to gain stage our tracks within our DAWs. We aren't dealing with analog equipment that needs proper gain staging in order to achieve an adequate signal-to-noise ratio without distortion. We're also in the age of 32-bit floating point, and so so long as we aren't clipping the final output, we can largely enjoy the whopping 770 dB above 0 dBFS.
So from the original stance of driving each analog processor with an appropriate signal level, we don't have to gain stage.
Some people argue that it's worth gain staging to drive plugins that emulate analog hardware more appropriately, and I tend to agree. Gain staging each of our tracks so that each of their levels averages around -20 to -18 dBFS (coinciding with 0 VU in analog systems) can be a good idea for this reason.
It also makes the issue of headroom (even in 32-bit floating point) must more manageable. By staging our tracks that low and ensuring we aren't applying massive amounts of gain with our processing, we can be very safe when it comes to headroom across the mix, on our tracks, subgroups and mix bus.
But the biggest reason, in my opinion, to gain stage our tracks in DAWs is that, by doing so, we'll have relative levels on each of our tracks at a given fader level. For example, with faders at unity gain (set at 0 dBFS), we should have levels averaging around -20 to -18 dBFS.
Now, when it comes time to mix, we can easily see, by looking at the faders, which tracks are mixed higher and lower. If we weren't to gain stage, we could have quiet waveforms that require massive amounts of gain to reach the same level as another track at unity or lower, and while this is fine, it can lead to a mixer that is anything but intuitive to look at.
6. Import Reference Mixes
A reference mix (or reference track) is an audio mix/track that we can compare our work against as we make our way through the mixing process. A reference track is typically in the same style/genre as what we're working on and acts as a goal post to work toward in terms of mix aesthetic.
In many cases, the artist or producer will supply us with reference tracks. In other cases, we'll be on our own. And while reference tracks aren't absolutely necessary, they can be of tremendous value during our mixing sessions.
So then, once we have one or more reference tracks to help us with the general mix aesthetic, we need to bring them into our session. Again, doing this before we start mixing will save us the trouble of having to do it during the mix.
The first way is to drag the reference mix to its won stereo track within the mix and then route it to the stereo output. In this case, it's important to have a separate mix bus (rather than the default “Stereo Output” that many DAWs have set up for you). Doing this will allow us to process our mix bus in the future without having that processing affect the reference track during A/B testing.
A second way, if we don't have an audio file for the reference track, is to route audio into the DAW from an outside source. While this method works fine, I'd advise you to work within the DAW as much as possible and minimize the amount of time you'll be sending toggling outside the DAW software.
The third way, and my preferred way, is to utilize a plugin to A/B test your mix against the reference mix. These plugins are typically inserted as the final insert on the mix bus of the mix session and make it super easy to import and reference multiple reference tracks. Personally, I use Mastering The Mix's Reference 2 (link to check the price at Plugin Boutique), though there are plenty of great options out there.
For more information on reference mixes, check out my article Mixing: What Are Reference Mixes & Why Are They Important?
7. Simplify The Session View
Modern digital audio workstations are super powerful and have more features than we often know what to do with (or even know about). Because they're so powerful, they tend to have a lot of options for what can be shown at a given time through the graphic user interface.
But when it's time to mix, our focus should be directed at mixing. Of course, our DAW is software built for mixing, but it's also likely a powerhouse for writing, recording, producing, editing and mastering, along with all its other capabilities for non-music endeavours.
Once we've organized the session to our liking, it's highly beneficial to strip away all the distractions and menus available to us to focus only on what's needed for mixing. This pretty much narrows it down to the mixer and perhaps the arrangement/timeline view. Everything else can be closed to minimize our distractions.
From there, we have access to our plugins if we need to open them up, and we can start mixing with a nice, clean session.
What is the goal of mixing? The goal of mixing is to achieve the optimal balance of a recorded song that maximizes that song’s impact on the end listener. It's to understand the song and the warranted mix aesthetic and have the technical abilities to bring the best out of the song.
What are the steps of mixing? Generally speaking, the steps of mixing are as follows:
- Prepare, organize and route the mix session
- Get the initial balance
- Process and refine (EQ, compression, saturation, delay, reverb, etc.)
- Automate and add special production effects/techniques
- Finalize the mix
To learn more, check out my article What Are The Step-By-Steps Of Mixing Music?
Choosing the right microphone(s) for your applications and budget can be a challenging task. For this reason, I've created My New Microphone's Comprehensive Microphone Buyer's Guide. Check it out for help in determining your next microphone purchase.