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Production – Future-proof Your Mix

February 14, 2013
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Fig. 1. A screenshot of your DAW’s track list serves as an archival log of your project’s I/O routing. Entries in the comments field help speed a future remix.
IMAGINE THE following scenario: A music supervisor calls you out of the blue to request a new mix of a song you wrapped years ago, for use in a TV series airing the next day. She wants a couple changes made to your original mix but everything else kept exactly the same. If you can’t deliver the goods by mid-afternoon, the deal will be retracted.

You locate the project’s folder on an archival hard drive, but there are five different file versions containing mixes. Which one was for the final mix? You take a guess and open the file. Your new I/O boxes, DAW upgrade, and system reconfiguration arbitrarily reroute the outputs for each track. You see automation enabled for several tracks, but you can’t immediately tell which parameters were automated or if the dynamic changes are appropriate for the requested revision. Some of those same tracks are muted; are they outtakes? One of the five guitar tracks was bounced while rendering an effect that’s no longer desirable; which track was the dry source (so you can use it instead)? Several inserted legacy plug-ins are incompatible with your current operating system and won’t load. Glancing nervously at your watch as you fumble about, you see golden opportunity slipping through your fader-fidgeting fingers like water through a sieve.

It doesn’t have to be that way. By using several common-sense strategies ahead of time, you’ll be able to precisely resurrect your old mix in a heartbeat later, when you’re under the gun. Use the following tips to future-proof your mix.

Give Each Track a Distinct Name Name your tracks according to their source (“lead guitar,” “bass,” “low BV,” and so on) before you record them. Default names like “Audio-1” will only spawn a Memento moment when searching for specific tracks or regions years later. Likewise, tracks you’ll bounce to render plug-ins should be named (for example, “tuned vocal”) before you bounce.

Color Your World Mac users can apply color labels to their DAW project files using the File menu in the Finder. The files—both audio and DAW documents—comprising the final mix should be labeled gold, for “golden.” If I master my final mix, I save the mastered version as a separate file and label it gold, too. Name each respective file with the title of the song followed by “final mix” or “master” for instant and positive identification at a later date.

Make Notes Use your DAW’s comments field (typically located in the tracks list) to note anything important that you might later forget. For example, if a lead vocal has been bounced with AutoTune rendered, type “tuned with AutoTune” in the comments field for the bounced track and “source for tuned lead vocal” for the untuned track’s comments. Save the plug-in’s settings you used as a custom preset with the song and track’s names in its title.

Tracks containing multiple takes should have their keeper takes designated as such. Any track that’s an outtake should have “do not use” (or “dnu”) noted in its comments field and should be moved to the bottom of the tracks list (assuming you want to keep it). I place the click track below the last keeper track in the list and all other unused tracks below that; the click track becomes my marker that tells me at a glance that all tracks listed below it are garbage or sources for bounced tracks that took their place in the mix.

In the comments field, note any synth patches or multisamples used on rendered tracks for virtual instruments and on the associated MIDI source tracks. And if automation is used on a track, note the purpose (for example, “to ride fader”). Such a reminder will save you invaluable time when remixing at a later date.

Make a printed template for all your outboard gear. After each mix, document the knob settings and patchbay routings for each piece of hardware you used. If you use an external mixer, save the scribble strip for each mix. If no strip is provided, you can tape some adding-machine paper to the mixer’s armrest and use it to write down which track was routed to each channel. Write the song’s title, artist’s name, and date of the mix on the strip, and save it. Take a screenshot of your DAW’s track list that shows the I/O routing for each track, label the image file gold, and save it in your project folder (see Figure 1).

Print Everything Every plug-in is at risk for becoming obsolete at some point. Be sure to render its effect by bouncing to a new track, so you can get that sound back when you remix later. Save this rendered version of your project as “(song title) final mix FX print” and label it gold. Because the baked-in sounds will restrict your future options, you’ll only want to use this version if some of your plug-ins won’t load.

If you used an external digital mixer for your final mix, make sure you record SysEx data for all mixer scenes, dynamic automation and other automation assets to a new MIDI track for your project. Save and name that file version “[song title—mixer model] automation” and label it gold.

All project data should be backed up to two other places, including an external hard drive or disc stored off your premises, if possible. If you do everything I’ve detailed in this article, you won’t even break a sweat when someone asks you to recall a mix made several years ago.

Michael Cooper is the owner of Michael Cooper Recording in Sisters, Oregon (myspace.com/michaelcooperrecording), and a contributing editor for Mix magazine.

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