IS YOUR DAW dragging you down? Software giving you a hard time? Booting up feel more like a boot in the rear end? Here are some tips to help improve your mixes, streamline your workflow, and bring you back to those honeymoon days when you first fell in love with your workstation.
Get Out of the Mouse Trap
Using a mouse to access menu items is a time waster. True, it’s tough to find the time to sit down and read an entire manual, especially one that’s hundreds of pages long, but many software manufacturers provide an appendix of shortcuts. If you don’t already know the following shortcuts in your DAW, shame on you: cut, copy, paste, erase, create new session, open session, close session, new track, play, stop, record, go to start, go to end, quantize, transpose, and create group. Once you get those, add: split audio/divide region, merge audio, trim, create fade, bounce, click on/off, nudge left/right, zoom in/out, add marker, arm all tracks, mute all tracks, and clear peaks. Compile a list of 15 or 20 shortcuts that apply to your method of working. Print the list and stick it on a wall somewhere near your monitor so that you can refer to it without searching for a manual. Before long, you won’t need the sheet.
Fig. 1. Adding a master fader to your session makes it easy to see the level of the L/R mix bus—and in the case of Digital Performer, also provides an easy means of summing the mix to mono.
Create Templates Make custom templates specifically for your clients. For example, if you do a lot of work recording live bands, create a template with enough tracks to accommodate the mics you’ll use to record the band, aux sends, and send masters to route the headphone mixes they typically request, and inserts and/or effect sends and returns that you think you’ll need for the instruments. Save this template to your library so that (a) you can easily create a new session for each song in a project, and (b) you can re-create the session framework when a band returns to your studio for their next project.
Create Separate Session Files for Every Song in a Project Using a single DAW session file for an entire project of multiple songs might seem like a good idea at the outset. After all, the instrumentation and cue mix requirements in a project tend to remain fairly consistent across the songs. And sometimes it feels like creating a new session file for each song interrupts the artist’s workflow. But problems become evident as you begin overdubs, sweetening, and mixing. Inserts applied to a track on one song may not be appropriate for another song, and the session quickly becomes difficult to manage. I have seen engineers track an entire project as a single session and then break each song out to a separate session file after the fact—and then lose audio files in the process. Unless you want to duplicate all of the audio files for every track in every song (which will create many huge song files), you have to be extremely careful not to erase audio from one song when creating a new session for another song that existed in the original session. Use templates for each song to speed workflow, use the DAW’s export session data feature, or “Save A Copy” without duplicating the audio. Most DAW software lets you choose the data you wish to borrow or import from one song to create a new song session. You don’t want to duplicate the audio files, but if you export track names, I/O routing, mixer settings and configurations, insert assignments, etc., you’ll have an advanced starting point (including rough control room and headphone mixes) for the next song.
Add a Master Fader to the Session One of the real drags about working in the box is that you don’t always have a L/R bus meter the way you do when working in the analog world. True, some hardware interfaces provide meters on their front panel, but many do not. A master fader gives you an indication of the level at which you are hitting the mix bus, plus it facilitates fade-ins or fadeouts, adding EQ or compression to the entire mix, gives you an easy way to mute the session, and in some cases provides the ability to sum to mono (see Figure 1).
Name Tracks Before Recording Sooner or later, you are going to lose an audio file, due to either hard drive failure or your own mismanagement. Nothing says, “shoot me” quite like digging through a folder containing hundreds of files called “audio 1.X” to find that piece of a missing vocal take. Naming the track before you start recording will transfer the track name to the audio file(s) associated with the track, but renaming a track after you have started recording does not transfer the track name to the audio files associated with that track.
If You Ignored the Previous Tip, Fix Things Now Let’s say you forgot to name the vocal track before you started recording and you have three or four pieces of audio in the track with names like “audio 1.0,” “audio 1.1,” etc. Name the track and merge the pieces. This will assign the track name to the merged audio file, which translates to the regions that will be created when you start punching in or editing the track.
Fig. 2. A Pro Tools session with a bass DI track and a bass mic track. In the highlighted area, note that when the waveform in
the DI track goes negative, the waveform in the mic track moves positive. This opposition in signal polarity will cause weak bass when the tracks are added together. The solution is a trim plug-in (shown), with the polarity reversed (yellow Ø indicator).
Take Accurate Session Notes At the very least, use the comments boxes provided for each track to archive the signal chain used for that track. Note the brand and model of microphone (add serial number if you have multiples of the same model), preamp, EQ, compressor, and all gear settings, plus any special points about the recording method. I prefer to take this process up a notch by keeping paper track sheets for every song, mic positioning diagrams, and recall sheets for any device used in the recording. At the end of the project, my client gets a binder with detailed records of the session.
Render MIDI Tracks to Audio A client recently called because she needed to remix an 11-year old project in which almost all of the tracks had been sequenced, and some of the mixes were “live MIDI to mix.” In other words, there were no audio tracks for many of the instruments, only MIDI data. This process is fine while you are working on a project and need the flexibility to easily change synth timbres, etc., as the arrangement evolves. However, once the song is ready to mix, render all MIDI tracks to audio so that if you need to remix 11 years down the line, you are not trying to find, say, a Yamaha DX21 for a particular sound that cannot be duplicated by another synth or virtual instrument. (True story.) Don’t forget to name the tracks!
Render Audio Tracks at the End of the Project Consider this the audio equivalent of the previous tip. After you have mixed a song, bounce the audio on every track to a common start point, such as bar 1/ beat 1. You need to make your archived files idiotand future-proof. There is no guarantee that you can revisit a DAW session file several years from now. Rendering or bouncing each track ensures that EQ, effects, and automation moves are married to the audio files. If you don’t like the idea of committing those characteristics to the audio file, merge each track to a common start point so you’ll be able to reconstruct the session in any DAW software.
Fig. 3. This compressor plug-in provides a filter for the sidechain (inside the red square). In this instance, the Low Filter has been switched in and raised to 223 Hz, which helps avoid pumping every time the kickdrum hits, while still letting the compressor do its job. The blue speaker icon at the top is a “sidechain listen” switch that lets the user temporarily listen to the filtered signal.
Delete Unwanted Takes and Tracks at the End of a Project This will reduce the session file size for archiving, and avoid confusion if you revisit the project at a later date—at which point, you won’t remember which tracks or takes were “preferred.”
Encourage Clients to Purchase Their Own Hard Drive(s) Back in the analog days, my clients would bitch and moan about paying for tape, which could easily cost several thousand dollars per project. Hard drives are a bargain these days, so send your clients off with the session files on their own drive—after the bill has been paid.
If You Ain’t Got It in Two Places, You Ain’t Got It For each project, have a work copy plus at least one backup copy (I prefer two) of every song. There are no excuses for crashes, and if ever the adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” was applicable, here it is. Hard drives—which combine the media with the mechanism— are subject to failure. If the hard-drive mechanism fails, you can no longer access the media (prohibitively-expensive data recovery techniques notwithstanding). If a tape machine goes belly-up, you can move the tape to another machine to access the audio. This is a good reason for copying session files to DVD—which is still not fail-safe (in spite of manufacturer claims, we really don’t know the lifespan of a DVD), but if a DVD drive fails, at least you have a shot at putting the DVD into another drive. If you’re rich and famous, buy yourself an old Sony PCM3348 DASH machine and archive your DAW sessions to digital tape.
Leave Room for Mastering Happily, the trend of making music loud for sheer volume’s sake is abating, and people are starting to pay attention to sound quality again. If your mixes will be sent for mastering, leave the mastering engineer at least 3 to 6dB of headroom. If your mixes already hit 0dBFS, there is no place for mastering to take the file without generating distortion when, say, boosting the bass. Stop worrying so much about how loud your mixes are and pay attention to the sound quality. Broadcast is going to compress the crap out of it anyway.
Make the Click Track Friendlier Know what happens when a good drummer locks in with a click track? It disappears, and he or she can’t hear it. Instead of the typical quarternote- on-the beat-click, create something that’s easier to hear, such as a two-bar drum loop, or a click track that has one sound on the downbeat and a different sound on the upbeat. When the drummer locks in, the downbeat disappears but the upbeat does not. Put this into your templates.
Record to the Grid Whenever Possible You never know when you might need to edit MIDI data.
Pay Attention to Signal Polarity Loosely referred to as “phase,” the polarity relationship between certain tracks can make or break a mix. Phase issues are often heard as a loss in bass or a “hollow” sound when tracks are added together. Any time that you have more than one microphone on the same instrument, check phase between the two (see Figure 2). Most gain or trim plug-ins feature a phase-reverse button and take up minimal DSP resources so you can use them without worrying about clogging up your CPU’s arteries. Big offenders include snare top and bottom mics, kick drum inside and outside or beater side, bass mic and DI and electric guitar close and far mics. Check phase between overheads and kick, as well as overheads and snare.
Fig. 4. This screen shows a vocal comp track in Digital Performer. The blue track at the top (“Vocal”) is the composite track. The four red tracks (“1,” “2,” “3,” and “4”) are the vocal takes from which the comp is derived. After selecting the comp tool from the Tool Bar (shown top center), you simply select any piece of audio from the takes and DP automatically brings the audio clip into the comp track. The shaded areas in the red takes are the “contributors” to the comp track.
Conserve DSP Resources When Possible Instead of inserting the same effect (e.g., reverb) on multiple individual backing vocal tracks, set up an aux send and stereo return for the effect and let the backing vocals share it. This accomplishes two things: It conserves DSP resources because you can use one effect for many vocal tracks, and it makes your workflow more efficient. Suppose you have a reverb on each of ten backing vocal tracks. If you decide to change that reverb, you’ll have to remake the change ten times, or do it once and then copy the modified plug-in to every track. Lame!
Use an Analog Mixer to Deal With Latency As your projects become more complex, your computer works harder to keep up, and latency can become an issue. Circumvent this problem by using a simple analog mixer for monitoring while tracking or overdubbing. (You don’t have to use this mixer to do your final mixdown.) Latency is generated in the time it takes for a signal to go from your DAW interface’s input to the computer and back out to the monitor path. Patch the main DAW output to a pair of mixer channels for monitoring. Use a third channel for the overdub signal (mic, DI, line input) and monitor the overdub signal on its way to the DAW. A fourth channel can be used to monitor playback of the overdub track. You’ll probably need to mute this channel when recording and un-mute it for playback out of the DAW. Alas, this won’t help much when a plug-in is critical to the sound you are recording (for example, if you are using a guitar or bass amp simulator).
Filter the Sidechain on a Compressor If you are using compression on the master bus, beware that low end from a kick drum or synth bass can trigger compression that makes the midrange pump. This is particularly a concern on dance tracks where kick and bass are prominent and may modulate the volume of a lead vocal. If the compressor has a sidechain filter, use it! Filter out the lows from the compressor sidechain (not the audio path) by applying a highpass filter to the sidechain at around 250 Hz. (See Figure 3.)
Learn How to Comp Most DAWs provide an efficient means of comping multiple takes. Digital Performer, for example, provides a comping feature in which simply clicking on an audio region in a take adds the clip to the comp track (see Figure 4). This is way faster than cut/copy/paste, plus it ensures that the audio regions do not slip out of time when you move them to the comp track.
Steve La Cerra is an independent audio engineer based in New York. In addition to being an Electronic Musician contributor, he mixes front-of-house for Blue Öyster Cult and teaches audio at Mercy College White Plains campus.