Mixing is a complicated task, and anything that helps make it easier is always useful. In that spirit we present a sub-grouping technique that simplifies the process of balancing levels, allowing you to mix more quickly and effectively. This technique is particularly helpful when you have a large amount of tracks, but it’s also useful on simpler mixes.
The concept is simple: Split tracks into a few subgroups, each comprising a major element of the mix. The basic groupings I use are drums, instruments, and vocals, and I’ll add a forth group if there are, say, a bunch of percussion tracks. Depending on the nature and instrumentation of your mix, you could divide it up differently. For example, if you had a string or brass section, you might want to put those in their own sub group.
But first, let me backtrack for those not familiar with subgroups. On a DAW mixer, a subgroup is an auxiliary channel through which you can route the outputs of any number of individual tracks, allowing control of many tracks from one mixer channel.
In virtually any DAW, a subgroup is created by adding an aux track and using a stereo bus to route track outputs into the subgroup. Here’s a hypothetical example: Let’s say you were making a drum subgroup, and using Bus 1 & 2 (a stereo pair of buses) to feed it. You’d set the output of all your drum tracks to Bus 1 & 2, the input of the auxiliary track you created to Bus 1 & 2, and its output to the main output pair that you normally use to send tracks to the master track (see Figure 1).
The way I like to use this sub-grouping technique is leave the subgroup faders at their default level during the beginning of the mix, and work on balancing the mix elements, using individual track faders. Once you have a rough balance—meaning that within each subgroup, the relative balances are good—you can adjust the subgroup faders when necessary to change the relative levels of these major subgroups you’ve created.
You’d be surprised how helpful this technique can be. For example, having all the vocals on one subgroup makes it easy to quickly nail the critical balance between vocals and instruments. If the instruments are too loud, turn down their subgroup or turn up the vocal group; if the vocals are too loud, turn their group fader down or turn up the instrument group, and so on.
Why not just use track groups (individual channels linked together in the mixer) to accomplish the same thing? There are a couple of reasons. First, having a lot of track groups active can cause you to accidentally move a whole group when you want to just move one individual track fader. Second, if an individual track has automation written on it, you’ll have to overwrite that automation (and any other tracks in the group that you’re moving) to keep tracks from snapping back to where the existing automation dictates.
Speaking of automation, the subgroup faders can also be automated, giving you additional control, if needed. For instance, you could automate drum and instrument subgroups to rise subtly during choruses to add more dynamics.
Using this category subgroup scheme has helped me mix more efficiently. The beauty of it is that even with the groups set up, you’re still totally free to adjust individual tracks. The difference is that you now have an extra layer of control.
Mike Levine is a multi-instrumentalist, producer, and music journalist from the New York area.