Simple strategies to start your mix off on the right foot
By Mike Levine
For many recording musicians, mixing is the most difficult aspect of the production process. It’s part art form and part science, and incredibly open-ended. If you draw an analogy to a journey, mixing offers endless ways to get where you’re going, and it’s often difficult to tell when you’ve arrived. What’s more, there are plenty of wrong turns that will lead you to nowhere. Considering the vagaries of the process, it pays to be as organized as possible when you start your mixes.
Of course, the point at which you finish the “tracking phase” and enter the “mix phase” of your project isn’t always that clear cut. Many musicians are mixing as they go, adding reverb and compression, panning tracks, and EQing while still recording. Most don’t pull all their faders down and remove all effects and panning from their tracks before starting to mix.
That said, when you have finished your last overdub and are at the point where you’re concentrating solely on your mix, there are some things you can do to help make sure you get to your sonic destination. These are the mixing equivalent of starting a trip with a clean car, the oil and tire pressure checked, and the gas tank full.
Get Organized The greater your song’s track count, the more you need to organize your tracks. The first step is arranging them by type. In both your DAW’s mixer window and tracks window, place all the drum tracks together, the guitar tracks together, and so forth. Otherwise, unless you’re mixing a tiny session, you’re going to waste endless time hunting for tracks.
Color-coding your tracks is also helpful. Your DAW almost certainly has a track-color feature, which lets you assign colors to the track headers and the track lanes. Choose colors for the various track types in advance. It’s an arbitrary choice, but once you decide on a color scheme—for instance, drums blue, bass purple, guitars red, vocals green, percussion light blue, aux and master tracks black—it’s important that you stick with it from song to song. Once you’ve got your scheme memorized, you’ll know at a glance which type of track you’re looking at (see Figure 1 above).
Another useful organizing technique is placing markers at the beginning of all of your song sections. Most DAWs make it easy to insert and name markers, and most have a way to jump to a marker quickly. The latter feature is quite handy when mixing; it lets you instantly go to the song section you want to work on, without scrolling around and looking for it. Give your markers descriptive names, such as “verse 1,” “chorus 2,” etc., so that you know exactly which part of the song they’re referring to. Over the course of a long mix session, this will save you a lot of time.
Fig. 1. Organizing your tracks by instrument type, color-coding them, and adding markers to song sections can help you mix more efficiently.
I also recommend soloing each track and listening to it from beginning to end. You’ll be surprised at some of the extraneous noises that get picked up during tracking sessions: clicks, glitches from punch-ins, coughs between phrases, guitar buzzes, excessive finger squeaks, and so forth. You may not notice these when all the tracks are playing, but your mix will likely sound cleaner without them. You should be able to get rid of most problems through simple editing. Smooth out bad edits with crossfades, and cut out noisy sections that occur when the instrument or voice is resting.
Time Travel Even with your tracks prepared and organized, there will be times during mixing when you realize that you’ve taken a wrong turn, and wish to backtrack and resume working from a previous point. A good way to get back is to use the technique of incremental saving (a good thing to be doing regardless of your project phase). In its simplest form, incremental saving requires you to “save as” each time you make a significant change, and add an incremental number at the end of the file name, like “My Song 1,” “My Song 2,” and so forth. For the purposes of mixing, you want to get even more specific and add a description of the change into the file name, such as, “Song Name 1 bass down 2dB,” or “Song Name 2 vox up.”
Then, if you have one of those moments where you realize you’ve made a wrong turn with your mix, you can re-open one of your incrementally saved files from earlier, and everything will be as it was. The trick is to make those names descriptive enough so that you can choose the right one to open.
The more organized you are up front, the better off you’ll be during mixdown!