20 Mix tips for 2020
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Here are our first Top 20 mixing tips for 2020:
Happy Recording !
As soon as you open your mix session, use the “ Save as “ command. This lets you keep the original session intact and make all your changes in the new session. If you make a mistake, you can just reopen the original.
You can color code your tracks to help you quickly locate elements in your mix session. My drums are always red, bass brown and so on. During the mix, just scrolling up and down through the session can slow your process down. Color coding will help you get organize and speed up your workflow leaving more time for creative mixing !
Track order and placement
Organize your tracks in the same order, every mix session, every time. My drums are at the top, then percussion, basses, guitars etc. Within each group of instruments I have the same order – kick , samples , snare, snare samples etc. If you know where they are you can find them instantly. You can become even more specific ( and time saving ) with this process. In my session the drums are at the top of the audio tracks, followed by percussion, then basses, then guitars, kets , lead vocals, lead vocal doubles and background vocals.
In a normal session I may have two snare mics and three snare samples. The same is usually the case with the kick drum. To help me keep track I organize these in the same order for every mix session. Kick in, Kick out sample 1. sample2, sample 3 ( samples from dry to more ambient or bright to dark ). This process can be utilized to organize the rest of your tracks the same way.
Clean up your tracks
Imagine after all your tracks are in and your huge mix session is done, you listen close and hear clicks, pops, noises. Clean all your tracks at the start of a session, delete the junk and you won’t have any surprises later that will stop your creative mix process.
Clip gain to balance levels before you automate
Pro Tools has a great function called clip gain. Its a very simple and quick way to even out levels without engaging your automation. Let’s say the vocals are very quiet in the verses and very loud in the choruses. You can separate the regions and adjust your clip gain fader right in the audio to get them closer in volume. This will allow you get a great static mix before engaging automation.
Don’t forget to Save As (and duplicate your playlist before you start changing levels)!
Making playlists to save your butt
Before you start cleaning and chopping up you or your client’s audio, duplicate all your playlists and start your work on the new playlist. If you mess up you can always go back to the previous playlist with the unedited audio.As we discussed earlier, we have a vocal track – step one duplicate the playlist and rename it vocal clean, remove all the headphone leakage, spots where there is no singing, moth noises etc. Step 2- duplicate the playlist and name it vocal clip gain. Now you can separate your regions and balance volume levels in each section with clip gain.
If along the way you mess up an edit or a level you can go back to the previous playlist and cut an original part back in.
Using aux channel sub masters
I usually have the original snare ( possibly top & bottom ) and snare samples of varying types. Some samples for attack, weight or ambience. These can all be routed to an Auxiliary channel that is used as a snare sub master. For example, all the kicks and kick samples are bussed to a Kick aux sub master. This is the same with the snares, All snares, and their samples can be routed to the snare sub master. Bass DI and bass amps routed to their respective buss , Guitars with their doubles and so on.
Now you can touch one fader and quickly make balance adjustments to all of your channels that make up a specific sound. A second benefit is you can also a globally treat them with EQ or compression as well.
In my case I may have an outboard Pultec or Tonelux Eq for all the kicks, so I can just insert that one piece of outboard ( or plug in ) on the kick sub master aux and it will effect all of the kicks and their samples. I use a Manley eLOP for the bass, so I can insert the one compressor on the one bass sub master aux and it will process all the bass tracks routed to that bass sub master aux channel.
Using VCA masters
Building on your aux submitter idea you can make a VCA master for certain instruments groups. I will have a VCA master for all of my drum aux sub masters, same for bass, all the guitars and so on. This makes global balances adjustments between instruments very quick and easy.
An added benefit is when you change levels on the VCA you are not affecting compression or gain staging, since it is post you sub master auxes. You can also quickly make stem mixes by muting VCAs. You may wonder why not just group them ? You can, but the great part of the VCA setup is the VCA channels can all be at the top of your session or in the center of your console / controller. This way one place has 8-10 faders for all the instrument types. No more scrolling up and down 200 tracks or sliding across different ends of a console.
Using markers to help navigate
Besides the obvious use of marking sections in the arrangement to help you quickly find the chorus or verse, the markers can be used to to show and hide tracks in your mix or edit windows. You can create a marker to only show your sub master axes or just your vas, or drums and so on. This allows you to quickly click the marker and only see what you working on with seeing all the other tracks or scrolling to find them.
I also have a marker in every session that I update as I’m working to show me the tracks I am using in the session.
For example, you may have many inactive tracks you committed, deactivated and hid from view to streamline the session. If you accidentally show all or some of them it’s very difficult and time consuming yo get back the ones you want. So I create a marker called ” SHOW ME “ to easily get the track view I need.
Take advantage of auxiliary sends & return channels for FX
Many new engineers to the DAW world ( and singer songwriters recording at home ) , will have a reverb on the lead vocal as an insert, as well as a delay and doubler. If they have harmonies and background vocals they add more on each channel as inserts. They may end up with 8 instances of the same reverb, 8 of the same delay and 8 of the same doubler.
It is a lot to handle and they are taxing their computer unnecessarily. Just set an aux channel for each effect. Insert the effect on the channel and assign a buss to the input.
For example Aux 1 could be a vocal plate reverb, with the input coming from buss 1 an 2. Aux 2 could be a vocal slapback delay ( buss 3 and 4 ) , Aux 3 could be a longer vocal delay. On your lead vocal sub master aux and background vocal sub master tyou can create a send to each of these busses. It will make all the vocals sound more cohesive ( as if it was tracked together ) and save a ton of processing and time.
You did make those aux sub masters by now right?
Use Aux channels to send and return to parallel effects
This is the same theory as the effects send and return auxes, but just using compression and EQ. Let’s say you have a great compressor for parallel drum crushing ? Insert it it on an aux and send your drums to it via an aux send. If you don’t want the cymbals in the drum crush just send the drums. In my mix sessions, I have an overall drum and bass aux sending to an outboard API 2500. It adds punch and glue to the rhythm section together. On snare and kick I have a specific crush path through a DBX 160. I also found a separate more aggressive pair of Distressors make the drums sound explosive but I don’t dig them on the cymbals so I just send the kick, snare, toms and room to them. You can have them muted in the verses and automate them on to explode the choruses for power.
Sometimes you want to distort your vocals , but then need to EQ some of the raspy miss out of the distorted tone. You can have an aux channel with your distortion then EQ set up and feed into or automate for more impact. Since they are all parallel they don’t effect the original signal, you can just blend it in to taste.
Make a mix template
You may be thinking, “How am I going to set this up every session and then get any mixing done?” You won’t! Make a template!
This is the biggest time saver, have all of these components ready to go in your mix session template. I even have the individual channels with inserts ready ( Fab Filter Pro Q for shelving and cutting, a compressor of choice and an SSL E channel from Brainworx, all loaded with some basic starting settings. They are routed to their respective aux / sub masters and ready to go ! Yes they are also color coded. All I have to do is drag the audio right up to its track and get started.
Use Hi and Lo pass filters
You should have an EQ with Hi and Lo Pass filters ready on each channel. This allows you the opportunity to cut high or low frequencies out that are present in the track but not necessarily musical ( rumble , hum etc. ) These parts can be heard ( or felt ) with each track in solo.
Imagine how this adds up with a hundred plus tracks. Some EQs , like the Fab Filter Pro Q2 or 3 have a solo function for each EQ band, making it very easy to dial in what you need to remove. After all the noise is removed, you may be able to cut even further while listening in context to all the tracks. Many times the low end of a guitar or keyboard will be interfering with the bass or kick drum. This “frequency masking” also happens in the high end with keyboards, cymbals etc.
The solo button
The solo button is a great tool for editing, hi and lo pass filtering and zoning in on specific problems- but no one listens to a song this way. They hear the song with all the instruments playing. A mix that sounds great may have tracks that, when soloed, sound horrible.
The Bypass button
When you add something or make a change, listen in context and then bypass it. Listen and decide if you really improved it. If not sometimes less is more.
Low volume when mixing
If you can make your mix sound loud at low volumes it will sound loud at higher volumes. If you can make your mix sound exciting at low volumes it will sound exciting at high volumes. You can work longer and save your ears. I usually mix at conversation level volumes a two thirds of my mix time. The other third I crank things up to check the low end or get some inspiration.
Your ears are important and having them not be fatigued will make the outcome of your mixes better and extend your mixing career. Set up a timer and take a five minute break every 40 – 45 minutes. You will have a new perspective after each break.
Studies have also shown the mind processes more effectively after a break, so more short breaks will increase these intervals and your productivity.
Mix focus: 3 elements
Studies have shown that the mind and ear can only focus on three elements at a time in a piece of music. So you should prioritize your time and process accordingly. In most rock/pop songs the vocal will be the main focus, then the snare. Depending on the song the third part could be a guitar or keyboard. This will vary from song to song , even section to section.
Automation is your friend
When you have a great “static” mix (no automation yet) that you, your band or client love, then you should start using automation to bring the song to even more life. Automating breaths certain words or lines can bring out all the emotions in vocal take, bumping up the chorus or the downbeats of the chorus can help explode the chorus. Using volume automation to feature or tuck parts can create a dynamic life to the mix. Imagine a band member stepping center stage in between a vocal line to play a lick.
You can also automate your panning to widen the chorus. For example if your guitars and keyboards are not panned hard left and right in the verses you can make them 100% left and right in the choruses for more width and excitement.
Work like a sculptor
Sculptors work with a large rock and chisel down in broad strokes. As they shape these strokes get finer and more precise. Always think of the big picture, the emotion and story of the song. A “perfect mix” is not always the best for a particular song.
In my ideal work flow I would do all my cleaning, editing, color coding, track arranging, importing into my mix template and corrective EQ ( hi & Lo pass ) on day one, then all my mixing on day 2. This method separates the non creative problem solving / setup stage from the creative mixing process . Get out your chisel and start sculpting!
Broad strokes to start, then details.
Here’s a bonus tip
Metering & References
Using other popular , pro songs as references to compare your mix to will help your process. You may hear different balance decisions, treatments of vocals, drums etc.
A few important points about comparing to your reference mixes:
Pick songs that are genre similar. A vocal piano song won’t assist you if you are mixing a punk track.
Level matching- In order to make a fair comparison you must match the volume ( level ) of the reference to your mix.
This brings us to metering:
A great meter will help you balance stereo instruments and doubles, keep you from peaking and many other issues. But a great meter plug in can help you match your reference levels, see your reference EQ and dynamics curves and even level match your reference to your track.
I have been using the Plug in Alliance ADPTR. It does all these things and more!