Setting Up Your Mix For Success

mixing Apr 17, 2018

Hello once again. I hope everyone is finding the last couple of posts regarding starting your very own professional home recording studio useful. What do I mean by professional? Well are you taking in clients and producing great products and making money in the process? Then to me, you are considered a professional.

Anyway, this time I want to take a quick break from our last discussion and answer a question I received in an e-mail the other day. I thought this would be a perfect tip for the very beginner as it pertains to mixing. The question was.....

“How do I go about starting my mix? What should I do first? Do you have a standard process you follow before getting into processing individual tracks?” Any help would be really appreciated. Thanks – Alan

Well thank you Alan for your question and as a matter of fact, yes I do have a 5-step process I do to start of each and every mix and here it is…..

1.) Create a new song or project in my DAW and open my empty mix template. I suggest that you create a blank mix template that you can save in your DAW so you can call it up every time you are stating off you mix. My template has

24 mono audio tracks – Channel-strip plugin inserted on all the tracks
6 stereo audio tracks – Channel-strip plugin inserted on all the tracks
Master fader track – mix bus compressor, tape saturation inserted
2 effect send tracks (one or a reverb and one for a delay)
4 Group bus tracks – one for drums, guitars, vocals, etc..

I also color coded the tracks by group to make them easier to find (ie. All the drum tracks are color coded orange and the guitars are color coded red etc..) This way every time I am starting with the same framework and I can tweak it to fit the specific song I am mixing. Setting up a session from scratch every time can add 30-40 min to your mixing time and it’s really not necessary.

2.) Import audio files into the project. This is a pretty fast and easy step and will vary from DAW to DAW but you need to get the audio into your session.

3.) Strip Silence from audio files – This is such an important process for a couple of different reasons. For me personally I just like a more “clean and organized look” when all the tracks a stripped down to where all you see is the actual wave forms. All the extra “blank” space just gets in the way and clutters every thing up. Another reason to cut out the areas where you can’t see any waveforms is to help save on CPU power. Your computer will use extra CPU power trying to read information that’s not there and although it’s not a lot, it can make a difference if you have a large session to mix. Last but certainly not least; you may not realize that even if you can’t see any audio signal on your track between in certain places, if you zoom in on your waveform to a maximum view you will see that there is in fact audio in places where you didn’t realize and that can cause noise on your track. Again, it may not be a lot or even noticeable on a single track but on a 20-30 track project it will make a difference. So the goal is to have nice clean and tight tracks to work with. So take the time and strip out the silence and clean those tracks! Also make sure that when you start cutting up your tracks to strip out the silence that you create a small fade in and fade out on each event. This will ensure that you don’t have any “clicks / pops” when playing back your tracks.

4.) Gain Staging. The next thing I do to make sure that there is no clipping on any individual tracks as well as the master fader BEFORE we start adding effects and start the mixing processes. So here is what I do. I put all the faders at 0db and hit the play button. I look at my master fader and I am looking to keep the meter on the master fader a -10db to -12db. If it’s any higher than that I DO NOT LOWER THE MASTER FADER. I keep it a 0db and then I look at each individual channel fader and any fader that is peaking above -6db to -10db, I lower that fader. As you do this on several tracks you will see you master output fader meter getting lower. Once you have done this and your master fader is at -10db to -12db, you are all set and you have properly gain staged the project. Why go through all of this? When working with digital audio the worst thing you can do is have clipping / distortion. That will ruin your sound completely and will also make the mixing process much more difficult. I like to keep my levels very constrictive and not worry about the over track volume until towards the end of my mix and ultimately the mastering process. The more headroom you give yourself at mastering the better. So, if after you properly gain stage you may feel like you are having trouble hearing the details in your song because it’s not loud enough. Instead of raising the master fader or any faders on the individual tracks, simply turn up the volume on your audio interface to make it louder. Trust me, do proper gain staging and you will thank me later I promise.

 5.) The first Listen – Ok, now that got your tracks ready to go I always give a listen through the entire song. I may slightly adjust a fader or two if something is super quite or super loud just to have some sort of a balance between all the instruments. I listen to the unprocessed song as a whole so I can get familiar with the song and I write down 3 things I like about what I am hearing and 3 things I am not crazy about and want to fix as we get into the mix.

I do this to get a focus on what I am about to work on. So I may write down the following

a. I like the drum sound and it’s over all tone
b. The electric guitar is big and full
c. Great powerful vocal no obvious pitch issues.
d. The snare needs to pop more
e. Bass guitar is muddy and hard to hear in the mix
f. Overall the mix needs to clarity.

So that is my process each time I approach a mix. There are right or wrong ways to go about it, this is what works for me. Hopefully this will help someone else. If you have any questions about this post or any other recording techniques feel free to ask. I am here to help.

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