Mix prep is probably the most underrated topic in mixing. Probably because it’s also the least glamorous.
When you’re watching a 10min video of you’re favorite engineer cutting 3 db from kick drum and suddenly it sits perfectly in the mix, but every time you do it you’re left wondering if it makes any difference at all. Its because there are hours of mix prep that goes on behind the scenes. Often by assistants and interns.
Being meticulous about your project and spending time organising things will not only make it a joy to mix, but also open doors to more advanced techniques without the need to backtrack and keep checking your routing.
Here are a few examples of things that I do while setting up a project for mixing. This is not a guide or a tutorial. Just an insight into my workflow.
Importing & Naming
It’s fairly obvious that you need to import your tracks first, but before I do anything else I name all my tracks and arrange them in an order that’s familiar to me. For example going from left to right in the mixer the drums first, followed by the bass, guitars, vocals etc…
Naming them with labels that make sense is important to me. I may get a guitar track that’s called gtr_sm57 that isn’t a very useful label in the context of a song, especially when you have 40 or more tracks to work with. I tend to rename things based on the part so if it’s an electric guitar that’s playing in the chorus I’d probable rename it eGtr_Chorus.
I always create regions for different sections of the song. Even if its an unconventional style of music like an experimental sound design piece I’d still find a section and call it the “chorus”. This just lets me know what part of the song to prioritise and It lets me make sense of the arrangement, using words that I understand and are common across all my projects is key.
Groups, Busses, VCAs, Colours
At this point I start grouping tracks into folders and then busses. It may seem odd to use folders as well as busses. But this allows me to mix at various levels of detail at any point in the mix. I usually have all the drums grouped into one folder and all the parallel processing for the drum tracks grouped into another, both these folders go to a master drum bus. This gives me the option to solo or mute just the parallel processing or the clean drums and work on things separately or as a single unit.
The next thing I do is setup VCAs for all the individual tracks. I use VCAs to do more broad stroke automation later on in the mix and since I’m using a VCA it also changes how hard I’m hitting the dynamics processing on that bus.
After I have the routing setup I colour code everything based on the instrument. The colours are always the same that way I can open a session from a year ago and it still makes sense. Drums are always red, bass is always some shade of grey, guitars are always teal, vocals are always purple and so on.
I’ve also started using track icons lately. They tend to make the project look a bit cartoony but I find that it does increase my navigation speed and when you’re working to a deadline the seconds add up.
TCP (Track Control Panel)
When working in Reaper I can add plugin parameters to my track control panels and I’ve taken advantage of this feature by adding a digital trim to all my tracks. This way I get to keep my faders at unity all till the very end of the session giving me finer resolution on my automation parameters.
Editing & Phase
The time I spend here varies with the condition of the project that I receive. Usually I spend this time cleaning up vocals, making choices about where I use the DTs, checking the phase on the drum kit and other multi mic instruments.
Pre FX Automation
More often than not I may want to smooth out the volume levels on a vocal before hitting a compressor. I tend to do this with pre fx automation. Its time consuming but offers total control and I can also de-ess using this method.
It comes in handy for other things as well like uneven tom hits etc….
I usually leave things like this till the end. I prefer to avoid techniques like sample replacement, but after listening to a cleaned up project, it’s pretty easy to judge the potential of the track and if its going to fall short of my vision I tend to set up samples for drums or add some keyboard bass in there to supplement the low end.
Finally, I setup a rough balance with some panning and bounce the track so that I have a reference of how it sounds and feels at this stage. This lets me look back at any point to check and see if I haven’t butchered the song with some terrible mixing decisions.
Pretty much every track I mix roughly follows the above mentioned pattern for preparation.
All the screenshots are from a song that I worked on recently and you can listen to it below.