How to Prep Your Tracks for a Successful Mixing Session

mixing console

How to Properly Prep Your Tracks for a Successful Mixing Session

[Before we get into the meat of this month’s article, I’d like to start responding to readers’ questions.  Please email me your questions or topics to be discussed.  Recording, editing, mixing, production, management and even music publishing are all fair game.  Fire away! [email protected]]

THE ART OF THE MIX

So you’ve recorded or produced the killer demo/album/track!  Now you have to mix it so it’ll sound amazing and stand out in the crowd.  You might be going to mix it yourself (not recommended) or have someone else do it. In either case, it pays to prepare the session and files before you start.

Mixing, like songwriting or recording, is an art.  It’s really a very right-brain thing.  You want to get the best of your talented mix engineer, so providing them with properly prepared material is key. The last thing you want is for them to have to stop the mixing process, get out of right-brain mode into left-brain mode, to fix some problem with the tracks or files.

WHY EDITING MATTERS

Everybody understands the recording part of the process (not to say it’s easy, just easier to understand the overview of what gets done).  And everyone thinks they understand mixing (though, in fact, it’s quite a bit less obvious when you get past simply balancing levels). Everyone forgets about editing!  Perhaps that’s an article itself.

When I produce, editing is often quite a large part of the process to achieve a modern sound.  Of course, we’ve all heard of over-producing and over-editing, so even editing is a matter of taste and talent.  Nonetheless, editing between takes (comping), tuning stacks of vocals, and even adjusting the timing and delivery of those vocals is an important part of the process.  Not only is it very left-brained, it can take quite a bit of time.

These are the things you do not want to have left over when it comes time to mix!  Put another way: if all those edits aren’t completely finished, it’s isn’t time to mix.

TUNING & TIMING

So, practically speaking, what does this mean?  It means being super organized. Every track needs to be comped together to get the best of each take.  If any areas still aren’t good enough, either you fly in a section from elsewhere in the song (if possible) or you must re-record that section or whole track.  When the comp is done, the MOST important thing is to create cross-fades between the clips.  This prevents pops and clicks that will ruin your song.  I can’t tell you how often I encounter this problem.  As you move forward, applying tuning and/or timing corrections, you are going to create new clips that will have any pops embedded and are then nearly impossible to fix.

As you go through the tuning and timing process, be sure you are firm about which track is the lead (guide) and which others get changed to match it.   Cross-fade all of these clips when you are done.  Though it takes a lot of time, listen to each finalized track in solo mode to detect any garbage.  Listen to each group of tracks (all lead vocals, all high harmonies, etc.) in solo to be sure they’re well tuned and timed.  The song should sound pretty good at this point!

BACKUP & ARCHIVAL VERSIONS

Be sure you’re not only backing up your work throughout this process, but archiving as you go as well.  More on this subject in an upcoming column.  Take it from a guy who once nearly lost several decades of professional work to an exploding hard drive, you really want your work in many places.

BOUNCING TO THE MIXER

Next comes the task of getting the song(s) to the mix engineer.  In some cases, this can be simple.  If you recorded in Logic or Pro Tools, and your mixer uses the same, you can conceivably just transfer the session file.  However, if you produced or recorded in FL Studio or Reaper (both very common), likely your mixer won’t have those and they probably won’t do their best mixing in software with which they’re unfamiliar.  So, the name of the game becomes consolidating each track.  I would argue that you should do this with all sessions, even if your mixer has the same software, as it lessens the chance that something moves or disappears in the process.  We all know that computers are voodoo.

Each track needs to be bounced to an uninterrupted, linear file, that starts at time zero (the very beginning of the session).  This way there are no clips to lose, no cross-fades to come undone, and all audio (even silence) starts at the same time and will line up properly in any software.  This also has to be the full length of the song.  I’ve had people who produce using samples send me one hit of the sample, rather than the track of hits as they fall in time along the song. Don’t do that.  Bounce your MIDI tracks to audio.

Be careful too that you don’t submix any tracks (get backing vocals on the lead track, or double leads on the main lead, or bass on the guitar track).  Each instrument should have its own track. Also, many software programs will bounce to stereo even if the source is mono.  Avoid this if your program has the option, so you send mono files for mono instruments.  Perhaps the most important bit of organization: makes sure you name all these files with names that actually describe the instrument or sound!  Organizing the session for mixing can be a nightmare of a time waster if you don’t.

FX: YAY OR NAY?

While you’re doing all these bounces, a crucial artistic decision comes up.  Sometimes when you are recording or producing you add effects as you are going.  Some of these are placeholders, like a little reverb on the lead vocals.  Others, however, are fundamentally part of the sound, like a side-chain compressor on an EDM bassline.  Embedding the placeholder effect in the bounced track will tie the hands of the mixer because it won’t be good enough by itself, and very hard to work around.  OTOH, removing a fundamental element will leave the poor mixer trying to re-create the sound without really knowing how you did it, or that you really meant for it to stay.  When in doubt, this is worth a conversation with your engineer.

ALMOST DONE

Now that you’ve done all the edits, carefully prevented pops/clicks using cross-fades, and bounced each track to its own linear file, you are nearly there.  Build a fresh session in your software and drop all these new files into it to see that it works properly.  It should play back just as it did in the old session, before the bounces.  If that’s all fine, send those files to your mixer and prepare to be wowed!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Award winning mix engineer and producer Jordan Tishler runs Digital Bear Entertainment in Boston MA. A large Augsburger designed mix/overdub room with SSL console and racks upon racks of analogue outboard gear, tape machine, and gazillions of instruments, Tishler has credits including B Spears, JLo, Iggy A, MOTi, Justin Prime, SIA, and London Grammar. Contact me about producing your next record, or mixing the one you’re working on now!  For more visit www.digitalbear.com

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