So you’ve done it. You made, or received your first song with over 50 tracks, and it’s ready to be mixed down. You have 30 drum channels, 10 synths, 10 vocals, 2 bass tracks, and 10 SFX/ambient tracks. Where do you start?
A big part of mixing that often gets over looked is the part where you are supposed to enjoy it (it’s why your in this business in the first place right?). Mixing should never be frustrating, and should always keep moving while the juices are flowing. Because lets face it, it’s no fun if you are spending more time looking for a sound in a sea of tracks, then actually mixing the song. So it’s wise to first organize them in some sort of order to avoid wasting time and confusion.
Everyone has their own process, but it seems commonplace that engineers (including myself) usually start with drums on the top of the session and proceed down from there. Traditionally it will look something like this (from top to bottom) : Kicks, Snares, (Claps), Hi Hats, Toms, (Overheads), Cymbals, Percussion, Bass. The rest of the tracks such as guitars, strings, synths, piano, and vocals tend to vary more on personal preference. I tend to arrange my tracks based on the order I’m going to mix them in. Drums typically get treated first (because drums are the backbone of a song and need to sound good first), then I proceed to Bass to make it sit right with the kick drum, then melody/ or vocals. Again there is no correct way to do this, (in fact I know some engineers that start with vocals first and carve around that because they deem that the most important part of the song). So your order doesn’t have to be exactly this but it helps if you have a formula with all your sessions, so that after a while you can identify the location of a track without even thinking about it. Next, clearly label the track, and Id even recommend color coding them for easier identification (most DAWS will let you do this). And similar to keeping a consistent order of the tracks from session to session, it’s also a good idea to keep a consistent color for each instrument group (For example, my drums are always red, instruments green, and vocals yellow.)
So now you have the order of the tracks, but you still have over 50 tracks to keep count of and work together. First, take a look at what you have and decide if the song actually needs all of those tracks. For example, do you really need 3 layered hi hats? Is it important to the song? If it’s your song, then take a listen and strip down what you don’t need ( however, if it’s for a client be wary of deleting tracks without asking them first.) If you explain to them that it’s not adding anything to the track and gets in the way of other sounds, then chances are they won’t mind if you get rid of them. In mixing less is always more, which is why usually my next step is to combine similar sounds together via a bus to a single mono or stereo track, grouping them together, or assigning them to the same output to create a submix. Before doing this, it is important to listen for sounds that sit in the same frequency range that can be processed similarly. For instance, it would be unwise to group together a bass and vocal track, because they are going to be processed quite differently during the mix down. The first thing that should be consolidated into a single track would be all channels in your DAW containing overdubs of the same instrument. So if you have 3 guitar tracks, recorded with the same, or similar tone, with the same mic etc, level them together then consolidate that to one track .Next look for tracks like similar background vocal harmonies, hi hats, similar sounding percussion (bongos, congos) and consolidate them.
They key here is to reduce the track count , and stay organized as much as possible so you can focus more on mixing, and not finding. Some engineers may prefer to have the most available options for the mix down, keep everything separate, and not worry as much about the organization of the session, which is fine. Whatever works best for you, is the best way. But unless you are working on a 50+ channel console or control surface, and have a photographic memory, staying organized and consolidating tracks to keep the track count down is less time consuming, visually easier, and will lead to a more efficient mixdown.
Dan Zorn, Engineer
Studio 11 Chicago
209 West Lake Street
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