Here in 2019, with computer systems and software now more powerful than ever before, the limitless ability to mix music from home has become even more the standard for many seasoned audio engineers, producers and even recording artists. A little less than 15 years ago, for many, the ability to do an “ITB” or “In The Box” mix down was largely confined to Digidesign’s ProTools DAW. Because of the cost of these systems, Pro Tools was primarily only found in premiere recording studios and fancy media editing houses. It was rare to find these systems in smaller low cost studios, or in the average recording artist’s personal studio. But now in 2019, even free software like GarageBand is exponentially much more powerful than these earlier ProTools systems that could cost $30,000 and up.
So the real question when it comes to DAW’s is: with all of these different software systems and their architectures, which system is the best to actually do an “ITB” mix in? In short, my answer to that question, even shocking to people I know, would be any software system out there on the market. The reasons being:
1. All of these new software systems mostly use of 1 of 2 plugin architectures (VST or AU) except for Digidesign. This means anybody can have access to even the best plugins on the market without worrying about what software they are using. A lot of these newer plugins are being designed to emulate even the smallest details of older famous analog equipment. Analog emulation plug ins aren’t anything new, but it hasn’t been until the last 5-6 years where plugin companies have really dialed in on the quality of these emulations, making it harder to tell the difference between the real analog unit and plugin.
2. The ability to edit audio accurately and quickly as well as automate pretty much any feature or parameter within the DAW system has become a universal norm for all audio software today. This is largely due to the power of newer affordable computer systems currently on the market. Issues with track and plugin counts have really become a thing of the past as well as any lag or jitter within the session. This reliability is probably the most important element in an “ITB” mix, and is largely why Pro Tools was the standard DAW for so long. With Pro Tools, shit didn’t fuck up, or at least it didn’t fuck up anywhere near as much as other earlier systems.
3. A/D and D/A converters have become much more accurate, powerful and affordable for all DAW systems compared to what used to be available on the market 15 years ago. This means the reliability of audio coming into and out of any DAW software system can be trusted a lot more than ever before. This definitely wasn’t the case back in the early DAW days unless you owned really expensive equipment. Audio going in and out of these early market A/D’s tended to sound cold, thin, lifeless compared to analog tape or other extremely expensive high end converters.
So now that we understand that pretty much every DAW system out today is 100% capable of delivering a good mix, it all really comes down to you, the methods and management you use during the mix process and most importantly, your ears.
When it comes to mixing a record, every mix engineer out there in the business has their own unique approach and style to doing things. Some engineers prefer to keep things simple and less processed, less is more they would say. Other engineers prefer to beat up the mix with vast amounts of processing such as equalization, compression, and effects to get the sound they are hearing in their head. And the others, like myself, prefer a balance of both philosophies.
In the end there really is no wrong way. But within this approach and style, the step by step process, usually starting before the mix even begins and ending only with client approval, is usually pretty similar between all the mix engineers in the industry. Its this step by step process that allows the mix engineer to maintain control throughout the entire mix as they continue to add in various elements of the song. Maintaining this control over the mix is crucially important, especially when a song has a large individual track count. It becomes a lot easier to lose control over the mix when it has a large track count, and that ultimately leads to more time mixing, real frustration and burnt out ears. How we approach the mix in the beginning before we start turning faders and knobs can add the structure the mix needs to being completed properly in the end.
In comparison, its kinda of like building a house. There is a step by step process to building a house, regardless of its aesthetic, design and size. For instance… Building designs and plans are first drawn up. Permits are acquired. All materials to build the house are then purchased. The land is prepared. The foundation is first built. The frame is arranged and put up. The walls and floors begin to be constructed. Air ducts, piping and wiring go in. Trim is added, walls are painted and sealed, carpeting, tiling and glass is laid, siding is completed. This is just a quick rundown to the process of building a house, not that i really know anything about building a house, but I know there is a process in which to do it.
Mixing a song is kinda the same thing, you are building a sonic house out of many different timbres of instrumentation within a range of frequencies from 25Hz-16kHz (the range of human hearing). As I will now describe, you will see why i make the comparison between mixing a record and building a house.
Before a mix down can begin, all the individual elements or track stems that make up the song must first be acquired from the client, as well as any other important items such as demo mixes, production notes and even track listing. Also, its always good to have the client in the studio at some point during the process of the mix, especially the 2nd half of the mix. This way, they can help listen for any incorrect leveling decisions you might have made between tracks while mixing, or to even judge the direction of the mix before it becomes too complicated to go back. This can sometimes mean starting over from scratch, which depending on time and money can either be a good thing, or a stressful bad thing. The whole point is to be in check every step of the way.
Once all the track stems have been received, along with any demo mixes and production notes, its a good idea to first get acquainted with the music you will be mixing. This means listening to the demo mix or mixes to familiarize yourself with what the song is all about, the instrumentation in the song and the emotion this instrumentation attempts to make the listener feel. Its also good to know where the deficiencies are sonically throughout the song before you begin mixing. Throwing up the faders blindly is never a good way to go, though good mixes have been done in this manner. Allow the demo mix to influence the decisions you’ll be making during the mix process, but don’t let it control the decisions you make EITHER.
Now that we have an understanding of what the song is and whats going on it, its time to load up all the track stems into a session in your DAW. Once all the stems are loaded into the mix session, its a good idea to first label every track so it corresponds with the audio coming out of it. For instance, if the track stem is some kind of bass instrument, you would title that specific track bass. If the track stems is some kind of drum sound like a snare drum, you would label the track snare. Pretty simple. If there are multiple layers of snare sounds, then you would label them incrementally, Snare 1, Snare 2, etc, or you could label each snare track with a one-word description such as Big Snare, Wet Snare, Tight Snare, etc. The same would also apply to any other instrument that might be multi-layered.
Now that we have all the tracks appropriately labeled that are inside the mix, its time to arrange and layout all of the tracks inside your DAW’s mixer platform. This simply means putting all the individual tracks that are to be mixed in some kind of order and relationship with each other to help make mixing the instrumentation and song arrangement easier and more effective.
The way I have always done it, as well as most other mix engineers i have met or learned from, is to structure the mix with the most important music stems first and the least important stems last. In modern music such as Dance, Pop, Rap, and Rock, the drums and percussion are usually the most or one of the most important elements inside the song, unless the song has no drums. In terms of the mix layout, the drums and percussion would usually come first. The usual order goes:
1. Kick or Kicks
2. Snares & Claps
Next in the mix layout after the drums and percussion comes all the instrumentation of the song such as bass or basses, main guitars and instruments, additional guitars and instruments. The way these tracks are typically laid out in the mix are in their order of importance to the intended section of music they are playing over. What I mean by this is you would have all your INTRO instrumentation first in the mix layout and grouped together. If the next section in the arrangement of the song is the VERSE, then you would have all the VERSE instrumentation grouped together and laid out next in the mix after all the INTRO instrumentation. If the CHORUS is next, you would have all the CHORUS instrumentation laid out next in the mix and so on and so forth with each additional section of the song. A typical layout being:
1. All Drum & Percussion Tracks
3. Intro Instrumentation
4. Verse Instrumentation
5. Chorus Instrumentation
6. Bridge Instrumentation
7. Outro Instrumentation
A lot of times, a specific instrument might play over multiple sections of a song’s arrangement. If this is the case, then i usually lay out those tracks first in the mix after i lay out the drums and percussion.
Now that we have all the drums, percussion and instrumentation laid out properly in our mix, its time to arrange all the vocal tracks, if the song has vocals. Like the instrumentation, we tend to lay out all the vocal tracks in terms of their importance to the the song. All lead vocal tracks are usually laid out first in the mix, followed by any double takes, harmonies, background comps, ad-libs, and extra vocals.
1. Drums & Percussion Tracks
2. All Music Instrumentation
3. All Lead Vocals
4. All Double Takes
5. Background Comps
6. All Harmonies Comps
8. Extra Vocals
After the vocals, the last couple tracks i lay out in the mix are any additional effect tracks such as sweeps, hits, and ambiances. Though not as important as the main frame of the drums, bass, instrumentation, and vocals, these tracks usually add the final spice to the mix and help tie all the instruments together. I usually like to introduce them last to whatever project i might be in the process of mixing.
Keep in mind, there is no right or wrong way to exactly lay out a mix. The best way is whatever way you feel most comfortable mixing the song you are working on. However, paying attention to the order of how you lay out tracks in a mix can help you maintain control over the entire mix process from beginning to end. For small mixes of 24 tracks or less, this might not be as much of a concern. But for mixes that have ridiculously large track counts, laying out the tracks correctly can ultimately save time and ease confusion during the mix process.
Now that we have listened to our reference mix, correctly labeled and laid out all the mix stems in our DAW, its time time to add in our bus group channels before we can begin mixing. What these bus groups allow us to do in short is to condense down the amount of tracks we must control fader-wise during the mix and provide additional methods of processing the audio.
For example, if your drum kit has a combined 14 tracks making up its overall sound, it can be a quite a pain when you need to raise or lower the volume of the entire drum kit during the mix. That becomes 14 individual tracks that you must uniformly raise or lower in volume which, in a DAW, isn’t that big of a deal but on analog console it can be a big problem. But even in a DAW, it can be a pain in the ass. Bussing will make things easier and more streamlined. By bussing the output of those 14 drum tracks to 1 stereo return track, it allows us to control the volume of the entire drum kit with one fader as opposed to 14 individual faders. It also allows us to process the drums together as well as individually, making a bigger better sound.
The same idea of bussing for the drums can be applied to the instrumentation and vocals as well. Depending on the musical genre being mixed, you might have multiple bass tracks, multiple guitar or instrument tracks, multiple tracks of various lead and background vocals that would be easier to control and process if they were bussed to common return faders. The way i like to do it is run all my individual tracks through sub bus groups. One bus group would be to control all the drums. Another bus would be for all the bass tracks. Another bus would be for all the instrumentation. Another bus group would be for all the vocals and the final sub group would be for any effects kinda stuff. That totals 5 faders as opposed to whatever track count your mix might originally add up to. Below is a photo demonstrating how we use bus groups in a mix.
So now that we have our tracks labeled, correctly laid out and bussed into groups, there is one more final step we must deal with before we begin to apply equalization, effects, and dynamic shaping (compression, limiting, de-essing) to our mix. The last step involves cutting away all the dead space on each stem where no audio can be heard, specifically on all the vocal stems. The reason why i say vocal stems is because the most common problems i find when i receive stems to mix are in the vocal stems. Most of the time, the vocal stems have not been cleaned up of any back ground noise such as loud breaths, room noise and headphone bleed. This background noise can really add up with each additional vocal stem and can even affect things such as phase and dynamic range in the mix. The best thing you can do is just get rid of the dead space on every stem if no audio vital to the song is playing at that specific moment. Below is a photo of what a mix window will look like when it is all cleaned up.
Once we have taken care of all these important pre mix steps, we can finally begin the process of mixing the actual song. The length of time it takes is entirely up to you. Some mix engineers like to work incredibly quick and plow through the mix as fast as possible. Other engineers like to mix at a much slower pace, taking multiple days to finalize the mix down of a given project. There really is no right or wrong way, unless the project is time sensitive and has to be completed by a certain date.
In the end, the main goal is to deliver a mix that perfectly captures the kind of emotion and energy the client intended to be heard in the song. So make sure you really understand what sound the client needs before you begin the mix. Talk to them. Get to know them if you can. It might not always be possible, but developing some kind of relationship with your client can save you a lot of time during and post mix. Not only is it good to know what the client is thinking, but its also good to let the client know what you’re thinking and the necessary approach you will have to take during the course of the mix. For what its worth, a strong relationship will reinforce the confidence and trust your client has in your ability to deliver a proper quality mix down. It can also help manufacture additional clients, which no successful mix engineer in the industry can never really have enough of.