No matter what level you're at, when mixing a project, you can't afford to waste time. When you accept a deadline, you risk your reputation. Meeting the deadline could help get you another job. Missing it could get you dismissed.
Investing a little bit of time upfront in creating comprehensive mix templates can easily save you hours off of every mix session. And those hours saved are time you would otherwise spend doing mundane tasks rather than getting into a creative flow with the real task at hand… mixing!
So take the time to set yourself up for success. I use Avid Pro Tools, but the majority of the details in this article apply to any DAW. Also, don't forget that every song is different, and rarely will the same exact settings work on two different songs, even on album projects where the instruments, players and location are the same.
THE SETUP BEFORE THE SETUP
Even before you start to build your mix templates, your first time-saving opportunity comes by way of an initial conversation with the artist or producer. You'll want to get an idea of how they want the record to sound, approximate track count, etc.
Most importantly, it will help tremendously if they properly label the tracks and delete any unused audio and unused tracks. That will not only save you time, but it will also keep the overall file size smaller, make the Track List and Clip List windows less cluttered and make finding tracks easier. It also means that you can't possibly use the wrong vocal, instrument or take and that you won't accidentally un-mute a hidden track that is still active—hearing something play that you can't see can be really frustrating!
In the sidebar below, I have included my exact bullet-pointed request list that I give to the artist or producer to fulfill before delivering the files to me. They still don't always comply, but trust me; you want to do what you can to ensure proper file delivery.
MIX TEMPLATE – CHANNELS/FADERS
You should have a mix template for every audio resolution you work in. For example, I have one for music that's 24-bit/44.1kHz and one for TV/films/post that's 24-bit/48kHz, which is the standard. I also have a template that allows me to print stems and a stereo mix simultaneously.
I rarely work at 88.2 or 96kHz. Instead I prefer instead to convert audio to the sample rate and bit depth required for the project, however, once you have one template set up, it takes all of a couple minutes to make another one for a different audio resolution. You just open a new session at a different audio resolution, and import all the channels from the original template. You can also do a "Save As" to save a new template file and then set a different sample rate for it.
The template I'm outlining here is for music, and having it allows me to quickly get down to the business of mixing. This template should contain all of your I/O settings and have everything named clearly. This way you don’t have to reorganize someone else’s routing or naming schemes.
It’s crucial that you leave the client’s original session intact and import all of its elements into your template, rather than applying your template to their original session. That’s like your safety net in case you make a mistake. For example, if you don’t import a track, you accidentally delete the wrong track, or make some other mistake, you can always refer back to the original session if need be.
You can see my example template in the screenshot "JAG-Template-Comp-VCA-SubGroups." I base it off of the old-school analog workflow I started with because it's still relevant in the digital realm.
This employs "VCA" faders (purple channels in the screenshot) for groups such as drums, bass, music, effects (SndFX), lead vocals (LdVx) and background vocals (BVx). (VCA faders are standard in Pro Tools 12, but are only available in Pro Tools 11 HD versions.)
The VCA (voltage-controlled amplifier) name in Pro Tools is a holdover from SSL E and G large-format consoles. Just like VCOs (voltage-controlled oscillators) in software synthesizers, the Pro Tools VCA faders are obviously not voltage controlled.
Unlike subgroups, audio does not pass through VCAs. The VCAs control level and mute only, and are very useful for adjusting the overall level of the group once you have a balance you like.
I use subgroups in the template (greenish-blue channels in the screenshot) to add compression, EQ, tape effects, etc. to a group of instruments pre-fader. Each VCA group also has its own subgroup, and there are some additional subgroups, as well. A vocal effects chain has different EQs and compressors with my favorite settings pre-loaded. These almost always need to be tweaked, but they are still a great starting point.
To the far left, I put a few parallel compression auxes with different compressors and attack/release settings loaded to use on drums, vocals and/or the whole mix.
WORKING EFFICIENTLY WITH EFFECTS BUSSES
Along with VCAs and subgroups, we have another huge takeaway from templating in the way that you deal with effects. I rarely put reverb or other effects directly on a track, because tracks with individual reverbs will yield a different sound than a single reverb reacting to multiple signals. Also, if you want to maintain uniformity, you would have to make sure that any changes you make to an effect on one track, you also make to the same effect on all the other tracks., which will cost you vaulable time. Additionally, effects tend to be the largest DSP hogs, so by using fewer of them, you free up your system’s resources for other tasks, allowing you and your computer to work faster and more efficiently.
Of course, there are no absolute rules. At the end of the day, "if it sounds right, it is right."
Instead, I put multiple reverbs, delays, harmonizer, chorus/flanger and other effects on individual auxes with dedicated sends. Again, I dial in my favorite settings in advance, so I can audition them quickly. Tip: Save your favorite presets with your initials at the beginning of the name, so you can find them faster.
This method also lets you add EQ, compression or creative effects to the overall sound, rather than just individual elements, which lends itself to crafting a more cohesive sound. For an example, see the screenshot "JAG-Template-FX Returns-StereoBuss," where I use four stereo busses for reverb, which is one of the crucial devices for "gluing" a song together by giving all the elements a common place to "live."
When you adopt these principles of pre-configured mixing templates, you'll be following in the footsteps of masters like Michael Brauer and Chris Lord-Alge. But most importantly, you'll set yourself up to spend less time futzing about and more time mixing.
With my next article for Plugin Alliance, I'll start to take you through the process of how the real pros build their mixes. Don't miss it!