A great mix begins even before the audio leaves the speakers. Learn good practices of track prep, file management, gain structure and plugin template setup to prepare your productions for a killer mix.
By Josh Bonanno
“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
Benjamin Franklin was obviously not referring to preparing your song for mixing, but still, there is truth to be applied.
The basis for a good mix starts far before any audio even leaves the speakers. Whether you’re sending out your productions to a 3rd party engineer to mix, or you’re mixing your own music, it can be incredibly beneficial to have workflow systems in place to set up your song for success.
We’ll discuss a few good practices for track prep, file management, gain structure and plugin template solutions to better prepare your productions for a seamless mix, where taste and creativity become the focus.
1. Produce with the End in Mind
As a producer or engineer, it is important to keep in mind the vision of the final song when editing and crafting sounds. Some people refer to this mindset and workflow as “mixing as you go,” which has some truth to it and is a good reminder to confidently commit to sounds that serve the song. Working this way is beneficial to all involved as the song moves along quicker, inspires the artist, and gives the mix engineer a starting point of reference and direction when working on the final mix. If you’re mixing your own production, you’re making your life far more efficient if you commit to sounds as you go.
Having made those creative decisions along the way in your production, you may wonder what the best way to deliver your session to a mix engineer is, assuming you want them to pick up where you left off.
- The first option is to bounce out all your tracks to WAV files and send those to the mix engineer. Check for any unnecessary plugins or tracks leftover from recording or producing which are not crucial to the mix. Perhaps you duplicated the lead vocal while recording or have an experimental reverb send that you decided was not right for the vision. Deleting these tracks before sending them to mix will save confusion for your mix engineer and help keep things tidy.
Once you have ensured that everything in your session is critical to the song and the rough mix as a whole, simply commit to your processing as it currently stands. Many DAWs will let you do this quickly and easily by bouncing tracks in place with the processing on. You can also print your FX auxes to audio tracks. Doing this allows the mixer to pull all the tracks into a new session and begin working with all the sounds that you have created.
- The second option is to work with a mix engineer who uses the same DAW and plugins as you and can simply open your session and pick up right where you left off. Working in this manner has the added benefit of letting the mix engineer tweak your plugins to their taste, rather than adding new processing of their own.
Neither approach is better or worse; it is simply about what works best for your team.
2. Communicate with the Mix Engineer
Being a mixer myself, I know that the most important part of preparing a mix is communication. Communicating what I need in order to give the artist the best mix possible is crucial and limits friction between all parties involved. If you’re the producer, simply communicating with the mix engineer about how long it will take them to mix, when you can expect to have something to listen to, and how their revision process works is essential in ensuring everyone is on the same page.
It is also important to discuss openly with the mix engineer how they prefer their tracks to be labeled, organized and consolidated. Each mix engineer’s workflow and preferences are different. By communicating what is needed upfront, you will save both parties frustration and time digging through folders, relabeling and converting files and formats. It is always better to be over-prepared and communicate in the beginning, rather than waiting until later in the process.
3. Organize Your Sessions
This step may be fairly simple and straightforward for some people, but downloading, organizing, labeling and color-coding is far more important than most people think. The first reason is speed. When your session is color-coded and labeled in a way that is comfortable to you, navigating large sessions and finding the exact channel you need to manipulate is quick and easy, saving you serious time. Find a color-coding system within your DAW that works for you, and then stick to it.
The second reason for proper organization is reliability. If each session is labeled improperly and has audio files located all over your computer’s hard drive, it’s going to make recalls a nightmare. There is nothing worse than opening a session a few weeks later only to realize audio files are missing, and you have no idea of where they are. Again, find a system that works for your workflow, keep everything labeled, backed up and maintained.
4. Reset Your Gain Structure
A common misconception of working in the digital realm is that, unlike the analog domain, audio levels and gain staging are not important. While there may be some validity to this statement, gain levels are very important when processing audio in your DAW, especially when using analog-modeled plugins. So, much like an engineer would “zero out” a console and calibrate a tape machine before starting a new mix, setting the levels in your DAW is also a necessary practice when preparing to start a mix.
Proper gain staging in your DAW is an in-depth lesson for another time, but the quick abridged version is as follows:
Using a trim plugin or built-in clip-gain function, ensure each audio file itself, before hitting any plugins, is peaking around -10dBFS. This should leave you plenty of headroom to process the audio later on in your mixes without clipping. Once each individual channel is at its optimal level, group all of your faders and pull them down a few dB to ensure that your master fader is not clipping and has plenty of headroom for processing.
5. Setup your Plugin Template
Setting up a rough plugin template in the prep stage will start your mix off with a solid foundation and get you that much closer to being done. A lot of people like using a console emulation style plugin like Waves NLS on each channel or bus. This is a straightforward way to get the sound and color of analog summing in the box and quickly warm up stale recordings to give your mixes more life and depth.
The NLS plugin lets you choose between three different recording consoles, all of which will color your mix sonically before you even start, so having some vision and creative direction is helpful here.
The Spike (SSL console) emulation is a punchy, mid-forward sound that is great for rock mixes, while the Nevo (Neve) and Mike (EMI) consoles are a bit rounder and more vibey, better suited to mixes where you need some extended low end or less aggression in the mid-range, but still want a nice analog saturation and color. Much like a real console, each instance of these plugins has a dedicated “channel number,” meaning the response and saturation on each plugin is slightly different. You can also use the Drive on each channel to control just how much of the color and analog sound is imparted on the audio. While you may not want to commit to too much of a “tone” at the prep stage before beginning your mix, the convenient thing about working with digital plugins is that you can quickly change any of these settings later on.
Another element worth handling in your prep stage is any tape emulation you may be using on your mix bus. Much like a console, a tape machine is a processor that would very obviously color your mix, and in an analog studio environment, would be active at all times. Plugin emulations like the Abbey Road J37 and Kramer Master Tape give you plenty of flexibility on the tone and characteristics that the tape will impart. Essentially, you are able to calibrate your tape machine during your mix prep process, much like an assistant would have done years ago in a studio.
Setting up these tone-shaping plugins sets the foundation and groundwork for your mix before you even hit play. Setting up your tonal palette as much as you can ensures things move smoothly when it comes time for you to start mixing.
You can also prepare your session with aux sends for FX. It is likely that in your mix, you will use reverbs, delays and other time-based effects, so setting them up on a dedicated aux send and pulling open a preset will save time later.
Reverb plugins like Abbey Road Chambers and Abbey Road Reverb Plates have great sounds right out of the box, as well as hundreds of presets that can get you started quickly and easily. H-Delay is a true and tested processor that you may choose to use multiple times in your mixes for both short and long delay times. Even if you don’t use these effects in every project, it’s generally a good idea to have them ready for when inspiration strikes so you can move efficiently and creatively.
6. Prepare for Success
Many of these steps may not be what we consider the “fun” parts of producing and mixing, but they are all important. By taking the time to properly prepare your productions for either you or someone else to mix, you are setting your songs up to succeed. Find a method and workflow that works for you and stick to it throughout your career. You will find that your entire process improves.
Want more on starting your mixes? Check out the 5-Step Approach on Starting a Mix here.
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