This question has come to MixCoach and I am happy to help with my view on the topic.
Aligning, gain staging, and even making certain panning decisions before starting a mix is very important because if properly done, it can save a lot of time and headache later in the mixing stage.
At What Point in a Workflow can it be called “Starting to Mix.”
Is there an exact place in any workflow where the job called “mixing” really begins?
I think not, but surely there are some things to consider or that can be done in the early stages of your workflow.
I would rather call these steps “preparation” for mixing, and are always applied to songs of all genres. Only after all these things are done and set, can you feel comfortable to start your mixing job on the song in question.
Let’s see the why and how One by One:
Aligning multimic-recorded tracks, like drums, LR recorded instruments (acgtr, piano…) we must remember that alignment can be done only if the tracks are mono, so aligning begins with choosing the proper importing options to the session.
The stereo-track recorded instruments must be imported as 2 tracks, two channels, L and R.
The two channels in one stereo track cannot be aligned to each other in this one stereo track. (OH, Room, Ac gtr, ….) They must be imported as two mono tracks.
Arranging the tracks to fit your workflow
Having a certain and general order of the tracks in all the sessions you are working on makes it a lot easier and faster to find the instruments and tracks and makes mixing a joy.
My order is like most of ours in Mixcoach:
Reference track (stereo)
Room, OH, Kick, Snare, Hat, Toms, (other percussion), Bass, AC gtr, E gtr, (Lead gtr, other gtr-like instruments: mando, dobro…), Piano, Organ, (Brass, Winds, Strings if any), BGV, Lead Vox
After having all the guys playing in the session arranged in their general order it is time to create certain groups. My groups are usually: Room-OH, Drums, Toms, Gtrs, Keys, (Strings, Brass), BGV.
You can either route them to buses now or later depending on what you have in mind to do with them. In Mixbus group routing is simple so I do it later if at all.
In my workflow it is only a visual setting to see the wave form in all the tracks clearly. It makes easier to find sections along the track later, helps to do more accurate time alignment using stretched wave lines, (zoom in).
It gives easy possibility to boost/cut ranges later when some tracks need clip gain corrections while mixing (vocal words, guitar licks, riffs to emphasize at certain parts of the song…)
For doing this I love the clip gain function as the easiest and the best.
This gain editing belongs to the activity we call gain staging but gain can be adjusted in so many ways that “gain” may be worth studying a bit deeper even at this stage of preparation to clearly see your choices later.
Quite independently from what DAW you use I recommend to watch this Harrison video on Gain Staging in Mixbus because it shows the lot options we may have:
Clip gain is an easy, simple tool for setting with only eyes the correct input level to give sweet spot for the channels, for their plugins and sends. Naturally, later in mixing stage faders will take care of track volumes sent to the master to get the proper balance.
– Doing by ear: we can solo the two tracks and flip the phase on one of them, then we can choose which sounds better, fuller, punchier and we partially treated the phase issue.
– Partially because in 90% we can do better by eyes: if manually align them because the phase difference is rarely just the opposite (when they almost null themselves).
In this picture the kick in and kick sample tracks are well aligned in phase, the same has to be done with snare if double miced, OH, Room LR etc.
These tracks e.g. OH first have to be aligned to themselves LR, then can be used (nudged) together for further alignment to the other instrument tracks.
But the question comes now where to align (drag horizontally in timeline) these perfectly matching tracks to?
Ideas can be different but my view on this is the following: in the timeline, say to clicks, the nearest recorded signal can be got by using the close-miced tracks because the delay while the sound travels to the mic from the sound source is the less in this case.
So my milestone to align others to is either the snare top or the kick near beater track signal.
Which to prefer in a certain song is decided by the other instruments. If most of the guys played closer to the kick hit I chose the kick if to the snare I choose the snare and align all the other drum parts, OH and Room, to this. (taking care of their phase as well)
Aligning other instruments I do not think belong to the preparation. Waste of time at this stage.
Too precise timing may lead to unnatural “machine-like” song. I remember when some 15 years ago I wrote the backing tracks to my songs in MIDI, I never used quantize but intentionally made the timing slightly “wrong” to get a more natural paying feeling.
Some other editing needed later on tracks like getting the BGVs words sound together within the BGV tracks and with the lead is part of the mixing stage.
OH and Room now are well aligned in time to the kit but are they matching the space as well? To be sure we take a listen to the OH and the Room tracks in stereo. If you hear a clear LR separation in space regarding hats, toms and cymbals you can pan the drum kit accordingly. If OH or room do not show this separation you may pan the kit as you like.
Are you interested in a little trick I have never heard mentioning by anyone? It does not belong to editing at preparation stage, but belongs to a simple change in panning the drum kit and ensures a chance to use it any time later.
The trick is that simple:
– the drums group you already have panned as OH suggested
– now route the drum kit (all tracks that you panned, OH Room included) to a stereo bus (don’t forget to disengage the master sends of all these parts of the kit:)
– insert a plugin in the stereo drum bus that can swap panning LR like this A1 Stereo Control
While mixing you always have a one-click choice to find whether a right- or left-handed guy’s kit might have fitted better in the song:)
To the attention of Mixbus users, as important part of the preparation, I may mention the “Direct Output” option that is great to use for reference tracks. With this option chosen the reference track can be played back soloed (one click:) and the signal is not effected by the inserts or settings of the master channel. (In Mixbus the reference track must be imported as one stereo track if direct output is to be used later. Just telling to save headaches:)
Setting up the reference track and using properly can be tricky so exceeds this topic. I am planning to show it in a separate post soon. Its title will be about “Reference Tracks”.
The white knob is for HPF in Mixbus and all tracks are roughly filtered to get rid of the unnecessary and sound polluting low end frequencies. At preparation stage drums and bass up to 40-60Hz, all other instruments 80-100 Hz. I do not care to be exact at that stage just get rid of the most.
This pre-filtering the lows makes possible to get proper settings for the plugin inputs on all tracks (compressors, reverb etc…) Since I am mastering on the go HPF also ensures the proper input for my mastering plugins.
Later when I deal with the other instruments in order one by one HPF is naturally fine-tweaked:)
Kevin’s one of the greatest inventions is the “Instant Awesome”. If you are not familiar with that you can find it here (example in vocals but the idea of HPF and compression good for all tracks):
In Mixbus I have found a way reproducing the Instant Awesome sound without the SSL plugin. Mixbus users can watch my video here:
Routing can be applied either for groups (I rarely use) and for FX reasons.
Regular buses with the plugin settings are saved in my template and this way they are part of the preparation work.
In my template these are 3 buses for Room, Plate and Hall Reverbs, a bus for Smack, and one for Delay.
Sends are engaged later when starting to mix my firs instrument: the drums.
Finally before getting started to mix the master channel input signal level must be checked and adjusted to have a 3-6 dB headroom when beginning the rough/static mix by the faders.
Thanks for your question