3 Things I Do Before Every Mix

| Mixing, Plugins, Tips

So all your tracks are recorded and you’re primed to get your mix on! But before you start grabbing faders and throwing plugins around there are a few steps you should take if you want to get the most out of your mix. I know the strong temptation to jump right in, but let me share with you three things I do before every mix that help me get a better sounding mix in less time.

1. Listen To Every Track. Seriously.

This might sound obvious, but I find it very hard to mix a song when I’m not fully aware of what every track sounds like. Moreover if I don’t know what each track is doing at every point of the song I’m doomed from the start. I’ve been there, in the middle of a decent mix when all of a sudden something in a track takes me by surprise. Either it was a track I never heard (from a client) or a part I slightly forgot about that I recorded. Then I have to find a place for it in the mix, which can make my whole mix unravel.

These days I make a point to pull up all the faders and listen through critically to make a mental note of what we have to work with. What are all the guitars doing? What vocal parts come in on the bridge? Did the drummer even hit the floor tom in this song? These are the types of questions I’m asking as I listen through, soloing at times, and taking stock of my raw material. It might take you 15 minutes, but it will save you a headache later.

2. Eliminate Tracks That Don’t Add Something Special

Once I have a more thorough understanding (or review) of everything in my session it’s time to pull a Donald Trump and “fire” some tracks. Just because you recorded it (or a client sent it) doesn’t mean it’s needed in a mix. Too many tracks doing the same thing is just a big waste of time and CPU in my mind. I go on the hunt for bad or redundant tracks and give them the axe.

Here’s how I approach this elimination process. I listen to each track and determine one thing: if the track in question is adding anything special to the track or not. If the answer is yes, I keep it in. If the answer is no, it’s gone. Every track needs a purpose. It shouldn’t be in the mix just because it’s there. That’s a horrible reason to keep it. Ideally in the recording phase you (or the engineer) would have recorded only what served the song. In reality we aren’t good at commitment so we record everything and defer decision making to later. Well, now is later. Make a decision and cut the fat. Your CPU and brain will be happy you did.

3. Buss Tracks To Subgroups

Once you have taken stock of your tracks and eliminated the weaklings, you are left (in theory) with only good stuff. You’re almost ready to mix. But one last thing you might consider doing before you jump in head first is to setup some subgroups for similar tracks. This is super easy and immeasurably helpful. Typically I setup all of my drums and percussion tracks to buss to a stereo track called “Drums.” The same for guitars, vocals, and keyboards. All of these subgroups are then routed to my mix buss, or master fader.

This simple routing helps in a few ways. One, it mentally simplifies your mix even more. When you look at those 3 or 4 subgroups you can see your mix as really the blending of 3 or 4 key components. This keeps you focused and encouraged, which is crucial for churning out great mixes. Secondly this allows you to consider simple EQ or Compression decisions on the subgroup level before you dive in to the individual tracks. Sometimes with this type of simple but wide sweeping tweak you can get the sound you’re looking for with less work and fuss.

Lay The Proper Foundation

At the end of the day what you want is a great sounding mix. The best way to get there is to make the mixing process easier and more fun. The best way to do THAT is to know what you’re mixing before you start and to mix only stuff that the mix needs. What a concept. Add to that a little organization and simple buss routing and you are setup for mixing success. Of course now you actually have to mix the darn thing, but at least your foundation has been set. This has worked wonders for me and I hope will for you too.

 

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28 Responses to “3 Things I Do Before Every Mix”

  1. cole mize

    Great, practical tips Graham! This is very important to me because if i’m not organized and I don’t know what i’m working with, I’m probably not going to be to excited about mixing the track and that lack of excitement will bleed through into the mix. Great post bro! Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  2. David

    I would also add, label “everything”. Nothing worse than digging around a DAW for something because it’s not labelled in a simple and obvious manner. Nice reminders man, about to dig into a 3 song EP mix and need some good foundations.

    Reply
    • Steve

      Excellent plan to follow. I label EVERY track. Then in the notes field, I also include which guitar is used, volume level, tone setting, pedals used and what settings, amp settings, which input, who’s voice, mic placement and so on… If nothing else, I can re-create a certain sound at a later date and if something sounds incredible later, I know how I did it!

      Reply
  3. Justin

    Hey Graham, tell me if I’m going to far but can you make a tutorial on how you start mixing? Example. Do you listen to every track then put the faders up and down and adjust everything till the raw tracking is some what all well leveled then start eq’ing and making sure of gain staging on the eq’ing stage? Or do you start with adjusting the levels then adding reverb for depth right away? Or do you typically start a mix with the kick drum, reverb, gate, etc etc..? My last mix (which my get picked up by a label), I started with leveling all my tracks, created my delay send and reverb send (3 reverbs actually, one plate, one room and one church just to give extra color and variation) and I solo’d the kick, first thing I did was send it thru some verb, (the verb sends were eq’d and compressed and ready to go at this point) then I barely had to eq anything because it brought it back to life, I just made room for the bass, added a little attack and that was it.Then compression etc etc etc.. I did pretty much the same thing for every track and the label seemed very happy with it.. You understand my question??? Sorry if I’m not clear.

    Reply
    • Andrew Samraj

      Justin, I think Graham’s Rethink Mixing Video tutorial is what you need to look at.

      Reply
      • Simon

        Totally agree! Rethink mixing gave me a really good foundation to mix on and now I have “tailored” it to fit the way I want to mix, but man that tutorial video was so important to me!

        Reply
  4. Jim Carpenter

    Graham,

    ‘Excellent concepts. Some of the best mix decisions I’ve made were the removal of material. In one case I removed a stereo guitar part during all but the final chorus – - it made that final chorus something special, and more of a finale and culmination to the song. I know you do this and many other things like it in your mixes. I need to get better at step 3/buss tracks to subgroups. Previously you’ve advised having others (with new ears) listen to the track and provide input on the mix. This is also good advice. Keep up the great work.

    Reply
  5. Sam

    Graham thanks for your great tips! I was going to ask, and maybe this is similar to what Justin is asking, is if you would consider writing up a blog on the order that you do thing in a project, some kind of workflow? I have been writing down the tips as I go , especially when watching the 5 Minutes video series, but my notes don’t have a progressive flow. What I would like is to be able to make a binder with a list of things I need to remember in order as a tackle a project. For example, What is the first step I need to do with a raw project, and where do I go from there. I realize that each song is different, but I would like some kind of template to start on before I start figuring out an order that might work better for me with each individual project. When do I EQ, should I compress before or after, then what do I do after that? How do you typically do this from start to finish?
    Thanks for your consideration! I can’t believe how far my mixes have some in less than a month!

    Reply
    • Graham

      Hi Sam,

      I cover all of this in REthink Mixing extensively. I also address this step by step process in the eBook “The Path To Great Mixes” that ever member of Dueling Mixes gets for signing up. They might be great places to start.

      Reply
  6. Andrew Bauserman

    Graham – Happy New Year! Great tips as usual.

    As mostly a front-of-house engineer, it amazes me how often #2 has become part of (in-the-box) mixing. Sure, mixing includes bringing levels up and down. But making significant decisions about who is playing when is called *arranging* and really ought to be done (IMHO) *before* a song is recorded.

    I know this works better with a full band than with a singer-songwriter layering each part individually, and therefore never truly hearing the whole arrangement at once. But for a band, particularly one that will be playing gigs, too many groups are lazy and skipping these steps prior to recording/mixing:
    1) write
    2) arrange
    3) practice (individually)
    4) rehearse (together)
    5) rinse and repeat until it’s good enough to perform!

    Of course, it could just be I’m getting out of touch with modern reality…

    Reply
    • Patrick

      Everyone has a slightly different strategy there. For me, songwriting (including lyrics), arranging and recording ist one process and I know from several (famous) bands who work the same way. Creativity needs a little chaos and experimentation. What Graham describes is a way to deal with that.

      Reply
  7. Andrew Samraj

    I think Graham’s Rethink Mixing Video tutorial is what you need to look at.

    Reply
  8. Brian

    Strong and true advice, Graham. Laying a strong foundation is paramount to any work you engage in; this certainly applies here. Spending a small amount of time on PROPER preparation and planning will always pay off in the end. The bigger the base, the taller the tower…so they say. I find that regular application of ‘foundational preparation’ becomes muscle memory for the mind; eventually you will begin, without thinking, to enter into any kind of work with this concept already working for you. And even better, will open paths of thought that were previously overlooked. Win-Win. In short: I agree. Fully. And thank you; I hadn’t thought of sub-grouping key components. Makes sense. One thing though, your sentence: ” Then I have to find a place for it in the mix, which can make my whole mix unravel.” …can you elaborate on that please, I’m not sure I understand exactly what you mean. By way of EQ? Clarification please. Thanks again, poignant as always.

    Reply
    • Brian

      Also, in regards to my recent purchase of your “Rethink ProTools” and the “Jump start” series… Thank you!!! So much. Exactly what I needed. A proper thank you email, and a few crucial questions (of course of course) will be coming soon. So great. I highly recommend Grahams tutorials to anyone who finds themselves over-wondering. Indeed.

      Reply
    • Graham

      Yes, I’m describing an EQ problem (And volume problem). I make all my of EQ decisions to work with the other tracks. So if I bring in another track that I missed earlier, it might clash with all of my previous work. Just slows me down.

      Reply
  9. loRd Gabrielz

    Before bussing,make sure you have gain~staged properly and levels are right; if not you’ll still go back tweaking individual elements u bussed

    Reply
  10. Kueller

    The first one was very helpful. Being my own songwriter, band, and producer, it’s something I noticed I overlook a lot. Been recording a few things now so I’ll have to try out some of these tips for when the mixing stage begins.

    Reply
  11. Tyler Berggren

    I would add to this- GAIN STAGING. A simple little thing that can make life SO much easier. Most DAW’s have a built-in trim plugin, but Sonalksis’s FreeG is my personal favorite. It’s completely free (hence the name) and includes customizable peak and rms metering, virtual long-throw fader AND a trim knob, pan knob, polarity flip, and a mute feature. FreeG can be downloaded here http://www.sonalksis.com/freeg.htm. I highly recommend downloading it, (It’s available as RTAS, VST, and AU) and throwing it on every track before mixing. It uses almost 0 CPU power and will make a world of difference. I like to set all my tracks to be hitting -20dBfs RMS before starting the mix. I’m sure you’ve heard the old recording line “A good recording should already sound like a mix.”. I always thought this was just old guys being shitty, but it’s true! I think that way of thinking comes from proper gain staging! When everything is hitting at the same level, you’ll find yourself tweaking faders A LOT less. It lets you stay right around unity gain on the fader, which supposedly gives you a “finer” amount of adjustment. So, try out some simple gain staging before mixing. I think you’ll notice a difference.

    Reply
  12. Brian

    Removing material may be the hardest part for me, especially if it’s somebody else’s tracks. I just need to get that into my head. I’ve seen both Graham and Joe talk about cutting dead weight tracks before.
    I do listen to the mix and try to make a gameplan. That’s critical, I think. Have an idea what you’re shooting for, a goal, and you’re far more likely to make a good mix than if you just start tweaking plugins with no goal in mind.
    Very valuable advice to create subgroups. Once I discovered this idea I found mixing much much easier.
    Great stuff, Graham! Love your blogs!

    Reply
  13. Jordan

    Will we see the follow up to these posts, maybe a ’3 things I do after every mix’? This could be a good topic, and include the obvious like, “walk away for a day or two, then see how it sounds…”

    Reply

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