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Mixing Techniques: Common Steps at the Start of a Mix (Part 1)

This time, I will talk about some simple steps to follow when you are starting to mix a song.

We all have our own habits and methods when mixing a song. However, it does not mean that it is the best way to mix it, but if it works for you, why not? After all, the only thing that matters is the result, how well the song sound anywhere you hear it, in the car, at home, or through your headphones from your smartphone.

What I am about to say, is not necessarily an absolute method or rules that you have to follow. It is instead, a guide you can use to create your own mixing techniques later on. The important thing is to understand the concepts.

Before you start moving any faders to listen to the instruments in the song, it is a good practice to organize the session first. Which means placing all the elements of the drum are together, the guitars (electric/acoustic) should be right next to each other and so forth with the rest of the instrument "families" that are in the song.

It is very frustrating to open a Pro Tools session and find all the tracks positioned all over the mix window without any logic. For instance, where the snare is on track number 12, the kick on track 8, hi-hat on 1, etc.

Let's do the following to practice organizing the tracks in a song. Regardless of the hardware or software, you are using, either Reason, Logic, Ableton Live, Digital Performer, Cubase, etc., you can use a song that you have available on your computer. I myself will do it in Pro Tools using the song "Come back to Me." By the way, if you are using a 24-track machine with an analog or digital mixing board, try to maintain the same order of the tracks I am keeping in this example. This is so you can write the name of each instrument in the mixing board using the white masking tape that is typically used to label the name of the tracks.

Now, let's put the bass on track number 1, this is because of its importance and its correlation in frequencies with the kick drum. In the second position would be the kick drum. In the event that the bass was recorded in two tracks: The first one recorded with a microphone, and the second using a direct box, then the bass drum would have to be in position number 3, as it is the case of the song I am using (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. The Mix window in Pro Tools showing the positions of the bass, kick, snare and hi-hat tracks.

By the way, three tracks of the kick drum were used on this song. One recorded with a microphone inside the kick drum. Another one with a microphone outside the drum, and the third one, on a Subsonic bass drum that was used to add more low-end frequencies to the mix. Also, two tracks were used on the snare, one with a microphone picking up the top side, and another one used at the bottom, but with the phase inverted to avoid cancellation issues between them. Now, there are times where several takes of an instrument/voice are recorded for creating what is known as a "wall of sound." So that each instrument has a natural thickness and gets a fuller sound out of it, especially if the arrangement of the song has few instruments, there are times where you don't need two bass tracks, or three kicks, or two snares, etc., it all depends what kind of sound you want to achieve for the song.

But, let's continue with the order of the instruments that are commonly used in a mix:

  • Place the snare in the third position.

  • The hi-hat follows in fourth place.

  • The toms (usually 3) are in the fifth position.

  • The overheads or microphones (If used) are in the sixth position.

  • If they used Room Mics, then they go after the overheads.

Figure 2. Pro Tools Mix window showing the track order including a Master Fader at right end of the window.

The next "family" of tracks would be:

  • Percussions

  • Guitars

  • Piano and keyboards

  • Strings, Horns, and/or Brass Instruments (If used).

And finally, place the "family" of voice tracks.

  • The background vocals (if used)

  • The lead vocal.

After having placed all the instruments in a logical order, you may want to add the tracks (Aux Input in Pro Tools) to control the reverb and delay effects, in other words, the effect return tracks. Finally, you may need a master track (Master Fader) to control the overall levels of the session, as it is usually found in a physical mixing board (see Figure 2).

After you have organized the tracks in this order, it is convenient to color each section of instruments, to quickly identify them when mixing (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Pro Tools Mix window showing the different sections of colored instruments for quick identification of these.

For example, I always use the brown color for the bass, the red for the drums (maybe because I am a drummer and I am passionate about drums), yellow for percussion, navy blue for guitars, light blue for keyboards, and green for vocals. This technique has helped me a lot when I mix.

Due to a large number of necessary steps, tricks, and recommendations practices when starting a mix, it is impossible to mention all in a single article. If you want to know more tips recommendations, then do not miss the future posts.

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