preparing a song for mixing
I am often asked about how to prepare and send tracks for mixing by another engineer. Some mixers prefer to receive your project sessions and others only want your audio files or stems in a certain file type. Regardless, you are still going to need to do a few things before formatting that will save you time , and maybe money, as most of these processes will not be something your mixer considers part of mixing. And, hey, these tips aren't meant for those working with another mixer but are great M.O. for everyone.
1. Send only the tracks you want to be mixed: Besides the many benefits of digital recording, one of the downsides is that we don't make decisions because we have seemingly uncapped amounts of storage. We keep multiple vocal takes or guitar solos or what ever arrangement decisions we don't make. However, sorting through your takes is not considered part of the mixing process. Comping a final take is part of the production process and should not be left for the mixer to do, unless you are also hiring them to help you with these decisions.
Another practice is keeping ideas or parts that we ultimately don't think fit in the song. I'm guilty of this but these should not be sent to your mixer either. This point is especially important if you are sending your project session folders because keeping them clean of unwanted takes, clips, tracks will save you hard drive space and ultimately a headache sorting through your files or uploading.
2. Clean up your tracks: This means remove unwanted noises between performance parts. Sometimes you want to leave a vocalist's breathe for emotion or a guitarist or drummers noises, communicate that to the mixer. Other noises include improper edits that cause clicking, popping or other artifacts. Crossfading at edit points fixes most of this, but, a good measure of this is to hear if you can identify your edits with the track solo'd and your eyes closed. All these little things that may not be heard before mixing will most likely show up in the master after loads of compression has been added.
3. Pitch and time correction: Not every mixer includes these services in their rates. You are safer to do it yourself than trust it is included. We all our mixes to sound the best we can but sometimes we are charging a ridiculously low rate to accommodate the time it takes to time align or pitch correct 30+ tracks. This will have an affect on our turn over time.
4. Turn off your processing; or not: This is probably the most subjective point of this article but I hope to stay on the ideological side rather than being definitive. The reasoning behind not sending heavily processed tracks to your mixer is so they aren't inhibited by the compression and EQ or other effects you have "printed" or bounced to the track/stem you are sending. However, in some cases, you've worked hard to define and shape a special sound and that shouldn't be ignored by your mixer. It is beneficial to send this to the mixer as well as some premixed material such as background vocals and drum loops. Still send the unprocessed file in case something isn't working.
Most engineers like to have your rough mix as reference. With all of your processing on, bounce a mix to include. Rough mixes help your mixer hear your emotional response to the song. Logistically, if you are sending your session, do bounce or print a rough mix and include it in a track in the session. Then bypass all or your plugins. I've received sessions with no rough mix where the artist included the session with plugins I don't have. I just can't hear what you envision without those plugins. Especially when it comes to midi instruments. This increases turn over time.
5. Label your tracks clearly: I've received tracks in all manner of words that don't describe the track itself or are so long that the name is illegible in my DAW. Short and simple is usually the best. Titles like Kick In, Kick Out, Snare Top, Lead Vocal or abbreviations like Kick O, Snare T, T 1, Vox (vocals), EG (electric guitar), RTM (rhythm) are common and help easily define what instrument the track is. Pro Tools in particular imports the file name right in to the track name, so the shorter the file name the better. No need to include the song title in the track name but more on creating folders for your tracks below. Labeling your tracks clearly during recording will save you from having to rename mislabeled tracks later because most DAW's will automatically name and catalog your files according to your track titles.
6. Track consolidation and export: It's at this point that I recommend making a copy of your entire project folder and from here renaming the new copy to work from. The many DAW's have different processes for performing a track consolidation task and call them different names but, in short, it is a process that takes all of your edits on a track and creates a continuous region/clip of your track. It is advised that you have all of your tracks start from the session start (begin all at the same exact point) so to ensure they will line up when being imported into another session. After you have consolidated/flattened your tracks, you can delete all of the unused regions/clips from your session and hard drive to free up space. DO NOT delete if you did not make a copy of your session before consolidation. When your tracks all start from the beginning of a session and are continuous to the end of the parts contained in that track, they are ready to export to a separate labeled folder for your mixer.
7. Export folder and other info to include for your mix engineer: Properly labeling your folder is simple and can be done with just the song title and indicating they are the files for mixing by including "multitracks for mix" or similar, but perhaps the most efficient includes other information that your mixer would want to know. I prefer a folder labelled like this: Song Title 120bpm Cmaj. This label tells me the song key and tempo for the song I'm about to mix and that information is useful for a variety of advanced mix techniques.
Another useful practice is to separate your different instrument groups into labelled subfolders with in you master folder. Most mixers group like instruments together and use templates. Since files may end up alphabetized, it saves time for the engineer to import them in groups such as drums and percussion, keys, lead vocals, etc to easily sort them out within the DAW. Most engineers won't be upset if you don't take this extra step but they will certainly appreciate it when they don't have to sort through 100 tracks to group instruments.
As I said before, these are good practices for any project whether you are sending them to another engineer, archiving or migrating to a different system. They will save your mixer time and expedite mix turn around. Most professionals are happy to guide you through this process if you are unsure. There are a ton of videos and materials online to help you navigate your software to help you consolidate your tracks, clean up your edits or just about any other process. If you have any questions about preparing or sending your tracks, or would like to hire me, send me a message I'm happy to help.
Stereo mixes that are to be mixed should not look like these two waveform examples of dynamically limited mixes.
Here are two waveform examples of what mixes without compression or limiting should look like.
Recommended file formats for mastering: The files you provide to be mastered can be any standard 24 bit (or 32bit) WAV or AIFF format audio data file with sample rates of 44.1k, 48k, or 96k. 16 bit files are acceptable if your recorder does not have 24 bit ability.
Remove any limiters, compressors, maximizers, or equalizers on your mix bus: Before exporting your mix as a wav or aiff file to be uploaded for our mastering service, it's important that you remove any signal processing such as limiters, compressors, or equalizers on your mixer's stereo bus inserts. Also, set your dithering rates to match your mixdown bit depth, keep your peaks below - 3dBfs, and please don't normalize the final mix file. This ensures that the stereo wav file(s) that you will be uploading are at a good starting point for the mastering process.
Name each of your unmastered mix files with the actual song title. Each song's wav file should be named with the song's specific name, as opposed to calling the files "song 1", song 2", or, "audio1" , "audio 2", etc.. This is so that songs are accurately named on the hard copy printout of final song sequencing order for the master CD,- both of which you would deliver to the CD manufacturing facility that will press up your CDs. The song's unmastered data file name will also be used for the naming of any mastered MP3 files of that song.
Do Not add Fades, Cross Fades, or Spaces: We will add song fades. Leave this up to us and you’ll get a better final master. If you have special requirements for spacing between tracks make sure to let us know. Redbook standard gap is 2 seconds.
Remove any Dithering: As with fades, dithering will be added by us as the final step in the mastering phase If you’ve pre-mastered your track with dithering, or other plug-ins designed to “enhance” the sound you will want to remove them. Dithering is best left to the mastering engineer to choose the correct settings for each song.
Above All Make Sure Your Mix Sounds Like You Want: This is possibly the most important tip. So often after mastering a song the artist will decide they are not happy with the way they mixed the track, or want a track replacement. The re-mix will then require re-mastering. Artists should remember that mastering is not a magic fix all and you’re not going to get a great final master if you don’t have a great mix. As mentioned before mastering will bring out both the best and worst in your mix so it’s important to iron out everything possible before submission. In addition many mastering engineers will charge a revision fee to re-master a song, and it can get expensive if you’re working with a good engineer.
Stereo mixes that are to be mastered should not look like these two waveform examples of dynamically limited mixes.
Here are two waveform examples of what mixes without compression or limiting should look like.