Pro Audio Files

How to Maximize the First Hour of Mixing

I’d argue that the most important stage a mix is the first hour. Not only is it when your ears are freshest, but it’s also when you get your first impression of a song. You’re making initial decisions that influence how the rest of the mix will go. Once you set down a path, you’re committing yourself to a certain direction.

Here’s how I go about my first hour to make the very most of this crucial stage.

1. Listen to the Rough Mix

As I’m re-labeling individual tracks, grouping them, color coordinating them, assigning them to busses etc., I’m listening to the rough mix.

The rough is what the producer or artist thought was a good idea. The rough doesn’t tell you, “I want to sound like this.” The rough is telling you, “this is what the producer thinks is important.” Oh, the chug guitar is really loud — well — that means the producer feels it’s driving the track. The kick drum seems oddly low — maybe a big fat kick wasn’t as important as the movement of the guitars.

Truthfully, raw tracks can sound like almost anything. The rough is essentially giving you advice on the direction.

You might take all of that advice, some of it, or none of it — but at least you have a starting point. Side note: it usually helps to embrace the rough mix rather than fight against it. Your client will thank you.

2. Organize

Again: organize immediately! This gives you time to breathe in the record and also makes the whole mixing process easier.

For me, the heart of organization is labels, groups, and buss routing.

I use a short hand for labeling: “Country_Tune-01_20- Cutaway Kick” can really just be “Kik”. If you want to get specific, there’s generally a notepad or comment section in your DAW where you can put additional thoughts.

In terms of grouping, I use color coordination and sequential ordering. It doesn’t help if “Kik” is colored red at the top, and “Snr” is colored green at the bottom. The color choices are not vital, but I do what I suspect a lot of people do and tend to color the bass elements dark and treble elements bright.

Assigning busses is important because often times people will request stems. If you know how to divide the stems ahead of time, printing them will be that much easier. This will change from genre to genre and song to song, but think “what would a music editor for a TV show need to have individual access to?”

A general rock session might be:

  • Vox Leads
  • Vox Back
  • Guitars Elec
  • Guitars Ac
  • Drums
  • Piano
  • Bass
  • FX Returns

This can also helpful when you’re doing fader rides. Most big moves can be done on group busses.

3. Relationships and Groove

The most important aspect of mixing is levels. That is the gig.

Getting the levels right is essential — more important than EQ, compression, reverb, and all of that. But how do you know where to set them? Well, the rough mix already gave us a clue. The next step is hearing how the elements relate.

What is really creating the movement in the record? Here are some examples.

Listen to almost any Red Hot Chili Peppers song and you’ll notice that the bass is pretty freakin loud, and the kick and snare are very forward. The bass and the backbeat are really driving the song, so that’s what sticks out.

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Now let’s look at Green Day. Here the overheads and guitars are very loud because the drive is really coming from those elements.

Listen to any trap style hip-hop record and you’ll hear the 808 type bass and tight closed hi-hats way up.

Also consider how everything is connected. Turning up the buzz bass can make the sub bass seem louder. Turning the bass down can make the hi-hats come forward.

The conga rhythm may be working off the rhythm guitar. Placing them at similar levels and panned in the same place may make the track cohesive. Listen to the interaction, see how it feels to you, and make your level and pan decisions based on that feeling.

4. Preliminary Cleanup

Solo mode is a no-no when mixing. It’s the devil’s temptress. You can hear an individual element nicely in solo mode, it’s easier to work with. But it’s all lies. When you pop it back into the mix that element really changes. Solo mode is only allowed in one place: preliminary clean up.

As you’re bringing up levels in the first stage of a mix, you may notice some stuff that just doesn’t sound right at all. Clipping, explosive plosives (say that ten times fast), weird resonances. A quick clean up can make things easier down the road.

At the same time, do not delve deep into EQ, compression, or other effects. Only get rid of the nagging problems. It’s important to have a picture of the entire mix sitting together before making any serious processing decisions.

5. Save As

Once everything has a basic level, pan, and is cleaned up and organized: Save As. “Super Mixer Song (Start)” and then Save As again: “Super Mixer Song (mix 1)”.

This way if you screw up or go down a bad path in ‘(mix 1)’, you can just pop open ‘(Start)’ and start fresh.

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Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss is a Grammy nominated and Spellemann Award winning audio engineer from Philadelphia. Matthew has mixed songs for Snoop, Sonny Digital, Gorilla Zoe, Uri Caine, Dizzee Rascal, Arrested Development, 9th Wonder, !llmind & more. Get in touch: Weiss-Sound.com.

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