“If I can’t get ecstasy, then I don’t know what I’m doing in the business.”– George Massenburg
A great mix doesn’t just sound good, it makes you feel good. My goal with No Bullshit Mixing is to help you overcome the barriers that get in the way of producing a mix that moves.
When I finally started working in a big studio, there were two head engineers, each working on the same model console and with the same gear. I noticed that each of them worked incredibly fast, but with completely different workflows. They didn’t stop to think what they’re going to do next, they simply executed their workflow, depending on the task at hand.
We all have our own workflow, whether we think about it consciously, or not. For an audio engineer, our workflow is what makes us unique! When I talk about “workflow”, I am talking about how we approach a mix, or even a specific scenario or task within our mix. It’s our personal secret formula for how to get through a mix.
It’s important that we think about how we are going to approach a problem beforehand, so we don’t have to waste valuable time and energy deciding what to do next. If we spend a little time now developing our own systems, the time and energy we save will be infinite over the course of our careers!
So let’s talk about your workflow. It’s okay if you’ve never consciously thought of it, and I promise not to get in the way; after all, your workflow is yours alone. However, there are some best practices we can implement to help you develop a more efficient workflow, without sacrificing creativity.
Eliminating “Decision Fatigue”
When we are mixing, we are constantly making decisions. We listen critically, make a decision, and repeat. When mixing on our own, it’s easy to take the extra time to make sure you’re extra sure about something. However, if we spend more time making decisions, not only will it be exhausting, but will also result in deteriorating quality of decisions. Not a good thing for your mix, nor your morale.
So, by making less decisions, we can allow ourselves to make better decisions. Let’s take a look at some of the methods I’ve learned to trim the fat to save time, helping me to not only make better decisions, but allowing me to enjoy the mixing process more fully.
Choose Your Defaults and Know Them Well
Scrolling through menus to find a plugin – dozens of time per session – is a great way to throw a stick in your mixing spokes. These small time-drains can really add up. Imagine if every time you had inspiration to add a cool new sound, someone flicked you with a rubber band. That’s how it feels to me when I have to scroll through my plug-in list.
In Pro Tools, you can select your default EQ and Dynamics plugins. If you don’t use Pro Tools, you can still choose a “default plugin”, i.e. your go-to plugins of each type. Once you do, RTFM! Even if you’ve been using it for years, even if you’re thinking “But it’s just a standard EQ plugin!”, I want you go find the documentation for it, and read it. When I first read the manual for the EQ I was using, I learned that the EQ’s curve was different depending on if you were boosting or attenuating the frequency. You might learn that one of the built-in presets was modeled after a specific piece of gear, or for a specific purpose.
Tip for Waves users: the “?” at the top right of every plugin will bring up the manual in PDF form
Although I feel like I shouldn’t have to explain why you should read the manual for the gear you are using: proficiency with your gear will result in efficiency in your work. We can’t teach ourselves everything, and the companies that are creating these products organize the information for us. Heck, if you have any Presonus gear, you might find a secret cajun recipe! It’s our job to know the ins and outs of our gear, otherwise we can’t get the most out of our tools. Take this excerpt from the SSL 4000 series console:
Using a channel strip as your default plugin is the ultimate power move. EQ and Dynamics make up 80% of the tools you will use in a mix, and using a channel strip give you all of that within a single window. By doing this, you are emulating a real-life console, which has these on every channel. One of my favorites is the SSL G-Channel Strip by Waves. Using only this plugin, during a vocal recording session, I can get a great sounding scratch vocal mix, super fast. I throw it up and instantly start working on the sound. In the case of a recording session, the quicker the job gets done, the happier the artist is, and the better the performance.
The benefits of taking breaks are proven, and beyond the scope of this article. But with sound in particular, we have to consider the benefits of physically giving our ears a break. Our ears are powerful tools, and we cant abuse them with constant sound pressure for hours at a time. If we physically fatigue our ears, we can’t listen critically, and our decision making will go down the toilet, resulting in frustration and getting stuck.
I use an app called Time Out on MacOS, which is fantastic, to automatically remind me every hour to take a short break. An egg timer works, too. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) suggests that the maximum duration for constant exposure at 94dB SPL should be 60 minutes, and for every 3 dB above that, that time halves. It’s a good idea to download an SPL meter app for your smartphone. Download the free NIOSH iPhone app here.
The Logistics – It’s Only Boring Once
No matter if you want to become a professional audio engineer or not, it’s important to stay organized like one. I’ve never worked with a professional engineer that had to spend more than a minute looking for a mix! For some, time is money, but for us, it’s our sanity. Nothing kills my motivation quite like browsing Finder/Windows Explorer. The good thing is that you can choose how you’ll stay organized. You can make it your own, just make sure you stick to it. Here are some things I do to prevent headaches later.
Use a Template
Most DAWs allow you to create a default template. If you don’t use a default template, I recommend doing this now, even if it’s just a couple tracks. A great way to do this, is to first choose a project you were really happy with. After recalling this project, you can fine tune the details for what you’d like to see in your template, and save it as your default template. From there, open a new project using your newly created template, and fine-tune the tracks, routings, and plugins until you are satisfied.
To receive my personal Pro Tools template for free, with a brief description on how to use it, click here!
Pro Tools tip: Check out this video for a hack allowing you to create Track Presets! Brought to you by my Pro Tools instructor, Philip Nichols <3
Name Every Track and Buss. Always.
If you sent a rocket toward the moon, and it were only one degree off-course, it would wind up over 4,000 miles away from its target. Likewise, as a session gets more complex by adding more tracks and busses, if you hadn’t implemented a naming convention in the beginning, it’s likely too late. I recommend naming every track, as soon as you add it. In addition to naming, adding color to your tracks is a great way to stay organized. Just be sure to decide on what colors you’re going to use, or you’ll wind up confusing yourself.
Your Naming Convention
When it comes down to saving your mix, what do you call it? Now is the time to choose a naming format, and stick with it. You might start with the date, so that even if listed alphabetically, your tracks will be organized chronologically. You could also start with your client’s initials. The important thing is that you choose, and keep it consistent.
In choosing your naming format, you should also choose how you are going to manage your files, outside of your DAW. However it makes sense to you is okay. I prefer to have all of a project’s assets within its own project folder. Here’s the folder hierarchy that I use:
The “_FROM” and “_TO” folders let me keep track of what the client has heard, and what they’ve sent me. “zzOld” holds completed projects. Note that I also use underscores and the prefix “zz” to keep things at the top or bottom of an alphabetically sorted list.
I hope this post helped you take a look at some of your processes and refine them into something better. I’m a strong believer that being more efficient will help you create better mixes, because you will be able to spend more time making the decisions that count. Mixing should always be fun, because if it isn’t, we wouldn’t be able to convey the emotion behind the mix.
Leave a comment below to let me know what steps you’ve taken to work more efficiently. I’d love to learn some of your methods!