Having your tracks in a nonlogical order in your edit window can hugely slowdown your mixing process. The lack of order makes you look for channels in the wrong place, adjusting the wrong parameters and it takes longer to bring multiple channels in balance. Here’s a way how to create and keep an orderly project.
Try to think of all the channels as instrumentgroups; drums, percusion, bass, guitars, keys, vocals and so on. Instrumentgroups greatly simplify the way you build up your mixer. Even though drums contain multiple tracks it is much easier to balance the whole when you see them as a group. It could be that your bassguitar has three tracks for a DI-signal and two microphones; consider that one instrumentgroup also.
It makes sense to start with drums and bass as these form the basis of most songs. On top of these two the harmonic content comes in; the guitars and keys. Then all the other harmonic instruments come in to place. The last group would be the vocals and backingvocals.
This method gives you a great helicopterview of your project where you can zoom into detail when needed.
Now we have the structure all layed out, it is time to dive into each group and put the channels in right order.
To get some logic in your tracks try to have a ‘sideways’ look at your individual tracks. Take what is at the ‘bottom’ or basis of the track and place that on the left side of your mixer, do not get confused when looking at your editwindow; having a kickdrum on the leftside of your mixer means that you put them in the first position of your edit window.
Before you can do anything you need to decide how the band is placed in the stereoimage. Are you listening to the band from an audience perspective or are you part of the band and and listening from the drummers position? This has a huge impact on panning for every instrument. Some recordings even have their complete kit left of the centre, that is up to you.
Let’s start with an audience perspective. Now put the tracks in the right order and start with those that form the basis of the track, in this case drums and bass.
Start on the left side of your mixer with kick and snare; this is your first ‘layer’. Next layer in the drumkit from right to left; hihat, tom 1, tom 2, floortom. The highest layer of the drums are the overheads, take care not to cross the tracks of the overheads. Having a hihat via the overheads on the left and the direct signal on the right creates a off-axis stereo image and hugely distracts you as a listener. After the overheads place the bass. If you happen to have any ambience, shakers or other percussion place them before the bass. That way you will have everything that is percussion related together and in the right order of first appearance.
A different take on these two first instrumentgroups is that the order of the whole drumkit is in reverse order. So start with the percussion, overheads, toms and at last the hihat, snare and kick. What then follows is the bass. This way the four most important basis instruments are close to each other. It makes it easier to have their interrelationship in view and make minute adjustments to get it just right.
You now can add everything that brings musical harmonics to the track. Start out with the guitars. Place together those that are alike, for example a stereo guitar or the guitar cabinet and its direct signal. Or acoustic strums together with clean arpegiated electric guitars. Next to those the distorted ones. And at last the leadguitar with its solos.
Keyboards are next. If keys happen to be recorded in two mono tracks but form one stereo put them next to each other. Again put them in order of first appearance.
It is best to put any other instrument here before the vocals are added. When you have placed every instrument that contains harmonic content it is time for vocals. Start with the leadvocal. If you have more tracks with the same leadsinger, try to comp them together on one track. This way you have one EQ for the vocal and you don’t have to edit 3 tracks of leadvocal if you have changed anything on their dynamics or eq.
Or, if you like to keep the verses and chorusses on separate tracks start with whichever comes first. Keep in mind that if you have a singer that sings in different registers or intensity, eq settings can differ too. In that case, split them up in different tracks also.
It is good practice to place the backingvocals next to the leadvocal. If you have more tracks containing backingvocals, put them in order of first appearance and try to place them it the right order with regards to panning. Also you could make differences in low and high register backingvocals.
Colorize your tracks
In most DAWs it is possible to add colors to the tracks. To really make the different groups clear in you DAW color the different groups. So lets say drums are red, percussion orange, bass is brown and so on.
In a somewhat larger production this helps you navigating quickly in your daw.
Using groups and busses
I’ve mentioned stereo keyboards earlier. Not only is it wise to put them next to each other but try to group them in a group or bus. You can do that with more instruments: stereo guitars, overheads, stereo backing, perhaps even bass if it contains multiple sources which add up to one sound after all.
The reason for these groups is simple, you can save your computer a lot of processing power by using just one stereo plugin on the keyboard instead of two mono plugins with the same settings. It is a way of freeing up cpu power which you can then use for nice impulse response reverbs and so on.
Keep in mind; before adding up these sounds all have to sound good to begin with. So you could have an eq on individual tracks which add up to one stereo bus which has processing as well.
Most groups might appear at the right side of your mixer, closest to the masterfader, depending on the DAW being used. Try to keep these faders at unity gain. That way you are forced to make correct levels on your trackfaders and you can use the groupfader as a ‘submasterfader’ for this instrumentgroup resulting in only small adjustments, just one or two dBs at the most.
Depending on how you would like to work you could place the groupfader right next to the group of instruments that is feeding this bus. Still, consider this fader as a ‘submasterfader’. Only small changes to this level might be done at the end of the mixingstage.
Creating depth and color is done by using reverbs and other effects. Try to keep these sources at the farright position on your mixer. This way they are close to you master output and can be considered the last overall addition to your music. Not to say the least because they can be regarded as being of big influence on the overall sound of your track. Therefore: a good place is to be next to the most important fader.
A good way to force you to work with a create order in your project is to create a template. Each DAW can have different templates for different uses.
Create a template with at least 6 subgroups already named as drums, bass, guitars, keys, vocals and backingvocals. You could also add 4 effect returns already; short and long reverbs, a delay and a chorus. Then in the master fader you could already load in a master limiter, an analyzer and a good audio meter.
Also a good tip is using folder; you can put your complete drumkit into one folder. Although there is one catch; you are likely to open and close this folder a lot so that sense it is not really speeding up your workflow.
Go on, play!
Having these guidelines should give you at least some order in your project and help you speed up the process of mixing. That way you will probably have more time to get creative with all kinds of stuff. Have fun!