Home Recording Basics Part IX: How to Prep Your Tracks for Mixing

So far in this series, we've covered a whopping range of recording fundamentals in rapid succession. We've learned about setting up a home studio and tracking drums, bass, guitars, and vocals. We've even laid down some MIDI instruments to spice things up.

Using these basic tools and techniques, you've laid down some tracks and are close to finishing a project with everything just about ready for the crucial mixing process. Almost.

At this point in the recording process, you probably have a nightmare of Audio, Audio.dup, and Audio1s to deal with. There may be timing issues, tuning issues, or any number of other problem areas that need attention before moving on to the mixing stage.

It's always a good idea to have your song in the best shape possible before moving to the next stage, and when jumping from recording to mixing, there are a few simple steps you can take to make sure everything goes as smoothly as possible.

Organization Is Key

Your first step is also the most boring. You’re never going to be able to mix if you can’t find what you’re looking for. Organize and color code your session in whatever way makes sense to you. Every engineer has their own way of laying things out. But what’s important is that you always put things in the same place to maximize workflow.

Here’s how I order and label the tracks in my sessions, for example:

  • Kick(s)
  • Snare(s)
  • Toms
  • Cymbal Mics
  • Overheads
  • Bass
  • Guitars
  • Aux Instruments
  • Lead Vocals
  • Background Vocals

Most DAWs give you an easy way to color code different tracks, which makes it easy to label and identify different elements in an instantly recognizable way.

One Take, Every Time

Your next task should be comping any takes that have weak spots. Comping is the process of making a composite take — or a master take — made up of the best parts of several different takes.

Say you had a take where the guitarist nails the solo but came in early on the bridge, for instance. You could replace the bridge section of the "solo" take with the bridge section from another take to make one flawless guitar track.

While modern software makes comping relatively easily, engineers have been using this technique for generations. Comping is a certainly a precise art form, and while we won't go into every detail here, there are many resources you can find that show the correct mouse and key movements to accomplish this in any DAW.

Just a Trim

Now that you’ve got the final takes together, it’s time to clean them up. Simply trimming clips can make a significant improvement on your song. It cleans things up and makes things sound more intentional and professional.

When in doubt, try to retain "musicality" when editing. If you captured a cool moment, keep it, even if it's not exactly in time."

Start trimming tracks by removing any dead air. If an instrument isn't being used, trim the clip and remove it. This can be a little jarring with toms and other rarely used percussive instruments with their own mic, but sometimes that can be just the effect you need. When in doubt, try to retain musicality when editing. If you captured a cool moment, keep it — even if it's not exactly in time.

If you're going for a particularly tight–sounding track, you may be tempted to edit the "breaths" out of the vocal track. It's okay to remove unwanted noises, but in most cases, removing the breaths makes the vocal lose its human feel. A more subtle approach is to automate down the volume of the breaths.

Quantization

If you ever want to look really important, stand in front of the console, mess with the piece of gear with the most knobs and tell people you're quantizing something.

It may sound really intimidating, but quantizing is just a fancy way of saying you're chopping up a track at the transients (or spikes in volume) and lining them up to a grid based on the tempo of the song.

Most DAWs include some way to quantize MIDI as well as audio and some even include advanced features, like swing and strength percentages. If tracks in your song are feeling too "loose," you may want to quantize them to tighten up their timing.

Just be careful. You don't want to kill the natural groove of the performance by making things too rigid here.

While some songs may call for really tight timing, not all of them will. Some songs benefit from human elements, like small mistakes and subtle variances in rhythm.

Things can get really complicated when you have a good rhythm that doesn't actually line up with the grid. Maybe the drummer was playing a little behind the beat, but it gives the track the laid back groove it needs ("Purple Rain" comes to mind). Thankfully, some DAWs also include an "extract groove" function that let's you pull a "groove template" from one instrument for others to follow.

If things aren't that serious and you just need to move a late bass note or an early guitar chord, you can always edit the timing of the audio individually. You can also edit by hand by cutting the clip and manually placing it where you want it.

Pro tip: When editing guitars, it's easier to group the guitars together and use the DI as a guide since the transients are so much more pronounced

What's important is that you tighten up the timing on things that need it and try to enhance the musicality of each instrument.

Sweetening

Now that the takes are comped, trimmed, and quantized, you can start working on the tone of the instruments. It may sound a lot like mixing, but this stage is actually called “sweetening.”

Sweetening comes after editing but before mixing, and it's where we enhance the edited recordings with the support of plugins. The most common forms of sweetening are drum replacement, amp simulators, and pitch correction software.

Drum Replacement

After editing the drums, you may have the timing right, but there's not a lot you can do with the tone during mixing if there were problems or limitations during the recording session. Maybe the song called for you to record a vintage Ludwig kit in a castle, but all you could afford was a 10–year–old First Act kit in a closet. All hope is not lost. Drum replacement software lets you replace drum hits from a recorded performance with samples of other kits to find the perfect tone.

Amp Simulators

If you captured a great vocal performance with one or two sour notes, pitch correction software can save you, but it can't turn a bad performance into a good performance."

Similarly to drum replacement, amp sims let you simulate a variety of different amp sounds and combinations using a DI guitar recording. This is a great option for sampling different guitar tones, trying out options you don't have access to, or combining classic set ups to make all new tones.

For a solid amp sim plugin, check out Amplifikation One by Kuassa or Amplitube 4 from IK Multimedia which also comes with all sorts of nifty effect simulations.

Pitch Correction Software

Finally, and probably the most popularly, there's pitch correction software. If you captured a great vocal performance with one or two sour notes, pitch correction software can save you, but it can't turn a bad performance into a good performance.

Same goes for instruments. Sure, pitch correction software like Melodyne or Auto–Tune can save you in a pinch, but that doesn't mean you should stop tuning your guitars. These are tools to help correct minor mistakes, not crutches to rely on.

If you're interested in trying out a pitch correction plugin, take a look at Waves Tunes Real-Time or this basic versoin of Celemony's popular Melodyne software.

Exporting

At this point, your recording should be in pretty good shape. You captured compelling performances. Everything is in time, everything is in tune, and everything sounds as close to the finished product as possible.

Your last step is to consolidate all of your tracks, which is another fancy term that means combining all of your clips into a single clip for each track that all start and end at the same time. When you're done, export all of the tracks into a new folder so that you can start from scratch with a new session when you finally move to the mixing stage. While you certainly can mix in the same session you used to record, this extra step provides a nice clean break and makes it easy to share your work if collaborating with another engineer.

And with that, your track is officially ready for mixing.


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