Keeping Your DAW Mixes Clean in Pre and Post Production

When it comes to the mysterious and chaotic puzzle of making great music, organization is often the least glamorous and most overlooked piece. In addition to being highly personal, art is supposed to be a little messy. Several flashier and weightier elements have to be well-in-hand before you consider the orderliness – or lack thereof – of your workflow.

But just because cleanliness and methodology don’t have the same kind of sex appeal as gear lists, mic placements, and plugin settings doesn’t mean that organizing your mixes is something you can afford to ignore. These tips might not make your song sound a whole lot sexier, but they will make your life in the studio a whole lot easier.

Preemptive Organization Strategies

Before you ever hit the formal mixing stage, there are several things you can do to help keep your edit and mix windows clean and efficient.

Set strict track-count limits.

The strategy is to weed out the clutter before it ever even has a chance to become clutter. Try committing ahead of time to only using, say, 20 audio tracks in your session. This forces you to be highly conscious of which elements of your arrangement are actually doing work in your song. It also helps you avoid potential mixing traps, like using 14 mics on your drum kit or recording that guitar part through every simple amp in the studio AND a DI “just in case.”

Be ruthless with that delete button.

Try to remain as objective as you can when you’re recording parts. Make it a practice to avoid putting off decisions about what to cut until the mixing stage. Don’t like that new keyboard melody? Axe it. Those tambourines your drummer recorded with are fighting for space with the ride cymbal? Ditch them. Don’t put it off – do it now. If you really, truly miss whatever you cut (which is almost never the case), you can always re-track it.

Bounces and submixes are your friend.

Let’s say that you’re really trying to stick to that track limit, but you just have to record those triple-tracked, four-part vocal harmonies to give your song the vibe you’re after. The answer might be to quickly mix and bounce those multiple tracks down to a single stereo track ahead of time.

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Organization in Post Production

Once you move into the murky realm of mixing, things can get really ugly really fast organizationally. You’ve probably been there: your hands are working a mile a minute to keep up with your brain, you’re closing in on the finished product, and you’re desperately trying to just get there. Cleanliness in these circumstances can easily go by the wayside. Don’t let it.

Order your effects inserts consistently.

This will help you tremendously cut down time spent hunting around for things when you’re squinting at that screen at 2 in the morning. Especially if you, for example, always run your tape/saturation effects first, followed by EQs, followed by compressors, followed by time-based effects, followed by limiters, etcetera.

Use fewer plugins.

We all fall victim to the endless choice and tweakability that a DAW and some good RAM provide, only to end up creating more work for ourselves in the long run. Instead of trying to treat every instrument to three different EQs, six discrete delay rates, and two separate compression knees, why not try to see how few plugins you can get away with? Use general EQ’s only on your busses, for instance. Remember: sometimes the more you “do” to a track, the more you have to “undo” later.

Rank and file.

Arrange your instruments, busses, and effects returns in a consistent order that makes intuitive sense to you. For instance, I know a few engineers who like to put their vocal tracks in a group at the top of their sessions’ edit windows, and their drum mics (in a standardized order) at the bottom. Personally, I like to do the opposite. But whatever orders you choose, being 100% consistent will help your workflow enormously. Instead of scrolling around, frantically looking for that glockenspiel part that’s suddenly annoyingly loud in the mix, you’ll already know exactly where to find it.

Grouping, bussing, and color-coding.

As soon as you’re recording any instrument with multiple mics or playing back multiple takes of one instrument, you’ll need to start grouping. To make a group in Pro Tools, click the “Track” drop-down menu and select “Group.” Then follow the menu prompts to add all the tracks that you want to include. This will allow you to control things like volume, mutes, solos, and more for the entire group you’ve created all at once.

Along with grouping, it’s usually helpful to create a bus for your grouped instrument tracks. To do this in Pro Tools, select a new “auxiliary track” from the “Track” menu, and use your internal busses to route the output of each individual track in the group to the input of this new auxiliary track. Now, for example, your harmony vocals are bussed to a single fader, allowing you to assign plugin effects adjust levels quickly and easily.

Lastly, it can be extremely helpful to color-code all of these groups once you’ve created them. In Pro Tools, select all of the tracks you wish to color-code, then double-click on the strip to the far left of any track in that group to bring up the color menu bar. Making each group of instruments in your session a different color will help you clearly see, for example, where the drum group ends and the bass guitar group begins, allowing you to find what you’re looking for that much faster.

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The Takeaway

While I can’t deny that some great songs have been tracked and mixed in the midst of great chaos, keeping mixes clean can be the method to those engineers’ madness. And what could be better than cutting the unnecessary clutter that’s been keeping you from finishing that song you’ve been laboring over for weeks?

This list may not cover the entirety of available techniques for tidying your studio experience, but some observance of these humble tips will facilitate greater organization and improved workflow when working in your DAW.

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