In this article, by Dennis J Wilkins, we will discuss a method of creating and using project templates that can be used to greatly reduce set-up time when starting a new recording or mixing project. Some A-list Grammy winning engineers use just a few variations of templates on hundreds of mixes a year to streamline their work, eliminating up to a couple of hours of preparation time on every project.
Most DAWs have a Load/Save Template or Import/Export Template function that will load and save a full set of tracks with FX, auxiliary buses, and routing, without loading any audio files. While no one template will fit all audio projects perfectly, there are some very useful configurations that need a little adjustment to cover most rock, pop, country, and jazz projects.
I use REAPER which has extremely flexible routing – audio and/or MIDI can be routed from any track(s) to any other track(s). Most DAWs use a more traditional auxiliary bus arrangement but can have as many buses as you need, unlike a hardware mixer with a fixed number.
Keys to the Template
The key to a useful project template is to define a configuration that can be used across many different projects without needing to set up every project from scratch, and with a minimum of changes needed from the template for any project.
Every project can utilize some common signal processors, particularly EQ, compression and reverb. In addition, with the great improvement recently of console emulations, it can be desirable to make a console part of every mix project. Although it’s possible to put FX on every track in a DAW as long as you have enough computing power, it’s not necessary or desirable. Reverb and console emulations can help glue a mix and make it sound more natural when used correctly, and sharing reverb and feeding a console from many audio tracks is a common practice.
Better Mixing with Sub-Groups
In addition, using sub-groups for sections of a band such as bass, drums, guitars, keyboards, lead vocal, etc., can help improve both processing efficiency and user efficiency. Once the relative balance of a drum kit, for example, is set, the level of the entire drum set can by changed with a single fader.
How you organize a project template will depend on how you work and what DAW you use, but I’ll describe one arrangement of signal flow and processing that works with most musical styles, provides effective control of instrument and reverberation levels, and helps place your music in a more realistic acoustical space.
The general idea is to have several sub-group buses, each summing a section of the band, as indicated above. A half dozen to a dozen such buses should be adequate for most music. These buses do not contain any audio tracks themselves, but contain a useful set of FX, typically EQ and compression, and a console emulation plug-in if you use something like Britson or Satson. The actual audio tracks may not need any FX, although in some cases you may want corrective EQ or compression on a few.
One Useful Template Design
Let’s look at an example of a template with eight sub-groups. Figure 1 shows these sub-groups from track 1 (Bass) in the lower left, through track 8 (BU Vox) and shows the default FX set up for each sub-group. Each sub-group starts with an instance of Britson Channel. Although the sub-group is technically a bus, it’s being used as an audio source, so the Britson channel module is used rather than a Britson bus module (the master track has the Britson Bus module). After Britson there is an EQ, StonEQ 4K in this case, and a compressor, TuCo being an excellent choice. And if you want the EQ to follow the compressor, it’s easy to change the sequence in a DAW. This arrangement provides a lot of control of each instrument or vocal group.
But there is more than meets the eye in using these sub-groups – while their outputs are sent to the master bus, that is not the only routing. Each is also sent to three auxiliary buses: a blending reverb, an early reflection reverb, and a long reverb. With some reverb plug-ins you may have separate controls for early reflections and the reverb ‘tails’, and will need only the blending reverb and one other reverb bus to create an acoustical space.
The output of each of these auxiliary buses is also sent to the master bus. So the master bus has inputs from all the instrument sub-groups, the blending reverb bus, the early reflection and long style reverb(s). This is diagrammed for the first two instrument groups in Figure 2
There isn’t room here to cover in detail the use of blending reverb, early reflections, and long reverberation, but the idea is to create an acoustical ‘space’ so that the instruments sound like they were recorded together in the same space. Briefly, the blending reverb is a very short “ambient” reverb effect, usually no more than half a second, intended to blend dry, close miked or sampled tracks into an aural space. Early reflections help define the size and shape of the space, while the long reverb provides information on the”brightness” and “color” of the space. For more information on this reverb approach, and a lot more valuable tips on mixing, see Mike Senior’s excellent book, Mixing Secrets for the Small Studio at http://cambridge-mt.com/MixingSecrets.htm
Of course, so far we don’t have any audio tracks! The actual audio files cannot be part of a template since they will be different for every project, but you can (and should) have a reasonable number of tracks set up in your template ready for loading the project audio tracks. And again these tracks can be set up with a standard set of FX, but these tracks should not be routed to the master bus. They must be sent to the appropriate sub-group described earlier. Since you do not know beforehand which sub-group each audio track is to be routed to, you can’t set up a project template with all the audio-to-bus routing in place. This is where different DAWs will require different approaches. REAPER makes it very easy (though possibly confusing to the first time user) with a routing matrix that enables sending audio (or even MIDI) from any track to any other track in seconds. In fact, there are no unique “buses” in REAPER, you just make any track you want into a bus when you want it. With most DAWs you’ll need to add an auxiliary send to a bus previously set up as one of the sub-groups. But the instrument sub-groups can be “pre-wired” to the reverb buses and to the master bus, saving a lot of time.
I put the audio tracks after the long reverb track, with a spacer between the first 12 tracks and the first audio track, as shown in Figure 3. I have a few variations of templates, one with 24 empty audio tracks, one with 48, one with 72. Again, this saves time because these blank (and unnamed) tracks can be quickly loaded with as many audio tracks as the project requires, and they will take the names of the audio files automatically (in REAPER at least). A project with 72 audio tracks takes a couple of seconds to load all the audio files, and they are ready to route to the appropriate sub-group bus. This takes a little more time, but again with REAPER’s routing matrix, I can set up all the routing in a couple of minutes, even with 72 audio tracks!
At this point you will have all the audio tracks going to their respective sub-group bus, each sub-group bus going to the blending buses, the early reflection, and long reverb buses, as well as to the master. All you need to do is mix!
With such a sub-group arrangement you can start by soloing one of the sub-groups (often good to start with bass or drums), then use the faders or auxiliary send level controls of the individual audio tracks to get a good balance of the respective elements for each sub-group. Bass is often a single track, but sometimes there is a DI, a cab track or two, and possibly an FX signal. Drums are more work if there are the usual eight to sixteen (or more!) drum mics, but once you get a good balance of the kit, the sub-group fader will control it all at once. And the level at which you send each sub-group mix to the various reverb buses will control how much they contribute to the reverb ambience. Note that this send should be post-fader from each sub-group, so that changing its level will also affect its contribution to the overall reverberation.
Using such a template, I can be ready to mix a project in a matter of minutes. Only a few additional FX are usually needed, and some of the default FX are often not used (easy to deactivate in the track FX panel). Of course, mixing itself can take some time since you still need to balance all the audio track levels, select appropriate reverberation parameters and send levels, adjust EQ and compression levels and so forth. But not having to manually add in channels, buses, routing and FX at the start of every project time saves time and possibly some frustration.
Of course, you can start every project from scratch and spend hours playing around with different arrangements. If mixing is a hobby and you like to spend time trying new configurations, that is fine. But I’ve found I prefer mixing to ‘housekeeping’, and being ready to mix a pile of audio files just minutes after first opening the audio folder is a great help.
Dennis J Wilkins