WHY USING A MIXING TEMPLATE?
In 2013 when I quit my job at NaCena Studios, I literally drove down the street and immediately started working as a mixing assistant at Ricardo Mosca’s private studio in São Paulo. While I was there, one of my responsibilities was to prepare the mixing sessions for him, ensuring all he had to do was open up Pro Tools and “do his thing”.
I would arrive at the studio early, make a copy of all the sessions that he had received from clients to be mixed that week or month, open them on my laptop (which I had pretty much mirrored to his computer), and begin preparing the sessions according to his preferences. The idea was to streamline the mixing process for him since he had a lot of work, often with short deadlines. Not to mention that it becomes extremely exhausting to mix and prepare all the sessions by yourself. This included properly renaming all tracks, checking all fades and crossfades, coloring channels according to his template, importing the Pro Tools I/O that he used at the time, importing all the aux and master channels that were used, routing everything properly to the correct busses and outputs… in addition to double checking all session preferences (among other things).
Mosca was the person who initially guided me through the world of mixing and for a long time I copied everything he did, including this process of preparing sessions. In the beginning, I just did everything the same since I was trying to learn, but didn’t have any idea why I was doing most of it.
After a while, I started to acquire my own preferences and a better understanding of what served me best, and I began to adapt this new model to my workflow.
For those who don’t know, for a long time I also worked at Gargolândia, a studio based on a farm outside of São Paulo (as the studio’s chief engineer), while at the same time freelancing for other producers and studios. All while doing mixes in my personal room at home. Life was very busy and time was often very scarce, so optimizing every second became a priority.
That was when the term “mix prep” became part of my life. I understood that I needed a method that would help me optimize the time I spent doing each task.
I started by creating a mixing template with all my preferences, as well as track colors to differentiate instruments, groups, vca’s, aux tracks, master tracks, plugins, and even presets I planned to use or experiment with. It took time and it still does. I see what works and what doesn’t, add new things that I learn along the way and I end up updating the template regularly.
But why a mixing template?
The first advantages are practicality and speed. With my own custom preferences, I am able to open the sessions in any studio and don’t waste time opening the same plugins I already know I will use every time I mix, etc. The second advantage a mix template provides is removing the need to perfectly remember all previous settings from an earlier session. This is especially helpful for me since I do not mix every day. One day I might be on the farm recording a session (to be mixed tomorrow) or I might spend months recording, followed by months mixing a variety of projects. Besides, I don’t always mix what I record. It’s also interesting to see how my templates change over time, since as I discover new things, I apply them to the template so I can try them out on the next project without the risk of forgetting that setting in the first place. Last but not least, this all allows me to work as if I had a mixer in the studio, with my system set up and ready to go any day, any time. I also include EQ and compression settings that I have used on previous mixes, opposed to starting everything from scratch.
I later realized that whenever the tracks were imported into the template session though, I still ended up spending a lot of time fixing gain staging/levels so that the processing would work similarly to how it had in a prior project. Especially dynamic processors like compressors and de-essers. Because of this, I eventually decided to create a guideline I could follow with all files I recieve in order to standardize and optimize my workflow. This way, I wouldn’t be wasting time on additional technical aspects while I mix and can focus solely on the creative process.
So how do I apply this all nowadays?
Every time I receive project files from a client I start by checking if the stereo tracks are really stereo, or if they are mono tracks exported in stereo. For this, I use Stereomonoizer, which is an application that does this with incredible speed and ease of use so I’m not stuck guessing or manually reversing the phase on one side of the stereo track to figure out the truth.
Then I create the Pro Tools sessions, import the audio tracks, and quickly listen to each track individually, renaming them with my preferred format while I do so. Next step would be experimenting with phase alignment on all instruments recorded with more than one microphone (ex: drums, piano, guitar, etc.), to see if it improves or worsens the program material. Auto Align by Sound Radix is amazing for this purpose, and often improves the technical aspects, but can also sometimes change the timbre substantially and interfere with the artistic aspects of the recording. Because of this, it is very important to listen before making the final decision to print the tracks processed like this. I also regularly align any background vocals/doubles with Synchro Art’s Auto Align to ensure everything is tightly in sync, again checking with my ears before I commit to these changes.
After that is all completed, I work on the gain structure, using a plugin called Defaulter that allows me to do automatic clip gain on each track to level all volume peaks. In my case I end up working at -15dBFS. This helps me ensure the same results with each instrument and process when I move from one song to another, grants additional headroom, and allows me to keep the faders close to unity (making automation easier and more precise).
Then comes the stage of cleaning up the tracks. I clean the spaces to avoid unwanted noise that may have been unnoticed when consolidating the tracks (ex: guitar and bass noises, unnecessary breaths, etc), and I clean the toms leakage using a method called “Tom Trick” with consists of processing an EQ cut above 600Hz, right after the transient. Finally, I import session data from my mixing template for each song, create markers to map the songs (A, B, Ref, etc.), check the settings and modify them to my go tos (pan depth -4,5, 32 Bit, interleaved) before designating the key and tempo for each song.
It took years for me to hone, but with all of these methods in mind, I get the mobility, versatility, and speed I’ve wanted from the start.
Written By Thiago Baggio