Preparing Tracks For Mixing:
The Ultimate Guide
by Koby Nelson – Mix Engineer
So you’ve finished recording your song. Congrats! Now it is time to send it off for mixing and really make it pop. But wait… hold on a second. Before you simply drag your Pro Tools session folder into dropbox for your mix engineer, take a second to consider these six steps for properly preparing your tracks for mixing.
A note before we get into it...
Ultimately, you need to talk to your mix engineer about what they need from you. For some engineers, a full Pro Tools session may be just fine. Personally, I sometimes accept Pro Tools sessions, and even Logic, or Cubase sessions for mixing when I know the recording engineer. Other times, this can just be a recipe for frustration. Incompatible or out of date software or plugins, misplaced audio files, routing designed for a different studio setup, etc. are just a few of the issues/inconveniences that can crop up and eat into your mix time.
Some people still argue that Pro Tools sessions are the industry standard. I would argue that they never have been (and I use Pro Tools daily). If you ask me, WAV files are the true industry standard. Every mixing engineer will be able accept properly prepared WAV files, so when in doubt, follow this guide and you can’t really go wrong!
Why mix prep?
Following this guide can help save you hours of headache down the road and greatly reduce the need for an endless email back-and-forth with your mix engineer. It can also ensure that your mix engineer is able to complete the job to their maximum potential. Not only that, but taking the time to do this properly will boost your reputation in the business by communicating to your mix engineer that you are taking the project as seriously as you hope they do. Finally (and this is the real kicker), it can end up SAVING YOU MONEY in the mix process by saving your mix engineer precious time!
Ok, so I think we have established that it’s a no-brainer to do some mix prep. Let’s get to how it is done.
1. Getting Started
Prepping for the mix prep
Before you do anything, you want to make sure you aren’t shooting yourself in the foot. It should go without saying, but backup your session. In fact, back it up in two places. Following the six steps in this guide won’t do anything destructive, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry, right? Backing up should be part of your day to day practice anyways.
Once you have backed up, save a new version of the session. Just save-as and call it “Yadayada-mixprep” or some version of the session name that fits with your file naming conventions (you do use naming conventions right? RIGHT?!). Now you have a session that is just for preparing your audio files to be sent to the mixing engineer, and you have preserved all of the work you did in the tracking process, should you need to return to it.
Let go of unused tracks
Finally, go through the session and clear out the junk. Chances are, you’ve got a muted track in there with some weird guitar part that you laid down in the wee hours of the morning, only to come back the next day and realize it didn’t really work. Since you’re a creative person, maybe you have a lot of those. Delete them. At the very least, make them inactive and hide them. You don’t want to accidentally send a track to mixing that shouldn’t be in the song.
Dotting your I's and crossing your crossfades
You’ve poured hours, days, maybe longer into crafting this recording. Don’t send it off without giving it a once-over. A key part of preparing your tracks for mixing is checking your previous work. When you are moving fast, trying to keep one step ahead of inspiration, little things can sometimes slip through the cracks. Maybe you made a wonky edit, or accidentally trimmed a drum part a little too far into the tail. These types of things may go unnoticed now, but a good clear mix might end up shining unwanted light on them.
Go through all of the tracks and make sure that they have “heads and tails” with a short fade-in at the beginning of each clip, and a fade-out at the end. Check to see if all of your edits have natural sounding crossfades. Sloppy edits can tie the hands of your mix engineer. You want them to be focusing on making your song sound amazing, not fixing unwanted clicks and pops.
The rough mix
Once you have checked all of your work, it’s a good time to bounce down a rough mix to send along as a reference for your mix engineer. When I mix a song, the first thing I do is listen to the rough. This allows me to: 1) get a quick impression of the vibe that is desired for the song, and 2) make sure that I have received all of the files that are supposed to be in the song. If I hear a guitar solo in the rough, and only the band vamping in the multitrack, I know I need to reach out to the recording engineer and ask for the missing file. Without a rough mix, I might go about the whole mix process just thinking the bridge of the song is a little boring…
Sorting your tracks
First impressions go a long way in any business. The music industry is no exception. What do you want the mix engineer’s reaction to be when they first load up your tracks in a session? Do you want them to think, “What a mess! I better call home and let them know I’ll be late for dinner,” or do you want them to think, “Good to go,” and get straight to work making your song sound amazing? The way your files are organized and labeled can trim hours off of your engineer’s mix time. Ultimately, that could mean less money leaving your pocket.
Organizing your files starts with that… organizing them. Sort the tracks into logical categories. Put all your drums together, your synths together, your background vocals together. Then within those categories, sort further. For the background vocals, put vocal doubles together, harmonies together, ad libs together. The goal here is to make it so that your mix engineer knows where to find every part of the mix without having to think about it.
Creating clear track names
Now, make sure all of your tracks are named in a clear and concise way. Sure, while you are recording, it can be fun to give a track a goofy name. You know that “space cowboy jangle” is the reverbed-out, vaguely western sounding guitar part in the second verse, but your mix engineer isn’t going to have a clue. Name everything as matter-of-factly as possible so there is no guessing necessary. Not doing this is an instant red flag to your mix engineer that you didn’t bother preparing your tracks for mixing.
It also helps to keep the names as short as possible to make sure the entire name is visible when displayed on a track in a DAW. For example: “LdVox” for lead vocals, or even as short as “K” for the kick drum. If the tracks are organized well by category, your mix engineer will be able to interpret some logical abbreviations.
Finally, it can sometimes be helpful to include the number of each track at the beginning of the track name itself. This ensures that when files are loaded into a session, they show up in the correct order and not alphabetically. Some mixers want this, some don’t (I don’t need it, personally), so it might be worth asking. Pro tip: start with 01, 02, 03, etc. to prevent track 1 ending up next to track 10, 2 next to 20, etc.
Keeping everything in it's place
Now all of your tracks will show up in the proper order, but what about the actual chunks of audio in those tracks? If you just export all of the audio files as-is, the mix engineer will have no reference for where those files actually belong in the timeline. Does this audio file on the guitar track go in the chorus at minute one, or the outro at minute three? Who knows! You need to lock all of the audio into its correct place in the timeline before sending it off. Keeping all the audio where it is supposed to be is one of the main reasons it is recommended to mix prep your tracks and send audio files rather than just sending a Pro Tools session folder.
You do this by consolidating all of the tracks from the start of your session to the very end of the song. There are different ways of achieving this depending on which DAW you are working in (in pro tools you simply highlight all of the audio and hit option/alt-shift-3). A quick google search for your specific DAW will give you all the information you need. At the end, all of your audio files should start on a downbeat at the beginning and be exactly the same length — the length of your song plus any extra bars before the music starts and after the music ends.
Essential vs. non-essential plugins
This is also the time when you need to make some decisions about the plugins in your session. Are the plugins there for purposes of creating a rough mix? Or are they for sound design purposes essential to the sound of the track (like an amp simulation plugin, tuning plugin, or specific effect)? You will need to make this assessment for all of your plugins, and if they are NOT essential for sound design, delete them, or at the very least, make them inactive (don’t just bypass them, actually disable them). After all, when you are preparing tracks for mixing, you want to leave the mix engineer room to mix the tracks!
Don't be scared of commitment
If a plugin IS an essential part of a tracks sound, bounce the track with that plugin on it. Don’t make your mix engineer recreate your chain of 8 bizarre effects, when you could have just printed them to the audio file. Different DAWs will have different ways of handling this as well. In Pro Tools, you can “commit” the track. In Logic, it’s “bounce in place.” Again, a google search is your best friend if you are unsure how to do this. That being said, give your engineer clean versions of tracks as well if it makes sense to do so. DI tracks, if you recorded them, are a great example.
Finally, be smart about how you bounce files. Bounce the tracks as WAV files. Make sure you are bouncing at the same sample rate and bit depth as the original session. You shouldn’t be converting any files at this point. Bounce stereo sound sources as stereo files, and mono sources as mono files. Some DAWs make this easier to do than others, but it is worth it.
Get outa here!
The most tedious part is over! Rejoice! Now you just need to get the audio files you have created out of your DAW and into organized folders ready to be transferred. This process differs depending on the DAW as well, but in most cases, you are going to need to select all of the audio, and click file -> export audio files or something similar. This is different than bouncing. We just want to export the audio files as-is. Look up how to do this in your particular DAW.
Create a folder and name it clearly with the artist’s name, song name, and tempo. Then create folders within that folder corresponding to each of the track categories that you created during the organization stage; ie. drums, guitars, background vocals, etc. Exporting each category to its own folder allows your mix engineer to easily organize the categories in their DAW in any order they please. Just because you like to have drums first, doesn’t mean the mix engineer does.
Including a tempo map
In the folder for the song, also include a document outlining a tempo map of the song if it has tempo changes. You may also be able to export a midi file to include tempo markers, as well as section markers, if you used them in your session. If you do this though, include the document too, just in case the midi file doesn’t import properly into your mixer’s session (DAWs can be annoying). This is a sometimes overlooked, but essential part of preparing your tracks for mixing if there are tempo, or time signature changes in your session. Mixing often involves time based effects like delays or reverbs that may need to sync up with the rhythms present in the song.
It is also helpful to include a list of any other songs that you used as references or influences during the recording process. The document mentioned above is a good place to do this. Keep all of the relevant info for the mix in one place.
6. Send it!
Now you just need to get the files to your mix engineer. Ask them how they prefer to have the files transferred. They might provide you with a link to upload your files directly to their server, or they may ask you to send a Google Drive or Dropbox link. Either way it can be helpful to zip your folder of audio files before you send it. It probably won’t save much space since WAV files don’t compress as well as, say, a document file, but it will keep all of your files and folders in one neat little package.
You’re done preparing your tracks for mixing! Your mix engineer thanks you for your professional work ethic. If they don’t, I thank you on their behalf. I know mix prepping your session is tedious, and us creatives don’t like to deal with that kind of stuff. In the end though, this upfront work allows your mix engineer to do their job properly, and thus, makes your music sound better. That’s the whole point, right?