Preparing your audio files for working with a mix engineer / producer

Congratulations! You’ve decided that you want to take your music to the next level so you’ve hired a mixing engineer or producer. You’ve discussed how you want your track to sound, negotiated fees and worked out what particular brand of fairy dust the engineer is going to use… all you’ve got to do now is send over the audio so they can work their magic, right?

Almost. 

I decided to write this blog after reflecting on some of the experiences I’ve had working with audio brought to me by my clients. In some cases it’s audio they’ve recorded themselves – they may have even done a bit of editing or mixing on it too – or it’s come from another studio where they did the tracking. Either way, there is usually some work involved in getting it ready to mix.

Now I get it, as an independent artist you’re often on a tight budget and need to make sure you get the most out of your sessions. So let me help you with that right now: here are a few things you can do ahead of the session to ensure that whoever you hire doesn’t spend half the session tidying it up instead of mixing it for you.

Don’t get me wrong though, if you really don’t want to tackle any of these and are happy to pay someone to do it for you, then that’s fine. I for one will happily take on these prep tasks. But if you’d rather whoever you choose to work with can get down to doing their mix thing as quickly and easily as possible, then follow these steps:

Stems or Session files?

Determine if the mix engineer uses the same DAW as you and can thus use your session files directly. Most engineers will support a range of DAWs:  for instance I have Pro Tools , Logic, Ableton and Reaper. If they don’t, you will have to export audio stems for each track in your project. In some ways this is easier for the mix engineer as they don’t need to worry about deciphering someone else’s project setup, but most of the following observations will still apply before you render.

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Rendering stems in Reaper

Fade / x-fade your edits

Wherever you have edited audio clips, fade-in the start and fade-out the end of the clip, or where you have edited together audio clips, ensure there is a cross fade. I can’t emphasise this enough: I’ve had audio stems delivered with clicks and pops embedded in them as the edits hadn’t been cross-faded. It’s simple to do at the time and not doing it eats up way more time and effort further down the line – time that could be spent mixing.

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Using Fades on the boundaries of audio clips in Pro Tools

Name tracks meaningfully

Your mixer won’t have worked on this project with you for the last three years, so they won’t know the channel labelled ‘Bob’s wanger’ is actually a guitar part. So name the channels in a way that makes sense, and if a channel is labelled Peruvian nose flute then make sure there are only Peruvian nose flute parts on it. Obvious maybe, but it can and does happen, for instance when you’re recording through a single input channel and adding different instruments without creating new tracks.

Clear and meaningful track naming in Logic Pro X
Clear and meaningful track naming in Logic Pro X

Group your tracks by instrument

Keep all same / similar instruments together in adjacent tracks. So, all the drum kit tracks together, or multiple layers of guitar for instance. You don’t necessarily need to group them through busses or set up mix/edit groups as this is something the mix engineer may or may not do depending on their workflow.

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Track organisation in Ableton

Comps

Assuming you know the best takes for each instrument, assemble your various takes of a particular instrument / vocal into a single comp and consolidate it, making sure you check your fades / x-fades too. You can keep the old takes on a separate track in case you need to go back in there for something later on.

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Comping with playlists in Pro Tools

Effects

Generally, get rid of any EQ / compression / reverb added on the tracks, unless there are specific sounds you want to keep or illustrate to the mix engineer (for instance that gnarly delay you love or the way that filter sweep moves). Also remember that the engineer may not have the same plug-ins as you, so if there’s something you can’t live without, freeze / commit / bounce it down to a new track so it can be incorporated in the mix.

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Unless it’s an integral part of the sound, remove all unnecessary plugins

Automation

Unless absolutely necessary to demonstrate a particular effect or sound, remove all automation, especially channel volume / pan / mute automation as this can really confuse things. It’s usually not immediately obvious if there’s active automation on any parameters unless you specifically view the automation lanes. Make sure the automation settings are not in write mode either.

If you do need to automate volume (e.g. to balance gain between sections), ideally use clip gain (see the next point), or place a gain / trim plug-in in the channel and automate that.

Automation in Logic Pro X
Automation in Logic Pro X

Balance clip gains

Most DAWs support clip gain – use this to balance the levels of clips on each track so that the channel faders don’t need to be moved to extremes in order to hear something, and that all parts on a track are at roughly the right volume to be heard.

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Clean it up

Remove any unused channels or muted / unused audio from the project, unless it’s stuff you think you may need later in the mixing process (e.g. that banshee wail you’re not quite sure about, or those 50 extra guitar / synth layers that you might want in the mix but can’t quite decide on yet). There’s no point in transferring 120GB of data when 110GB of that is out-takes that aren’t going to be used. This especially applies if you are transferring your files over the internet.

Use the ‘strip silence’, ‘compact’ and ‘save a copy in’ features of your DAW if they have them to remove unnecessary audio and files. Most DAWs have good file management features these days.

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Use Comments / Labels / Notes

Help the mix engineer navigate the song by using labels / comments / notes. This is especially important if you are not going to be attending the mix session –any accompanying notes will always be useful.

Remove any tracking-specific routing

Sometimes the audio will have been recorded in a studio with a console or other hardware for monitoring, or you may have a quirky recording set-up at home, and the project will have its I/O routing set up for that specific system. Remove the routings and set them so that all the tracks play back to a single master bus, this ensures that everything that has been recorded will be heard.

Fade / X-Fade your edits

Did I mention this? Well let me say it again, Fade / Cross-Fade your edits!

Do all this, and your mixer will be able to spend their time doing what they do best – and you can get the most out of your budget.  

EQ Ear Training using Max For Live

I love Max for Live, it’s DIY audio in the software domain and it makes trying out ideas and building new audio tools extremely easy.

I built this device to help improve your ability to judge and apply EQ, you will of course need Ableton Live and Max For Live to be able to use it, you can download the device here:

http://www.maxforlive.com/library/device/3657/eq-ear-training

The concept is simple; you listen to some source material and the plugin applies random EQ boosts (or cuts) and you have to guess what the frequency band is. If you do this regularly enough your ear will become attuned to the different EQ frequency bands and their effect on the source material. Just as with musical interval training, the more you do the quicker and easier it becomes to identify and apply EQ effectively, ultimately leading to better mixes / masters.

The idea came from Bob Katz book Mastering Audio: The Art and the Science , which I thoroughly recommend if you want some in-depth knowledge on some of the concepts and practices in mastering. In an early chapter he outlines various exercises to improve your ear in the context of mastering, and this is based on one of those.

I’ve put together a video to explain how to use it, it’s pretty straightforward:

 

Main features are:

  • Audition mode to hear the effect of each EQ band
  • training mode to test your ability to identify the frequency band in use
  • Apply EQ cut or boost, 3 or 6 dB and with Q factor of 0.5 (broad) to 1 (narrow)
  • Choose between your own source audio material or pink noise

Building it was relatively straightforward, there are a few quirks with max that I’m still getting used to, for instance, I only just figured out the sequence of execution of objects triggered off the same bang depends on the position of the objects in the patch editor (bottom to top, right to left).

Hope you find it useful, let me know what you think.

 

 

A location recording case study – The Duval Project

Here’s the first of 2 videos from this superb Bristol-based Nu soul / R&B outfit. Location recorded and mixed by Wij Productions.

This was an intense job, we had a small time window to make use of the venue during the day, 5 hours in all to get in, get setup (audio and video) and capture 2 tunes plus some string section overdubs.

Upon arrival, first thing to do was to assess the space and work out the best location for recording. As this was a simultaneous video shoot, the choice of location would have to be some compromise between the best visuals and sound.  The venue is a long vault, the acoustics could have been awful but there was enough treatment and choice of position to work with. We opted for the wooden floor in front of the stage, with the band arranged in a semi circle. The video guys set up a track to allow them to slide 1 stand mounted camera back and forth into the middle of the semicircle, with another hand held camera for alternative shots. In this kind of setup, there will always be a compromise between the best setup for acoustics and separation, and the best setup for visuals.

The band line up included keys, bass, drums, flugelhorn, 2nd keys, vocal and 3 string players (cello and 2 violins). I used a Universal Audio Apollo Duo and an MOTU 828 mk3 (as an ADAT slave to the Apollo) to capture the full set up, with Universal Audio Solo 610 external preamp to give me another mic channel. The band was mainly electric so I didnt need that many mic channels, just for the flugel horn (with an EV RE20), the drum kit (Audix overheads, RE20 on the kick, Audix D5 on snare, AKG 414 on the high hat) and the voice (Oktavamod Rode NT1a running through the UA 610 preamp). I put a couple of mics on the string trio but we decided to overdub them for the final audio as there was too much spill from the band. Everyone played live through their amps, and a foldback monitor was used for the vocalist. In the end we decided to overdub the vocal as there was a bit too much spill. Part way through the recordings I noticed someone had put the ventilation on, always one of the little things you have to look out for on location recordings in these kinds of places, only becomes apparent when you have a very quiet section (as 1 of the tunes here did).

The band we’re a joy to work with, slick, tight and super well rehearsed, they banged out 5 or 6 takes of each tune just like that, which is exactly what you want when time is tight. Once the video guys were happy that they had enough footage to work with, we quickly set up the mics for a more intimate recording of the strings. Acoustically they sounded absolutely gorgeous, the space served the sound very well. I used 4 mics, two Oktavamod NT1a’s as overheads, another facing the cello from behind and to the right, and a TBone ribbon mic in front of the cello. Some may argue that that is a slightly odd setup, but it gave me good results in the mix, I had been reading about how different acoustic instruments project different frequency ranges in different directions and I wanted to explore this.

Again, the string trio being seasoned pro’s laid down a few alternative takes of their parts and then we were done and dusted, just half an hour over schedule which was fine as it turns out.

The first thing to do when I’m back in the studio is back up the session, you never know! The vocalist came by another day and recorded a couple of perfect takes for each track (I say perfect as they synced up with the original vocal track word for word), then the mix began.

I used mainly Universal Audio plugins on this, the concept was to keep it warm and acoustic. Close micing and direct sound from the electric instruments gave me good control over the overall acoustic, I had to do some careful reverb and subtle edit tricks on the overdub vocal as there was some spill from the original vocal on the drum and trumpet mics, it worked out well though. I used a bit of SPL Transient Designer on the drums to help control the ambiance and shape the individual tones.  I was really pleased with the way the strings came out to, bussed them through the Fairchild compressor plugin to smooth them out and add some of that fabled valve and transformer warmth.

The final mix was mastered by Richie Blake (the bass player in the band) before being sent to the video guy for final integration into the finished product.

 

 

 

 

Recording a 9-piece latin band (in layers) – Timbaterra Salsa EP

This recording of the Bristol-based latin band Timbaterra comprises 4 tracks covering Reggaeton, Salsa Romantica and modern salsa styles with influences from Cuban Timba. Recorded in Bristol and featuring vocals of Indira Roman and Sandra Lord, and the piano and vocals of Raimundo “El Nene” Fernandes. Rhythm section features Rory Francis playing all percussion, myself on bass and the horns were played by Ralph Tong (Trumpet) and Dave Smallwood (Trumbone).

The aim of this recording was to get the full sound of a 9 piece latin band, but doing it in layers rather than everyone playing together live. The key to this is having a good, grooving rhythm section  foundation to build the rest of the tracks on.  Thus we first layed down bass, piano and percussion together, the percussion was done timbales first to get all the breaks marked out, then we overlaid the congas, bongos, guiro and cowbell. I borrowed a set of Audix drum mics for the percussion, mic’ing the timbales with a pair of overheads and 1 dynamic under each drum, then individual mics on the snare, kick and bell tree.

Vocals were done next, fantastic performances from everyone made this very quick and easy. I used an Electrovoice RE20 for all the lead and layered background vocals, worked very well on these voices.

Finally the horns were done, we couldn’t get both players in at the same time so had to go with layering each part individually. This makes things a bit more tricky in the mix when it comes to making it sound like a section, but not impossible. Again, the RE20 microphone did the job of tracing the horns, I used it about a metre away and it seemed to capture the tone nicely.

Once recorded, the mixing began in earnest. Although I’d played in latin bands for years, I’d never recorded and mixed latin music, the learning curve was steep! Thankfully Raimundo was there to bounce the mixes off, he patiently listened to a lot of iterations before he finally said, “yes, that’s it!”.

In a nutshell, the cowbell needs to be prominent (but obviously not too prominent, unlike here), the congas driving and the rest balanced. Obvious right? Took me a while to get it though. A lot of work went into gelling the horns together to sound like a section rather than individuals playing in separate sessions. I used sample replacement to reinforce the kick and snare drum sounds too, adding more punch than was available in the original recorded sounds.

I also go the opportunity to trial a Universal Audio Apollo system, and used the UAD analogue emulation plugins to mix the songs with. Specifically, I used the Studer A800 tape sims on each instrument bus, the EMT 140 plate reverb as a general reverb, the Neve 88RS channel strips for the percussion, Cambridge EQ and LA-2A and 1176LN compressors for vocals and horns. The overall effect was amazing, I got closer to that sound I was searching for than I ever managed with all the other plugins I’d been using. So blown away was I that I decided to invest and bought an Apollo and a bunch of plugs, haven’t regretted that decision!

I’ve been studying Mastering courtesy of Ian Shepards Home Mastering Masterclass (which I thoroughly recommend by the way), I thought I’d put some of that knowledge to the test and do my own masters on these tracks too. Still learning on that front, there is a lot information to absorb and experience to gain. During the mix process the band had a regular gig at a salsa club, so we had opportunity to test out the mixes on a larger sound system and get an idea of how people responded (they danced!)

All in all I’m very happy with the way this recording came out, it took a while but I had a lot to learn, I’m  looking forward to doing a lot more latin music in the future.