Using automation, you can precisely adjust a track’s volume levels
and pan positions, as well as
toggle solo and mute buttons on and off,
change EQ and effects parameters in real time, and more.
In this mix,
the horizontal yellow lines indicate automated volume levels.
Details, details, details.
home studios where we can
record, edit, and mix. Most
of us are probably using a
computer-based digital audio
workstation (DAW) running
software like Apple Logic,
GarageBand, Avid Pro Tools,
Propellerhead Record, MOTU
Digital Performer, Cakewalk
Sonar, or whatever. With all of
these, you can automate virtually
every mix element at your
own pace. While some say this
can be bad because you can
go on and on without making
final decisions, I think it’s
a good thing. With a mix, it’s
truly all in the details.
Mixing can be the most
frustrating part of any project.
While it seems like writing and
recording all the elements would
be the hardest thing (which it can
be), mixing is the last stage—and
thus your final opportunity to
make it all work together. The
pressure is on you or whomever is
mixing the music to get the kick
to be heard with the bass, every
vocal level balanced with just the
right amount of EQ, every guitar
lick punched through, and every
reverb just right.
And then, of course, you
have to output a stereo mix in
the proper format for either a
mastering engineer or a direct
purchase. With some projects
having more than 100 channels
(yes, the big ones are that
brutal), the task ahead can be
daunting. Like anything else,
mixing is an art form that takes
time to get right.
But therein lies the value
of a DAW. Many of us, myself
included, choose to mix “in
the box,” which means the
entire production stays within
the computer, with no (or very
little) outboard gear involved.
The only external piece of hardware
I run through is a Manley
Massive Passive tube EQ—and,
even then, it’s almost always set
up precisely the same. Working
this way, every single element is
stored with automation: Every
time you call up a mix, it’s
exactly as you last left it. This
means you can listen to, reflect
upon, and analyze the music—
focusing on all the small, but
important details—and make
While some projects (such as
TV work) must be mixed under
tight deadlines, many do not have
to be rushed. That means you can
take your time and do
it right. My mindset? People will
listen to this for many years to
come, so don’t rush this last step.
I like to make working mixes
that I can easily place into my
iPod and share with band members
or artists. While the mixes
I make are always 16-bit/44.1
kHz (just like a CD), I’ve found
that MP3 or AAC mixes are
perfectly acceptable for referencing.
Just try to encode them
at the highest possible bit rates
you can while still keeping the
file sizes manageable for today’s
I don’t organize songs by
labeling them as versions (such
as “My Song Version 1”)—I
simply date them. This way,
the version with the latest date
is simply the latest updated
version. I place them into a
folder called “bounces” (such as
“My Song Bounces”). I color-code
the latest file red, so I’ll
instantly know that’s the current
mix. If I do several mixes
of a song in one day, I’ll include
information in the file name,
such as ‘“My Song - vocal up
I make MP3s and AACs for
sharing with clients or band
members, but I also put full-resolution
mixes into my iPod
or iPhone. In iTunes, I create a
playlist for each current project
titled “XXX Production Mixes,”
drag the latest files in, and then
listen at my leisure. To keep
track of any changes I want to
make on a given version, I’ll
type instructions into the Notes
App on my iPhone and email
them to myself.
I’ve found it’s best to do
multiple kinds of listening.
Sometimes I’ll listen to the song
as a whole, while other times I’ll
focus intently on just a single
element—such as how the kick
and bass work together or how
the delay and ’verb blend on the
guitars. I’ll also listen without
thinking—try to experience
the song almost unconsciously.
Does something stick out? If it
does, I’ll make a note of it.
The next day, I’ll call up the
mix, check my notes, and make
the fixes. With DAW automation,
you can compare every
change to the previous version.
Depending on the project, I’ll
go through this cycle more than
10 times per song. It can be
arduous, but it gets the details
right. For example, yesterday I
was doing an unfocused listen
during a hike, and I noticed one
song’s vocal reverb was too dry.
Switching my brain to a focused
listen, sure enough, it was. But
I hadn’t noticed it on previous
listening sessions because I was
too focused on other details. I
made the fix later that day, and
then output a new mix and
stored it in my iPod.
By using your DAW’s automation,
keeping your files
organized, and constantly listening,
comparing, and paying
attention to every element, you
can deliver better mixes. Next
month, we’ll examine some
useful guitar-specific mix techniques.
that it’s all
in the details.
engineer and mixer who
has worked with artists
ranging from Al Di
Meola to David Bowie.
A life-long guitarist, he’s
also the author of Pro Tools Surround
and composes for the
likes of Fox NFL, Discovery Channel,
Nickelodeon, and HBO.