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Guitar Tracks: Building a Mix

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This session is set up in my preferred track order. The tracks are colored for easy location and organization.

You can record the best tracks anyone has ever heard, but if those tracks aren’t presented in an equally great mix, they’ll never live up to their potential. I’ve said before that there’s a reason the top professional mix engineers make the big bucks.

Opinions vary on what makes a great mix, and requirements also vary when it comes to different styles of music. For example, a mix for classical music usually strives for totally natural presentation, as if you were in the room or hall listening to the performance. Electronic music, on the other hand, may try to push things in new directions and go against the conventions of other styles. Dance music relies on a strong beat, a heavy bass drum, and throbbing bass to pull listeners out onto the floor. A track by a guitar shredder is going to necessitate focus on the lead guitar. In all cases it’s about presentation—how the various elements of the music are combined, balanced, and conveyed by the overall sound of the mix.

Getting started. Let’s say you have a song that you’ve been working on in your studio. All the tracks are recorded, and you’re happy with the performances and tones that you’ve captured. You probably have a rough mix that you have built up and have been listening to during the course of the tracking and overdubbing sessions. Should you simply use it as the base for your final mix? Maybe, maybe not. While a rough tracking mix can give you a decent starting point, the mix choices you made during tracking sessions may not be best for the final mix. I prefer to take everything back to zero and start fresh with a clean slate and an unencumbered perspective.

There really aren’t any rules, but I tend to follow the same organizational template for every mix.

For similar reasons, it can sometimes be nice to take a break from a song before beginning to mix. At the same time, there is also something to be said for diving straight into the mix while the energy of tracking is still pulsing in your veins. Personally, I like to step away from the music for a couple of days before starting to mix, especially if I have played on the tracks. We need to be as objective as possible when mixing. Remember: It’s not about our guitar parts—it’s about the overall song and mix.

Prep work. You’ll save time later on and make things easier on yourself if you begin your mix with some prep work. I know it’s more fun to start cranking tracks—but trust me: Prep pays off.

Let’s start by organizing your tracks. There really aren’t any rules, but I tend to follow the same organizational template for every mix. It keeps things consistent, and I always know where I’m at, especially with larger mixes. There are two elements to organizing for me: track order and track color. All DAWs allow you to set the color for a track, and this makes it easy to see and find different types of tracks on the screen. Starting from the left of my DAW’s mix window shown in the example, my color-coded tracks are organized in the following order.

Drums: Green

  • Kick drum
  • Snare (multiple tracks are used if the snare has more than one mic on it)
  • Tom toms (organized large to small, from left to right)
  • Overheads/cymbals (usually a left/right stereo pair)

Other Percussion: Light green

  • Congas
  • Tambourine

Bass: Blue

Guitars: Orange

  • Rhythm (first guitarist)
  • Lead (first guitarist)
  • Rhythm (second guitarist)
  • Lead (second guitarist)

Keyboards: Yellow

  • Electric piano
  • Electric piano fill
  • Synth

Vocals: Red

Busing. Depending on how large the mix is at this stage, I may also begin to set up some basic busing/subgrouping of tracks. For instance, I might route all of the drums to a stereo bus (also shown in the DAW example). This allows me to control their overall volume with one fader, without affecting the balance between the individual tracks. (We’ll talk more about busing in an upcoming column.) Again depending on how large the mix is and also how many bus tracks there are, I may organize the bus tracks with their respective groups, or I might instead place them all on the far left of the DAW’s mixer.

Once my tracks are laid out and organized, all the faders will be pulled down to zero. I set pan to the center for all tracks. There are no effects or plug-ins on any tracks, and no effects sends. This is ground zero, the clean slate from which to build.

See you next month for more on building a mix!

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