Fig. 1. Ground Zero, with the mixer “zeroed” out and no plug-ins, panning, or processing applied.

A proven mixing method.

Over the past few installments of “Guitar Tracks” we’ve cleaned up our tracks, organized them, and prepared them for mixing. Now it’s time to get started making those tracks into a finished mix.

I like to begin my mixes by pulling all of the faders in the song down to silence, except for the master output fader and any submix buses, which are set to “0 dB.” All pan controls are centered. No plug-ins are inserted. Any EQs or compressors built into the DAW mixer are set to a neutral setting and bypassed. We’ll call this Ground Zero.

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Which instrumental tracks need cleaning prior to a mix? And how much cleaning is too much?


This session has been thoroughly cleaned. The kick, snare, and tom tracks are edited. The overheads need no cleaning—they’re supposed to contain all instruments. The tambourine was overdubbed, so no cleaning required. The bass was recorded direct—no cleaning required. There was only one section where the electric guitar didn’t play (not shown), where it was cleaned. The lead vocal, recorded in a large hall with stereo mics to capture reverb, was only gently cleaned. Chorus vocals have been cleaned, but not too stringently in order to maintain their live sound.

In last moth’s column [“Cleaning a Mix,” January 2014] we began cleaning our tracks in anticipation of actual mixing. We started by cutting the “bleed” among the various drum set mics to clarify the sound and reduce potential phase cancellation. But drums aren’t the only candidates for cleaning—anything recorded via microphone while another instrument or voice was sounding could have bleed issues.

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Get your mix ready for prime time with these handy editing and filtering techniques.

In last month’s column [“Building a Mix,” December 2013], we focused on the prep work for building a mix in our DAW. We discussed organizing tracks, setting up some basic busing, color-coding tracks, and establishing a “ground zero” mix state (meaning all the faders are pulled down to zero and the pan controls centered). This month, let’s continue to get our mix ready for prime time.

Stop the Bleeding
When the mix is basically prepped, I like to listen to all the tracks individually and check them out for things that may become problematic later in the mix process. I’ll usually start with the drums and bring up the kick drum first. I want to evaluate the quality of the recording by looking for things like noise, clipping, and distortion. If there is a lot of noise or bleed from other instruments on the kick drum, I may go into the edit window at this point and start to “clean” the track, meaning cutting out the large spaces between kick-drum hits where unwanted sounds are apparent.

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Mitch Gallagher discusses how mixing is about presentation—how the various elements of the music are combined, balanced, and conveyed by the overall sound of the mix.

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.

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