Turning Basic Tracks into a Solid Mix – Introduction

Yesterday we finished mixing and mastering the new album from The Soundmills. It took a bit longer than expected, but I believe these guys deserved the extra time and effort. The chief songwriter, guitarist, and migratory fish, Mr. Andre Lachs, put a lot of effort into recording the basic tracks for the album during 2011. The Soundmills now have a solid start in 2012 with a very good sounding album, which will be released in early April along with a limited run of high-quality vinyl. Cool stuff.

Let’s cut right to the chase. This series of posts will be a series of tips, techniques, and tricks that we used to turn their basic tracks – which sounded like this:

[audio:https://www.joedocmusic.com/audio/Soundmills-Who-Unmixed_Sample.mp3]

…into the mastered mixes for the album, which sound like this:

[audio:https://www.joedocmusic.com/audio/Soundmills-Who-Mastered_Sample.mp3]

The coming posts should be interesting to anyone who records music in a home studio environment or who is mixing a home-cooked recording.

The Soundmills album consists of 15 songs, so it was a good reminder that organization and repeatability make mixing a hell of a lot easier. Luckily, the basic tracks were all cut with the same setup, so it was easy to use the “import session data” function in Pro Tools to bring in basic drum, bass, guitar, and organ track settings from one session into another. This alone saved hours of inserting plugins, setting up auxiliary sends, creating subgroup buses, etc. Some things had to be done manually each time, such as time/phase aligning tracks, effects choices, and basic instrument EQ/compression settings, but that’s part of the fun. Well, phase aligning isn’t, but it is a crucial step.

More on phase and time alignment in a coming post. This rest of this post is about getting your workflow in shape and gathering the proper tools for the job.

This is not as boring as it sounds. Starting a mix project like this means gathering a load of new plugin demos, which is a blast. Try out a new EQ, compressor, reverb, and distortion plugin, and the sounds – or even just the layout – will give you new ideas and keep the tasks of mixing interesting. So that’s step one – gear up!

Most plugin creators are now letting you demo for 14 or even 30 days with no restrictions. That’s enough time to dig in, learn the ins and outs, and decide if you want to buy – and even if you don’t that’s enough time to finish the mixes in most cases.

Here’s our list of “must have” plugins, and why they rock. These are not sponsored links, I just want to spread the good word, especially for the small-business developers like Steve Massey and Sean at ValhallaDSP, who offer amazing plugins at affordable prices. Their plugins are mainstays in pro studios, and are easily affordable for home studios.

ValhallaDSP‘s “Valhalla Room”: Considering the $50 pricetag, in my book this qualifies as the number one “must have” plugin. After a brief honeymoon with convolution reverbs (Space Designer, TL Space) I have wanted back the Lexicon-style reverb sounds have missed since selling my PCM-90 some years ago. Who wants to pay $1000 for Lexicon’s flagship plugins? Not me. So I went on a search for good alternatives. Between ValhallaRoom ($50) and the Redline Reverb, ($169) it has been reverb bliss. Don’t be fooled by the name – Valhalla “Room” also does plates, halls, chambers, etc. The interface alone is worth the price of admission. Turning virtual knobs with a mouse is always fiddly, so these “slider”controls make so much more sense. I dig the simple design:

The only downside is that the demo is unlimited in time, but the ‘verb cuts out in intervals. For $50, just buy it – you will love it. Don’t forget to grab their free ValhallaFreqEcho plugin, too.

112dB’s Redline Reverb : Although I don’t dig the interface (small text, fiddly knobs) Redline Reverb is has that very “Lexicon” quality of being able to add depth to a sound without cluttering the mix. My gripe with convolution reverbs is the muddiness they often cause in the mix (although they are great for odd sounding spaces, spring reverbs, and some funky plate sounds). Both ValhallaRoom and Redline Reverb have that special quality of blending into a mix quite well – they manage to enhance the source without crowding the mix or sounding detached, like many a cheap, canned reverb. I dare say that with these two plugins, you’d have all your reverb bases covered for rock and pop mixes. I find that if VRoom is not doing it, Redline will, and vice versa.

– bx cleansweep and elysia niveau filter, FREE at the Plugin Alliance: You can’t beat the price, but moreover, the quality of these simple, free plugins is hard to top. bx cleansweep from Brainworx is one of those plugins you MUST have for mixing home-brewed recordings; it is transparent hi-and low- frequency filter in one. It will help you clear tracks of rumbles and hiss, and the gentle 6dB/octave rolloff helps “tighten up” the low end of kick drums and bass guitar. I often placed it in front of a Pultec-style EQ to control the low end before giving it the old “magic bass bump” trick. This let me get that Pultec EQ mojo working without bass note overload. The elysia niveau filter is another clean and clear type plugin with the simple function of letting you “tilt” the frequency spectrum of the sound towards bass or treble. I grabbed this late in the game, but it still found it’s way onto low end-heavy bass guitar tracks. I’ll be using this more in the future for sure.

PSP Audioware’s Pultec-style “NobleQ”: WARNING! Do NOT demo this plugin unless you have the $69 to buy it. You will not be able to imagine mixing without it after you try it. What does the NobleQ do that other EQ does not? It does more than just boost and cut frequencies in a very smooth, pleasing way (Dear PSP: Are the numbers on the dials in dB? There’s no way I am boosting 8dB at 5k on a snare track and it sounds that good.). It also does the variety of Pultec tricks – creating rich sounding EQ curves by boosting and cutting at close frequencies. It also includes a version with a mid band EQ – awesome. This plugin kicked the pants off the Softube version (the PE-1c plugin) on all tracks I compared it on. Great interface, too. This makes a difference, especially when a plugin sounds this good and you want it on a dozen tracks.

must... spend... $69...

SPL’s Transient Designer: Although you may make do with your DAW’s stock reverb and EQ plugins, Transient Designer is – in the parlance of our times – a game changer. Without this plugin, drum mixing was just not happening. In this case, the kick drum was ringing far too much, and at very low frequencies that were causing serious problems. Transient designer was like letting us go back to the tracking session and properly dampen the kick drum. And add a bit of attack. And give more ring to the snares. Oh, and more body to the snare, too. You get my point. Hearing is believing with this plugin. Especially considering the resonance problems that often crop up in home studio recordings, this plugin will change your mixes for the better by a wide margin.

Steve Massey’s CT-4: Any of Steve Massey’s plugins (unfortunately for Pro Tools only) is easily worth 5 times what he charges for them. They sound great, and the simple controls make committing to a setting easier – with the CT-4 there is no time wasted tweaking compression ratio, attack, release, knee, flavor, hairstyle, etc. You want more compression? You turn knob up. Less? Knob down. If it doesn’t sound great (I doubt it) then switch plugs and fiddle with controls. OK, there are fast/slow attack and release settings, too. My point is, this is a first line choice for compression. You’d be well served starting a session with one on every channel. Price: $69. Compare that to Waves, Softube, etc.; it’s an easy choice, IMHO.

Chandler / TG / EMI / Abbey Road / whatever’s EQ plugin: Other than the Pultec style EQ, I was usually quite alright with the stock EQ plugins in Pro Tools and Logic. They’re flexible and I never had a problem with the sound quality. What those EQ graphs tend to do to me, however, is start me into EQing with my eyes, and not my ears. Not good. The layout of the TG Mastering Pack EQ is such that you have four bands, with set frequency choices, and basic curve choices (low shelf / wide bell / medium bell / narrow bell / high shelf):

This may seem limiting at first, but there serious benefits to using this type of EQ layout.

– It limits the amount of fiddling you will do with frequency and ‘Q’ settings. If you need a very specific frequency and ‘Q’ for problems, I’m sure your stock DAW EQ can do it. This layout reminds me of working on an old Neve desk with set frequencies; you have to make them work for you. If you can’t get a sound, work harder – it’s not the EQ’s fault.

– The frequency selections were chosen with music in mind. Notice the first (lower right) frequency: 32 Hz. Two steps further, 64Hz. And on up the octaves – 128Hz, 256Hz, 512Hz, etc. They’re actually based on a C scale. What a great way to lay out an EQ! The frequency choices work very well, in my opinion, for carving up sounds. There are no “EQ rules”, but some typical EQ moves might be: cutting 360Hz from kick drums, giving electric guitars a nudge at 700Hz, backing off aggressive cymbals at 1.5kHz, pulling some nose hairs out of a vocal at 4kHz, and brightening a snare drum with an 8kHz boost. These ballpark frequencies are set in there already. The big bonus is that these set points make “complimentary EQ” a breeze. If you boost 6k in the snare, you may want to cut a bit of 6k in the acoustic guitars… cut some 90 Hz from a bass guitar, and boost a bit in the kick drum, or vice versa, and so on. EQing like this is a tried-and-true mixing technique, and good workflow – meaning this kind of EQ layout – helps make this possible.

OK, one last plugin! I hope this is interesting for you. There are so many plugins available, that some home studio engineers feel overwhelmed by the choices. Hopefully, some thoughts about why certain plugins are cool – how they help not only your sound, but how you work – is useful information.

Blue Cat’s Set of FREE plugins: Very cool that they do not only AU and VST, but also Pro Tools format. I’ve wanted a frequency analyzer in RTAS for some time now, and Blue Cat’s FreqAnalyst does the trick. Their chorus and flanger also sound very cool, and the gain trim tool is a great way of creating a FREE hard clipper. This is great for lopping peaks off snare drum tracks, for example, and is cheaper than the T-Racks Clipper plugin. Just set two gain plugins on consecutive inserts, with the second one set to -0.2dB gain. Now crank the gain on the first one to taste. Used sparingly, this trims the peaks off drum tracks in a much clearer way than most limiter plugins do. Of course, you can use “Trim” in Pro Tools, but Blue Cat looks a lot cooler.

Alright – so you’ve collected some software tools now. What else is important when getting ready to mix in the home studio?

– If you’ve been considering improving your mixing room’s acoustics, now is the time. Bass trapping is a must, or you will go IN.SANE. trying to decide if certain bass notes are too loud, or if it is room resonance that you are hearing. The good news? See my previous post on DIY room treatment. You’ll save yourself a lot of money, and those panels work well, unlike covering your walls with 2″ Auralex foam (Don’t do that!)

– Get a cheap, small set of alternate monitor speakers. I have a $50 pair of M-Audio computer-monitor type speakers that I like to check mixes on. They just sound so different than larger monitors that it makes a refreshing break for the ears, and lets you make sure that kick drum and bass guitar are not just coming through the subs, but are also audible on small speakers.

– Keep lots of note paper and pens handy. If you are like me, and like to audition mixes in another room or in the car once in a while, then make note. Does one track have that “perfect” kick drum sound that sounds great in the car? Make a note of it and get those settings into your other mixes. If you also use outboard gear, then post-it notes or masking tape are a must for noting settings. I also like to make lists as I work through the songs and check them off. In a big project, I feel like I am making some progress!

– Coffee.

– Take the time to learn some new keyboard shortcuts for your DAW. There are so many commands for selecting tools, changing views, etc. that I try to master a few new ones each project. Most often, this happens when some kind of repeti-ti-tive task comes up. For example, the band recorded tambourine tracks in a hurry, and the timing was such that I suspected they may have just thrown the tambourine in the direction of a microphone and recorded that (just a joke, guys… kinda). I started off cutting and moving the audio, but shifted to using elastic audio. I had dabbled with elastic audio before, but this forced me to learn all the shortcuts. New skill gained. (I will do a post entirely on the wonders of elastic audio.)

– Create a template session with any subgroups you may need so you can import these into each session. If you tracked the project yourself, you have probably done this already. The Soundmills project came to me as 15 separate Pro Tools sessions, and in each session I knew I needed drum, vocal, and guitar subgroups, as well as a snare reverb, delay, and room reverb auxiliary input. These were not in the basic tracking session setup, so instead of creating this in every one of the 15 sessions, I set them up in one and just imported them into each one when it was opened. This is a big time saver and headache-preventer, and also goes for adding plugins to individual tracks. Two kick tracks and two snare tracks needed a filter, and EQ, compressor, and transient designer. Toms needed a filter, compressor, and EQ. And so on. These settings could all be imported in bulk with the “Import>Session Data” function in Pro Tools. Again, this was possible because each session used the same drum tracking setup.

– Rearrange your studio for mixing – Get comfortable, set up an extra table for snacks and drinks so no one dumps them on your rack. Rewire your I/O to take advantage of any outboard gear you may have. Make sure your monitor controller is in good shape! I had to clean mine to get rid of some crackling that had been bugging me. This little stuff will eat at your nerves when mixing for a long time!

Thanks for visiting our recording tips blog. Next time around I will go over a basic session and show you some of the very important steps you need to take to prepare your drum tracks for mixing. There may be a few things you have overlooked before that will seriously improve the sound of your basic tracks before you even start in with the “cool” stuff like EQ and compression. I’m going to try to create a video for the next blog. Stay tuned.

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