Whether you’re collaborating with me or sending your work elsewhere, as you prepare to submit your tracks for mixing, additional recording, track processing, reamping, or any other work, you want to ensure that your tracks are in the best form possible. This, in turn, allows the mixing (or mastering) engineer to produce the best final product for you.
In my world, here are my requirements:
- All multitracks or stems, individually exported and unprocessed.
- If you have processed the tracks because that’s how you want them mixed (you’ve likely already discussed this with me), provide both the processed and unprocessed versions of each.
- All files should be in 24-32 bit .WAV format, stereo or mono. (16 bit just won’t cut it these days.)
- DO NOT send me .MP3’s or I will Hulk-out. Just don’t do it.
- Don’t send me .WAV’s created from .MP3 sources. (Trust me, I will know.)
- Do not normalize the exported stems or individual tracks.
- Do not send me stolen or copied material, or content to which you do not have explicit permission from the actual copyright holder.
- Provide your ISRC, song credits and cover art if you want it encoded with your digital master or uploaded to any online storage or distributor.
A lot of the suggestions or guidelines I provide below will be commonplace across the music production world, especially when submitting to world-class professional studios, engineers and mastering engineers for work (which I am not, I’m just a guy). However, the guidance remains the same.
Recording and Levels
When capturing audio, it is critical to maintain a balance of your recorded audio waveform’s transient peaks. These should not be clipping (too loud, where the peaks are near or above the limit, -0db). Visually, this is represented by the waveform’s transient peaks not being visible or not sitting comfortably in the middle of the track.
Conversely, you do not want your input signal to be captured so low, that the waveform looks almost flat. It isn’t really hard, just ensure you get a good level in your preamps, which depending on the instrument will be okay if it gets a little warm, but should never clip.
An example of a signal that should be bordering on warm but not clipping, is a guitar DI oriented towards metal production. A guitar DI (clean, direct instrument signal) such as that will likely be run through a high gain amplifier with plenty of gain staging through effects and other processing. The DI has to be clean but strong to process the right way. Especially when recording live instrumentation (such as live guitar amp/cabs, or percussion), this will be a process of learning by trial and error.
In both cases the concern is that there is permanent damage to the waveform in a way that can’t really be undone. There are are tools that can help repair audio if the damage isn’t too significant, but generally, applying a significant amount of gain to lift recorded audio can also lift ground noise and background noise pollution with it. On the opposite end, when a sound is recorded with too much gain, or too close to a very loud source, even if the gain is lowered, the sibilance and general mid/top end information is damaged, resulting in a crushed or harsh sound.
A well balanced waveform that is both very present but not overly loud:
Prep: Exporting Your Tracks
Different genres of music or recording projects will inform the way your project is built in terms of tracks, track count, buses, processing and how it is best to approach the mix. These pointers are based on the way I work, but should be applicable and beneficial in broad terms.
While these are not hard and fast rules, you want to follow this general guidance:
- Remove effects and processing: When exporting your tracks, make sure you disable all effects on the track when submitting for full mixing. The exception to this rule is if there is an understanding that the mixing engineer will NOT be totally shaping the sound, rather working to mix levels and perhaps pre-master/master.
- Watch your output routing: When exporting tracks for mixing, after disabling effects and processing on the track, make sure that the track isn’t routing through other buses or effects on the master bus. Particularly problematic for the engineer would be leaving processing such as a limiting enabled, which completely affects how they (we) can manipulate the audio properly.
- Exceptions to effects and processing – parallel export: It may be possible that, as stated previously, there’s a special exception where you may be providing a track you’ve already processed. This can happen with vocals, for example.
- An example of this is Lana Del Rey, who has produced her own vocal tracks and very little is affected by the mixing engineer, who is actually focused on the final mix as a whole.
- In these situations, export effect/processing-applied audio tracks in parallel with clean (unaffected) raw tracks.
- Stems (Stereo Sums) versus Multitracks (Individual Audio Tracks): Some sessions for a song can reach a massive number of tracks. (Upwards of 100 or even much more than that.) Managing unwieldy, enormous track counts can be an impossible task. That is why:
- The industry standard is to provide your mixing engineer with the STEMS of your recorded tracks. Stems are stereo summed groups of relevant tracks. For example, one set of stems can be of the vocal performance, and another stem might be for several acoustic guitars, etc.
- Sometimes the best approach is a combination of both. When you have many tracks of a particular type of instrumentation (wind instruments for example), you can group the subset of those tracks that make most sense together, and export them all into a stereo waveform, effectively creating a stem. But in a situation where you have a large drum kit with many individually mic’ed elements, you may want to export some stems (such as Toms) but provide the individual tracks for a snare (a top mic track and a bottom mic track, both of which are in phase with each other) or a kick drum’s front and inside mics. So, care should be taken to which tracks are in a stem (where you’re locked-in and can’t individually control what’s in the stem).
- Sync all tracks (stems or multitracks): Make sure all tracks start at 0:00 and sync with all other tracks in the project. This saves time and a lot of frustration for your mixing engineer.
- Name the tracks logically: Naming your exported track “track 1” doesn’t help me (or anybody) at all. A more helpfully to structure track naming would be “snare-top-sm57,” “snare-bottom-sm57”, “kick-font-beta52,” you get the idea. In a concise naming structure, I’ve provided a great deal of information, the placement of the mic, the instrument it is capturing and even the microphone used (which helps greatly with mixing decisions).
- Provide all details about your song: Unless your engineer was also the recording engineer, you will have to provide information about your track, such as:
- Track Tempo
- Click Track (if available/applicable)
- Rough demo/export: This is invaluable for your engineer to become familiar with the song.
- Reference tracks: No, I can’t make you sound like Sting, or Cannibal Corpse. But if you provide some comparable tracks, we get a better understanding of what your idea and the general style of the song is, making it easier to approximate it, if nothing else.
- Mixing has a DNA: Every mixer has a style of their own (or should). Embrace the fact that although the engineer may aim to approximate the mix to its references, they WILL add their own touch to the sound.
- Yes, I’ll say it again: Help me help you. The collaboration between an artist’s performance and the mixing (and mastering) engineer’s taste is what yields unique and memorable mixes. Straight copying another artist’s style just yields a “wannabe” sound that cheapens your song. It’s important to remember that for a mixer to be following your every command is also counterintuitive; if you knew what the mix needed and had the tools, you wouldn’t have hired a mixer. Let the mixer bring a fresh perspective by letting them do their job.
- Provide constructive feedback, like if you can’t hear an important element, or better yet, ask why they made those mix decisions were made in the first place. You may be surprised to find they were protecting your mix by taking focus off less exciting (or outright bad) elements of the performance. Although I’m very honest about the quality of what I receive to mix, it is not my job to judge your performance, only to mix what you brought the best as I can.
- Allow yourself to live with the mix once it is returned to you. Take fresh notes the very first time you listen to your mix, and then add to or modify your notes on subsequent listening sessions.
- Do not listen to your mix until you are settled in an appropriate environment to really understand the mixing decisions made.
- Give yourself long pauses between mix listening sessions. Listening to your song 1,000 times in a day will NOT lead you in the right direction. Instead, give your song no more than a few listens at a time, and ideally do so across different audio equipment such as speakers, TV’s, headphones, and single driver-type devices such as Amazon Echo, Google Home and other smart, single-speaker devices. If you have a vehicle in which you listen to music often, this would be the ideal place to evaluate the mix, since it’s a space and sound system your ears know well.
- Revisions are NOT unlimited: The average mix review/revision will involve your engineer providing a first mix for your evaluation. It is fully expected that you take a few days to return with notes for the engineer to apply corrections. Then, a final mix will be returned to you with all corrections applied. If there are enough exceptions, the engineer could revise the mix for one more set of corrections and then move on to mastering (if applicable). The same is expected of the mastering session.
- Mixing and mastering are not magic: If your unmixed song sounds good and has an energy that you like, it is likely you’ll love the mixing and mastering process and end up with a great final product. Mixing and mastering will not make a bad recording better. What a mixing engineer (and their tools) can do is make a good recording, great. The goal is to get your captured audio to a professional sound and industry standard quality. Before you submit your song for mixing and mastering, ask yourself if this is of a quality worthy of the investment (in time, effort and money). Being honest with oneself about the quality of what you are working with is essential. A crap performance/recording will only sound like a nicely mixed and mastered crap recording no less.
- There are no do-overs: If you decide to re-record parts of your already completed mix and want it remixed, it’s a new agreement, not an endless extension of the original mix. Once completed, revisiting a song via remix is a new mix.