When we are mixing music, it is super important that our template is well-structured and laid-out. Why? Because we want to make sure that we use our time well, and most importantly that we stay focused and creative for as long as possible.
When working with an orchestra, we use a lot of instruments and articulations. And after we combined everything together, we get a huge palette of many different sounds across the entire project and frequency spectrum.
It's not rare to see projects that exceed the 100 tracks mark. The more we compose, arrange, combine, and layer, the more sounds and instruments we obviously use, and the bigger the projects become in the end.
But there often comes a point where we start to feel a little bit overwhelmed, as what we can't see at the bottom of our screen makes us somehow uncertain – if it's out of reach of our eyes, it feels like we can't really "grab it".
So how do we deal with that then?
Especially when we are mixing orchestral music, cinematic music, or even film music, we need to think in groups. Let me explain:
So when I sit in front of my orchestral composition, I already think ahead of how I would like to structure it for my separate mixing session. I believe it's really important to know as a composer how the workflow of the mixing engineer is – at least in general.
In the following, I give you some basic recommendations on how I like to work and how many other engineers like to see their sessions, so they stay productive, focused, and make quick and effective moves. Don't forget: Time is money!
When I see that I use a lot of different sample libraries in one single project, I bounce them with the same channel name in the export stage – so I already have visual feedback on what the WAV-file is all about. The same goes for the name of the instrument of course and I like to add the playing technique or the instrument's articulation too. Here is an example:
Used library: Albion One by Spitfire Audio
Instrument: Strings or String patch
Articulation: Col Legno
The final export name would be then: AO Strings Col Legno
Because Albion One is not a solo instrument based library and I still want to separate the voices for example between high, mid, low, or Violins, Violas, Cellos, and Basses, I just replace the "Strings" by the imaginary instrument.
➤ AO Violin Col Legno
From there, I export all the instruments I have used in that project with that same scheme. It gives me a clear understanding of what the file is about, what library, instrument, and articulation are being used. First, it's important to save time while looking for instruments and channels, and second, it's really practical not to see the instrument but it's articulation as well, as the engineer already knows which plugins might help the instrument to be more enhanced if needed.
We use the same example, as I have used before: AO Violin Col Legno
Col Legno is a different approach to play a bowed string instrument. You reverse the bow, so the wood hits the strings first, and the sound resonates in a percussive way. When we talk about percussion in general, we think of clear transients that are created by the player or the instrument itself.
Now how does that interact with the mixing engineer?
Well, the mixing engineer is specialized to work with the sound, the music part comes a little bit later. Of course, the main purpose and goal of good engineers should always be to enhance the music as the end result – bring it to "life". But the question the engineers are always asking is: What plugins, techniques, and settings should I use to enhance the sound and the music?
So when I see Col Legno for instance, and I hear that it would make sense to improve the sound to make it more punchy and crisp, I instantly would think of plugins that could enhance the dynamics like transient shapers or VCA compressors. It always depends on the context but sometimes the sound can benefit more by boosting or saturating the frequencies around the main "string sound" when I feel that those same frequencies are masked by other instruments.
When I don't see any information about the articulation or the library too, I potentially lose time, as I could already find the right plugin for improving the sound instead. The big goal is always this: To optimize the workflow, so we don't get lost, lose time, are creative, productive, effective – you name it.
Mixing is a process of super quick choices that engineers make in order to get the sound and music to the next level. Proper preparation of the mixing template is a must, or otherwise, the engineer can't get into "being in the zone", thus concentrating on the project.
Mixing is a creative process too that you don't want to interrupt with tasks like renaming the files, re-checking the audio files, etc.. The ultimate goal of any project is to have as much focus as you can. To have a nice layout of your template, with all the colors that make sense to you, naming the channels and bounced files properly should be your priority, even if you don't hire someone else to mix your music, you will save a lot of time for yourself.
When people ask me to mix their music, I always remind them to name the audio files properly, so I don't get lost and waste my time to rename them for an extra hour. If they do it, they will save my time and their money. If they don't, I will spend more time doing it myself, and because of that, I have to charge them more, as it's my work time too. Remember that in the long run, you will always save more time and energy for your mixing, when you invest some extra time to prepare your session accordingly.
There are many proved studies and tests which say that people tend to lose focus for up to 17 minutes if they feel distracted or are distracted by things that don't support the main task. So if your main task is mixing and being creative, then it would be smart to eliminate all the little things that distract you to achieve your main goal. Implement that, and you will see much better results! There is nothing better than being effective and productive at the same time. If you are – you found your "being in the zone" state!
Another thing that I like to implement is creating groups or sub-groups, and combine the instruments and sounds that make sense to me. For example, all the strings that I have used in my production. This one is obvious of course, however, if you go further you could even create separate folders and sub-groups for articulations like all staccato, legato, etc., that will lead to the main strings bus in your mixing console.
You can actually create sub-groups for libraries too if that would make more sense to you, as every library has a specific sound, and sometimes we want to treat that sound with certain plugins we like. It's all up to you.
One huge time saver for me is combining tracks that were never used before to a scene or the part where they all play together. In my "Final Chase" cue I have one part that plays a trap-like beat. I never used the sounds in the cue before, so I have put them into one folder, thus using just one fader for them together. It saves me extra time because I don't need to find the instruments all over the place if I would have a folder for "Kicks" or "Snares" only.
Again, you need to find a solution that works for you and your project. There are sessions where I change some stuff here and there because it fits the workflow better. There is no right or wrong. It's always up to your character and how you like to approach things. Some principles work for most of the people out there but you don't need to limit yourself only on them. Breaking out of your standards and your comfort zone can work wonders for the next projects to come.
Copy, implement, and make it your own is always the right way to go, no matter if it is creative or logistical work. Your goal should always be to adapt it to your style – never forget that!
Down below you will find my mixing template overview of my "Final Chase" Spitfire Audio Composition Contest. Thank you for read and now enjoy the video! :)
Struggling with your Cinematic Music Game? Then here is your rescue ticket!
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To your success,
Creator of Make Better Music Now
Hi, I’m Alexey aka JLX,
it’s nice to meet you!
I am a Germany based composer,
sound designer, mixing engineer and coach.
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