Getting Started With Aux Tracks & Subgroups

Aux tracks are some of the most powerful tools in any digital audio workstation (DAW) but many new engineers and producers seem to shy away from them. Some seem to think that by being in the digital realm, they’re not needed. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Today, I want to look at the reasons why the best mixers and engineers continue to rely heavily on this basic DAW functionality as a way to properly manage their mix, make better decisions, and ultimately, achieve more professional results.

Aux tracks don’t have to be complicated. Knowing what they offer your workflow and how they impact your sessions is really all you need – the rest of their benefits come down to giving you more creative options as you work.

Let me show you what I mean…

What is an Aux Track?

Aux (short for auxiliary) tracks are tracks in your DAW with all the functionality of an audio track, but without any actual audio printed to it. You may also hear them referred to as aux groups or aux busses. In many DAWs, aux tracks won’t count against your track count as a software limitation, which is great for those using a basic DAW where track limits can be low.

Aux tracks are usually best utilized in the mixer view of your DAW where they’ll look just like any other audio track. You have all of the inserts and sends you’d find on a traditional audio track, as well as panning controls, a fader, solo & mute options. 

Aux tracks aren’t new in the digital audio world – they’ve been around for decades on consoles as Aux Returns or Submixes. The benefits of digital are readily apparent to anyone who has worked with both. Digital aux tracks can be created on the fly and placed inline with your tracks in a way that keeps things organized. You’ll never have more than you need in your session, can add more whenever they’re needed, and you don’t have to go searching at the other end of the console for the track you’re working with. 

Using Aux Tracks For Subgrouping 

Subgroups are a great way to take control of your mix in a really meaningful way. By routing different elements of your mix to subgroups before going to the output of your DAW, you’re able to monitor and process at a group level.

Common subgroups include drums, guitars & vocals, but some engineers take things even further by subgrouping certain parts separately within those groups. A great example would be a vocal-heavy session where you want your backgrounds subgrouped separately from the lead vocal tracks.

As you can imagine, the routing here can get pretty complex – but never more than the combinations you choose to use.

Once grouped accordingly, mixers are able to start working with their tracks at a group level. Aux tracks enable you to mix groups of instruments more efficiently, so the next time your drums are just a bit too quiet in the mix, you have a single aux fader to turn up without impacting any of the individual track levels or their plugins.

Other Common Aux Track Uses

Beyond routing and session management, aux tracks offer you one more place to process your audio. This usually comes in the form of compression and time-based effects, but all plugins are really fair game. Commonly, you’ll hear this referred to as “bus processing”.

Bus processing for mixers who heavily rely on aux tracks comes in the form of gluing their tracks together with compression and saturation. Mixers like Joel Wanasek, who we featured last week, often rely on a series of bus compressors to help them achieve the sounds they want and maximize the effectiveness of their aux tracks.

Beyond compression, mixers also use aux tracks as effect returns instead of printing reverb or delay directly to a track. This adds the flexibility of routing multiple tracks to a single, shared plugin rather than loading up the same thing on each one. Doing so frees up CPU for other tasks and gives you a way to easily raise or lower the level of those effects without needing to go into each track/plugin individually.

Building a Better Signal Chain

If you’re just getting started with aux tracks, it’s fine to go slow! Start by offloading those reverbs and delays, and then move up to more advanced routing when you’re comfortable with how everything works. Building the perfect routing for your workflow takes time!

Once you’ve got the hang of it, start looking at other ways you can improve your sessions. Our eBook, Virtual Signal Chain Secrets, is full of useful ways to improve your signal flow for better processing, better organization, and better sounding mixes! 

Get your copy today!