How Professional Mixers Prep Their Guitar Tracks
Getting a bunch of tracks to play nicely together within your mix is hard enough – you don’t need layers upon layers of guitars slowing you down further.
This is the mentality that many professional mixers abide by today. They look at layered guitars as a way to fill things out and create some glue between their tracks, but they’re not at their mercy. They’re taking control of the guitar tracks in their sessions and molding them into a space sonically that fits their vision.
And while that can be done on the fly while mixing, many find that it’s much easier to get their guitar tracks under control in the editing and prep stages rather than waiting until the actual mix. Here’s what they’re doing differently.
Cleaning Up Their Low-End
The first thing many mixers notice when working with a fresh set of guitar tracks is an extremely prominent low end. This can be just fine when it’s only present in one or two tracks that play nicely with the bass, but it really starts to add up when stacking layers of tracks together. Rather than waiting for the mix, why not clean it up as part of your mix prep?
A hi-pass filter is the easiest way to control this low end without much effort at all. Simply dial in the frequency of your filter to remove the low end that you don’t need and get an instantly tighter track. Do this across a whole collection of tracks and you’ve got a solid start to your guitar mix with just minutes of work.
Before anyone jumps at the chance to say “just record it right in the first place” – consider this. Hi-pass filters are extremely easy to use but trying to boost low end that isn’t present is nearly impossible. Sometimes the “right” way to do things is to capture more than you need during tracking to ensure it’s available for the mix.
Recording engineers never know which of their tracks will make the final mix and often provide more guitar tracks than the mixer actually needs. Rather than doing too much manipulation at the start, leaving the low end in until the mixer decides they don’t need it is usually the best option. These engineers are actually doing you a favor with the approach.
Minimizing Fret Noise & Hiss
While extra low end may be for your benefit, fret noise, hum, buzz, fizz, and hiss certainly aren’t. Still, they’re some of the most prevalent issues in guitar recordings today. Fortunately, they’re just as easy as low end to clean up in your mix prep – resulting in perfectly usable tracks when you get to the actual mix session.
Depending on the problem you’re faced with, consider the options available in your DAW. De-essers are a great solution for fizzy guitar amps or unwanted hiss without cutting out too much of your top end. Just load up the de-esser on your track, find the problem frequency, and let it go to town. What you’ll find is a softening effect – making your guitar track more flexible with EQ and compression where the hiss might have popped out without the de-esser in the chain.
If you find that a de-esser can’t address the unwanted noise you’re facing, some surgical EQ and automation can be the perfect fix. The best part of many of these issues is that they’re infrequent, meaning you only really need to treat for them when they’re audible. Automate the amount of gain reduction on the band you’re working with if needed, but most of the time simply bypassing the EQ until the problem presents itself is more than enough to clean up any one-off issues.
When you’re done, print your track so it’s ready for the mix session.
Tightening Up Their Tracks
Sometimes guitars don’t have any noticeable issues when it comes to low end or noise – they just don’t play nice with each other. Most of the time this is caused by an inconsistent guitarist. It can be tough to pocket your performance during tracking if you’re not comfortable playing to a click track.
While I’m a firm believer in retracking until the performances are as tight as possible, I usually go a step further before mixing a session to make sure the timing is impeccable.
If a guitarist nails their performances, the process is easy. You just listen to your tracks in relation to each other and make a few nudges here or there.
Other times you’ll want to spend a decent amount of time cleaning up the pocketing of each guitar part. The tighter they are to each other, the better your overall guitar mix is going to sound. It’s up to you if you choose to do this manually by slicing up the track, using a tool like Pro Tools’ Elastic Audio, or using a 3rd party plugin like VocALign (yes – it works on more than just vocals).
Try out a few different options and go with the approach that’s most intuitive to you. If you find yourself spending hours of your time cleaning up guitar tracks, drums, and vocals, a couple hundred dollars toward a more automated solution can be a lifesaver for your workflow.
Mixing Guitars Made Easy
Guitars fill a ton of different roles in music depending on the genre, artist, and even song. Cleans, ambient parts, rhythms, leads… it can be a lot to balance. By the time you factor in double tracking, you’re often looking at a dozen tracks or more of guitars in even a basic session.
With so many different tones flying around your session, you need a system to make them all work together. If that part of your workflow is missing today, check out our Toneforge Bootcamp – the perfect solution for those looking to find any tone and make it work within the context of their mix.