How To Separate Tracks In A Dense Mix

What’s the largest session you’ve ever worked on? 50 tracks? 100 tracks? 200?

At what point do you start losing individuality between the tracks and start muting instruments for space? Sure, there are plenty of times where you want a wall of sound, but too many sounds at once can just become noise.

Well I’ve got some good news for those of you that like pushing the limits of your DAW:

It’s 100% possible to maintain isolation & quality of hundreds of tracks in a mix.

You just need to know what you’re doing. You need to be an audio ninja; act on problems swiftly and efficiently. Make precise edits and you’ll soon see that your 100+ puzzle pieces all have room to fit together in a dense mix.

Start With A Plan

You can’t go into a dense mix blindly and hope that you’ll find some kind of magical clarity to the whole thing. Sometimes you can’t be involved with the tracking, and the first time you load up the session is the first time you’re hearing the song. That’s completely fine.

Take some time to listen through the song, no matter how rough the mix is. Solo and mute as needed to find out what everything is doing. Take notes when you hear potentially conflicting sounds. Make yourself a road map before you touch a single pan knob or plugin.

The more instruments there are at this stage, the longer you should spend. It’s not unrealistic to spend a while listening to the rough tracks, walk away for a bit to think it over, and come back with fresh ears for the actual mix.

If you don’t make a plan, you risk running your mix into the ground due to volume creep and other problems. I’ve seen it too many times where someone starts a mix, builds up the main instrumentation, and before they ever get to the vocals their clipping the output of their DAW. This problem isn’t isolated to dense tracks, but the risk of having it happen grows with each mix element added to a song.

Treat Surgically

Your frequency spectrum is a finite space. You get 20 Hz – 20 kHz, that’s it.

As such, you’ve got to do everything in your power to reclaim some of that space in a dense mix. High-pass filters are a great place to start when the majority of your instruments are building up unnecessary content below 100 Hz. Save that space for your kicks, bass instruments & bass drops for maximum impact. Similar results can be found when rolling off high frequencies to make room for cymbals.

Likewise, you’re going to want to use EQ to carve out space around your instruments that share similar frequency ranges. It’s not uncommon for vocals to share a similar space to electric guitars, so finding a balance between the two is a must.

Try finding the space that your lead vocal occupies and notch some of those frequencies from your guitars a few dB. You’ll find your vocals sitting much better, with little impact to your guitar’s tone in most cases.

While 20 Hz – 20 kHz sounds like a huge range; you’ve got many, many overlapping ranges occupied by each instrument. Finding isolation for each element of your mix is half the battle when trying to add more and more tracks to a song.

Use The Space Between Your Speakers

Panning is one of the other big elements to finding space in a dense mix. As we’ve discussed before, there’s no point in forcing your mix into three locations when there’s so much space between your speakers.

As a starting point, there’s nothing wrong with asking yourself, “Do I want this to go to the left, center, or right?” But once that question’s been answered, the follow-up should always be “How far in that direction?”

There are plenty of tools out there to help you place your tracks subtly around each other, with the most common ones being stock in most DAWs: Delay & Reverb. If you’re looking to take your plugin options to the next level, a spatial widener like SideWidener can also add a new approach to your stereo tracks.

If you’re looking for more ways to add depth to your mix, we’ve got some of our favorites here.

Control Your Tracks, Don’t Let Them Control You

If you’re looking to pack your mix with sonic goodness, you’ve got to control every aspect of every instrument. You need to be able to tame your transients. You need to watch your peaks and make them work for you.

The easiest way to do this is by using a limiter to catch those peaks and pull them back in line. I’m not talking about crushing your tracks, just using enough limiting to focus their sound. And the more controls your limiter has, the better you can control the source audio.

For powerful multi-function limiting, tools like Finality are a lifesaver. Any limiter can limit (obviously) but being able to control Color, Aggression & Hard/Soft Limiting modes give you a dozen options to choose from.

Additionally, having an Auto Gain & built-in High-Pass Filter make your job easier, which will save you time and effort when treating dozens of tracks.

Can It Really Be That Simple?

Yes. Yes it can.

Working with a bunch of tracks in your session doesn’t have to be rocket science, but you should know what you’re in for with a session of that size. Making a plan, controlling your tracks & surgically placing them in the right space can go a long way while still leaving room for creativity and more advanced techniques as you see fit.

For more tips on how to handle massive sessions and discussions with like-minded producers and engineers, head over to the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum on Facebook.