How To Simplify A Cluttered Mix Session

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I can’t tell you the last time I got a session from a recording engineer with fewer than 40 or 50 tracks in it. For the most part, I get sessions with double, triple, and quadruple that amount. It comes with the territory for the clients and genres I work with.

For many new producers and engineers, these types of sessions can be intimidating. Maybe you went a little to far during tracking and captured too many tracks. Maybe you have exactly what you need, but you’re trying to figure out what to do with all of it. After all, how can you easily monitor and mix everything when you can’t even keep the majority of it on your screen at the same time?

But the mix session doesn’t have to be intimidating, and if you’re like me, the challenge of getting sometimes hundreds of tracks to work together in a final mix can be an exciting challenge. You might not know where to start, but hopefully what I can share with you today will help break down any mental barriers and get you in the right mindset to start mixing more efficiently.


The Basics of Any Session

If you look at almost every modern session you work on, there are basic elements of your song that are present each and every time. Sometimes you’ll have more of one than the others, which is completely fine. They’re still the same elements.

  • Drums
  • Bass
  • Guitars
  • Vocals
  • Keys (Synths/Production Sounds included)

Beyond that, you’re rarely going to have much else, and when you do, you’re likely to have one of them to deal with, not dozens.

Let’s start with your drums. You’ll have your kick and snare, your toms, your cymbals & your room mics and overheads. You might have a programmed drum loop or live percussion. Snaps, claps, and shakers all fall into this group too. How you split them up and work with them is completely up to you, but bussing them all down to a single Drum or Percussion aux track can make them easy to manage and monitor.

Your bass may not need any type of grouping at all if you’re just working with a single instrument, but sometimes your sessions are going to require a bit more. I often find myself either supplementing bass with a synth for added consistency or some parallel processing to get an especially aggressive bass tone while retaining the original dynamics of the source track. Regardless of how you treat your bass, it always comes back to being a single element of your mix.


Your guitar tracks on the other hand might have many different roles to fill. Your session might contain layers and layers stacked on top of each other if you’re building a wall of sound in your mix. You could have clean and distorted tones playing back at the same time. Rhythms need to provide a foundation while leaving room for lead guitar parts and vocals. But at the end of the day, they’re all guitars that share the same frequency range (generally speaking).

Similarly, your vocals are going to play very different roles in your session, from screams to cleans and everything between them. Vocals are often doubled and backgrounds can include all kinds harmonies, but segmenting them all into their own group can be extremely helpful when keeping a session organized.

Finally, you’ve got your synths, pads & everything else. These are the things that might provide consistency throughout your mix, or they might be one-off sounds that add to the overall production. There’s so much variety here that it’s hard to provide specific guidance, but anything you’re programming that doesn’t quite fit the other buckets can usually find a home here.


Why These Groups Matter

Does it feel like I’m oversimplifying things a bit? Perfect, because I am – and that’s a good thing.

If I had to dive into every session and start mixing without these groups, I’d never get anything done. Even if I’m just mentally breaking them up from the start, it helps me quantify what I need to do and where my focus should be. It’s no longer “150+ tracks”. It’s 5 groups that I’m familiar with and confident mixing because I’ve mixed them hundreds of times before.

Sub-Grouping

I’m not saying that you need to stop with these 5 groups – there are infinite combinations of subgroups that can be nested inside of them. If you’re working on your drums, you might consider bussing your shells to a different subgroup than your overheads or rooms. This is often done so that different levels of compression and other bus processing can happen where it makes most sense.

Commonly, background vocals will get their own reverbs and delays than what gets used on the lead vocals. This helps create separation between the two, letting your leads jump right out to the front of the mix. This type of mixing can be easily achieved through a subgroup.

The point is that it makes sense for them to always come back together on a single aux track. By doing this, you can glue the individual tracks together to make a single cohesive group. You can monitor what that group is doing more closely, which helps you identify problems more quickly than diving through page after page of individual tracks.


Starting From Stems

If the idea of working with a massive session is still intimidating, starting from stems can help you ease into the concept of group processing. Stems are essentially pre-mixed tracks, commonly used for remixes. If you search the web, there are plenty of stems that you could be practicing group processing with.

Think of each stem as your aux track – all of your drums, guitars, etc. bundled together. Start experimenting with bus processing like compression and limiting to see how each group reacts. This quick but simple exercise can quickly get you up to speed with how aux tracks and groups should be working within your own sessions!


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