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[Mixing] Terminology & Common Practices

category: Music | course: Music Mixing | difficulty:

Before we can continue, I feel it is necessary to explain a lot of jargon that surrounds the music editing industry. Lots of difficult or seemingly irrelevant words are used for simple and basic concepts, and not knowing those can make it much harder for you to find your way around a DAW.

I’ll also include what I think is the best and most common way to setup new projects, master an album when you already have a collection of songs and optimal workflow.

Terminology

  • Monitoring. Listening to certain parts (or the whole) composition, with the intention of hearing whether there are any mistakes or if you like how it is now.
  • Track. A single part of the composition. The track can have an instrument fixed to it, or several audio files on it. A track can be muted (you don’t hear it), solo’d (you only hear this one) and be record enabled (if you press record, record the audio to this track).
  • Layers or Takes. These are not the same as tracks. They can be used if you have different recordings of the same piece of the song, and want to save them all. Most DAW’s allow you to quickly cycle through them and pick some piece out of each to assemble the best possible audio for that part.
  • Envelope. A channel that is on almost every track/instrument/effect, that sits around it ‘like an envelope’. It is usually represented by two lines above and below (the track), and you can drag them around to determine volume at certain parts, in what ear to play the current track, etc.
  • Bus. A track that gets other tracks as input and can then apply something to all of them. You can see it as a way to group music-wise connected tracks, so you can apply the same effect on all of them.
  • Automation. Animating with keyframes. This means nothing more than setting different levels for certain settings within the same piece of audio/midi.

 

Mono vs Stereo

Mono means that a sound is output on a single channel. If you have multiple speakers, both will output exactly the same sound, at every spot. Stereo is when the sound is output using two channels, LEFT and RIGHT. As most people nowadays have earplugs or headphones that support this, it is used most of the time, as it provides a much better experience.

The rule here is: if your song sounds good in mono, it will sound good in stereo. If your song sounds good in stereo, you will need to check mono because you can’t be sure. And while we’re on the subject: checking a composition in mono is always a good idea, as it points out mistakes or things that just don’t sound quite right yet.

Audio vs MIDI

These are the two main ways to record and create music. They both have their own purpose and workflow, and I’ll touch on those only lightly here:

Audio is recorded with a microphone. It represents raw recordings or something you sang or played in front of that mic. It is usually represented in the software by a sound wave with amplitudes showing volume at certain spots. Computers can’t really analyze this, so you have to listen to hear what frequencies are in there, what the tempo is, etc. Audio is therefore best for vocals and guitar-like instruments (and drums, if you have multiple mics to record every piece separately).

MIDI is recorded with a midi device, usually midi keyboard. It’s a collection of notes, played at certain moments and for a certain amount of time. It is usually represented in the software by lots of small rectangles at different heights and with different lengths. Because the data is so basic, it can be applied to any instrument within your DAW. If you’ve recorded a composition with your MIDI keyboard, you can assign a Grand Piano to the track and it will sound like it was played on that kind of instrument. MIDI is therefore best for creating artificial/non-natural sounds or using instruments you don’t have in your possession.

AUDIOvsMIDI

Common Practices

First of all, it is recommended to start every project completely fresh – don’t import or use a template, as it is most likely to hinder your creative process, or it will at least make all your productions sound the same.

When you’ve done that, I think it is wise to create buses. Create one for every group you’re going to use (drums, bass, string, piano, guitars, etc.). If your DAW allows it, you can also create actual groups inside the software for them and put every track where it should be. If it doesn’t however, just create all the tracks in a logical order.

What is a logical order? Well, it depends on your song, but it is always said that you should start with the most prominent or important instrument(s). If your song has drum in it, start with that to get the rhythm right. If there’s bass (which there almost always should be), use that to get the very basic notes and melodies right. If the main chord progression is played by a piano, bring that into play now. If there’s some guitar melodies and a solo in there, only now start to add that.

There is however some space for your own decisions here. If that guitar solo lasts 2 minutes and is the turning point of your song, you might want to start earlier in getting it right. If the chord progression on piano is playing through the whole song and always prominent, you might want to start earlier with that. It’s up to you how you balance prominence and importance of instruments.

I recommend color coding and correctly labeling all your tracks, as it gets messy before you know it. I also recommend first creating the optimal settings and effects for every bus before going in and tweaking individual instruments.

Wait until you’re finished

Of course, while recording you want to make sure the recording is of a good quality, nothing went wrong, and you might want tweak it a little bit.

But, I recommend you stop there and wait until you’re finished recording everything before starting the mix process. Tweaking a single track to sound great is useless, if it sounds bad when playing along all the other instruments. First look at the track as a whole, and mixing that should make the song sound good enough to be produced. Then go in and tweak the little, subtle things to make it the best quality you can possibly get.

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