March 27, 2023
Speed isn’t everything when mixing, but it is nice to get done with things and still have time for life and other work. Not to mention, if you’re busy or need to get a lot done, it’d be nice if every mix didn’t take three days. Here are some tried and true methods for speeding up mixes in the studio without sacrificing quality.
First things first in any mix space – you have to be able to hear accurately. This means decent studio monitors or headphones that you’re used to, acoustic treatment, and possibly room correction if you need a bit of extra cleanup. It also means if you have a subwoofer, you should calibrate it correctly.
Once you can really hear what you’re doing, your mixes will go faster because you can trust it, and you don’t miss crucial details due to muddy sound.
Recreating commonly used settings can eat up a lot of time. You can speed up quite a bit by creating templates and plugin presets for settings you always use. For example, if you consistently use a particular dynamic EQ setting to sidechain kick and bass, there’s no reason to have to build that from scratch. The same goes for moves you always make to vocals or other instruments. Similarly, if you always set up your busses the same way, with the same basic plugin layout, set up templates that you can call up lickidy split to save all that set up time. If you mix various genres, you can always set up go-to templates for rock, hip-hop, jazz, and so on.
Organization goes right along with templates. Many new mixers make the mistake of letting tracks be placed willy-nilly, with cryptic names and jumbles of various tracks everywhere. Things can get messy during the creative process, but the more you can organize the better – and if you’re producing the track, you can do this from the start.
Do things like organize your tracks in the same order every time, utilize folders to save screen space and allow you to do things like solo all drums at once or mute all backing vocals at once. Take advantage of color coding to make things easy to spot and name your tracks with obvious descriptive names. Especially try to avoid using the names of band members as opposed to things like “rhythm guitar” or “piano”. Even if you do remember that Joe plays banjo, that extra brain time to get from “Joe” to “banjo” in your head can add up.
You can set up a well-organized mix session once and save it as a template – along with commonly used presets, and your mix time will plummet. Even when tracks don’t line up exactly to the template, you’ll only need a few tweaks. While you’re at it, consolidate tracks when possible – for example if lead vocals are broken into verse, chorus, bridge, etc. with no crossover, it’ll help you to put them all on one track for mixdown.
Most of the best mixers in the world make a point of mixing quickly, especially at first when setting up the initial balance. In today’s world of highly precise plugins and numbers, it’s easy to get lost in the minutia of tweaking that EQ by .01 dB and watching the meters and graphs. Those tools can help, especially when there’s a problem, but for the most part if you listen to the track rather than watch it, things come together faster. That’s why any good mix environment needs to be well treated with accurate monitoring – so you can trust those instincts.
While you’re at it, be sure to calibrate your ears before any mix session, by listening to a few mixes that are in the same vein as the song you’re mixing. Be sure to listen at a reasonable to low volume, and just get re-oriented as to how the balance of a finished track sounds in your space. Even when you’re used to your space, this is good practice and can speed up your process.
There’s a romance in the music world about the all-nighter, the long mix session, the obsessive nature of things. But if you sit for too long, you’ll start to lose perspective, and before long you’ll start to change what shouldn’t be changed, ruin the mix, and set yourself back hours. Instead of going headlong into a mix, plan for discrete work blocks, and take real breaks periodically. Follow common advice for anyone who works at a desk. Stand up and move a little every half hour, take a 15-minute break every two hours, and take an hour off every four. Some mixers and engineers even make it a policy never to book more than four hours in the studio at once. Be sure to keep things quiet on your breaks. Your ears need a break, so it’s not a good time to listen to other music, especially at high volumes.
Finally, a generalized word of advice – pay attention to your workflow and look for things that slow you down. These things could be pretty personal, but when you notice them, consider how you might change them. For example, if you find yourself leaning forward, peering at tiny things on your screen, and squinting, you either need glasses, a bigger monitor, or both. These moments cost you time and energy, which also slows you down.
Another example is if you find yourself making a lot of changes with the mouse that would be easier with faders, consider a control surface. Even a simple 8 channel surface can speed you up a lot. Similarly, if you make it a point to learn the keyboard shortcuts for common mouse moves, you can save time there too.
Pay attention to your own personal inefficiencies, and do what you can to eliminate them, even if they’re weird. For example, if you’re jittery and making a lot of mistakes while also getting up to pee too often, consider not drinking coffee during mix sessions. Again, these things may be odd and extra personal!
Mixing is an involved art, and you certainly can’t rush it. But that’s the exact reason you need to make it efficient. If you’re not, you could find yourself trying to make up time with things that need slow attention. Plus, once you get really efficient, there’s a lot more joy in the process.
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