Last week, during Soundfly’s Office Hours #4, I sat down with Grammy-nominated audio engineer and instructor of our acclaimed online course, Faders Up: Advanced Mix Techniques, Kenta Yonesaka, and producer/songwriter Josh Conway out of Los Angeles to discuss the most crucial steps to take to properly prepare a track for a mix engineer, and common missteps to avoid along the way.
You can watch the full Office Hours episode below, but for now, here are some key takeaways from this conversation, aimed at songwriters, producers, and even you budding mix engineers out there!
If you’re learning to mix at home on a DIY level, that’s awesome. For some extra help along the way, check out our intermediate and advanced online mixing courses, to work with a professional producer on improving your skills and technique. Or, share your specific musical goal with us, and a Soundfly Mentor can help you achieve them!
In this Soundfly Office Hours session, we’re discussing the most crucial steps you need to take to properly prepare a track for a mix engineer, and common missteps along the way that you should avoid. Featuring Grammy-nominated audio engineer Kenta Yonesaka, producer/songwriter Josh Conway, and Soundfly Mentor Martin Fowler!Here are just a few questions we’ll cover:• How do you stem out a session to send to a mixer?• Do you print effects directly onto stems, or not?• How much EQ, compression, or other effects do you use on your tracks as you produce them (vs. allowing your mixer to shape sounds), and why?As always, this event will include a live audience Q&A, so post your questions below for our production and mixing experts!
Posted by Soundfly on Thursday, August 30, 2018
1. There’s no such thing as too much communication
So much confusion arises simply out of poor communication. When you and your mix engineer are on the same page about your expectations (e.g., what the workflow should be, how much sonic sculpting to anticipate, and what kind of technical specifications are necessary), you’ll be much more likely to get the results you’re hoping for from the mixing process.
Here are a few common questions to consider ahead of getting someone else started working on your tunes:
- In what format will you be delivering your song to your mixer? Is it a full Pro Tools or Logic or [insert DAW here] session? If so, does your mixer have the same version and all the same plugins you have in your session, and are they up to date?
- If you’re sending stems along instead, how many are you sending? Are you separating everything into individual stems, or are there groups of tracks you could bounce into single stems (e.g., “String Quartet” versus “Cello,” “Viola,” “Violin I,” and “Violin II” stems)?
- Do you have effects on your sounds? If so, the engineer may want separate “effects” stems for each of your send FX (e.g., “Plate Reverb,” “Tape Echo,” etc.). If you absolutely love the quality of the reverb on the tracks already, and you would like to work with them as is, you can print it directly onto the stem. But it’s always best to confirm beforehand.
- Do you have any significant Master Bus processing that affects the sound in a way you like? If you want that to be a part of your stems, make sure you mention that, or let your engineer try to match that sound on their end.
- How much headroom does your mixer need to leave for mastering? Ultimately your engineer will already know to take this into consideration, but make sure you tell them which formats this mix will ultimately be released on (e.g., vinyl, CD, cassette, or digital).
Throughout the process, there’s no such thing as too much communication. Verifying that certain creative choices were made with intention (and that possible mistakes are not actually accidents) helps the engineer understand the song that much better, and will always lead to stronger end results. It’s better to confirm your idea rather than assume someone knows what you’re thinking.
2. Decide who’s doing what
Every producer, home-recording songwriter, and mix engineer works slightly differently. Some like to make a lot of commitments to overall sound choices early on in the process, while others like to leave the sonic sculpting to a mixer they trust.
As an artist, if you feel strongly about how something sounds or how you’d like it to sound, be clear about what you’re expecting the engineer to touch and what to leave alone. These days, it’s so easy to make very drastic tonal choices in the box with simple, inexpensive software, so a lot of songwriters and producers will bring a set of stems to a mixer that sound pretty close to what they ultimately want to hear. This is all fair play in the mixing work arrangement.
On the other side of that coin, if you haven’t made a lot of those choices, and you’d like your engineer to impart their own creative decisions into the process (especially when it comes to EQ, compression, panning, and even time-based effects or parallel effects like distortion), it’s always helpful to give them basic guidelines. You may not know exactly what you want, but you probably know how much is too much.
A good mixer will likely be conservative in these choices unless they’re unleashed by the explicit permission of the artist to do whatever they want!
3. Make it easy for your mix engineer
A happy mix engineer makes for happy mixes. Here’s how to keep them happy:
- Give them what they want. They’ll probably work with you in whatever format you prefer, but ask them if they have a preferred delivery method. Do they prefer 48k WAV files? A Pro Tools session? Find out!
- Be consistent. If you’re sending stems, be sure to give them all the same type of file, all at the same sample and bit rate, and with the same 0:00 start time. It avoids all kinds of technical problems down the line.
- Keep it simple. Name your stems clearly and succinctly. It’s so much more helpful for the engineer to work with a stem called “synth 1,” as opposed to “SuperD00P3-Prophet12ax-24b-take3-r44-postroland201-noeq-4.” And imagine if you had to hop on the phone to tell them about an issue in that track? Jeez Louise!
4. There’s no “status quo” for how your music should sound
At one point in the Office Hours session, Josh says that he often prefers his own demos to the studio takes of songs, as well as some rougher mixes he’s heard from popular artists he listens to. It’s important to keep in mind that mixing can, if you want, be a tool to make your track sound like other artists, but it can also be a tool that you use to sculpt your own sonic identity.
It’s totally possible to leave a song sounding “rough” or “lo-fi.” And although it might sound counterintuitive, the mixing process can actually help that aesthetic come together even better than leaving something “unmixed.”
It’s all up to you as an artist to set the vision in place, to get experimental and try new things — that’s your job. It’s the job of the engineer to be professional in their approach, accommodating to your needs, and thorough in their execution. So get in there, mess around, and have fun!
“Just go with your gut and, if you like how it sounds, just release it.” – Josh Conway
Learn more about using these modern era mixing techniques (like EQ, compression, level and pan setting, digital signal processing, FX sends, and more) from some of today’s leading sound engineers, and learn alongside a professional Mentor invested in helping you reach your goals! Preview our Faders Up course series, Modern Mix Techniques and Advanced Mix Techniques, for free today. Or feel free to let us know what you’re working on and we’ll find a Mentor suited to help you reach your goals!