DAW workflow and organization for faster mixing
Lyrics of Andy Lloyd-Russell
How to work smarter, not harder, in your DAW.
Recording and mixing sessions in a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) can be intimidating, with so many audio tracks, MIDI tracks, auxiliary tracks, subgroups and the list goes on. With all of this in mind, it’s easy for our brains to end up like a bowl of spaghetti; all tangled in the routing and endless scrolling of the mouse. Fortunately, there are a few simple things we can do to quickly tidy up our sessions to maximize efficiency and increase workflow. I will focus on the tools available in the latest version of AVID Pro Tools, but the principles are the same and can be implemented in what is available in other DAWs.
- Clear track labeling, color coding, and ordering are essential for being able to quickly navigate and make changes to your mix.
- Grouping tracks with the use of auxiliaries and VCAs can help you assign multiple tracks at once while maintaining control over their individual parameters.
- Keeping your session clean and tidy will help you mix faster, but also your collaborators because it allows them to see exactly what is happening within your session.
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Layout, labeling and color coding
One of the easiest ways to keep a session tidy is to establish a consistent session layout, clear track labeling, and for those who like a little more pizazz, color coding.
In a typical band recording or mixing session, we would expect to see an assortment of audio tracks typically consisting of drums, bass, guitars, piano / keyboard, percussion, and vocals. Even in this relatively simple example, things can start to get complicated when you try to maintain control over these different elements in a session window. Having a worded layout of how the tracks are displayed is so helpful, I would go so far as to say it’s calming; and allows a quick and light navigation of a session.
For the sake of arguments and starting from the left of the screen we usually start with the drums and when we move to the right we would have the bass and then when we scroll further we come to other items such as guitars, piano / keys, percussion and vocals. Once an order has been established that works for your workflow, I recommend that you stick with it. This will not only save your brain for more important tasks, but it will become second nature when navigating even the densest sessions.
Labeling is the following and important. The key here is to keep it simple, easy to read at a glance, and if you use abbreviations, make them clear and obvious. For the drums, for example, you could have a few mics on the kick drum. Instead of labeling them something vague like Kick 1 and Kick 2, something like Kick In (for the mic placed inside the drum) and Kick Out (for the mic placed outside the drum) would be a good starting point, and so on the line. If more specific information is needed, it can be placed in a comments section or the like.
Finally, the color coding. While not necessarily for everyone, color coding can be great for quickly discerning items at a glance. Most DAWs offer options to make color coding blatant or more subtle. Having the color of audio clips or regions match that of the track color is a great way to keep a mixing session really easy to navigate, to watch, and arguably less visually tiring. Much like the aforementioned layout and labeling examples, once you’ve decided on the colors you like for your different instruments, stick to them. This will be especially useful when you go back to sessions from years past, trust me.
Auxiliary tracks, groups and VCA
When it comes to creating recording or mixing sessions, organizing different instruments and outputting them to auxiliary tracks (otherwise known as buses or subgroups) is useful for many reasons. Without getting too technical, this allows us to route all of the individual audio tracks of a drum kit, for example, to a single stereo fader. This allows for quick control of the entire drums by moving a single slider instead of multiple sliders and it also allows us to add processing such as EQ and compression to the entire drums.
Auxiliary tracks are also a great way to set up and place an effects processor, where we can send multiple tracks to a specific effect at the same time. Fortunately, this saves us from placing delays and reverbs on individual tracks, which in turn saves a lot of computer processing power. A victory for both man and machine. This also goes back to the efficiency of a session layout, and keeping all of your aux effects tracks together is a great practice.
Grouping is another powerful feature of DAWs for recording and mixing, as they allow us to control how tracks can interact with each other.
Group parameters can get pretty deep, but they’re generally incredibly useful for cutting, soloing, and controlling the volume of multiple tracks simultaneously. When recording, allowing a group of microphones for example to be activated for recording at the same time cannot be underestimated. It might not sound so astronomical, but it does mean that hitting record literally saves hundreds of times less in a session, it’s a lot of time saved! Another great trick with groups is to allow the same processing to occur on multiple tracks that share the same insert processing. This is great for things like overhead where you will generally have the same EQ and compression settings. But instead of having to copy things back and forth, the band does it automatically.
VCAs (Voltage Controlled Amplifiers) are a great addition to the DAW world. They’ve been around in analog mixing consoles for decades, but in the world of digital recording they’re extremely useful. Simply put, VCAs are a volume control fader that is fed from an existing group of tracks; they do not affect routing and do not have an insert or send slot.
While it might not sound very exciting, they are fantastic throughout the mix. A particularly useful feature of VCAs in Pro Tools is the ability to adjust the volume of individual tracks that already have volume automation written down. Normally, you can’t adjust the positions of the faders on tracks that a volume automation is written to, but they simply return to the position they were in before they were adjusted. However, if a group of tracks feed a VCA, we can adjust the VCA fader, which in turn will adjust the fader positions of those grouped tracks, while retaining all automation data relating to the new fader positions. This is especially useful if volume adjustments are needed towards the end of a mix or during a mix review. Conversely, you can write automation for a group of tracks by simply writing it to their corresponding VCA fader, which is pretty handy.
Something that has been around for a long time in many DAWs, but relatively new to Pro Tools, is folders. Anyone dealing with more than 80-100 track sessions or for those working in post-production will especially appreciate the blessings records brought to a session.
Referring specifically to Pro Tools folders (you’ll need to check the specific parameters available in other DAWs), there are two types of folders available, Basic and Routing. Basic folders are great for cleaning up a busy session and properly storing tracks without affecting routing already established. They only have solo and mute buttons, are purely organizational and wonderful for doing just that.
Routing folders go a step further and essentially act as an auxiliary track with the added functionality of being a folder. They have insert and send locations, as well as input and output routing assignments. This is great for keeping multiple tracks all routed together via a mono or stereo fader, and can simply be opened or closed as needed, very tidy indeed. Using folders in sessions of any size is great for keeping a screen from getting too cluttered or scrolling endlessly to find that lead guitar track. If you don’t already know them, I can’t recommend them enough.
For my part, I’m incredibly grateful for the tools we have at our disposal today to help us keep our recording and mixing sessions clean and under control. There are no hard or fast rules here, but exploring and finding an organized workflow that works for you will not only save you time, but free your mind to focus on the creative elements of recording mixing. . Forget about the days when you were told to tidy our rooms, enjoy the time of well-organized DAW sessions.
Find out more in our ProTools Carbon review.