I’ve been mixing a lot these days, and in order to keep up, I’ve had to streamline and improve my workflow as much as possible.
Deep inside, I always knew that time efficiency was a key component of the job. But the more I mix, the more I realize just how important it really is.
The more you can free yourself from doing all the little pesky tasks, the more you can focus on your actual craft:
Being creative, serving the music and—perhaps most importantly—occasionally zooming out from the minutiae of mixing to dive back into the production with a bigger and better perspective on the song.
If you can take 30 seconds to dial in a plugin setting instead of 1 minute and 30 seconds, that is one minute saved on a task that you might repeat hundreds of times or more throughout the mix.
So in that spirit, I would like to share some of the tricks that I’ve come up with over the years to help optimize efficiency while mixing. In this post, I’ll focus on working in Logic Pro and Pro Tools, although these concepts apply to any other DAW as well.
The idea here is not to dwell on the tedium of setting up your sessions and mixing templates, but to suggest some immediately actionable ideas that may enhance your dexterity (and sense of nerdy self-satisfaction) while at work on your own mixes. Let’s dive right in!
1. Organize your plugins
I’m sure anyone who has read this far loves having a variety of plugins on hand. And I’m sure you also know that once you start installing your favorite software suites, plus some new demos, plus the ones your friends installed for their own sessions, your computer becomes crowded with a plethora of plugins. This can become very confusing—especially when all you want to do you is just grab the right tool quickly.
So what if—instead of browsing through long lists of software by manufacturer— you could just search by categories alone? For instance, you can simply grab “Plugins -> EQs -> Scheps 73” in less than 5 seconds, rather than scrolling through brand by brand.
This is a function that has been around in Pro Tools since version 6.9, and it’s accessible in Preferences -> Display -> “Organize Plug-In Menus By”. To make things even faster, you can also “favorite” your most-used plugins by holding the CMD key (CTRL on a PC) while clicking on them. This pins the selected plugin to the top of your plugin menu for super-quick and easy access later.
Did you know this function also exists in Logic Pro, and to an even more customizable degree? It’s under Preferences -> Plug-in Manager. There, you can create your own categories in the left column, simply dragging your favorite plugins into them to create your own customized lists.
2. Create your own mixing template
There is a myriad of articles and tutorials on this topic, and it is not something not to be taken lightly. There is a reason that top engineers so often start off their mixing tutorials with this. When you start experimenting with a good template, you inevitably begin to understand how much easier and just how time-saving it is to work with one, compared to without.
I use a custom mix template in Logic Pro X, where I route all my subgroups—Drums, Percussion, Bass, Guitars, Keys, Lead Vocals, Back Vocals & Effects—to different channels of my summing box. I could never imagine giving it up now.
For some in-depth tutorials on making your own template right here on SonicScoop, try some of the MixCon walkthroughs featuring mix templates from major pros like Marc Urselli, Bob Power, and Joey Raia.
3. Split your tracks into sub-tracks to deal with tonal changes
One of the first things I do now as I’m setting up my session is to try to identify which tracks are composed of one large region, but should not actually be just one region.
This is most often the case on instruments that vary greatly in the way they are played throughout the development of the song.
Take for instance, a guitar part that was tracked live, in which the verses are palm-muted, but which suddenly opens up during the chorus into a very big, sustained and effected chord strumming pattern. Maybe there is even a third, very distinct sound later on the same track!
Common sense tells you that you probably won’t apply the exact same sonic treatments on all of these drastically different guitar parts. So it’s extremely handy to split that one guitar into several different sub-tracks: GTR_verse, GTR_chr, GTR_bridge, and so on.
This way, you avoid the mistake of trying to get away with using just one track, with countless plugin automations at play. Too often, I’ve forgotten to do this and tried to force it to work, bypassing and un-bypassing many plugins, or automating EQ curves to fit all the different tonal changes. Ouch! Why take all that time, when the results are no better?
4. Reach for plugins that are faster to use
Of course we all know that sound quality should always prevail when it comes to mixing. But in today’s production world, where you can sometimes find hundreds of tracks in one session, there is a big argument to be made for ease-of-use when it comes to plugin selection. And you don’t necessarily have to compromise on sound quality either.
For instance, if you find yourself wanting to throw on a multi-band compressor, would you use a Waves C6 or a FabFilter Pro-MB? Often, the best way to answer this is to ask another question: Which one are you able to set up the fastest?
Personally, I feel that the FabFilter will usually get the job done for me in about half the time of the Waves, with a similar (if not better) sound quality. Also, the FabFilter features a wet/dry function that can save me even more time later on, should I need to split the difference on the tweaks I’ve done, dialing the knob back to 50%.
So my advice is to make a habit of weighing your options in terms of time consumption, because once again, every minute saved in dialing-in your settings will add up to a more productive session at the end of the day.
5. Save your own presets
I put this one up next on the list, because sometimes, even though you want to go fast, there are plugins that that can be slower to set up but are worth using anyway.
Sometimes, a sluggish or convoluted plugin can be worth it, especially when it really does offer better sound quality, or will do something that no other plugin in your arsenal can. Fortunately, you can still add efficiency, even in these cases.
In order to offset the time it takes to set these plugins up, I recommend saving your own presets with basic settings that are already dialed-in much of the way, so you only need to fine-tune them later.
One example in my workflow would be the brainworx bx_dynEQ v2, an active EQ that I find to be absolutely great, but to be a pain in the butt to set up! Because of this, I created 3 presets that I usually start from: “Tame harshness 3kHz”, “Tame honkiness 300Hz”, & “Soften treble 6kHz”.