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Mixing in Pro Tools 9 (HD Native) – Part 1 February 23, 2011

Posted by ConnorSmith in : Avid, Mixing, Pro Tools , trackback

I’ve been up and running with Pro Tools 9 HD Native for about 3 weeks, and I’m loving it.  I’m currently working through a massive mix (actually a remix of BJSR’s Follow the Leader – original by our very own Ben Rivet, remix by ‘Be Nice’).  I’ve gotten a few emails from people wanting to walk through the mixing process, so here we go – I’ll document the whole process – from getting the files (in a different DAW format), through organization, mixing, and final bouncing.

Part 1: Transferring DAWs, project setup, initial leveling (for headroom), routing, naming, and general organization. (And a little on the Lead Vocal)

This song was delievered to me as a Logic Studio 8 project file.  While I do use and like Logic, I much prefer to mix in Pro Tools.  Therefore, I exported all the tracks out of Logic (and there were a LOT of them :).  If you need tips on how to get audio out of your DAW and into another, check out THIS article as well as THIS article.  Remember to export in the original sample rate and bit depth.

So now I was left with about 100 tracks (wow!) of 88.2/24 audio.  Time to import into Pro Tools.  Pro Tools HD Native will only support the playback of 96 voices at 88.2 kHz, so I quickly scanned the project for redundant tracks or similar parts that I could combine, made new tracks, right-clicked and chose “Hide and Make Inactive” on the unecessary tracks (don’t delete them!!), and got my count under 96.  (Note: I’ll address it later, but this consolidation process continued throughout the mix.)

Hide and Make Inactive

Once that was done crunching, I just hit play and listened through the song 2-3 times.  This is a really important step in the mixing process – listen to the song in its raw form and begin to build your mental vision of where things need to go.  Personally, I keep a notebook on my desk and jot down notes as I listen (noting important parts, ideas for effects, things I think are unecessary, arrangement ideas, etc…).

So here’s where we are at:

Tons of tracks in Pro Tools 9 HD Native!
The next step – and this one is really important and often missed – involves signal flow and headroom.  In the analog console days, now is the time where you’d use line triims (or similar) to get your levels under control.  You don’t want to slam the mix bus right from the get-go.  What I like to do is try to get my individual tracks to an RMS of around -18 dBFS (because my converters are calibrated to -18 dBFS = 0 VU = +4 dBu).  I do this by inserting a Trim plug-in in the uppermost slot of the loud channels and pulling down the gain until the track is where I’d like it.  Depending on the project, sometimes I’ll just slap a channel strip across most every track (say the Waves SSL Channel) and pull that input trim down.
Use Trim to manage levels

Why do this?  Well, especially with a 90+ track project, if you want ANY chance of not slamming/clipping the mix bus, you need to get your levels under control at the start of the project.  Mix with plenty of headroom – always!  As you’ll see in later pictures, even after trimming everything down, the peaks of my song hit as high as -4 dBFS (I usually feel better if they are down around -6 dBFS).

Now that our headroom is managed, time to mix.

OK – headroom is set – now it’s time to do some organizing.  I usually loop the song while I do this to continue to get a mental picture of where the song needs to go.  I start by moving tracks around, grouping them by instrument  (so in my case, I put the rhythm section stuff all the way to one side of the mix, vocals nearer to the middle, synths off to the other side… whatever works for you is fine – just get a system and stick with it).  In the process, I also renamed a lot of tracks.  Choose relevant names!  Additionally, I am an avid user of the scribble strip at the bottom of the mix window.  I like to jot notes about what the track has on it.  Personally, I’m not a fan of color-coding tracks – I’ve just never worked it into my workflow – so I use a combination of consistent organization and scribble strips to remember where everything is.

This is also when I setup some summing busses, aux tracks for effects, and my master bus.  Again – these are mostly personal workflow choices, so feel free to try these out, but there’s more than one way to do it.  I like to route all my tracks into an aux track that becomes my mix bus.  From there, I can print versions of the song right in the project file.  This master bus track along with my main aux track effect returns (typical reverbs and delays) goes in the center of my mix window.

Center section of my session

If you do choose to go with this master bus approach:  one way or another (whether it’s through individual tracks or through sub busses) be sure to route all of your audio tracks through that master bus. Failure to do so initially could cause big headaches later (for balance, headroom, levels, automation…).

Now we’re ready to actually get going and mix.

I started with the lead vocal (aka the most important part of any pop song).  Simple rule: The lead vocal needs to be heard. Period.  In a context like this (pop/rock/etc.), the best way to get there is a recipe of compression, EQ, and time-based effects (reverb/delay).  I usually like to start with compression – because this addresses both volume and tonal issues (depending on which compressor/plug-in you choose).  One of my go-to compressors in-the-box (ITB) is the Bomb Factory Purple MC77.  In a very non-scientific way, I like this compressor because it can squash a vocal a-la-1176-style, but the MC77 seems to preserve the silky-smooth high end of a vocal better.  Now – be careful with these fast FET compressors –  without the right settings for the right song/style, you’ll end up hammering your vocal into oblivion.  The slowest attack time on this guy is less than 1 millisecond (ranges from 20 – 800 microseconds)

MC77 settings on the lead vocal

Long story short, after MC77 compression, I split the lead vocal into three tracks based on the organization of the song and how I wanted to lay out effects.  I patched the vocal tracks through my Vintech 473 (to drive the input stage pretty hot and add a tiny bit of high shelf EQ) on inserts.  Then, as you’ll see in the picture below, I printed the vocal track.  After copying over the reverb/delay automation data, I hid and deactivated the original tracks (leaving me with one, already compressed and EQ’d vocal track).  While the vocal definitely sounds compressed, I believe it’s at an appropriate level of compression for this song.  Compare the uneven waveforms of the original three tracks to the well-leveled bounce track.

Comping and Printing the Lead Vocal

To some, this may seem crazy (deciding on your vocal level, “sound”, and compression immediately when starting a mix).  In many cases, it would be.  But here, it will do a lot of good for my organization and the mix.  From the get go, my vocal level is set.  If I want it to be better heard, I need to turn other things DOWN, which is excellent for your headroom.  Also, my analog gear (the Vintech) is now free to use on other tracks.  Obviously if 2 hours into the mix, I realize that I need an adjustment, I can re-activate the tracks and rebounce… but hopefully I won’t have to.  “Going for the sound” and making decisions will help your ears know what is good/bad.  Making mistakes here is all part of the development process.  I’ll be clear – I don’t mean to suggest that everyone should be doing this in every project – rather, in this project it worked well and I think it’s a valuable learning and workflow tool that others should try out.

OK – lead vocal is good – time to go to drums and bass… in part 2!

Questions about anything mixing/PT related?  Post in the comments here or send me an email.


The Studio Files


1. J. Peaks - March 21, 2011

Really enjoyed reading this article helped me to re-think my choices while mixing..

2. Steve - June 16, 2011

This was a GREAT article. I’m a semi-professional musician with a home studio building in the backyard, and I’ve been casually learning Pro Tools whenever I’ve had time. I’ve done my own projects, as well as for others. I can look like I know what I’m doing, but I know the truth – I don’t know SQUAT compared to the pros and this article is just the kind of thing I need, but more of it… PLEASE! Excellent work, Connor. When is Part 2 coming out? I looked, but haven’t found it. Thanks!

3. Cisco - July 28, 2011

Just got my HD Native + OMNI Rig!
I noticed when using the FATSO (Hardware) on the Mix Bus I get tons of headroom and it’s not even loud enough to peak the meters anywhere near -1dBFS.
Quick question.
What interface are you using with your HD Native Rig?
Also, are you using the surround dithered mixer?
Have you noticed that when you switch to PEAK view in the meters there’s audio information around -104dB ???

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