How to prepare songs to send to a mix engineer

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As an engineer and studio owner,I frequently deal with artists who are unsure of how to send their material over.This is for those of you who are new to the studio experience and need some guidance.I assure you that this will save your engineer some time and frustration in the future:D

Ok, you’ve recorded the next big single or an entire album and you’ve realized that there’s a very good reason that mix engineers get paid what they do. Mixing is a very, very complicated discipline that requires many many years of training to get to a high level. Most successful mix engineers have been doing it for decades. Sure, occasionally there’s a person who hits it right out of the box, but that’s generally because of the perfect storm of an incredible artist doing most of the heavy lifting by making the mix much easier and perhaps a very simple and uninvolved mix project. Obviously, it’s much more difficult to properly mix a full band of 5 players putting down multiple layers each of complicated music in different time and key signatures than it is to record a single rapper or poet over a pre-mixed stereo track.

Let’s say you’re recording and mixing a project that’s somewhere in the middle and you want the help of a pro mix engineer. How do you prepare your tracks for him? It’s really not that complicated, however there are some decisions to be made. There are steps that you can do at home to lessen the time he will need to spend, but some of them involve taking flexibility out of what he’s able to do, so you must be careful. I’ll explain both extremes and we’ll talk a little about the middle ground as well. The two extremes are having the engineer do everything, and having you do as much as possible.

Let The Engineer Do It All

Let’s say you just got a big tax return and you want to give the mixing engineer all the flexibility in the world. In this case, you can send along any and all extra takes, strip off every single effect and send it without a reference so he can use his experience and education to make it the best it can be without restriction. Will it take more time? Yes. Will it be worth it? If you find the right engineer, absolutely. Is it in your budget? I can’t answer that, but if getting the absolute BEST result is your outcome, this is the only way to get it.

Once these decisions are made, rendering the tracks into a usable format for any engineer is pretty simple. We’ll get to that at the end.

Do As Much As You Can To Save Money

This method becomes a game of “How much freedom do I want the engineer to have?” The more you render, or set in stone, the less he’ll be able to fix or make sound better for you. If you render the lead vocal, for instance, with compression, EQ, reverb, and delay on it, he can’t do a thing about most of them, so you’d better be ABSOLUTELY sure that you love everything about the vocal just like that AND that it will work with every other part of the mix just like that. Think of it like this… even the BEST chef in the world can’t make a cake less sweet by taking out sugar after it’s been baked, but given the freedom to adjust those ingredients, he can make you eat the whole cake in one sitting.

If, for some reason, you elect to go with this method, the engineer will have control over volume and some EQ, and can ADD effects, but can’t do much else.

The BEST way.

The best compromise for the vast majority of my clients who send me music that they’ve worked on at home, is to leave me a lot of freedom, but to do some homework that cuts down the time I need to spend on the songs. This consists of them (or you) deciding which takes you like best and sending me only those, taking effects off completely, except perhaps some light compression and EQ if you’re sure about them, and rendering the tracks. Supplying some sort of reference is helpful, although not necessary, as is referencing a song that’s already popular that might sound something like what you’re looking for.

What you have to remember is that there is more than one “right” way to mix. A perfect kick drum for one person, for instance, might be too punchy or too light for another. If I’m mixing for you, I’ll do what your music seems to ask for mixed with your advice and mixed with what’s popular today, if that’s what you’re looking for. Things can always be tweaked later, and these tweaks take a tiny fraction of the time that a whole mix takes. What I usually tell my clients is that I will make them an AMAZING mix, and then we’ll talk after they hear it to make sure it’s THEIR version of an amazing mix as well.

The mechanics of rendering tracks

Once you’ve decided which method to use, you need to get the tracks to your engineer. The absolute best way is to render each track as its own, separate .wav file at either 44.1k or 48k. Mp3 files will work in a pinch, but then we’re starting with a low resolution file before mixing has even begun. I can convert them to .wav files, but that doesn’t make the quality any better if they’ve already been mp3s. Think of recording a scratchy, old record onto a CD. The CD will be a perfectly clean, clear copy of a scratchy, low-fi record, showing every imperfection perfectly. If mp3s are the only option I’ll deal with them, but they’re not the best solution.

I keep saying the word “rendering.” What does that mean? Rendering is simply bouncing down the final product to a single file. The only difference between you bouncing down your whole song to a single, stereo file and what I’m asking for is simply the contents of the render. What you’ll do to prepare it is simply render only one track at a time, from beginning to end.

Most programs have a function that will do this automatically. You just need to remember to strip off the effects first to give the engineer the most flexibility to make your songs sound incredible. Even if your program doesn’t have this ability, it’s very easy, if still a little time-consuming. What you would do in the case of, say, a song with 8 tracks of live drums, a track of bass, 3 guitar tracks and 6 tracks of vocals is mute 17 of those 18 tracks and render just the kick drum track on track 1. Next, render the snare on track 2. Keep going until all 18 tracks are rendered out as full-length .wav files.

It is VERY important that the entire track is rendered out. If it not done this way, there is no way for your engineer to put everything in its proper place. So, even if the last vocal track of your 4-minute song has only a shout at 3:41, the final .wav of that track should be 3:41 of silence, then the shout, then silence until the end. With all the tracks rendered or bounced this way, all the engineer has to do is load them into his own system and slam them all to the left and they’ll line up perfectly, to within 1/44,100th or 1/48,000th of a second, depending on your sample rate.

Why can’t I just send the Audio Files folder from Audacity or FruityLoops or Reason, or Samplitude or ProTools or Logic or…?

I’ve had people just send me just the “audio files” folder from ProTools or some other program. This DOES NOT WORK. There’s no audio engineer in the world who would be able to put that puzzle back together. Here’s why: Those folders contain every bit of audio recorded, and not in any order that helps to place them. That means that even if there are only a stereo music tracks and three tracks of vocals, but the vocalist did 4 alternate takes and twelve punches, there will be 20 audio files in that folder with no indication of where they go or which ones worked best… and that’s with only 4 mixer tracks! I’ve had songs with well over 300 audio files in them. Obviously, just sending the audio files folder won’t do.

Ok, can I just send ALL of the files from Audacity or FruityLoops or Reason, or Samplitude or ProTools or Logic or…?

In some rare cases, yes, but in general, it’s not going to work. All programs speak different languages. They use the same “letters,” in most cases (.wav files), but they process and understand them in different ways. That means that Samplitude can’t open Reason files, Logic can’t open ProTools files, etc.

Further, even if you have the same program as your mix engineer, there’s just an incredibly slim chance that all of your plugins will match, so it’s quite possible that something valuable from your song will be missing or incompatible.

There are also version differences. Usually, but not always, a professional studio will have the most up-to-date versions, but sometimes even that newer version may not open a song saved in a much older version.

When I’m able to talk to a client directly, we can sometimes work it out with some programs if they’re quite knowledgeable with the software and the concepts, but...

So, what’s the best bet?

It’s really foolproof to just render every track as a separate, stripped-down .wav file. This, coupled with a reference track of your mix and perhaps some references from songs that are already out there, will give your mix engineer all the flexibility needed AND a goal to shoot for. There will almost always be some tweaks to be made after the mix is sent to you, but these are generally very simple and quick, and merely due to the fact that you’re not there to guide him. It’s not a matter of right or wrong in a mix at that point, but just a matter of personal preferences. A good engineer will do everything possible to make this mix the best you've ever had!
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