Call this a companion article to the one on understanding the signal flow. Seems a pretty boring thing but I watch other musicians, I see their concerns and wonder and wonder why till it makes sense. Understandably I get to poke around in other people’s mixes. This has helped me to work out a major stumbling block for musicians – at least the self-recording variety. Being disorganized.
That’s Gonna Mess You Up
In his book “Mixing With Your Mind”, Balance Engineer, Stav talks about Maximum Illusion/Minimum Voltage. That means having the simplest, shortest, most elegant path from start to finish. This is a super smart strategy for two reasons:
- In the old days of tape, and other things that added noise every time you sipped your coffee, if you could achieve the right outcome with one wire then it was far better than using four because you avoided three servings of noise.
- Also, having a clear sight of what you want and getting there the quickest route means you have the shortest distance between inspiration and presentation. Every step between adds noise, messes your idea up.
When I open mixes that take me a lot of time to sort out the process the artist was using it is not only wasting my time but theirs. No I don’t mean billing time; I mean I can see where they got lost between what they wanted to achieve and what they ended up with. They got stuck. The muse got dissipated. I can see the frustration. I can also see it didn’t need to be that way.
It shouldn’t ever have to end this way
Organization is really a state of mind – a choice. I was born with faulty wiring so patterns and organization come easy for me in many ways. In others not at all. What I worked out as a kid was that being organized was a lot simpler than having to tidy up. I hated tidying my room. If I put things down tidy then I didn’t have to waste hours picking up. That took me from tossing things in the cupboard and slamming the door real fast before everything could fall out (and then not being able to find my Action Man) to being real tidy almost overnight. Laziness was harder work than being organized. Being organized is the smart man’s lazy. Who’d a thunk! Musicians who work at home don’t get training. Sure there are Tutorials and Forums etc but there is no structured process or mentor to say, “that ain’t going to work out so well son”. Everyone just goes at it like a bull at a gate. Odd as that bull loses more often than not. Digital makes it easy, fashionably clever even, to layer 57 overdrives, equalizers and compressors on that high hat to get it to sit right in the mix as there is no extra hiss added. You can wire anything to anything else, even back to itself without any fear. Sounds like creativity. Just like tossing things in the bottom of my cupboard seemed a clever solution. Open the door and it all falls out. And God knows if Action Man is under it all or somewhere in the back yard.
Sections & Structures
I’m listening to “Wynton Marsalis & Eric Clapton play the blues”. Everything is nice and clear. I don’t really get the music, Jazz is beyond me, but these guys are organized (and damned good). They have a structure and play within that and it lets them wail. You need a structure that lets you do that that. Often that is about the only real difference between a good player and an unknown. I use a structure in my projects. Let’s have a look-see at a recent track called “Paganini On The Poop Deck”
Take a look at this and I bet that straight away you can start to work out what is happening. Everything is in a nice clear, logical order. If Alan Parsons were to pop in my back door he may cluck over some of my notes but he would understand my project workflow in 5 minutes or less. He’d also see there is a complimentary logic in the instruments in the rack.
Now not all of you use Reason but it doesn’t matter. Every environment has its way of being tidy if you find it. The idea of this article is not to say do this but to get you to think like this. Here’s what I do: I start composing from where I start composing. Generally I leave those melodic instruments just were they started as that makes a simple sense. As soon as non-melodic elements enter the fray then I arrange them exactly like this every time (enlarge the image and note the Overview view top right):
- Rack 1: (far left) Global units. The Masters (my usual rig) are already there. The only other things I have here are things like Send Effects
- Rack 2: Rhythmic elements like Drums and Bass – always in that order. I don’t use a lot of this sort of stuff so this Rack commonly only has 2-3 instruments. If you write Dance then you may think that everything goes here. Careful, I’d say just pop the main instruments here then class the others as…
- Rack 3: Melodic Instruments including most Arpeggios etc. Remember these are generally in the order in which I added them. Emotionally I already have a strong reason this makes sense so no need to mess with it. If you are really needing 285 melodic instruments then find a method of organizing them that you use every time (without fail) and will equally make sense to anyone who wanders in the back door.
- Rack 4: Sound Effects have a pretty big place in my music so I put them in their own place. Many modern mixes can have odd samples of this and that so why not pop them here instead of jumbling them up with the drums. Good Software instruments have very little CPU hit so you should able to just hit Duplicate and remove all the drum hits so you only have the Notes that trigger those flatulence samples. If you need to revise them later, it is really easy to find and deal with them.
- Rack 5: Vocals are not a thing I use a lot myself but other people do. When mixing a song I will either tackle the music bed first and then fit vocals in, or I will start with the vocals and then make the music fit. I decide that on a case by case basis in a what-feels-right manner. Either way I want to have those vocals all in a nice neat row with Lead Vocal up front, followed by the Backings & Harmonies all nicely labelled. There is no call for having 42 vocal tracks when in reality there are 4 vocal lines. This is where Comping (or dragging clips into one Track) makes life so much easier. If I know the Harmony Vocal is odd, it is far easier to look in one place instead of 27.
Insert and other Inline effects are also a major area of confusion for people. One of the great things about Reason is that you can wire anything to anything else. But it can be a liability when people start wiring things pretty willy-nilly. Yes it may seem to get the job done but what if you need to revise?
If the knee bone is super-glued to the ear bone then it is impossible to move the left ankle over the right without toppling the man. You don’t want that.
The way I work is the Instrument hangs under the Track. Effects hang under the instrument and when I have finished tweaking effects they get closed up to keep the focus on seeing the Instruments as remember they are where the performance is. Making effects the performance is asking for all kinds of trouble when something has to change, and also because an LFO-driven groove never tops a human performance (and I say that as a mouse-composer).
Reason lets me choose whether the Effects come before the Mixer (like guitar stomp boxes) or as Inserts in the Mixing Desk routing. Each is a choice. I generally prefer the former as you see above so that is my assumed method and I close up the Track Rack unit. If I do use an Effect or Processor in the Insert section then I leave it open as that makes it visible for me.
Another thing Reason is great at is running an LFO signal from one place to another. Tempting to just borrow the unused LFO from the Bassline to control the side-chain of the coffee percolator which in turn drives inverse panning of the kitty litter tray but that is a recipe for trouble as it makes no sense. If you need the audio from the bass to drive the coffee percolator groove then that makes sense maybe that makes the coffee pot a rhythm instrument so it should sit under the Bass instrument. Otherwise far better to grab a dedicated LFO for each task and store it right under the instrument it controls.
Lastly, if it no longer serves a function in your mix then throw it away. There is no gain for the listener if you have a track where your two year old played drums Muted, it isn’t making the final mix any better. If you want to keep it then make a mix for your wife and Save As into another file. The Album & Radio version files should be as lean as Chuck Norris’ pinkie.
Bottom line: it is your call how you do all of this but make it easy for anyone who pops into your mix to work it out – fast. If they are scratching their head then it is a sure sign you are confused in your own process and need to find a more elegant way to achieve Maximum Muse/Minimum Noise. Find out what that elegant solution would be from the oldest and most experienced person you can find as they were probably trained when gear was costly and noisy (oh what a cruel world we had to live in).