Crafting the perfect mix is a difficult task, but often all you need is a bit of organisation to make things quicker, easier and more rewarding.
I often hear people saying that mixing is a mixture of art and science, and it is true that a good mix demands both creative and technical skills. But you also need a good dose of organisation and administration to get the best out of your mix, so this month, I'll look at how you can configure your Cubase projects to make the technical side of the mixing process more efficient and, as a result, make it easier to focus on the creative side of things.
Perhaps one of the most basic difficulties in organising a mix arises because of the almost limitless track counts that most DAWs offer on a modern computer. With various sections of guitar, synth, vocal, bass, drums and other bits of ear candy each spread over multiple tracks, even the basic task of setting the relative volumes of each instrument within a mix can become cumbersome. Cubase offers all sorts of options for managing the mix of a complex project, but two things are probably key: being organised in the Project window, and making good use of Group channels. So, let's consider what you can do to manage your mix more efficiently...
Although it is always tempting to just go with the creative flow when tracking, taking a little extra time to organise your tracks within the Project window can make it much easier to pick your way through the various takes when it comes to mixing. Simple functions such as colour-coding tracks and using folders to keep related tracks together can make a big difference to project navigation. I find that this is particularly helpful when you find yourself having to come back to a project at a later date: the more clearly organised the materials are, the easier it is to recall exactly what stage the project had reached, and how different tracks are routed or related to one another.
Different projects might call for slightly different approaches: an obvious tactic would be to create folder tracks to organise the audio and MIDI tracks, and an alternative might be to use folders for instrument groups — drums, bass, guitars, vocals, and so on. Whatever approach is adopted, folders can provide a useful means of organising the various takes in a project.
Folder tracks can be added to the project via the Project / Add Track menu option. Once created, other tracks (for example, audio or MIDI tracks) can simply be dragged and dropped into the folder from the Track List in the Project window. The folder can then be collapsed, allowing you to hide the tracks contained within them, reducing clutter in the Project window while you shift your focus to another of the elements in your project.
Navigation through extensive track counts can also be made easier by colour-coding your tracks or parts. If you enable the Show Track Colour option (via the blue, green and red striped button located above the Track List), this adds a narrow Track Colour Selector bar to the right edge of each track within the Track List. Clicking and holding the mouse on this bar will bring up a palette of colours to select from. Colour-coding a folder track will apply that colour to all objects within the folder, and this can be useful if you have instrument groups organised by folder (for example, all bass parts blue, drums red, guitars green...). You can also colour individual parts on a track, so you could colour, say, the chorus part of your guitar track differently from the verse part. It doesn't matter what colours you choose, although it does help if you are consistent across different projects.
One of the new audio routing possibilities added in the recent 4.1 update was the ability to identify Group channels (and FX channels for that matter) as the input sources for audio tracks. The most obvious application for this is the creation of mix 'stems'. A stem is a submix of a group of related instruments — bass, guitar, drums and vocals might be four such 'stems' that together form the full mix. Such mix stems are often used when composers supply music for film or TV projects, as they give the mix engineer greater flexibility when combining the musical, sound FX and dialogue elements into the final audio mix of the project. For example, with an orchestral score, separate stems might be provided for each of the major orchestral sections — strings, brass, woodwind and percussion. Mix stems are, however, also becoming something that some mastering engineers are requesting when working on straight musical projects, as they can provide them with greater flexibility to shape the overall sound at the mastering stage.
Stems could be created in earlier versions of Cubase, but it involved soloing each Group channel in turn and performing an Audio Export for each stem required. In 4.1, the Input Routing box automatically offers any existing Group channels as a possible input source for an audio track. By configuring a series of stereo audio tracks to be fed from each of your Group channels and putting them all into Record mode, all the stems can be created in real time with a single pass through the project.
Incidentally, 'stems' also provide a useful way of archiving a project. Each major instrument group can be preserved as a stereo audio file. If, at some point later in time, a remix is required, these audio files can be used rather than returning to the original Cubase project. Though this doesn't give as much flexibility as a full project, the stems can be used on any DAW platform, and the approach can be useful where plug-ins or even sequencers used for the original mix have become obsolete.
The mix can also be made easier by reducing the number of tracks you have to deal with — and this is where Group channels come into play. For newcomers to multitrack recording, the purpose of Group channels can easily pass you by. In many ways, they are the equivalent of 'subgroup' channels found on many hardware mixers. The outputs from individual channels within the mixer (for example, from audio tracks) can be routed to a Group channel and, in turn, the Group channel is routed to the main outputs of the mixer.
Let's take a simple (but quite typical) recording task involving drums, bass, two guitars and vocals. By the time you have used a multiple-mic setup on the drum kit (for example, separate mics for kick, snare, hi-hat and overheads and a distant 'room' pair), two or three different mics on the guitar amps and perhaps even multiple amplifiers, everyone has overdubbed a few takes, and then you've added several tracks of backing vocals, the track count soon adds up and starts to feel unmanageable.
While it is perfectly possible to mix a large number of tracks, it is easy to see how things can become a bit complicated. The best takes for each song section for a particular instrument might be scattered across several tracks and, even with colour-coded folders, there will still be a lot of faders to look after when it comes to the job of mixing.
Track and fader counts can be kept under control in a few ways. One is to use Cycle Recording (as discussed in the Cubase column in SOS July 2007) but this will be less practicable if the tracking for the project occurs over several sessions. Another is to use the 'link and unlink faders' option that is accessible by right-clicking on the mixer channel having selected multiple tracks. But things generally get much easier if Group channels are used. For example, imagine a guitar part requires a three-mic setup (for example, one on the grille, one at 12 inches and a more ambient room mic) and is recorded to three mono audio tracks in Cubase. The three tracks can be routed to a Group channel named 'Guitar 1', and stored with the Group track in a folder. The same could apply to a second guitar part.
Prior to Cubase 4.1 there was a limitation with Groups, in that you could only route them to other Groups that were created later (see the Cubase column in SOS Dec 2006) — but thankfully, C4.1 removed this limitation. The two 'Guitar' Group channels can be routed to a further 'Master Guitar' Group channel, which can be used to control the overall level of the guitars relative to other elements of the mix, such as drums, bass, synths and vocals.
Applying the same approach to each instrument allows a project extending over many tens of individual audio tracks to be focused down to a small number of Group channels. The first screenshot in this article shows a mixer view where a single Group channel has been created for each of the key elements: drums, bass, guitar, lead guitar, vocals and backing vocals — with six faders in all, making things much more manageable. Each of the individual audio tracks has been routed to the appropriate Group channel via the Output dialogue (either from the Project window Inspector or via the Routing panel available within the mixer). While some balancing of levels using the individual tracks will still usually be required, once this is done, all the key elements of the mix can be balanced from this small number of faders. Incidentally, if you're using a hardware control surface such as a Mackie Control, placing the Group channels together at the top of your track list will generally give you control of these channels without having to scroll through lots of banks of faders to get to them.
As with audio tracks, you can assign the audio outputs of VSTis to Group channels. If they are multitimbral instruments and feature multiple audio outputs, specific instrument types can be routed first to a particular output from the VSTi and, from there, to the most appropriate Group channel. For example, when combining sound sources from more than one orchestral library within a project, the various VSTi outputs could be used to send all the string sounds from the different libraries to a single Group channel, from which the 'master' string level can then be controlled. Similar Group channels could be configured to deal with each of the major orchestra sections.
As well as reducing the number of faders you need to worry about, Group channels bring a second form of efficiency. Where you have multiple tracks of the same source, such as several backing vocals sung by the same singer, you often find that you want to apply the same processing to all of them. Group channels have the same capacity for using insert and send-return effects as do individual audio tracks, so it's more efficient to apply a single plug-in at the level of the Group channel than to use individual instances on every source track.
The benefits of this approach can be seen very clearly from our earlier example of the four-piece band, where six Group channels (drums, bass, guitar, lead guitar, vocals and backing vocals) were being fed by over 40 individual audio tracks. In this kind of situation, applying EQ and other processes at the Group channel level makes a lot of sense, as only one chain of effects is required per Group channel rather than per audio track. It's much quicker to set up and change an EQ setting for a single Group channel than for half-a-dozen audio tracks. However, this approach is not always appropriate for all plug-ins and all sources. For instance, you are unlikely to want to apply the same EQ settings to every individual mic in a multi-miked drum kit, while dynamics plug-ins may respond differently to grouped signals than to individual sources.
As with other aspects of Cubase 4's user interface, the Cubase Mixer window can be customised in a variety of ways. This is useful when mixing, as the last thing you really want to deal with is a virtual mixer that requires repeated scrolling across tens of audio, MIDI and other channels (which can easily happen even on multiple-screen setups). If you have your project organised into a relatively small number of Group channels, then the lower portion of the Mixer's Common Panel can be used to toggle off the display of all the other track types.
As the Devices menu allows multiple instances of the Mixer window to be open, it is possible to configure one just to show the Group channels while a second may show all channels. It is then easy to move between the two, depending upon whether you need to work with the major mix elements (for example, the overall balance between drums, guitars, bass and vocals) or the detailed balance between different tracks for a specific instrument (for example, the balance between the different mics of your multi-miked drum kit).
However, perhaps a more flexible way of moving between different views of the mixer is via the Channel View Sets facility. When you've decided on a combination of channels to display, the current configuration can be saved as a View Set, via the buttons located at the very bottom of the Common Panel. Each View Set can be named and then instantly recalled, which is very useful for switching between different elements of the mixer to work on different tasks. If you're able to master the show/hide function, you can even store different mixer views for groups of instruments — for example, you can show only the multitrack drum audio channels.
It is well worth creating a template project that contains a number of Group Channels pre-configured and ready to roll, along with other elements such as FX channels or VST Instruments that you find yourself using on a regular basis. If you frequently work on material that's based on similar instrument groups (for example, orchestral music or guitar bands), it is also well worth including a series of empty audio tracks all pre-routed to named Group channels. The same might apply if you often process the individual outputs of an instrument like BFD in the same way. While any such template is likely to require modification and additions for each project, it will save a considerable amount of setup time, meaning that the creative urge is less likely to slip out the back door because it got bored of waiting!
In many cases, the mix will still be an iterative process — involving moving back and forth between the (well-organised, folder-based) individual audio tracks and the Group channels. You may be thinking that there's not anything that's radically new or magically creative about folders, colour-coded tracks or Group channels, and you'd be right. But I'm surprised by how little use some people make of these facilities. Getting your material organised and the mixing process down to a more manageable number of faders can make a big difference to the ease with which your initial mix can come together.
Group channels can also be used to apply stereo effects to a mono audio track. If you have a mono track and use a stereo insert effect such as chorus, the spatial element of the effect is lost. However, if you route the mono track to a stereo Group channel and insert the effect within the Group channel, then the stereo effect can be heard in its full glory.