Join Brian Lee White for an in-depth discussion in this video Setting up the mixer and getting initial levels, part of Mixing a Hip-Hop and R&B Song in Pro Tools.
All right, so I have opened a cleaned session of the Cant Stop song. All of the faders have been zeroed out, all of the inserts and sends removed, so we can start the mix from scratch. Before we start getting some basic levels and pan settings and doing some routing I just want to talk a little bit about this song and the organization of this specific session. First of all, this is a hip-hop kind of R&B song that I wrote with a couple friends of mine, it's called Can't Stop, it's got K-I-D on the rap vocals and Jonathan President on the Hook doing the R&B vocals.
How we have it organized here, you see the drums on the left side of this session going through the Percussion, Hi-Hat, cymbals. Then I start with my instruments the bass, Choir, Organ, all the keyboard parts. And then I get into the vocals the Rap Lead, Rap Double, and the Stabs, and the Hook vocals, Adlibs, and extra Bridge vocals, Intro vocals here.
This is a way I like to organize most of my sessions, you don't have to organize your sessions this way, this is just a way that I prefer. It's a good idea to organize sessions in a consistent way so that when you're scrolling around the mix or the edit window in Pro Tools, you can easily find what you're looking for. So if I know I want to work on the kick drums for me, I know I'm always going to put those at the left most side of my session. And if I need to work with my vocals I know they're going to be somewhere towards the right-hand side.
What I like to do before I start a mix, before I even start getting levels is create a Master Fader in Pro Tools, and I'll do that by going to Track > New, I'm going to create a Stereo Master Fader. And the reason I want to have a Master Fader in every session I mix is this is going to allow me to protect my final output to the D to A converters to ensure that I'm not clipping the output of my converters and distorting the mix.
Now, with all of these Faders zeroed out, I'm almost 100% certain that this mix would clip if I just hit Play. And so I want to build a little headroom into my mix, and I can do that either by pulling the Master Fader down to avoid clipping or what I can do is I can grab my ALL group and pull all the faders down, and I'll switch that off, and I can push my Master Fader back up. Now the Master Fader, I'm always going to want to monitor this as I'm working to ensure that I'm not clipping the output.
Now a lot of people just go ahead and they worry about the Master Fader after they mix, they want to do insert processing here on the Master Fader, compression limiting, kind of your mastering steps. And they do that sort of towards the end. However, the problem with that is if you're distorting the output of your mix as you're mixing, this is going to change your decision process. You're actually hearing distortion as you're trying to apply your processing plug-ins and set your levels.
And that's not a great thing to do. So I like to make sure that from the get go I'm not clipping the output of my mixer. So I've brought that down, I built a little headroom in here, and I'm just going to go ahead and playback a loud section just to check and see that everything is good to go, so I'll playback from a chorus. (music playing) Awesome. That looks like a really nice amount of headroom to start my mix.
Of course I'm going to be bringing Faders up. Some people like to kind of pull things down into the mix while other people like to kind of build things up into the mix and sort of push them louder into place. Either way it's fine just be aware of the headroom in the mixer and make sure that you check out that Master Fader every once in a while to make sure the mix is not distorting. Now the other reason I like to create a Master Fader from the get go is I like to mix into certain plug-ins. So from the very beginning of setting my level and pan I like to hear my mix through certain plug-ins, and that's going to influence my decisions as I pick things like EQs and Compressors.
And the one plug-in that I always start my mix with is the Slate Virtual MixBuss, and this is going to simulate an analog console. And I particularly like the USA that's the API model. Now I'm just going to leave the drive alone for now, I might play with that a little bit later to get a little more crunch. But the reason I'm putting this on to begin with is this is going to make subtle changes to the way that I'm hearing the mix. And if I thought about how mixers would mix through a traditional analog console, they're not able to play the mix through the console and turn off what the console is adding in terms of saturation, distortion, and then put it on at the end of the mix.
No, they're hearing how the mix sounds through that console from stage one. So all their decisions are made through the veil of that console, and I'm going to simulate that here in my mix by starting out with this plug-in on the MixBuss. Now what I'm going to do to complement that is there's a channel insert plug-in, which is the Slate Digital channel, that's going to match my Master Fader plug-in. And I've got this actually set up to be grouped so that I can switch all these to API.
Now they don't have to be the same as the Master, and you don't have to use this specific plug-in, there are lots of great console simulation or saturation simulation plug-ins out there. I just personally like this one, I've been using it since it came out, and I think it makes my mixes sound better. So, instead of applying this to every channel let me show you a little trick that you can do in Pro Tools. If you go ahead and select your tracks-- I'm going to select all of them--what I can do is hold down the modifier Option+Shift-click to add a plug-in that's Option+Shift on the Mac or Alt+Shift on the PC.
And when I click, and I choose that plug-in, it's going to apply it to all of the selected tracks. And this is a fairly large session so it's going to take a little bit of time here. And because I had those grouped they're all going to follow this group setting here, so I have a Group Drive and a Group Input control. And I put this as the first insert to kind of simulate driving that channel insert of a console. Again, this isn't something that you have to do, you don't have to run out and buy a console simulation plug-in, this is just something that I like to do.
So now that I have my mixer setup here, I might do other routing and changes as I move through the mix, but I've got a really good basis to start getting my basic levels. And generally I might start out with a template or something that quickly gets me here, you know I've been explaining every step of the way so we didn't really get into the mix immediately. But now what I want to do is I just want to go ahead and playback this session and start getting some basic level and pan settings for these tracks.
At this point I'm not looking for final levels of anything, because the level or pan of tracks will significantly change as I add processing like EQ, Compression, delay, Reverb, et cetera, so I'm going to update these as I go through the mix. Now the important thing to understand about mixing is it's a very iterative process, you're not going to do one thing and just leave that forever. You're going to do one thing, do another thing, do another thing, and then come back to that first thing and make some adjustments.
So understand as I move through this mix that everything relates to everything else, and I might make a change or even change my mind on something when I come back to it later. All right, so I'm going to start the session from the beginning. I'm going to pull up my Memory Locations, Window > Memory Locations. I've already laid this song out, organized this, so we have Intro, Verse, Chorus, et cetera. So I'm going to start from the intro. Now I'm just going to play through this song one time, and as I do that I'm going to quickly get some levels.
(music playing) So that's a good starting point here.
Obviously, I haven't used any Compression or any EQ or any Reverb or any other processing so it's still going to sound like a rough mix. And to tell you the truth, generally I wouldn't start out most mixes zeroed out like this. Most mixes have some basic level, pan, and even plug-ins from the production stage. So a lot of times when it comes to mix down, it's not like you're starting from scratch. A lot of the level decisions, at least the rough level decisions, EQ and Compression decisions have been made during the production stage, especially with music that's produced electronically, music that's produced with virtual instruments and samples because we want this to sound fun as we're working with it.
I'm not just going to leave things dry and boring, otherwise I'm not going to be inspired to add that next part, or the artist is not going to be inspired to give their best performance. Now I stripped everything away for this tutorial specifically so I can show you every step along the way. However, I want to point out that some of the things I'm going to show you, some of the plug-ins I'm going to add, some of the processing I'm going to do actually came from the production stage, and I just stripped that off.
But I felt that it was important to share with you some of the mixing tricks that I use during the writing and producing of this song, because those are great insights that you can use when you're producing your tracks. So, now that I have a nice rough mix of my session I can move along to process each individual instrument and start bringing the mix together as a whole.
Recommended prerequisites: Pro Tools Essential Training and Pro Tools Mixing and Mastering
- Setting up the mixer
- Layering kicks and low-frequency management
- Enhancing the lead vocals
- Working with rap "stabs" and "adlibs"
- Processing vocals with EQ, compression, and other effects
- Warming up bass and low-frequency tones
- Re-creating a "sampled vinyl" sound
- Creating "width" and "depth" in the stereo field
- Adding automation
- Mastering the track with compression and limiting
- Bouncing out a stereo mix