When sending to a mixing engineer an album -or even a single song- which has been recorded in a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software, as is common these days, there are a number of things to be considered regarding the session files organization and management, expecially if the session is not attended (that is, the client is not phisically present in the mixing room). While some operational or technical details can vary relating to the software used, there are some general guidelines so we’ll focus on those: the basic and most important thing being a mixing engineer should only really… mix!
FINISH THE DAMN EDITING
As you are finally going to get your song mixed you are supposed to be completely done with the editing phase, which “thanks” to the digital tecnology sadly is often apparently endless: this is true for the “arrangement” edits (song structure, chorus length, guitar solo positioning, etc.) as well as “rescue” edits (usually error corrections). Also if you still have multiple takes/versions of one or more tracks this is the moment to choose the best one and/or comp ‘em down to one final master take: time to commit, guys. Then you’ll proceed to check for any left noise or spurious sound and cut/mute all the sections you don’t need, adding proper fade in/outs if required. Having done all of this, next step will be to check for eventual digital clips on every cutting point and apply fades and/or crossfades.
In contemporary music production “editing” has become a very comprehensive word which covers plenty of operations, including -and not limited to- timing and tuning when required: the mix engineer however doesn’t want to touch your tracks, and if for any reason he feels this absolute need he’ll ask for sure. So he will not fly the backing vocals around the chorus because that way he likes more the feel: he may just get this kind of idea while the mix is going and eventually propose to the artist. Apart from this and without specific directions he will assume that everything is in place, good or bad as it could be.
Beware you’ll have for sure to pay for any additional editing you didn’t perform in the first place, but the main reason why you need to properly clean your tracks is -again- avoiding to switch the focus of the mix engineer from the actual mix itself, and tuning an out-of-tune singer has basically nothing to do with mixing a piece of music.
GET RID OF THE UNUSED STUFF
Take away any kind of leftovers: whole tracks you lastly won’t use anymore, rehearsals, bad/unused takes and so on. This applies to tracks and playlists in your timeline as well as actual audio files. All the music and sounds in the sessions you prepare and send must be actually playing.
If you’re paranoid like yours truly, you could also possibly create a sort of “trash” folder in your hard drive where you will move all this garbage before sending a “clean” sessions to your mixing engineer of choice, just in the case. You will safely delete those when your lovely mix will come back to you, or possibly keep it in the vaults for a future remix.
CHECK STEREO FILES
Make sure that each mono track is exported as a mono audio file, and each stereo track as a stereo audio file. This may seem weird and somewhat offensive, but for unknown reasons sessions still come in from time to time as a big bunch of stereo files, some or most containing actual mono tracks. This is totally unnecessary, makes operations less confortable and doubles up the cpu cycles needed for session management and processing during the mixing phase (yes, nowadays computers are so powerful, but this is not a valid excuse).
CONSOLIDATE ALL FILES
This is well-known and probably the most important requirement: after cleaning up all the tracks, each track’s audio chunks or blocks must be “consolidated” into one continuous file (block) going from the very song start to the very end, sample-accurate. This way all files can be easily imported in any digital workstation software and will play back together in perfect sync. There are two “schools” about the method: the easiest one is to select the whole session and run the appropriate command, this will result in a series of identical-length files. Alternatively, each file can be consolidated up to the point where its audio content definitely stops: this will result in some files shorter than the rest, and a smaller total disk space. Storage space nowadays is cheap, so it’s up to you
Of course if your mixing engineer will be using your same software you could just send him the main session file (something you’ll be doing anyway) and everything will open up like magic, but it’s good practice to send a tight, lean and mean, stripped-down session even if there is full software compatibility: the guy has not to mess around with all your files, he needs a clean and clear picture, and most of all he shouldn’t have to guess anything. For the same reason -plus the fact that the mixer doesn’t need to own your very same plugins- any eventual virtual instrument track will need to be rendered as an audio file and exported as well.
When done, put all the audio files in one folder then fire up a blank session, re-import everything from that same folder and play the song back from start to end to check that nothing is missing and all the tracks play nicely in sync with each other. Simple as that.
OPTIONALLY "PRINT" SOME TRACKS
Now that you got rid of everything you don’t need, before moving on you may sit down and ask yourself if during the whole recording and editing phase you did anything to your tracks that became essential to the song and so you’d like to keep. The most frequent situation is when you apply some specific effect that was not present in the original recording and later becomes kind of integral part of the sound and possibly of the whole arrangement (but it can be anything really peculiar, like a crazy pan automation on the guitar solo, Hendrix-style, for example). If this is the case, the safest approach would be to get a “clean” track (which you should already have gotten from the previous steps) and then “print” another version of it, including your special effects or whatever. This way the mix engineer can just slide the “effected” track into the mix, or recreate that same effect (possibly better) using the clean track you provided as a guide, being effectively given maximum control over it. Or maybe you’ll go the hard way and provide only the “effected” track, and that’s it: take it or leave it.
Just be careful to select what has eventually to be printed: if you put a compressor on the bass just to tame the peaks and have a smoother bass line then abslolutely take it off, because your man will do the same thing for sure (probably better). On the opposite side, you could print on separate tracks stuff like some sidechain pumping or that cool phaser/reverb combination on the lead vocals, specifying that you would really like those in the final mix. Special effects (on vocals, synth pads etc.) are very popular among bedroom electronic artists: they usually write and record by themselves and fall in love with their electronic patches, which can be easily considered as a stompbox for a guitarist and integral to the final sonic result. Be picky with these details, and if in doubt provide properly labeled “dry” and “wet” tracks: the mix engineer will do a judicious use of them, at the same time doing his balancing/eq/whatever needed job.
CLEARLY LABEL ALL FILES
Nothing is worse than opening a folder and find yourself in front of a bunch of “Audio 18” or “GTR21_02.4”. Once you have done all the previous steps you will have one file for each instrument (or maybe a couple: like multi-mic setups, or the same track with that bizarre ring modulator plugin “printed” over it… you name it): give each file a unique name, like “hi-hat”, and if you are sending your main session file as well (because the mix engineer uses your same daw, because of simple backup, or for any other reason) make sure the DAW track where each audio file resides sports that very same name.
Also be as clear as possible: names as “GTR1” and “GTR2” are better suited to two different, separate guitar tracks/parts than two takes of the same guitar or two microphones on the same take (which would be much clearer if labeled as “GTR 57” and “GTR 414”). Finally, try to keep it consistent and label everything the same for each session so the main singer track will be always -for example- “lead vox”, period: “lead vocals” on song 1, “lead vox” on song 2, “vox 1” on song 3, “vox Mark” on song 4 and so on is confusing).
PROVIDE ACCURATE TEMPO INFO
If there are no tempo changes during the song the BPM value can easily be included in the session file name, like “01-BACK IN BLACK (90 BPM)” (well, I’ve not actually tapped the BPM of this good ol’ Aussie classic so I apologize if I got it wrong) and in the session’s attached note sheet as well (more on this later). Also it could be included in a dedicated menu “notes” item -Pro Tools has this, just to say- within the main session, although obviously if the mix engineer doesn’t own the same software this would be of no practical use.
If there are tempo changes the session file name can include the BPM starting time, but you’ll need to export the tempo map as a MIDI file and possibly copy the bar/BPM list into the included note sheet. An extreme security step would be to export your actual click track as a mono audio file as well, label it “CLICK 90 BPM” and put it together with the other audio files (this actually saved me at least one time for sure).
Of course there is always the option to have no tempo at all: this could be the case with live recordings not employing any kind of click track or tempo source (like a drum loop), both on stage and in the studio. Please note this as well, so that nobody will start a search for the bloody missing info. Rock ’n’ roll!
PROVIDE MUSIC REFERENCES
First of all make sure to include your (or your recording engineer’s) rough mix as a stereo audio file in the same session audio format. As a rough mix, it has not to be a “worked” and/or refined mix, but at the same time very often this is the best way to evaluate the song from the artist’s perspective, with particular respect to the strong points and the areas which conversely could need improvement. It gives a fine look to the so-called “big picture” and I personally find it a very valuable resource.
Also try to include at least one commercially released song which you like a lot and is in a similar mood: while no mixing engineer in the world will be able to turn you into Led Zeppelin (unless you actually ARE them, but even if this was the case you would still need a really good drummer, or perhaps his son), a random switching between your reference and the mix in progress can be very useful: it’s not about actual “stealing” the mix but a sort of quality check. Of course every mix engineer has probably got his own references as well, and will incorporate yours into those. This is in some way also related to the next step…
PROVIDE EXTENSIVE INFORMATION
Finally, add a simple text file where you will write down each and every possible note about your song and recording: from required technical info (the tempo stuff mentioned earlier, for example) to problem areas, your own ideas and any kind pf specific request. Keep in mind that you probably have been listening to your song hundreds and hundreds of times but this is the first time for your mixing man, so anything you could possibly consider “done” because you’re just so used to it he conversely may not even think about of, and if it’s something you really care about both of you don’t want this to become a problem.
So make your little -or huge- brainstorm, and write everything down. Of course feel free to discuss with the guy whatever you want by phone/email or even in person, but when you’re actually sending your stuff be sure to include every possible info: it’s way better to have unuseful stuff in excess than missing some vital info.
PAY THAT POOR MIXING ENGINEER
This will be your final premium touch to definitely make his life easier!