Preparing stems for mixing

If you have recorded some tracks in your home studio and would like them mixed by a professional sound engineer, here are a few tips for preparing the files. It will save the engineer valuable time (and money for you) if they can simply import them in to their DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) ready for mixing.

  • All files should be the same format, sample rate and bit depth. WAV files with a sample rate of at least 48khz and a bit depth of 24bits are ideal. 44khz and 16 bit are acceptable if that is how they were recorded. MP3’s are not at all acceptable, the quality is too low to do your recording justice. Converting MP3 files to 48Khz 24bit does not increase their quality, the audio needs to have been recorded at the higher rate in the first place.
  • Avoid ‘clipping’ audio during recording. Make sure you do not record your instruments too loud in to your audio card, this will create digital distortion, which doesn’t sound nice. You can identify ‘clipping’ by zooming in to the waveform. If it is squaring off, then you are recording too loud. Turn the gain down on your interface, or turn your instrument down.
  • Do not add any processing to your files such as normalising, compression etc. This maintains the dynamics of the performance and leaves all options open to the engineer during mixing.
  • Make sure all files (stems) start at the same point even if the instrument doesn’t actually play from the start. This makes it quick and easy to line up all the tracks when they are imported, meaning everything plays in time from the offset.
  • Give your files meaningful names. ‘Kick Drum’ rather than ‘Audio1’, ‘OD Guitar’ rather than ‘Dave’ etc. It means the engineer doesn’t have to waste time checking what each track contains (once again, saving you money).

Never Stop Learning

Like most, if not all creative vocations, there is always something new to learn in the world of sound recording and mixing. All of my tutors over the years have told me that they are still learning new things in the studio, even those who have been in the industry for decades. This is what keeps things fresh and interesting, it’s what creative people thrive on!

Of course, it’s important to know how to correctly use a compressor, gate, reverb or delay: To learn what each control does and how it effects the audio you are treating. But, it’s also important to ignore all the rules and experiment every now and then. In the modern world of DAWs and Plugins, it’s a lot easier to chain a bunch of effects together, turn their dials and come up with some weird and wonderful effect… Once in while, it might even be useful in a mix 🙂 Don’t be afraid to try it for yourself… Happy accidents will happen from time to time and you’ll have learnt a new technique in the process 🙂

Finally, don’t think that you can’t learn something new from anyone and everyone around you. From the seasoned pro to the novice bedroom mixer, they all have the potential to teach you something new, something that you might never have thought of by yourself. New dogs CAN teach old dog new tricks if their minds are open!

To tune or not to tune?

Imagine this… You are in the studio recording your next single. You’ve just given the performance of your life. The passion in of your voice is clear… and emphasises the lyrics of the song perfectly. But, as you listening back to the recording, you notice a couple of phrases are a semi-tone or so off. You could perhaps leave it that way and hope that nobody notices? Or maybe you should try a re-take of the whole song or just the phrases you noticed? The problem with re-takes is that they often will never match the original performance you made you heart bleed for. The third option, and I would argue, the most logical one, is process the recording using a tuning tool.

Melodyne is my software tool of choice. While it can do all of those extreme vocal tunings you hear on pop records across the world, it can also be very subtle. Nudging a note here and there, either up or down the scale, or perhaps to tighten up the timing a little. What you end up with is all the passion of that almost perfect performance, tweaked to correct the small issues. It can be done in a relatively short space of time, arguable less time than it would take to re-record another perfect take.

Here’s another example of how I might use Melodyne. My vocalist has finished recording and gone home. I’m sat in my studio listening to the track, and as is often the case, I hear a counter melody in my head. Wouldn’t it be great if we got the singer back in to track these harmonies? Of I could just use the original melody, feed it in to Melodyne and create the harmonies from that. As long as it isn’t too high in the mix, or the harmony is several octaves away from the original vocal line, it usually works well. Obviously if it’s noticeable, perhaps it wouldn’t be of use. With a small amount of training, it’s a quick thing to try in your mix. If it doesn’t work… well lets try and get the vocalist in again… or maybe you could sing the harmony yourself 🙂