State of the Mix: Clean Slate


A few weeks ago I did something a little different for me: I cleaned out my VENUE template’s plugins.

This really came about from reading and watching a lot of interviews with some of the studio mixers I admire. For several years I’ve noticed a common thread in mix approaches along the lines of the description Jack Joseph Puig talked about in a recent webinar he did for Waves.

JJP likes to get faders up very fast and only immediately processes something if it really sticks out at him during this initial process. He gets his initial balance there, and then starts working things in as needed. Bob Clearmountain and Chris Lord-Alge also seem to have similar approaches. The bottom-line is it’s all about getting things up quickly and not over-thinking things. This helps place the emphasis on the balance of the overall mix vs. tonality of individual inputs.

I’ve been moving closer to something along these lines for the last couple years, and clearing out plugins seemed to be a next step and good reset for me. The idea in this was to start fresher on my mixes to push me to not go to plugins too soon in the mix process where I’ve traditionally had things inserted ahead of time. I want to get things up relatively quickly and when something sticks out at me, I’ll add the plugin. Sometimes when plugins are inserted on inputs in the template, it’s just too easy to find yourself reaching for a knob.

I started my cleanup process by pulling a lot of plugins off inputs and clearing others out of the template completely. I then reset the settings on anything that was left for input processing and started rebuilding my plugin racks. I moved duplicate plugins together in the rack while loading any potential plugins I typically like to go to. So, for example, my Phoenix plugs I might use on vocals are stacked together in my vocal rack. It might be a bit of voodoo, but placing the same make of plugin together seems to help a bit with show file load times.

Even though I didn’t insert most of the plugins on inputs, I still kept my rack full of plugins for a good reason. Since instantiating plugins takes time, I set up some favorites ahead of time because I don’t want to kill momentum when I’m building a mix. However, I made sure that settings were reset because the other side of this is I don’t want to find myself just using presets. Basically, I want to make sure that when I add a processor, it is very deliberate and not just knee-jerk reaction. There are some things with presets such as my deesser’s frequency range set in the ballpark, however, even those are set so that they won’t work until I actually turn a knob.

Now, I should mention that I did insert some plugins on specific inputs, although I made sure these were bypassed to begin with. These inputs were primarily multi-mic’ed instruments like drums, and the reason I did this is latency. Since one of the first things I do when pushing up drum mics is to check and tweak any phase issues, I wanted to make sure that any processors I might add down the line were already inserted because an inserted, bypassed plugin will induce the same amount of latency as an active plugin. If I get phase issues worked out and then add a plugin to an input, I could potentially shift things enough to cause phase problems depending on the latency of the plugin. This way I only have to get my coherency together once. I learned this the hard way when I tried to add a compressor to a snare a few weeks ago, and the 65 samples of latency threw it out of phase with the overheads and bottom snare mic and thinned it out too much.

On the output side, I cleared off all buss processing with the exception of my master buss and my drum spank buss. On the master, I left my Phoenix along with my buss compressor because these are things I traditionally mix in to. I try and turn them off later in the process to make sure they’re helping and not hurting. However, this type of processing is another reason why I dumped a lot of input processing. As I mentioned in my buss comp series, I don’t find myself using nearly as much compression on individual inputs when using a compressor on my master so I definitely want this on to start.

While I left my drum spank setup, it is always completely out of the mix to start with and a lot of the processing is turned down to start. While it is rare I don’t use this, I will typically mute my clean drums and tweak the compression on the spank buss before pushing it into the mix. Lately, this has also been the only compression I’m using on the drums.

Now, I’ll be honest. the first few times out on this setup were rough at first. It probably took me a little longer than it was typically taking me to get things where I wanted them. But in the end I was a lot happier with the results. I also felt like the mixes were moving closer towards the target in my mind of where I want to take things over the next 12 months.

If you feel like you’re in a mixing rut, try turning everything off and starting from scratch.

David Stagl

3 Responses to “State of the Mix: Clean Slate

  • Good post Dave, I do not mix on a digital board currently, but I have found this while working in Pro Tools. Sometimes I get mixing a session I recorded earlier, and before I do anything I start adding plugins. I’ve found a few times that my mix ends up sounding muddy and busy. Usually if I clean out all the plugins I had loaded and start from scratch again i can get the mix sounding right. Great words of advice!

  • Good thoughts! It sounds like you are using a desk setup similar to that of Dave Rat- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MMMmR1u0CFk – at least in regards to the drums. I like that. I like what you said about not getting into a rut and starting from scratch to challenge yourself. I think a lot of guys on digital are way too comfortable with just hitting recall, and adjusting faders/HA/EQ.
    When you mentioned getting the drums all in phase, do you primarily reference SMAART or just your ears in determining that? Thanks for your thoughts!

    • I just use my ears when I’m checking phase. There’s no way to get it right at every frequency so I’m listening for the best case scenario as I tweak channel delay–my mics are usually in a good position so I rarely want to touch those. Mainly I’m making sure that the time between my OH and snare mic isn’t killing the lows/lo-mids in the snare.