Mixing can be challenging. It can seem like a complex puzzle where the pieces change shape as the project moves on. Projects can quickly devolve into chaos if there isn't a method being used by the engineer that keeps things organized and on track. Changes become difficult, levels get too hot, and following the signal flow becomes more challenging. In the end it sometimes just doesn't work.
To avoid these issues Two Cat follows a strategy called the Two Cat Mixing Method which keeps our mixes organized, the quality high, and the turnaround time short. In this post we'll give a quick overview of the method covering the essential steps and concepts while getting into the details in later blog posts.
So what is the Two Cat Mixing Method? It's a ten-step process that covers everything important in mixing from setting up the DAW through to the mixing process itself and final QA checks. If the Two Cat Mixing Method is followed the chances of successfully mixing a project increase substantially. Steps 1 through 5 are done as part of the initial setup. Steps 6-10 are generally done in order but its common to jump back to previous steps, etc.
Step 1: DAW Template
A critical step to starting any mix is having a good template in the DAW of choice. This can be as simple as a set of folders or groups containing tracks and default routes within a DAW to a more complex setup of different templates for different genres of music along with default reverb, compression, delay, and other send tracks. Many of Two Cat's templates include built in sub mixes controlled with VCA faders, setups for multiple monitors, tracks and plug-ins for reference tracks and different versions of a mix, etc. One of the big advantages to templates is that it helps drive the mixing engineer towards a standard process and gets them moving on mixing itself quicker. This improves both quality and reduces the time needed to mix driving costs down for clients. Typically, any master bus effects, such as compression glue, are added here. These limited master bus effects are mixed into during the rest of the process.
Step 2: References
This step is critical, if not followed the engineer is mixing in the dark. Every mixing engineer worth giving your best projects to will have a set of reference tracks in the genres they mix in. These reference tracks are quality commercial mixes that give the engineer a point of reference and help keep the quality high. Without these references mixes end up too bright or too muddy or the vocals too loud and so on. A good engineer will also ask the client for tracks similar to the project that the client enjoys and use those as additional references during the project.
Step 3: Initial Data Load
During this step the mixing engineer or an assistant loads the raw audio tracks into the DAW. Some of the decisions here revolve getting the tracks into the correct formats. Some tracks work best in mono instead of stereo or tracks may be converted to a high sample rate or bit depth. Depending on the track it may be necessary to create a tempo map or set the BPM and key of the track. During this step its necessary to make sure all of the tracks are aligned correctly on the timeline and when compared to the rough production mix. Depending on the DAW template, the raw tracks are loaded into groups or folders and sub mix routings are updated. In some cases, its necessary to do additional audio edits to the tracks to deal with noise, hum, or other anomalies.
Step 4: Phase Checks
In step 4 tracks are check for phase alignment. Two Cat starts with low frequency tracks where phase issues are more apparent and works upward based on frequency. The primary task is to look for multiple tracks that record the same instrument and make sure the phase between the two is correct. This can eliminate a weak kick, bass, snare or other instruments making the stereo image better and tracks more full.
Step 5: Setting Initial Levels
One of the most time-consuming problems that can occur in mixing is a mix that is too hot on the master bus requiring all of the track levels to be lowered and rebalanced. Two Cat's strategy is to set all the raw tracks at a level usually around –10 to –12 dBFS. This usually provides 6dB or more of headroom on the master bus. In some cases with very large projects it can be necessary to go lower than –12dbFS. Two Cat also runs all raw tracks through sub mixes controlled with VCA faders which can provide an additional layer of safety towards preventing running the master bus to hot by allowing for quicker adjustments.
Step 6: Flip Speakers/Listening Environments
Step 6 is done over and over throughout the mixing process. In this step the mixing engineer flips back and forth between alternate speakers including headphones and/or listening rooms. Doing this results in a mix that translates better to multiple listening environments. The technique prevents bass lines from disappearing or overpowering systems or vocals that are too harsh. It helps the mix translate.
Step 7: Instrument Placement And Levels
In Step 7 the focus is on finding a physical space for each instrument to occupy and getting a level that is balanced with the rest of tracks. Doing this step well can result in less need for EQ and can make for a larger, clearer, and more spacious mix. This step can be done with panning, level faders, reverb, delays, and in some cases with mid/side EQ.
Step 8: EQ/Compression
In Step 8 EQ and Compression are applied to tracks. This step is to address deficiencies that cannot be addressed in step 7 or to deal with problems in the audio. Here we may be using EQ to make additional space around a vocal or using compression to fatten up a drum track or even out a lead vocal. While mid/side processing is often considered a mastering technique Two Cat often uses mid/side EQ in addition to dynamic EQ to correct issues and make space for instruments.
Step 9: Effects And Automation
In step 9 we add both effects, including creative use of EQ and compression, and automation. This can be anything from tremolo to fades to level rises to increase a build to a phaser and so on. Usually effects and automation go hand in hand and often its necessary to revisit steps 7 and 8 as a result of changes in step 9. The trick in step 9 is to use the effects creatively to add additional interest to the mix without over doing it.
Step 10: QA
Step 10 is all about quality and providing the best product to the customer. During step 10 the mix is rendered, compared against the references, listened to in multiple environments, and tweaked again. Often its necessary to let a mix sit unlistened to for several days before doing step 10. What counts here are first impressions as problems will standout after the mix has been left alone for several days. Additional final checks can include listening to the final rendered tracks for rendering issues and doing some quick mastering to give the client a better feel for how the track will translate on different media. The quick mastering changes should be undone for the final product delivered to the client. Often the client will request changes that result in revisiting the mix and running through several of the steps in the process again.
Following a process ensure consistent quality results that meet client expectations. If you are interested in experiencing the Two Cat Mixing Method first hand request a free quote for your next project.