Mixing a session with hundreds of tracks can be mind-boggling. Navigating around such sessions can be very confusing and time-consuming. Having complete control over your session is key to optimize the mixing process. Spending some time organising your session before you start a mix can save you lots of time during the mixing process. With this approach you'll end up spending less time on navigating and scrolling through tracks and more time on what you're supposed to be doing : MIXING!
Here are a few tips for organising your sessions:
Its good to know the key and tempo of whatever you are mixing. Setting your session to the tempo of the song helps in making all your delays and reverbs sound tight since all time based effects can sync with the tempo of the song.
Import all the files and check for clipping, bounce errors or missing information. Finding any of those later in the mix stage may slow you down, especially if the production / recording was done elsewhere. Also, make sure that the sample rate and bit depth of the session and the audio files are the same.
Once you have all the files, consolidate similar takes into single audio files. For example, a lead vocal take without overlaps can just be one audio file. If it has overlaps, it can have two files. Backing vocals and harmonies can have lots of tracks too, but the point is to avoid having a big mess to deal with. Try to comp all the vocal parts into the least number of tracks. Any more than that may increase the total number of tracks in your mix and make your session more difficult to navigate through. Do the same for other instruments/tracks.
Color-code all your tracks with specific colors that you would use in all your mixes. This makes vertical navigation easy. For example, drums could be blue. Vocals could be yellow. Guitars could be red. The choice of color is up to you, but make sure to use the same colors across all your sessions. This helps to identify the tracks just with one glance, rather than having to search through all the tracks in a busy mix. Even if you mix several hundreds or thousands of songs, you can easily navigate through any of your sessions if you follow this kind of color coding process.
Place markers at important locations in the song like CH (Chorus), V1 (Verse1), V2(Verse2), B (Bridge) and so on. This makes horizontal navigation easy. You could also color code the markers for another level of detail.
Just one glance at your mix session will tell you everything you need to know, and it speeds up the entire process if you need to change something. This also helps in making adjustments to your mix because your session is easy to work with. If any layer, such as piano needs a small tweak, you can easily find your way to it without having to keep scrolling through all the tracks.
Label every single audio channel with an appropriate name. Try to keep the name as short and precise as possible. This way, it becomes clear with a quick glance. For example, the kick channel could be “Kick” or “Kik”. The snares could be “Snare” or “Snr”. Multiple tom channels can have “HTom”, “LTom”, or “Tom1”, “Tom2”, etc. This will help you when you’re searching for a layer. Maintaining the same naming convention across multiple mixes will help you pinpoint what you’re looking for faster. If you need to store additional information about what microphone was used or which studio xyz track was recorded, just keep a notepad doc or comment in the session folder.
Set the mix level by moving all the faders until your stereo out level peaks roughly around -6 dBFS, or whatever you are comfortable with. This is done to make sure there's enough headroom during the mix stage. This also helps in managing a good gain-staging structure throughout your mix. Different plugins work best with different amounts of input gain, so know your plugins well and use them effectively.
Once you have the headroom you need, adjust the faders to achieve a rough balance between all the elements before you start tweaking each layer separately. This will help you prioritize the importance of each element in all the sections of the song, and you can process them accordingly. For example, if you have backing vocal layers, play them in the context. If there are lead vocals on top of them, you can carve out a lot of the mids from the backing vocals to make space for the lead and push it forward.
Routing all the individual elements to different buses helps a lot in gluing the song together. Since the processing on the bus will be applied to all the elements routed to the bus, it will start making those sounds homogeneous. For example, having a “Vocals” bus which compresses, EQs all the vocals will help gluing all the different vocal channels together to sound big.
Now you're ready to start mixing.
Mix templates such as processing chains and bus routing can be very useful in getting right into the mix. These templates are usually a combination of audio effects, sends, and bus routing. You can make these chains as simple or as elaborate as you'd like them to be, but make sure to always judge with your ears. Processing chains usually work best when you're working with the same set of artists in the same acoustic space. Overusing templates may make all your mixes sound too similar. Getting too comfortable with your own presets may prevent you from exploring other ways of improving the sound. It is important to keep this in mind when you're working with templates.
Always keep a few reference tracks handy. Reference tracks can be used for all kinds of purposes. You can use them to compare the tone of a guitar, the reverbs and delays, the balance between instruments, or anything else. Knowing what you want is important, so choose your reference tracks accordingly. The main objective is to help you make decisions quickly, and reference tracks help you with the speed.
Listen to the song a couple of times while your ears are still fresh. Usually, the first few listens will help you figure out what the mix should sound like. overall. These usually includes the balance between elements, tone of the voice and instruments, etc. After this is done, take a break. This will help you rest your ears before you get into the finer details of mixing. Taking a break seems counterproductive when you're looking to speed up your process, but it helps in not making you lose your judgement. After all, mixing is all about making decisions based on your judgement.
Try this workflow on a couple of projects and you'll realise how much time you're able to save just by doing these simple things.