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Pro Tools Mixing Tips

Pro Tools uses compression to balance recording levels for mixing music.
Pro Tools uses compression to balance recording levels for mixing music.
Image courtesy of Digidesign

If you've ever fiddled with the bass and treble settings on your car stereo, or tweaked the equalizer on your dad's old amplifier, then you've dabbled in the fine art of mixing. In digital audio production, mixing comes after all of the tracks have been recorded and edited. In the mix, the audio engineer needs to adjust all of the individual sound sources and tracks to create a balanced, polished, rich-sounding final product. It's harder than it looks.

In many ways, integrated hardware and software systems like Pro Tools have made the mixing process much more streamlined. But with thousands of Pro Tools plug-ins at your fingertips, it's also tempting to go overboard and end up with a mix that sounds overproduced. Here are some tips for getting the most out of your mix using Pro Tools.

Compression is Key

If you've made your own home recordings, you'll notice how raw your tracks sound compared to the way recordings sound on CDs and the radio. This is because professional recordings have been compressed. Compression is the process of automatically balancing the dynamic levels of a track to make it sound warmer and smoother. Compression adjusts all of the very loud and very quiet parts of a track to create a balanced, more pleasing whole.

Pro Tools comes with several compression plug-ins that can be applied to individual tracks or entire songs. Pro Tools' compression plug-ins come with specific pre-sets for each instrument and vocal track. This way, you can isolate your kick drum track and apply a compression setting that's custom made for kick drums. If you don't like the way it sounds out of the box, you can adjust the compression plug-in's faders (attack, release, gain, et cetera) to achieve the exact effect you're looking for.

Automate, Don't Frustrate

One of the tremendous advantages of mixing on a digital audio workstation (DAW) like Pro Tools is that the software can do a lot of the busy work for you. For example, a lot of audio recording engineers have favorite track settings (compression, equalization, stereo pan) that they like to use for just about every song on the album.

Using Pro Tools' built-in automation functions, the engineer can record all of the adjustments he makes to the parameters of a track and automatically apply the same parameters to other tracks in the same song or other songs.

There's also another technique called snapshot automation, where you can select a section of a song across multiple tracks, automate the individual settings of each track, and apply those same multi-track settings to another section of the song or a new song entirely [source: Sound on Sound]. This can save valuable time during the mix and ensure a consistent sound across an entire album.

Save Processing Power with Sub-Mixes

The mixing power of Pro Tools software is limited only by the processing power of your Pro Tools hardware. If you're a home user, you probably don't want to invest the thousands of dollars necessary to build a lightening fast professional Pro Tools system in your basement. If you start inserting multiple effects plug-ins to every track in your song, you might notice that your lightweight Pro Tools system starts to bog down, or even crash.

Here's a trick for creating sub-mixes or sub-groups for applying the same plug-in effect to multiple tracks while conserving processing power. In Pro Tools, you have the option of creating tracks called stereo aux inputs. Aux inputs can't be used to record and play back actual audio, but they can record plug-in settings.

So here's what you do. You apply a universal effect like reverb to an aux input track. Then you assign that track to one of your internal stereo busses. Now you can use an action called send to send each of the tracks to where you want to apply reverb through that same internal stereo bus [source: Sound on Sound]. The send action doesn't use nearly as much processing power as individual reverb plug-ins on each track, which frees up processing cycles for other effects.

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