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The anatomy of a score mix #2

In this second post I share the basic layout of my supersession. But first things first, let’s start from the beginning.

Basics

This film is in 5.1 so the music supersession is 5.1 too. As I’ve had a conversation with the re-recording mixer, he’s going to get 5 5.1 stems and one 5.1 fullmix.

  • String stem
  • Brass stem
  • Atmospheric stem
  • FX inst stem
  • Percussion stem
  • Full mix

I use the Centre channel sparingly constantly double-check that I’m not hurting the dialogue. As this is a modern hybrid score with lots of atmospheric and synth instruments, we agreed on that I’ll use the LFE for certain things where we think it has added value. The main point is, the score is complete without the LFE, it only adds weight at certain points.

If I feel I might have gone too far, after checking the temp dialogue and fx I received from the dub stage I ask about the specific scene, how likely my LFE would hurt anything. I’m a bit old-school in this regard as I sat in their chair a few times and I know exactly how hard it can be to decipher all the messy stems, music and effects when you end up with a constantly pumping LFE in the theatre. It’s really better to double-check and make sure you’re going in the right direction.

Up to this film score mix I’ve always used a dedicated LFE-maker per stem. Now I didn’t feel the need of it so I abandoned that approach in this case. Probably because the electronic part of the score was filled with pretty high quality samples and analogue instruments I didn’t have to generate anything, just had to treat what’s already been there.

Without sounding overly obsessed, one more thing about the use of LFE in a music mix. It’s dangerously easy to overdo it. Because as you start adding things into the LFE channel, you instantly feel the satisfaction as the additional powerful sub enhances the low-end of your mix. It’s not only sonics but also a real physical sensation as we’re talking about deep lows here. And we can’t deny the fact that it’s very, very entertaining. And this is the reason why it’s such a huge trap. It’s like a child in a candy store, really. So when I really use the LFE, I always double and triple check if I’m in the right ball park, and always have a coffee break before I print the stems for delivery. This is a kind of reality check which keeps me on the right path. I know in our industry it’s already a well known cliche, but it’s even more true here, less is more!

Colour coding and organising

Basically every stem has its own colour. This is the primary sign which helps me find everything rapidly. Generally I avoid using bright red colour because that is used on the record stems and fullmix so whenever I see bright red I know it’s a record channel.

Other than that there are really no rules here, except that every stem must have a unique colour. If you still need more separation, then use an inactive track to separate them. If I find I always searching for things in the session then I set up these separator tracks that always stay inactive and their only purpose is to guide my eye. It’s quite amazing how these small things can help and guide your brain and eyes so you’ll find things much easier and faster. Combining the separator tracks with vividly different colours are the best for me. Remember, your session will only grow as you delve deep in the mix so use whatever can help you to keep track of everything.

Use brighter or darker colours inside a stem to differentiate things. I try to follow my own rule of using one main colour throughout a stem, only varying the brightness of it. If the stem is huge with lots of tracks, then I might split up to two different main colours. The only really serious rule is to not mix colours between stems.

The reason for this is rooted deep in our brain. If you use kind of similar colours, your brain will automatically recognise things without searching through many tracks or reading the track name. If you mix colours through multiple stems then your brain loose track of things. The point is to find a system that works for you, and no matter how hard it seems to stick with it, you must to stick with it. You’ll thank yourself later. Remember, we’re talking about hundreds of tracks and in any given moment you must find certain elements in a huge mix in seconds to deal with them. It is not wizardry, but certainly requires preparation and diligence during the mix.

At last, I always leave the internal audio buses and stem fx tracks at the end of each stem. I’ve been doing this so long that even the stem fx tracks signal me the end of a complete section. Combining the colour coding, the separator tracks and the routine to have the effect tracks at the bottom of every stem I can quickly fly through 300-500 tracks without being lost.

Groups

I usually create groups to have certain kinds of instruments or sounds treated together. For example if I have eight kind of similar synth pads then I create a Edit-Mix group for them. This way I can adjust them in bundle, but it’s also very easy to adjust only one if needed. But once I have a pretty good internal balance, it’s rare that I need to adjust them absolutely in isolation from the others. If it happens, then I can grab two faders in the group so it temporarily let me adjust them separately, or I can quickly suspend the group to have them separated completely for the time being.

The other trick is to don’t use the globals but create your own rules for the group. For example controlling certain inserts or send together or have their panning controlled by the group. If you choose wisely this can save you tons of time.

This kind of grouping is a double edged sword. If you need to edit a lot, than you might consider using mix only group or make a separate edit group so you can selectively have the needed groups enabled. Obviously huge editing shouldn’t happen during the mix stage but honestly many times today you can’t eschew that. Since picture lock seems to be non-existent, the constant changes forces the composer and you to re-edit things to really fit the picture.

One thing I always do is to create a CUT group. That includes all the audio from all the stems, except the mockups, the dialogue and effects track, the video and the final prints. If I need to readjust-copy-move an entire cue for some reason, this group takes care of the process. Just be sure to really include all the necessary things but nothing more. Double-check it, otherwise you might get into trouble using this global group.

Marking the groups properly is another must do thing. All the edit groups start with capital E, all mix groups start with capital M. VCA groups get a small v prefix. For special things I usually create so called Temp groups. These can be anything from special group panning to similar plugin adjustment. If I know it’s not going to be an absolutely necessary group in the mix, I mark it TEMP before the name. Of course this is my system which works perfectly for me. You can use this, or make your own system. The point is, you need something that works for you. At the end you need something that is informative and easy to recognise.

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