Hold on there, old timer. Before you give me a lesson about how it was actually done in 1969, know that I just picked the title because it was catchy in a hip retro kind of way. I know that no one did sub-mixes in Pro Tools in 1969.

I’ve gone through various, let’s call it phases, where I do things differently. For instance, I had a phase years ago when I tried layering thousands of guitars. Nowadays I feel the fewer guitars the better. I’ve had phases where I’ve used saturation plugins on all tracks and I’ve had phases where I haven’t been using any at all. This is all part of a greater learning experience. Cool.

Well, only until you have to fire up and remix an older project, like say one from 2008, which is what actually happened to me last week. What the hell was I thinking back then? There are like 50 tracks?! Mixing is suddenly a total pain in the ass.

Enter sub-mixing

Now, you might be a boy band producer who’re used to working with up to 100+ tracks. Me? I just get lost. For this reason I once upon a time invented sub-mixing (yes, it was really me… Not. I don’t know where it originates from to be honest). What that basically means is that I will make a small mix of one group of tracks and then bounce them to one track. For instance, 10 drum tracks can end up being one, 8 guitars can be two, and that bastard who thought it was a good idea to put up a gazillion mic’s for backing vocals will find out that one track is all one need for the task.

This is easily done:

  1. Set the levels, set the pan.
  2. Apply your basic EQ and such to the individual tracks.
  3. You can keep all the FX if you want.
  4. Set the outputs of all the individual tracks you want to sub-mix to the same bus destination, for example but 1-2.
  5. Create a new audio track and set the inputs to bus 1-2 (or whatever the outputs of your individual tracks are).
  6. Hit record!
  7. Hide and deactivate the single tracks and you have saved yourself some headache.

Not very complicated but for me there’s more to it.

Get gritty

You see, I’m a gritty guy and I like to roughen things up when I do my sub-mixing. Basically I’ll just send the individual tracks through some saturation, EQ or light compression (light, there’s nothing rough ‘n’ dirty about too much compression – it’s just stupid). You can grit things up individually, for instance by putting a tape machine emulation on each track but you can also process them all together. In my head they sound a little more gelled together this way. To do this you’ll want to add an aux to the mix. Follow the above procedure but set it up the following way:

  • Individual tracks outputs go through the same bus (let’s say 1-2).
  • Input of the aux track is the same as the individual track outputs, i.e., 1-2.
  • Output of the aux track is 3-4.
  • Input of new audio track (the sub-mix) is 3-4.
  • The aux track has gritty plugins or hardware inserts on it.

I call the aux “the dirt channel” and I came up with it several years ago. I would put some rough sounding plugins on it and mix through it. If I remember correctly I used Massey TapeHead and maybe a compressor back then. You can use whatever you want.

I’ll also do some basic EQ’ing. If you’re someone with just a few pieces of hardware this might be the time you want to utilize them since they will be freed up for later use too.

It’s true that you could just mix the individual track down without any processing at all and apply the processing to the new sub-mix track instead but where’s the fun in that? Try committing to something every once in a while – all the cool kids do it.

Once you have your new sub-mix (which I hope is at least a little bit dirty) you might still want to keep process it. Some extra EQ perhaps to make it fit with the rest of the music.

I did this as late as last week and ended up with 1 rhythm guitar, 1 lead guitar, 2 drums, 1 percussion, 1 bass, 1 lead vocals, 1 backing vocals, 1 pads. Much better! Now I won’t get lost and can focus on what’s important. The dirtyfiers du jour were Universal Audio UAD 610 and the Studer emulation but use whatever you’ve got.

Good luck.