How to build a Mixing Template

A template is an empty “model” project, ready to receive the tracks you want to import.

Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) come with many templates and you can either customize them or create new ones from scratch. A good template will improve your workflow so let me show you how I make mine.

A typical template consists of:

  1. empty audio tracks
  2. bus groups
  3. FX channels

Empty Tracks:

You want to have as many empty tracks as needed per instrument, in a band’s template (I am going to write about Orchestral Templates in a dedicated section of this blog) you will see the following:

  • Drums
  • Bass
  • Guitars
  • Vocals
  • Keyboards

It’s good to create at least two tracks for the bass drum, two – three for the snare, one for each tom, one for the hi-hat, two overhead tracks (one mono and one stereo), one or two room tracks. Tracks are mono unless specified.

For the bass it’s okay to start with two tracks and use filters so that one track has everything above 250Hz and the other one has everything below 250Hz. This gives you the opportunity to work on these bands separately, it’s set up now but it’s not necessarily going to be used. We’re assuming that we’re going to import one bass track (let’s say a DI signal) and duplicate it, should we have more tracks (i.e. one or two mics plus the DI signal) we will have to duplicate each track and split it at 250Hz.

Four empty guitar tracks plus two empty lead guitar tracks are generally a good place to start.

Two lead vocal tracks and eight backing vocals give you some headroom, you might not need these many but we can always use the spare tracks for more processed vocals at one point in the mix.

Keyboards usually come with their own stereo image, so we are going to create empty stereo tracks for them, however the stereo information that comes with a keyboard signal is often a disruption to the mix: it sounds good on its own but it takes too much space in the stereo field….I recommend placing a good stereo imager on all empty keyboard tracks, it will allow us to make them narrower or even mono if that’s what it takes to free up space in the mix.

Bus Groups:

This is probably the most important and useful feature of any good template. Bus groups will dramatically improve the workflow and we want to set the routing in a way that gives us flexibility to do everything we want once we start mixing, we don’t want to fiddle with the routing along the way unless it’s unavoidable.

  1. Drums

If we have multiple kick mics we need to create a kick bus group, that gives us the flexibility to work on the kick as a whole (from the group) or by shaping the sound that comes from the individual mics (from their tracks). Same for the snare. A toms bus can help, maybe each tom will be panned differently and have its on eq but at one point in the mix we might want to turn the toms up/down as a whole or make volume automations etc.. a Drumkit bus will group all the instruments in this section, at this point add an empty group and name it “NY drums”, this will come in handy if you want to do parallel bus compression later on – make sure to set a compressor and an eq on the insert and leave the fader to negative infinite…where is this track receiving the input from? From your drumkit bus, on this one you need a pre-fader send at 0dB to the NY drums bus. Finally, create a Total Drums bus and set it as the output for both the drumkit bus and the NY parallel drums bus.

  1. Bass

Do you only have the two tracks we mentioned before (above/below 250Hz)? One bass group channel will be enough. If more bass tracks are available (e.g. a DI track and one from a microphoned amp), once you’ve duplicated both and split the eq send all the low end tracks to a bus (named Bass Low End) and the high end tracks to another bus (named Bass High End) then assign the Total Bass channel group as the output for these subgroups. Add now a saturation plug in or an overdrive to the high end of the bass, just set it up and leave it off, you might need it later on when mixing, nothing is decided yet: you’ve simply set up a “multiband distortion” for your bass. Bear in mind that splitting the bass at 250Hz is just an indication and you can alway change the split frequency.

  1. Guitars

Generally all the rhythm guitars will have their own subgroup, same for the lead guitars. These are all feeding into a Total Guitars channel bus.

  1. Vocals

Same for the vocals, a bus for the backing vocals and one for the lead vocals all feeding into a Total Vocals group.

  1. Keyboards

One channel bus is usually enough for these but you might want to split them further if they have different functions in the arrangement. For example more pad-like keyboards could have a subgroup of their own, same for bass synths or lead synths. If orchestral arrangements are provided as individual instruments you should definitely set up one channel group for each section (Strings, Brass etc..). As above, all the necessary subgroups must feed into a Total Keyboards channel.

It seems like a lot of work but it’s a template, you will reuse it and modify it on the go. It will save you a lot of time in the long run.

FX Channels and Inserts

  1. Eq

Setting up an Eq on each track at this stage might be overkill, but it’s definitely okay to insert an Eq on each channel bus.

  1. Comp

Bus compressors should definitely be set up at this stage. It’s good to add two different types of compressors on the channel groups and the mixbus so that you can quickly A/B test their different colours on the go and see what works.

  1. Saturation

Again, set them up now and leave them off. One on the high end of the bass guitar, one on the lead vocals and the Total Vocals group: you are not necessarily going to use them but they might come in handy.

  1. Reverb

At least two reverb instances are created at this stage: one convolution reverb (to recreate real spaces) and one algorithmic reverb (for effects and flavour). Nothing stops you from using just algorithmic or just converb or from mixing them up in other ways. If you want to know more about the differences between algorithmic and convolution reverbs read my article: Types of Reverb.

  1. Delay

Same as the reverb, at least two tracks are created now, one for a mono timed delay and one for a stereo timed delay. Some people would also set up a short (slap) delay at this stage, it’s useful for doubling up tracks sometimes, but I’ve found that two instances are a decent starting point for most mixes. You can quickly duplicate delay channels and change the settings as you go.

Enhancing your workflow with colours:

Yes, colours can be a mixing tool. Projects can expand and become massive, using a consistent colour code across all templates will help you identify sections, bus groups and FX channels quickly and edit them at once when necessary. In the example below you can see how the drum tracks are light blue, guitars are green, FX channels are purple etc…have fun creating your own colour code!

A comprehensive template will provide you with everything you need for most tasks and it will save you the time to set all these things up whilst mixing, which is what would happen if you didn’t have a template in the first place.

Got questions about mixing templates? Get in touch.

Check out my music!