Get On The Right Track
Leading new wave synthesist Ian Boddy explains the way he uses 'track sheets' when undertaking a recording.
Leading British synthesist Ian Boddy whose new album 'Spirits' is released this month, describes the benefits of track sheets and supplies us with his own sheet as an example.
You've finished the recording, things have gone well and it's time to begin the final mixdown. You settle back into your chair, set the multitrack recorder rolling, fade up the tracks and all the fragments making up your latest masterpiece begin to fall into place in full, glorious, stereophonic sound.
However, half way through the mix you remember that track three not only contains the backing chords but also a solo lead line (or is it track two?) and thus the balance of that track must be altered from a level of 25 to 20 (or was it 10?). Too late, the solo enters far too quietly at the fader setting of 20 and what's more, you've forgotten to take off some of that track's echo so the lead line solo was swimming in a sea of echo repeats. Of course, you're faced with no alternative but to start the whole mix again.
Unfortunately, this is an all too familiar occurrence for musicians who are inexperienced and even perhaps mystified by the apparent complexities of a recording mixer and the mixdown procedure itself. However, there is an easy method of keeping track of your composition during this final, all important balancing act and that is to draw out a 'track sheet'.
This mnemonic aid basically consists of a sheet of paper with horizontal rows representing each of the separate tracks on the multitrack tape to be mixed down. Along each row, information can be written down to enable the mixdown process to continue more efficiently and calmly than if all the data were to be memorised. In effect, it acts as a sound score but rather than containing musical notation it employs mixer control settings, usually represented in the form of numbers or other graphic symbols.
Perhaps some of you are wondering about the relevance of such a memory aid when all you are working with is a humble portastudio. Well, even a four track recording can prove tricky to mix, especially if several different sounds have been recorded sequentially on some or all of the tracks. Furthermore, it is good practice to begin drawing your own track sheets whether it is required or not, for when you come to a situation when one will be essential, for example, on a full eight track mix, you'll feel more confident as you will then have the experience in planning out a mixdown, which will enable you to carry out the task more efficiently.
The diagram shows a layout of a typical track sheet for a four track recording, just to keep matters simple. The first thing to stress is that the ideas presented below are merely suggestions and should not be considered as hard and fast rules. It is up to you to formulate the best way of expressing the information required (for example, you may prefer vertical columns as opposed to horizontal rows for each track). So let us now look at the items of data that we will need to enter on a typical track sheet.
1. TRACK NUMBER/NAME. Each track of the tape can be represented by a ruled horizontal row and it usually makes sense to route the outputs of the recorder to the corresponding inputs of the mixer ie. track 5 to input 5. Additional rows may be necessary if you are using extra mixer channels for echo, reverb or some other effect. At the far left of the sheet write down the number of the mixer channel for each row, usually in descending order. Then give each row a name to represent the instrument or sound on that channel. Try to keep these as short as possible as the whole idea of the track sheet is that it should be as clear and concise as possible. If more than one sound occurs on any one track then write the new name of each as they appear at the appropriate place on the track ie. along the rows.
2. TIME SCALE. As the diagram indicates, the track sheet takes the form of a graph (actually several graphs one on top of another) with the X (horizontal) axis representing time and the Y (vertical) axis relating to the various mixer channels. Thus, the further toward the right that any instructions are placed then the longer the time interval that has occurred since the beginning of the piece. Generally speaking the data can be written in approximately the correct horizontal position, any changes that have to be made simultaneously on separate channels being written one above the other.
However, the time scale need not be linear, if for example little happens within the next ten minutes of your piece and then all hell breaks loose in the final couple of minutes. It is far better to spread out these last instructions and condense the ones before them. If you do require more precise timing, then the X axis could, if you wished, be divided into various time units such as minutes and/or seconds, musical bars, tape counter readings etc. Any major sectional changes can be denoted by vertical dashed lines although for long compositions it is best to have several sheets running concurrently rather than trying to squeeze everything onto one sheet.
3. VOLUME. There are three controls on a mixer which directly affect the volume of any sound. The overall gain, master output faders and the individual channel faders. Generally, it is data pertaining only to the latter that is included on a track sheet. The master outputs are usually only altered when undertaking fade ins/outs and can, therefore, be memorised, although it can help to write down tape counter readings as memory cues if the length of the fade is critical.
The easiest way of representing the volume of each of the sounds is numerically, according to where each of the channel faders are positioned against their respective scales (the marks running down the side). Every time a particular sound has to be increased or decreased in volume by means of pushing up or pulling down the fader on its channel, write down the new fader reading to the right of the previous value, taking into account what has already been said about the time scale. If it would help, one could include standard musical notation for crescendos (level increase) and diminuendos (level decrease). Often, of course, it would be impossible to write down all the changes as sometimes one 'gain rides' depending on the feel of the mix. This term means tweeking the faders up and down slightly at various stages, often on crescendos and accents and is largely a case for improvisation, and as such can mean the difference between a run-of-the-mill mix and a good mix.
4. EQUALISATION. Depending on the complexity of the mixer you are using, the number of knobs relating to equalisation could typically range from two up to a total of six. Obviously, if one is having to alter all these controls for every track during a mix, then things are going to get rather complicated to say the least. In general, it is best to record the individual sounds on tape with the desired tone settings already present which leaves the final mix a considerably simpler process.
Some EQ changes may still be necessary, however, when all of the individual tracks are heard together but if these settings don't have to be altered during the course of the mix then it is pointless writing them down on the track sheet. Remember, keep things simple. Furthermore, although it would seem logical to represent any tone changes numerically it is more convenient to denote volume and effects levels in this manner and to include a third set of numbers would complicate matters far too much. Instead, one can use short instructions such as 'Low Cut', 'Hi Boost' etc. where the degree of tonal change isn't absolutely critical as often these alterations are like 'gain riding' ie. they are semi-improvisatory. If any alteration of the EQ controls is critical then these can supplement the appropriate instruction eg Mid +5, Low -3 etc.
5. PANNING. The placement of sounds in the stereo field by means of the mixer pan-pots is easily represented by an arrow which should approximate as closely as possible the position of the pointer usually found on the top of the panning knob.
6. FOLDBACK/ECHO SEND. These controls route individual sounds to external effects devices such as echo, reverb, flanger etc. The former is pre-fade ie. independent of the channel fader setting whereas echo send is post-fade ie. pulling the fader down simultaneously decreases the level of the dry signal and that sent out via the echo send. The echo send is most frequently used for effects although the foldback may also be used but only where a sound requires an effect that does not fade into or out of the mix. If it did, one would not only have to pull down the channel fader but also reduce the foldback level for that channel otherwise the sound would still be fed through to the effects device, even when the fader was fully down.
The simplest way to represent these controls is numerically according to the positions of the knobs against their respective scales (usually 0 to 10). Some mixers may only have one effects send whereas more complex ones could have three or even four. In the latter case, write the appropriate numbers numbers one above the other and if any are set to zero, it is probably clearer to indicate this with a dash instead. Also, try to use a different colour from the numbers used for the volume levels. If not, as in the example diagram, place one set of numbers above the track names and the other set below.
7. MISCELLANEOUS. In general, the parameters listed above are the main ones to be altered in the average mix but there are a whole host of other controls that one may occasionally need to use such as mute and pre-fade listen. Also, it may help to write down the odd cryptic description or small note of standard musical notation to aid you in your task. It's up to you to design a track sheet that you can understand quickly and efficiently.
So the next time you come to do a mixdown and the headaches begin when you try to remember all the various mixer settings and changes involved in your piece, use the ideas presented above to plan out your composition in the form of a track sheet. You should then find things a lot easier. Happy mixing.