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Mainly asking about electronic and house genres here:

How much EQ/compression/panning/etc. tweaking should I expect to need once I've written my first few loops? Does this depend on whether I'm assembling my own drum set or not? Do some pre-assembled drum sets need more mixing down than others?

I usually start writing house tracks by punching in a few 2 or 4-measure loops. Sometimes I select my own drums, others I'll use a preset or artist drum set in Ableton or Maschine. My friends have advised to always be mixing down, even during this initial layout phase, but I kind of feel like it interrupts the creative flow. The rationale is that ideas that seem ok might be impossible to mix-down at later phases, and you end up wasting time on an untenable idea.

I know this probably varies by person and setup, so I'd like to see if there are any good rules or benchmarks for knowing if/when you need to mixdown early.

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Do you just mean mixing? Mixing down normally means bouncing to stereo - also known as exporting. –  Sam Greene Mar 7 '11 at 23:27
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3 Answers

This is going to depend greatly on each individual person's creative sensibilities. For myself, I'm always doing rough mixing during the creative process, because I want to see how a new sound "sits in the mix." So the mix is an integral part of my song-making. But this works better on "old-school" equipment (outboard synthesizers, effects and mixers), because there's no danger of running out of processor power. If you try this on a computer, you may reach a point where you run out of processor power, and then you have to start committing things (like your drum-set) to two-track sub-mixes.

I don't recall a situation where I had to throw away an idea or musical part because I couldn't fit it into the mix later. That does happen, but it happens more often for musical reasons than mix reasons, because you can always pull back other instruments or thin out the mix to make it fit. I don't see any waste in that; it's just part of the creative and learning process. If you are composing and mixing on a computer, it's not like you're committing studio time at $150 an hour to throwaway ideas.

In short, do what fits your creative sensibilities. In time, you will develop enough experience to know if a sound you are creating can be easily incorporated into the mix later.

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Couldn't agree more. Personally, I've never "mixed down" anything since I got more than 4 tracks of recording. :) But YMMV. –  Lennart Regebro Dec 19 '10 at 17:29
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I think the short answer would be, never mix-down, yet constantly mix.

The longer answer would be that you should try to evolve the mix of the track/song as you go without mixing down. Use sends to aux channels if necessary. I personally prefer in-line mastering and I tend to mix and master as I develop the track.

The one exception to the 'mix down' -- at times -- especially on dance tracks you'd want to create compressed and equalized versions of each of the samples you use, to allow you to maximize the mixing volume of the track across all frequency ranges.

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I negotiate this by only working with pans during the initial 'ideas/basic tracks' phase. If something does not sound exciting right off the bat, it's probably never going to (unless you mangle hard with it, which is more work); by the same token, if the basic tracks are good, with only basic panning and minimal fussing the mix tends to sound good, too.

This has minimal impact on your early workflow.

Then, you can leave the detailed treament for after you get this rough mix right.

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