Mix session layout and suggested naming conventions

By August 17, 2011Mixing Tips And Tricks

Prior to digital audio workstations taking center stage in studios, engineers would make meticulous session notes on paper and package these notes with the master tape.  The reason for this was to allow a transparent transfer between different personnel working on a project.

The theory goes that you should be able to hand a session to another person involved, and have them know exactly how the session is structured without any frantic last minute calls for help.  The other bonus is that if you open sessions you have worked on possibly years later then you can stave off the effects of old age memory loss, and quickly resume where you left off – all without having to spend hours casting your mind back to when food was reasonably priced and politicians were honest.

While guidelines and recommendations exist for session folder organization, naming structures etc, the goal of this article is to take this concept a step further and explore name and color options within the session.  These recommendations can be used in parallel with existing guidelines and recommendations.

When asking NZAMP members for feedback and suggestions prior to starting this article, it became quickly apparent that there were a lot of similarities in everyone’s workflows.  The common theme was although everyone had their particular way of working, they were consistent with it. While certain naming conventions were different, the overriding concepts were very similar in nature.  After consolidating all of the feedback and trialing these suggestions out there in the “real world” we present to you a logical way to approach session organization. Remember – you can never have too much information!

For further information on session guidelines and recommendations please visit https://www.grammy.org/recording-academy/producers-and-engineers/guidelines

Disclaimer alert! As with any guidelines and recommendations they are just that – guidelines and recommendations.  Feel free to implement the parts that do work for you and ignore the parts that don’t.

Bus structure and track names

When working on a mix session clients usually provide all of the tracks without any bussing or routing.   Ultimately you’re trying to condense many tracks into a final 2 track (stereo) mix.  To make the job easier, a mixer often groups multiple source tracks into a single fader.  For example, you might have 16 tracks of drums that you want to condense down into a single drum channel to allow easy access to your overall drum level.

One of the better analogies I’ve heard is that sitting behind a mixing desk should be similar to driving a car you are familiar with.  You should instinctively know where the stick shift (or bass fader) is, and be able to switch off the part of the brain that is trying to figure out where everything is (is that switch for the indicator or the window wiper?), and simply “drive the car”.

Engineers working on large format desks used to patch channels to faders that were always in the same place so they instinctively knew where certain faders were.  With the digital based world we are now able to move faders around on control surfaces and recall different mixer layouts at the touch of a button.  This means we can show only the faders that we want to show, and move faders around on the desk so we are always sitting in the sweet spot.   The downside to this is that the mixer/engineer is often scrolling around to find the channels that they want and in large sessions this can start to become time consuming.

The naming conventions below were devised to not only work on the DAW screen, but also the smaller displays of control surfaces.  They rely on visual cues to show you, at a glance, where you are at in a session. We’ve found that when using the naming conventions coupled with track/channel coloring, locating the channel you want becomes very simple – ultimately saving time and easing frustration.

Without further ado let’s dig in…

The Concept


The grouping structure has 6 nested levels of depth.  Level 1 being the track itself, and Level 5 being a VCA or absolute group master.  Level 6 is provided in cases where you might need to create additional routing groups past the main section masters such as ALL MUSIC or ALL VOCALS (for example when sidechaining the music group to the vocal group).

Examples of various levels

  • Level 1
    • [ Level 2 ]
      • LEVEL 3
        • [ LEVEL 4 ]
          • < LEVEL 5 >
            • ( LEVEL 6 )

Any of those levels can have a parallel process (a duplicate of the channel with additional processing that is blended in with the original) indicated by // at the front.

Examples of parallel processing channels at various levels

  • Level 1
  • // Level 1
    • [ Level 2 ]
    • // [ Level 2 ]
      • LEVEL 3
      • // LEVEL 3
        • [ LEVEL 4 ]
        • // [ LEVEL 4 ]

< LEVEL 5 > is intended to not have any parallel channels as that’s the absolute master for a collection of tracks however, as there are no rules, a ( LEVEL 6 ) is available if necessary.


The VCA structure has 5 levels of depth as our source tracks are Level 1.  For VCAs we can take the same logic but switch the symbols around.  For those interested in the reasoning behind this logic, for groups it is a receiver channel (many to one and our symbol orientation reflects this) where as VCA is a broadcaster (one to many).

For example:

] VCA Level 2 [

v.VCA Level 3 (this one is different as our 3rd group level does not contain symbols).


> VCA LEVEL  5 <


As with our groups it’s not necessary to use all levels of VCA nesting in a session but they are available if needed.

Parallel Processing

For those of you that like symmetry, on parallel channels you can wrap the name within the double parallel lines e.g. // Level 1 //.   In practice we found that on a DAW screen or control surface the trailing “//” can often get lost and can sometimes cause visual confusion with groups.


Parallel Channels (Bold = preferred)




In practice

If you don’t have many nested levels then it’s recommend to jump between levels 1, 3, and 5 to allow easy visual identification of tracks both in your DAW and on your control surface.

Example  of simple vocal track and group structure
  • BgVox1
  • BgVox2
    • BG VOX
      • < VOCALS >

Click to enlarge

Example of complicated vocal track and group structure
* Note ( ALL VOCALS ) channel not pictured in the screen shot
  • BgVox1a
  • BgVox1b
  • BgVox1c
    • [ BgVox1 ]
  • BgVox2a
  • BgVox2b
  • BgVox2c
    • [ BgVox2 ]
      • BG VOX
      • // BG VOX
        • [ BG VOX ]
          • < VOCALS >
            • ( ALL VOCALS )
ComplicatedRoutingClick to enlarge

As you can see from the above example we can control the level of our background vocals and all parallel processing with the single [ BG VOX ] fader, however the structure employed above allows easy visual identification of the [ BgVox1 ] and [ BgVox 2 ] groups should we need to adjust those too.

Example of electric guitar routing
* Note ( ALL MUSIC ) channel not pictured in the screen shot
    • [ EGTRS ]
    • // [ EGTRS ]
      • < GTRS >
        • ( ALL MUSIC )
ElectricGuitarRoutingClick to enlarge

Color Coding

Track colors are a personal thing and depending on what you like to look at for 16 hours a day every person has their own method of coloring.   Some base their color selection on the light frequency spectrum.  Instruments with lower frequency instruments (bass) are towards the red end of the spectrum (colors: brown, red, orange), while higher frequency instruments (hi-hats) towards the blue end of the spectrum (colors: blue, cyan).  Others color the tracks based on groups for example all drums, all bass, all guitars etc.  One bonus of coloring your tracks based on the light frequency spectrum is many analyzers also employ this method of color coding so your tracks will logically mirror what is happening in the analyzer window.

Composers I spoke to preferred to color their tracks at the event/region/clip level based on their priority and placement in a song or cue.  For example, a verse section in the song would be one color while while the chorus of the song would be another color.

Track level versus region/event/clip level

When employing color coding in a session we have the option of doing it at the event/region/clip level as well as the track/channel level.  While generally the events on the track match the overall track color there are ways where you can use individual event color to your advantage.

Some ideas are:

  • Coloring events depending on their place in the song.  For example, you might color your chorus differently to your verse to help easy identification of song sections.  This can be separate to the overall track color view so you can combine the two color coding concepts.
  • The traffic light.  By utilizing the 3 traffic light colors – Red, Yellow, Green – you can color events based on either their priority or whether they need additional work.  For example, if you are tuning vocals or choosing takes you can show which events are “good” (in tune or best takes) by coloring them Green (ready to go) while ones that still need work are Red (stop!). Yellow can be used for something you are unsure about and need to make a decision on later.
  • Coloring busses and track groups darker shades of the tracks they represent. For example, if your drums are light red then the drum group busses can be colored in a darker shade of red.  This ensures you can still visually identify a group of a particular instrument but also identify whether it’s a source track or group you’re dealing with.
Example of track color coding by instrument groups Example of event/clip color coding using the “traffic light”
TrackColorSchemeClick to enlarge EventColorsClick to enlarge

Track layout

There are a variety of methods of laying out your tracks but the most important thing to remember is that you want to always know where the tracks are located in your session so you can instinctively reach for them.  For example, if a client requests “more bass” then you should be able to immediately locate the fader for bass.

Large format consoles have static fader locations so it has been common practice to patch your most important tracks towards the center faders of the console so that you are sitting in the sweet spot and work your way out from there.  In the computer based world with a control surface this principle no longer applies as you can show only the channels which need immediate attention and never deviate away from the middle of the speakers.

Here are the two most common methods for sorting your tracks within a session.

Layout 1 Layout 2
Lead Vocals
Background Vocals
VCA Masters/Master Outputs
VCA Masters/Master Outputs
Lead Vocals
Background Vocals

While there is no right or wrong way, the two layouts above are probably the most common ones that you will encounter in a session although often the VCA masters will be nested within each layout group for easy logical access.

It’s important to remember that although there are no rules in audio, some general tidiness in your sessions goes a long way in helping you forget about the technical details and instead concentrate on what’s important – the music.

If you have any suggestions or ideas for any of the above then we’d love to hear from you!

[updated Jan 2019]

© 2011 Jonathan Campbell, NZAMP, https://www.1212music.com