I have fond memories of using Buzz Tracker in the 90’s, which was the first software I used that visually mapped out the relationships between instruments, effects, and the overall flow of sound:
The modular nature of this basic but powerful interface introduces the concept of music as graphs, routes and busses, and for its price (free!) was very much ahead of its time, although professionals with access to physical hardware were routing voltages many decades beforehand.
Personally I owe much to this revolutionary piece of freeware software and the logical framework it provided for creativity.
Learning to think of audio in terms of a signal flow has stuck with me through different DAWs and workflows, and given how easy it is to set up a structure I feel that it’s worth sharing the approach with other producers, especially beginners.
More advanced users will undoubtedly have their own preferences and personal workflow, so I can only speak to my own approach here, and as always welcome feedback, tips and tricks in the comments.
But I digress…
Mapping the bus pattern…
This a flowchart of a track I worked on recently in FLStudio. I’ve taken each instrument, mixer routing and automation and splayed it out into a graph.
Each column represents a stage in the progression from instrument to final mix, and each colour group represents one of the layers of the overall sound.
With only 12 instruments and a small number of automation and effects, this minimalist approach makes it a pretty good candidate for analysing the patterns involved.
The Bus Pattern
The bus pattern is fairly common in electronic music production, in general it looks something like this:
On the left are the instruments which produce the raw sound. These can be samples, recordings or various forms of synthesis; a piano melody, accapella or an evolving tonal soundscape.
Moving to the right, each instrument finds its own unique mixer channel. Along the way, the audio of each instrument enters multiple layers of busses, which makes “Gain Staging” a relative breeze when it comes to mixing and mastering the final product.
I don’t necessarily add effects units to all (or even most) mixer channels, but having each instrument on its own channel can be extremely valuable and freeing, as I can single out one or more instruments or groups for special treatment later on without having to rewire my project.
I tend to group “similar” instruments and forward their mixer channels into “Group Buses.” So for example, all my percussion goes to one bus, all my basslines to another, likewise for leads, choirs, strings, etc. These are the “sections” of sound (how exactly I do this varies by track).
Later when I am working on finalising the mix it is easy to fix problems like “the drums are too soft” or “the atmosphere is too dominating.” By conducting the properties of the group bus through automation (represented by the ovals in the picture above) I’m able to ensure each section is appropriately expressed as the sequence evolves.
Onward to the “pre-master” mixer channel, almost every group bus is routed here by default. On this channel I can provide global effects, to ensure each group integrates together as a whole, but with flexibility for certain sounds to bypass these global effects. I may want a sub-bass to keep pulsing beneath a track-wide highpass filter for example.
Finally, we reach the master mixer channel, and this is where all the global EQ, dynamics, levelling and other mastering processes take place to ensure the tonal balance is correct, and the final rendering is ready to be published.
In this particular project, I have assigned individual delays and reverb effects to many instruments.
This is fine for a basic project, and gives me the ability to add richness and variation through these effects — different filters in the delay feedback, fake retrigger effects etc.
On a more complex project however, this would quickly lead to muddiness as the tail end of the reverb and delay effects begin to combine, especially where compression is used on buses.
To combat this, “Effect Busses” are a common and powerful solution, allowing a smaller number of general effects to be applied to a large number of instruments:
By setting effects to use only the wet mix, the amount each effect applies is simply achieved by adjusting the input level on each route into each effect bus, which FL supports directly in the mixer.
Finally, a Global Effects Bus allows for effective gain staging, and perhaps the ability to automate or control various aspects of the global effect output, which can prove useful again during the mixdown.
Example Template (Download Included)
I have uploaded an example template built using FLStudio 20, which can be downloaded from this link.
This can be saved into Flstudio’s data/templates folder and used for a quick start on new projects.
Simply map new instruments to a blank mixer channel, then route that channel to the appropriate bus. (Shift-scrollwheel to slide the mixer insert alongside its parent bus if you like).
Flstudio supports submixes, that is you can select multiple tracks with control click, then create a sumbix by right clicking a target track and selecting “create submix.”
This sets up the routing and visually groups tracks.
I don’t personally use this approach, partially out of habit, and partially as I like to add channels to busses as I go, and rarely have multiple unbussed channels that I want to group in one go.
Play with either approach and choose the one that suits your style.
Creativity vs Structure
Music is inherently an emotional experience, both for listeners and creators. There is something raw and visceral about hearing or creating a sound for the first time that just “resonates” and it can feel like adding structure becomes too rigid and interferes with the creative process.
The natural instinct is to start jamming, to get that sound out of your head and into the world as quickly as possible before it’s lost to the ether. However ideas can drift aimlessly; structure is the other side of the creative coin, and a good simple structure provides a solid foundation for creating a refined end product.
The full flowchart of the project can be obtained from this link.
The FLStudio project for the bus template can be obtained from this link.