Welcome to Day 23 of 31 Days to Better Recordings.

Any time I’m mixing a song, I almost always use subgroups.

Unless I’m mixing a very small session with only two tracks, you can bet I’ll be using subgroups.

If you don’t use subgroups, or if you’re not exactly sure what they are or why you should use them, read on.

Subgroups Defined

Subgroups are really very simple. You’re simply routing (or bussing) several tracks through a single aux track.

For example, whenever I’m mixing drums, I will route ALL of the drum tracks to a stereo bus (let’s say Bus 11-12), then I will create an aux track, name it “Drums,” and set the input of that track to Bus 11-12, then set the output of that track to the normal main outputs.

So…the signal flow is

Drum tracks —> Drums aux track —> Mix Bus (main outputs)

If you’re not quite up-to-date on various track types available in your DAW, I recommend reading these two articles:

(While these articles deal specifically with Pro Tools, just about every DAW I’ve ever used has the same basic types of tracks.)

Why Use Subgroups?

At this point you may already be thinking of a few ways to utilize subgroups in your mixes, but let me share three ways that I use subgroups in almost every song I mix.

1. One Fader

This is the most obvious use of subgroups. Let’s say you’re mixing a song, and halfway through the mix you decide the drums need to be a little bit louder. Well, you could try to turn up each of the drum tracks by the same amount, but this can be tedious.

The solution? Run them all through a stereo aux track, then you have one fader to control the volume of the entire drum kit.

This works for drums, guitars, background vocals…anything really.

2. Efficient Processing

I talked about this in my series on preserving processing. Using subgroups can be a fantastic way to save both time and CPU power.

Let’s say you have 8 background vocal tracks, and you know you want to EQ and compress them all in roughly the same way. You could instantiate 8 EQs and 8 compressors, one on each track, but that can take up a lot of computer processing, AND it takes a lot of time to set up and tweak.

The solution? You guessed it. Bus them all through an aux track, and place the EQ and compressor plug-ins on that track only. Now a single EQ plug-in controls the sound of the background vocals, rather than eight different plug-ins. Much better.

3. Parallel Processing

If you want to get really fancy, you could bus a set of tracks through two aux tracks, and process each of these tracks differently. This is known as parallel processing, and it can be used to produce some very interesting sounds.

For more on parallel processing, check out these two videos:

Day 23 Challenge

Do you use subgroups? Leave a comment below and let us know why or why not. How are you going to use subgroups on your next mix session?

  • Arjun Ramesh

    In the mix session I did a couple of days ago, I used subgroups. I remember doing them a few years ago and got some great results, but somehow, I drifted away from them. However, this time, I had some really odd anomalies. When I subgrouped the drum track outputs to a stereo Aux track, I could not hear the drums anymore, even though all inputs and outputs were set correctly. The strange part was that I was able to hear the reverb returns on the drum tracks, even though the bus was not set to pre fader. Feeling a bit frustrated playing the “red light” game earlier, I just scraped it and grouped the drum tracks together, so that I can control the level of all of the drums by just moving one of their faders. Any idea what could have gone wrong with the drums dropping out of the mix like that? Nothing was soloed and the subgroup Aux track was solo safed. Weird. Anyway, on my next mix, I will try them out again. I was easier to control multiple tracks, I remember.

    • Alf

      Had a similar situation the other day, I had setup all the percussion tracks to go to sub mix aux. Then I set the percussion aux to main I/O. Same as you, no sound for percussion. Set the aux track to record ready and viola.. sound is produced. Not sure why the track had to be in record though.

      Alf

  • Jon Hawkesford

    Yeah always use subgroups makes life and processing much more simpler. Have used parallel processing since watching your video. Love the site.

  • Matt

    I always use subgroups. Great tool !!!!!
    I use them on drums, vocals, guitar groups, et cetera.

  • Bob Sorace

    I use it for drums and vocals, another thing I picked up a while back from one of your previous posts. I really want to try the parallel processing, sounds like fun.

  • Frank Adrian

    I use subgroups for drums, backing guitars, instrumental, and vocals. The only othet thing I might do is to subgroup the bass with the kick to tie them together with a bit of compression (which then may or may not be mixed with the rest of the drums).

    Reaper’s hierarchical track structure makes this really simple and almost makes you think in terms of sub-grouping as a preferred way of arranging and processing tracks – it’s one of the reasons I use it.

  • I didn’t used to use them, but now I use them all the time. They save so much time mixing and save processing power. I’ll assign all the backing vocals together if I want to treat them with the same efx. I’ll assign all the vocals to a vocal bus and all the instruments to a “band” bus. I don’t use the same sub-mixes for every mix. I find it mo’betta for me to creat them as I go based on the needs of the song.

  • Preshan

    I use subgroups all the time, and I have labeled my I/O and made templates so when I open up a session, everything is routed and named correctly.

    It’s great for things like vocals where you may want to high-pass every one to get rid of plosives, and maybe de-ess most of the vocals. I usually put these on the vocals bus aux track, and the problem is solved with just one plug-in. The subgroup aux tracks are also great for things like tape saturators, bus compressors, automated flangers 😉 etc. One thing with Pro Tools subgrouping – remember to Solo-Safe all the bussed aux tracks.

  • Christopher w

    I always use subgroups in a live situation, but hardly ever in a studio situation. I will however send instruments to aux channels for processes like reverb and to make side-chaining instruments to midi-controlled effects such as vocoders.

    controlling the volume on multiple channels at the same time is extremely easy on modern computers and DAW’s I don’t find it even slightly necessary to use busses for that reason.

  • Lukas

    Absolutely!
    I even use a template, that has couple of Subgroup Auxes. I’d import it just before mixing and from there my life becomes so much easier…

  • Ryusei Kawano

    I use subgroups, it helps a lot when you want to save CPU.

  • Everett Meloy

    I think Sub Groups expand your current recording boundaries with minimal effort and maximum return. It is indeed a big step forward.

  • I’ve mixed and used ProTools groups before, to similar effect. Same concept, which saves a track (good for ProTools LE users), but you loose the benefit of group processing (drum reverb).

  • mark b

    Reaper has the folder type thing going on. in other words, i can make a track the parent folder of a number of other tracks which nest inside of that folder. it acts just like an aux or sub mix. i can also route everything individually to another track without using the folder system. i do both, but since the folder system is so quick and convenient, and collapsible i use that by default and if i need some other routing for whatever reason i’ll do that next.

    yeah subgroups rock. really saves time in the long run.

  • Wayne Johnson

    One word! Lifesaver, lifesaver, lifesaver!
    Oh wait, that’s three words. I use them all the time. Great topic Joe and overlooked most of the time. Wayne

  • Subgroups might just be the greatest tool available to a mixing engineer. Period!