With budgets forever shrinking, efficiency is of the upmost importance. Engineers are expected to be able to do great work in a short time or it’s not worth your while. A template is often a good way to mix efficiently. If you look at interviews with many mix engineers at the top of their game, you will see that they often use a template.
Opening your session in your favourite DAW and there you have it, all laid out for you, your Drum Busses, typical Auxes, etc, you just have to add your tracks in and voilá, instant starting point. It’s a plugin preset on steroids!! With all your processing tools already at hand and ready to go you can hit the ground running and start making creative decisions quickly. The productivity gains are obvious as there is a lot of time saved in loading all the plugins and the mix can be turned around quickly.
However the use of templates also raises some concerns. There is temptation to skip a step of the upmost importance: getting a good balance and trying to get the piece you are working on sounding good using that super useful tool, the fader. Of course many mix engineers using templates strive to receive recordings that already have a great balance if you were to set all the faders at 0. Unfortunately most of us don’t get this and the balance needs adjusting before the start. It’s an important step: it allows you to know the material and all the parts and become intimate with the song you’re mixing.
One issue I have in the template being loaded with the typical plug-in for something is the word ‘typical’. Music styles and recordings are so varied that there never is a ‘typical’ something for anything. The compressor you would use for bass in a heavy metal song is not the same option you would use in a jazz recording; or maybe you shouldn’t use an SSL compressor on the mix bus this time and a Fairchild would be best. I like to think about the options, why am I using the Surfer EQ on the bass instead of a Pultec, does the vocal need to go through the Maag or not. If you have all your toys loaded when you start mixing there will be a great temptation to use them all and go into what I call an Engineering Solo, and pointless solos are never good!
However, there is a middle ground. If you take an analogue mindset, maybe you can have a template with your favourite console emulation loaded up and a plate, a good algorithmic reverb, a convolution reverb, and one or two delays. Something similar to walking to a studio and have your desk all reset and the sends configured but no extra patching done. It saves time of setting that up and your analogue flavour is there and all the sends are done (and doing this would still be faster than resetting an analogue desk!)
If you are mixing a full album maybe you use your “analogue” template on the first song and find the sound and colours you and the artist are going for and from there you can create an album template where you can start mixing all the songs in the album to give it some sonic cohesion. I am aware songs can vary widely in dynamics and style in an album but some cohesion is to be expected in an album and I believe there is a place to use a template you created while mixing the first song of the album, and it would only be used for that project.
There is never a single solution to a problem or any magic bullets. Time saving tools are great but have to be used with caution. As with most things in life, everything in moderation.