Philth Tips #12 – mixing week 7 (creative FX)

I have spent a long time focusing on the fundamentals of mixing. It is vital that the first thing you do is balance your mix properly so that every sound has its own place. It’s only at this point that you can start to think about advanced techniques to bring your mix to life – the creative application of audio plug-ins.

The two main ways that FX can be used creatively:
Spatial FX – change the perceived position of a sound, create an impression of movement, depth, width.
Timbral FX – alter the tone/texture of the sounds in your mix. This can include subtle shifts in timbre and pitch, warped moving textures, thick gritty distortion.

 

Application of FX

The way you apply FX will great change how they affect the sound – as will the order in which you insert the FX. Audio passes through plug-ins from the top down – this means that the effects happen one after the other, with the signal being changed before it reaches the next plug-in in the chain. If you place EQ in the signal path then the next plug-in only affects the signal that is left after the EQ has been applied. This means you can apply EQ before a reverb for example, and only the frequencies that you desire will be affected by reverberation. Experiment with changing the order of your processing chain, sometimes it can make a massive difference.

In-Line FX – this means the FX is placed directly on the channel/bus and will alter the sound totally before it leaves the channel. In-line processing fundamentally changes a sound.
Parallel Processing – the FX is placed on a bus and aux sends are used to decide how much of the original signal to send to the bus. This means that the original signal plays unimpeded, with the option to decide how much signal goes to your FX, and how loud the affected signal is in your mix. You can then also apply multiple plug-ins to your Aux track without affecting the original signal, and you can also choose to place it in a different place in the stereo field – for example, a delay that only plays on the left.
Automation – you can use track automation to choose when and where to apply your FX. This could by using Bypass or Wet/Dry controls to selectively switch on your FX; automating an Aux Send level; automating the behaviour of the aux track itself.

 

Spatial FX

Creative FX 2 - spatial.png

Reverb – use reverb to manipulate depth. Automate reverb to suddenly push a sound into a new space.
Delay – very short delays further manipulate the impression of depth.
Delay can be used to thicken a sound. And of course, create the repeating ‘echo’ effect.
Stereo Imaging – these plugins take advance of psychoacoustics to manipulate phase. By altering the phase relationship in a sound it tricks the brain into hearing a ‘wider’ sound – but also means you will have phase problems in mono, so be careful.
Panning automation – move sounds around the stereo field to emphasise changes in the song.
Chorus/Modulation – chorus creates a double of a signal then delay it by a very short amount to manipulates phase. Other modulation plug-ins such as phasers apply similar principles to create a sound that appears to be moving.

 

 
Timbral FX

Creative FX 3 - timbral.png

Modulation – modulation plug-ins (phaser, chorus, flanger, ringshifter etc) also alter the frequency balance of a sound. This can range from a subtle thickening effect, right through to whooshing and swirling textures. Don’t worry about how they work (I don’t!) just try them out and see what interesting things they do to your audio. For example I like to use Logic’s ringshifter on the top layer of reece basses, to give the tops some movement that feels alive due to the randomness caused by the ringshifter.
Distortion – gentle saturation (for example Overdrive, Tube Distortion) thickens a sound by emphasising its natural harmonics – this is known as harmonic distortion. The other end of the scale is the fizzing, gritty, buzzing, screaming sound of hard distortion.
Amp Simulation – model the behaviour of a guitar amplifier to create a range of tones. Again this can range from subtle thickness to painful screaming tones.
EQ/Filters – we have used EQ to balance our levels. Automating EQ or filters enables us to choose to highlight sounds at important moments in a song.
Pitch – layer vocals for thickness, warp the pitch for dramatic effect.

When using these types of FX start off with presets so you can get an idea of the possibilities available to you. Give yourself an idea of how you can manipulate audio creatively, and bring your mixes to life.

Philth Tips #11 – mixing week 6 (dynamics – part 2)

Last week we looked at dynamics processors, in particular compressors. This week we will add some new tools, and consider how we can apply dynamics processing to groups of sounds.

 
Dynamics processors

Transient shaping – shape the Attack (the transient) and Release (the tail) of a sound. Particularly effective with drums to make them more pokey or tighter.

Noise gate – used to cut background sounds. The gate will only open when the signal goes over the threshold, so only the loud parts of a track pass through the gate. Very effective on live drums to remove the noisy background in between hits.

Saturation – using Overdrive and similar plugins will limit your sounds and also create harmonic distortion. This effectively makes things sounds thicker and fatter.

Limiting – stops signal going over 0db and clipping the channel. However be careful as running into a Limiter too hot will still cause distortion.

Clipping – some compressors have built-in Distortion. This enables you to clip the signal and squeeze it up to appear louder without leaving spiky transients.

 
Applications of compression

Buss compression
Using a compressor on a buss group will help to hold all the sounds together by reducing their dynamics and shaping their transients as a group rather than individually. For example – compressing layers of vocals to avoid sudden peaks; compressing all of your drums as a group to avoid peaks and also potentially make your drums pump. This is why people refer to buss compression as ‘glue’, sticking groups of sounds together.

To use this technique you simply need to route all your drums/vox/etc directly into a Bus track instead of going straight to the stereo output. Then when you apply plugins to this Bus they affect all of the incoming audio at the same time. Now a compressor will respond to your entire drum mix. You can setup the compressor to emphasise transients, to reduce dynamic range, to cut off any peaks…. all of the normal uses of compression but applied to your whole drum mix, processing it all together.

This also means you can apply Saturation or Limiting (or even both) at the end of your chain, which will cut off any peaks and recover some headroom. Then you can push your drums up so they appear louder in the mix without using up all of your headroom. My absolute favourite tool for this is Camel Phat at the end of the drum chain to give the drums an extra squeeze.

 
Parallel compression
This technique involves mixing a heavily compressed signal back into the original dry signal. Most commonly used on drums (for extra impact and energy) and vocals (solid signal with the impression of dynamic range).
Set up an auxiliary channel and use aux sends to choose which signals are routed to the compressor. You can then apply aggressive compression to your signal (no dynamics on vocals/exaggerated pumping drums) and use the aux fader to mix this signal with your dry signal. I normally set up a final bus to group the dry and parallel signals together for a final bit of control.

When writing DnB I use parallel compression on my drums in a variety of ways, depending on the style of track.
For minimal or techy tracks I will push the compressor on the parallel chain to emphasise transients (hard compression, Attack/Release set to let the drums poke before they are compressed), I will then double the effect by using an Enveloper to cut the tails and push the initial attack. When you mix this back into your original drum mix you end with a very tight and snappy sound, spiky drums.
For liquid I will often go in a completely different direction, and use the parallel compression to bring out the shuffles of my breakbeats by having a very short attack then timing the release to let the shuffles jump out. Using the Soft Clipping feature in the Logic compressor will squeeze the drums more and result in the shuffles appearing to pop out of the drum mix. This can then be mixed with the dry signal to achieve a swinging or pumping effect.

Dynamics - parallel compression

This first screenshot shows how the two drum busses are mixed into a final drum bus. This Drum Master channel makes it very easy to adjust the volume of the drums in relation to the rest of your mixdown.

The Parallel is compressed aggressively, with a fast attack and release to ensure all transients have a POP. The Enveloper is pushing the first 10-20ms of the transients to bring out more poke, which is then clipped with the Overdrive.

The Drum Mix is compressed gently, a little squeeze after letting the first 50-60ms punch. Then the UAD plugins are a Tube Amp for saturation, a Neve EQ which is bringing up the bass of the kick with a low-shelf, and finally, Overdrive to catch peaks and squeeze a bit more.

On the Drum Master there is EQ on the whole drum mix, in this instance to push the mids, and finally Limiting to push up the perceived volume while avoiding any peaks.The result is the brick wall of drums you will see below.

In this second screenshot, you see the effect that each stage of processing has on the audio. The end result is thick fat drums that are controlled by the Limiter.

Dynamics - processing drums.png

 

Philth Tips #10 – mixing week 5 (dynamics – part 1)

I had a break for a few weeks while I was away. Now I am back at work, and back in geek mode. This week and next week I am teaching my students about dynamics processing. That means compression! The following are my notes from the first class. There will be a second part next week when we delve further into the application of these ideas….

Dynamics = loud and quiet

Dynamics processors control the amplitude of your audio, and enable you to shape sounds by manipulating their natural dynamics.
Compression

FACT – compression does not make sounds louder. A compressor attenuates (reduces) the signal. It is only when you use the Make Up Gain afterwards that a sound becomes louder.
Compressors can be used to reduce the dynamic range of an audio signal, which can then be boosted thereby creating an impression of a louder overall signal. This is what is meant when you hear that a compressor ‘makes things louder’.

There are 5 key features you will find on every compressor:
Threshold – this determines when the compressor starts working. When the amplitude of the signal goes over the threshold the compressor starts working.
Ratio – how hard the compressor works.
Attack – how quickly the compressor start working (grips the signal).
Release – how long the compressor takes to go back to zero compression (lets go).
Makeup Gain – this boosts the signal after the compression as taken place.

Other features you may find on your compressor.
Knee – the curve between compression and no compression
Mix – enables you to mix the compressed signal with the dry signal. This effectively enables you to use parallel compression to combine dry and wet signals.
Distortion – many hardware compressors naturally create harmonic distortion (the nice kind!). This feature on the Logic compressor enables you to emulate this natural distortion and effectively saturate the signal.
Saturation = squash = thicker signal.
Drive – similar to the drive on a filter, this will saturate the signal.

Applications of compression

Controlling signal with wide dynamic range
Some signal, such as vocals, will have a very wide dynamic range. This means that some of the quieter words may get lost in the mix, or the loudest parts are too powerful and overpower your mix. In this instance, you will use a compressor to reduce dynamic range and create a more level signal. Be careful though – completely removing dynamic range will suck the life out of the performance.

Look for the loudest part of your signal and set the threshold and ratio so that this section of the signal is controlled (without completely killing it). The attack and release will determine how aggressive the compression sounds. No attack will means the compressor acts immediately but also kills the natural transients of the signal. The following three examples show the ways we can use compression to control vocals.

Dynamics - compression - no attack
In this example, the compressor has been set with no attack at all (0ms). This means that all of the transients are being lost, and as the compressor’s threshold was set pretty high, all the vocals are being squashed so much that there is practically no dynamic range. This vocal will cut through a mix, but there is no sense of the vocal building up and it will sound very unnatural. The louder parts are simply being squashed more.

Dynamics - compression - fast attack.png

In the second example, the attack time has been pushed up to around 80ms. This means that some transient information is getting through (although you can see some strange spikes which appear to have been caused by the compression), retaining some of the original delivery. The threshold was also reduced slightly so the compression was less aggressive, and the result is a more dynamic vocal. However these spikes are definitely a problem.

Dynamics - compression - soft clipping

In this third example, the attack and release were left the same, but the Distortion feature of the Logic compressor has been engaged. This Soft Clipping has meant that the spikes in the previous example are gone, and the quieter moments are squeezed up a bit louder. This has resulted in more headroom, but still an impression of dynamic range. What you can’t hear from the screenshot is the warmth or thickness that harmonic distortion provides to an audio signal.

Shaping individual sounds
A compressor can be used to manipulate and accentuate the natural dynamics of a sound. For example drums… you can use a short attack (30-100ms) to allow the initial hit (transient) of a drum to hit as normal then the compressor grips the signal. You can shape the front of your drum hits to emphasise the first punch. This can result in very punchy tight drums, but also very spiky drums which will need to be controlled afterwards.

You can achieve similar effects by using a transient shaper to control the attack and release of a drum hit. Combining both tools give you maximum control over the shape of your drums.

Philth Tips #8 – mixing week 4 (EQ)

The latest in my mixing series talks about EQ. However if you think I am going to tell you the perfect frequency to EQ your kick drum you will be very disappointed! Every song is different and you need to be open-minded in your approach to EQ, there are no set rules that you can learn as a shortcut. Sorry! (not sorry)

EQ (Equalisation) is the tool that enables us to shape the frequency balance of our tracks – sculpting sounds by cutting or boosting frequencies.

EQ can be used to give each sound it’s own unique space in the mix. But it can also be used to help sounds fit together, to give a mix a steady tonal balance. For example you don’t want one really bright/harsh sound in a warm organic sounding acoustic mix, it will stand out in a bad way and affect the listener’s perception of the authenticity of the track. Likewise you will need to work with EQ to make real instruments fit together with shiny synth parts in electronic music, warm pianos are lovely but if they fight your sub and sound dull/muddy compared to your other sounds then something needs to change.

Think about your song and EQ appropriately depending on what you are trying to achieve.

Do you want to create separation, so that each sound stands out individually?
Do you want your sounds to sit together and sounds like they are in the same room?
Do you want to do both of these things at the same time!?

By identifying the frequency content of each sound we can emphasise it’s sonic characteristics to make it stand out, or we make can sounds sit down inside the mix. An important thing to remember – all EQ is relative to the rest of the song. You are trying to fit a collection of sounds together into a cohesive whole. Don’t spend all your time EQing sounds in Solo mode – they need to be EQ’d in the context of your song. Each decision you make will have a knock-on effect on the relationship between all of the sounds in your mix, so the longer you spend in Solo getting the ‘perfect’ tone, the more likely you are to be moving your sound away from what the overall mix needs.

Each song requires a different approach to EQ, there are no hard and fast rules that apply to every track so please try to ignore information on the internet telling you that you ‘must’ low-cut your kick at 80hz or whatever. Why? How is your kick going to have any depth if you hack all of the bass frequencies out?? I love a thick bassy kick that hits me in my chest, and then I can use precise EQ to ensure there is still space for my sub notes.

Every song is different, so make decisions relative to the song that you are working on. However as more of a general rule – CUT before you BOOST. Reducing/removing frequencies makes space, increasing frequencies adds volume and fills up your mix very quickly.

EQ Techniques

Cleaning sounds – carefully removing frequencies which are of no benefit to your mix. Generally this will involve tight cuts, not wide bands. Be careful not to overdo it – you will suck the life out of a sound. Also try to avoid sweeping a notch through the frequency spectrum – everything sounds bad when you boost it by 24db! If you can’t hear a problem don’t go looking for one.

Making space – when two sounds are occupying a similar frequency range they often tend to mask each other, they will sound like they are fighting for attention in your mix.. Identify the key frequency area that makes one of the sounds stand out – then gently reduce these frequencies on the other sound.

Tone/Timbre adjustments – if you want to affect the overall tone of a sound, normally you will use wider cuts/boosts, but be gentle. 2-3db will make a massive difference. Identify the frequency band that has desired effect on the timbre, and use a wide band to bring that area up or down.

EQ Tools

High/Low Cut: completely removes all the frequencies above/below the cutoff point. You can often choose the slope of the cut. Be careful – extreme cuts change the phase behavior of your audio and will have an affect all the way across the spectrum. A low-cut on your kick can mess up the attack as well as remove the bass.

eq-3
Everything below the cut-off point is removed. The purple area shows what is left. In this instance this will cut rumbling bass frequencies.

High/Low Shelf: reduce/boost all the frequencies above/below the cutoff point. The Q will determine the curve and the behaviour of the EQ at the cutoff point. This is useful to shape timbre without completely removing frequencies.

eq-4
The red area shows how a low-shelf reduces everything below the cut-off point. I often prefer a shelf to roll off the sub of a kick drum, leaving the round bottom but not obstructing room for the sub.

Bell: cut/boost in a specific frequency band. These bands can be moved to choose which area they affect, often anywhere on the spectrum. Q makes the band tighter or wider depending on what you are trying to achieve.

eq-5
The blue area shows a bell with a wide Q (bandwidth).

Types of EQ

Parametric – you choose the freq bands, and are able to shape the Q (width) of the bands. Use for precision cuts.
Graphic EQ – a series of fixed bands across the frequency spectrum. Useful for pulling out problem frequencies or creating a wide tonal change.
Single Band EQ – useful to cut whole areas from a sound (usually top/bottom)
Console emulations – older mixing desks would often have EQ bands that were fixed or had a restricted range. These EQ’s are great for applying colour to a sound (warmth, brightness etc) with wide boosts.

eq-1

The high-shelf on this Neve EQ doesn’t have the option to choose the frequency band – it just makes thing brighter!

eq-2
Console emulations can provide character and warmth that a digital parametric EQ is designed to avoid.

I will often use parametric EQ’s to remove or tame any problem frequencies (most EQ’s have a built in analyser so you can locate any rogue peaks), and then use a nice console emulation – or ideally a real analogue EQ – for wide boosts to affect the overal timbre. Cut with precision, then boost with your ears.

Philth Tips #7 – mixing week 3 (depth)

Using the stereo field makes your mix two-dimensional and helps each sound find its own space. By also making using of depth (front-back) we can achieve a 3-D mix that makes full use of the spatial planes available to us, and as a result feels more realistic.

Making use of depth lets you assign prominence by bringing certain sounds to the front of the mix – signifying to the listener what is important. You can bring sounds close to the listener to suggest intimacy, and you can present a bigger sound by placing your sounds in a large room. Creating a sense of depth brings your music to life.

We create a sense of depth by taking advantage of psychoacoustics to manipulate the listeners’ understanding of the spatial relationships of your sounds. However…. the simplest way to bring a sound to the front of your mix is to make it louder! By thinking about your volume hierarchy (week 1) you can decide which sounds sit closest to the listener, and which sounds sit back. Then move on to using plug-ins.

Your song should sound like it all lives in one space. By using reverb we can create the illusion of a room, by using volume and EQ we can bring sounds forwards or backwards in this room.

Imagine being in a large room with stone walls, with a piano being played in the middle. There will be a lot of reverberation in this room. However, if we are close to the sound source we will hear more of the original piano signal than the reverberation from the walls. The further we move from the sound source, the more we will hear the natural reverb of the room ( the sound bouncing back off the walls) mixing with the original signal.

By setting up an auxiliary track with a reverb plugin on it we can create our room, and choose its size and character. By using the aux sends we can choose how much of each track is sent into this reverberant room (using aux sends also avoids having loads of reverb units running at the same time, which will eat up your CPU), enabling us to create a separate mix going into the reverb. Sending more of a particular track to the reverb will create more reflections and therefore a sense of distance, less reverb suggests that the sound is closer. A combination of long and short reverbs can further this sense of distance and create the impression of a 3-D space.

Using EQ can also alter the sense of depth. The closer our ears are to a sound, the more we hear the extremes of low and high frequencies. Using shelf EQ’s at the top and bottom we can manipulate this sense of distance. Adding freqs at both ends of the spectrum will add thickness and detail to a sound – this is called a ‘proximity effect’. Rolling off these areas will push a sound back in the mix – as we move away from a sound source our ears pick up less of these freqs. This can help to bring a vocal closer to the listener’s ear, boosting low frequencies to reduce the impression of distance from the sound source – the feeling of an intimate vocal being sung right next to you.

Volume balance, stereo imaging and depth are the three fundamental ways to place our sounds in a mix. If we get this part right our mix will already signify the important sounds to the listener, by placing them at the front in the centre of the mix. The rest of our sounds can then find their own place within our imaginary room, and if we get this stage right our mix is going to sound balanced before we move on to any clever processing…..

Philth Tips #6 – mixing week 2 (stereo field)

Each sound in your mix wants to have its own space. By making use of the stereo field you create a bigger sounding mix through the use of width, and you also free up space in the centre for your most important music element (vox/melody). Even if you are writing dance music tracks, where the bass and drums are massively important, you still need something melodic or a hook for listeners to remember. Using the stereo field properly can make space for this key element to cut through your mix.

Your kick, bass, and the main punch of your snare should all be mono. These sounds need to be strong, and panning will make them lopsided. As a general rule, everything below 200-300hz should be mono to ensure your bottom end is focused and powerful. But every other part of your track could benefit from panning to help create space in your mixdown.

Consider: what sounds are in your mix, when do they play (which sections), and what is their significance? Write a plan and consider how to use the stereo field to drive the song along. Decide what is the most important element in your track, and leave it in the centre. Pan the other elements of your track to free space in the centre, then your vocal/hook can cut through easily.

A good mixdown draws the listener’s attention to the important sounds in a track, and this will change in each section of your song. You can manipulate the stereo field to drive the song along and provoke a more powerful emotional response in the listener.

Manipulation of the stereo field

  • Central verse / Wide chorus is a commonly used technique in pop music. It gives the listener an emotional payoff when the song appears to get bigger at the chorus.
  • Wide breakdown / Central drop is a common dance/bass music technique. A wide breakdown helps build excitement then all the power of the drop is focused centrally for maximum impact.
  • LCR technique – all sounds are either hard panned or central. This completely clears the centre of the mix for vocals. Most suited to rock/band mixes, but you can use this method to less extreme settings and clear the centre of your mix for one special element

Make some of your stereo tracks mono before panning (for example Logic orchestral instruments, pads, guitars). It will concentrate each sound in one place, and make better use of the stereo field. You don’t want to fill up the stereo field and leave no spaces for other instruments.

Be very careful when using stereo width plugins. They achieve a false sense of width by manipulating phase relationships – so your mix will possibly collapse in mono. Be particularly careful with drums, vocals, and your master channel. Stereo wideners can ruin all the power of your mix. You don’t need to use a stereo widener on your master channel if your mixdown makes proper use of the stereo field.

Always check your mix in mono to make sure your volume balance is still right – do not rely solely on using the stereo field as many playback devices will convert your mix to mono. Volume balance is still the key, then the stereo field helps to achieve separation.

stereo-field-screenshot

 

Philth Tips #5 – mixing week 1 (volume)

I work as a college teacher from Weds-Fri, teaching Music Production. On Friday I teach my Yr 2 students in the studio, and this point of the year we start looking at mixing. That means my blog posts on my website are going to get steadily more techy over the next few months. Each week I am going to post the contents of my lesson on here, in a series of blog post covering mixing from the very basics. First up – volume.

 

Write a mix hierarchy – what is in your song, and what is the most important element?

What is the focal point of your song at each section of the track? Your track needs something memorable for the listener, something to give the track a sense of identity. This should be the loudest element in your mix, and bear in mind this will change in each section. In a traditional song, the focal point is almost always going to be the vocal, in dance music your bass is going to take up a large amount of headroom but there needs to be another melodic element/hook that takes centre stage. If the loudest part of your mix is the drums then the other parts of the track are going to be subdued.

I will actually write this down on paper – a list of all the elements in my track, the role they play (melody, harmony, atmosphere etc) to help me to decide what is the most important. It is very easy to get accustomed to the sound of a track you have been writing for months, sometimes you need to apporach it from a fresh perspective. And sometimes it can really help to push all your faders down to 0 and start again.

 

Gain structure – keeping volumes down at the channel stage.

You do not want to be clipping at any stage of your mix, and in the modern DAW environment there is really no reason to go anywhere near 0db. If you find you are running out of headroom, select all of your tracks and pull them all down together, this retains your mix balance but will create lots of headroom just by a 2db adjustment.

 

Make bus groups for each set of sounds

This makes it easy to control volume of whole groups. For example, a drum bus lets you mix the whole drum group to the appropriate level in your track and process all of your drums together. Group your strings, pianos, pads, vocals, mid-basses… once you have got the balance of your individual tracks right you can then use the bus groups to adjust the overall balance of your mix quickly.

 

HEADROOM!

Leave some space in the track – your master volume shouldn’t go above -3db. If you have left headroom then once you have decided on your focal point it is easy for your loudest sounds to poke up into the space and grab the listener’s attention.

 

Analyser/Meters

Trust your ears, but learn to use the meters to check that you do not have a lopsided mix. This is especially important if you are working in a home studio or on headphones and you don’t have great bass response. Watch your favourite tracks in your analyser to get an idea for relative bass/top end levels. You are not trying to match the levels of a mastered track, don’t try to smash your bass up to the same point as a Break mixdown, but you do want to learn about the relative balance of a good mix.