For decades, engineers have been largely defined by their ability to get great drum sounds. And while drum sounds offer many challenges, in the end it is the vocal performance that most consumers focus their primary attention on. There is no other sound in our lives that is more prevalent than the human voice. From the time we are born we are trained to notice the slightest inflections and variations as they provide us with meaning and the ability to interpret and respond accordingly.
In the realm of mixing music, the ability to bring clarity and focus to a vocal performance in the midst of other musical performances and sounds offers a huge challenge. Unlike our normal communications that are largely free of interference from other sound, in the midst of a music production the vocal needs a bit of extra help to stand out amongst the other instrumentation. Let’s take a look at some of the basic facts.
The human voice exists in a frequency range from about 80 hz up to 6 Khz The fundamental frequencies of vowels and soft consonants resides in the lo-mid to midrange area and makes up the fundamental notes that are sung. Hard Consonants and consonants that contain the letters S or Ch exist in the higher frequency area of the human voice. Of course there is a lot of additional information above 6K but those frequencies are not a fundamental part of the human voice. That said, the information above 6K does have a significant impact on the perception of a vocal when mixed with other instruments
When mixing vocal sounds, the 2-6 Khz area provides the articulation information of a vocal, but can also be harsh when out of balance. Frequencies between the 6-10K area can exaggerate sibilance and add harshness that makes the vocal harder to interpret or understand. When we travel aove the 10 Khz area however, we get to the “air” frequencies that can lift a vocal above the music so that it literally stands in a separate space. “Lifting, or “Raising” a vocal above the music is one of the most powerful ways to create separation and increase intelligibility so that every nuance of a vocal performance is crystal clear.
The following video tip demonstrates some techniques for making this happen…
Many of you reading this blog are well aware of SPL plugins and the mixing and mastering solutions they provide. What you may not be aware of is the fact that many of these plugins are models of existing hardware. SPL stands for Sound Performance Labs and offers a wide range of studio solutions including audio interfaces, preamps, channel strips, EQs , compressors, summing amps, etc… The plugins carry over these solutions to the DAW market.
One of the many SPL hardware pieces that have been emulated is the Vitalizer MK2-T. The MK2-T is a tube version of a very unique processor that combines EQ, Dynamics, stereo imaging all in a single unit. This processor is designed around the Fletcher-Munson equal loudness research conducted back in the 1930’s. The idea was to create a box that would help to open up the sound of any source material by uncovering hidden information in the actual content. The Vitalizer is not creating something from nothing, but rather helping to expose what is already there.
There is a complexity underneath the simplicity of its design. When understood, one can work quickly and efficiently at opening up a sound and adding depth, air and size. Although not designed as a mastering only tool, it certainly lends itself to those situations. Mastering techniques are also very valuable in the mixing process as well. Ask anyone who is working with a stereo instrumental stem and trying to dub vocals on top of it.
The following video explains the conceptual design and provides audio examples for it’s application in a mastering situation. I believe from this example you will see the potential of this plugin in your mixing and mastering work.
The difference between good mixes and great mixes are not made up of the big decisions but the many small decisions that set your mix up to succeed. These are the foundational elements of a mix that establish the direction and focus of a track. The most basic elements of a mix start with the Levels and Panning. Levels set the Front-Back perspective and Panning sets the Left-Right perspective.
Levels are important to establish the focus of a mix. Is the Lead Vocal the loudest element of your mix or is it the Kick and Bass tracks? These decisions are based on the style of music, the meaning of the song and the direction of the production as a whole. Regardless of whether the mix is mono or stereo levels set the ‘stage’ of the mix and what the listener should be focussed on.
Panning sets the next dimension of the mix by establishing the width of a mix. Panning is a major component in establishing the groove of a song as well as the setting the shape for the arrangement. The groove is established with the interplay of the left and right panned tracks. For example, 2 percussion parts panned left and right may create a rhythmic interplay that adds movement to a song that would be lost if they were panned in the same position.
Panning is also valuable for setting the width of the elements in a mix. This can be used to shape the mix to add impact to certain sections of the song. For example, if the tracks in a verse section are panned mostly mono, and the chorus section tracks are panned wide stereo, the effect in a mix will be that the Chorus section gets bigger even if the relative levels are close to the same.
The following video mixing tip explains the importance of panning in a mix.
The Wave LoAir plugin is a subharmonic synthesizer that is primarily designed for the enhancement of LFE content in post production and surround mixing. It can also be used effectively in music applications once you understand how it works and where it can be best applied. Increasingly, the lines between music production and audio for video production are becoming blurred. For that reason this tool can be a powerful asset for any plugin collection.
Where the LoAir plugin shines is in it’s ability to artificially generate low frequency energy derived from the source material. For sound effects like explosions, earthquakes etc. this plugin is masterful at adding that floorboard rattling thrust. For music purposes it requires a bit more attention. The reason is that there is an inherent latency with low frequency information.
Low frequencies, by nature take longer to develop than do high frequencies. The speed at which they travel is the same but one cycle of a low frequency signal may be 30 feet (9 meters roughly) or more in length. During that same period of time a 10 Khz waveform has gone through roughly 360 cycles. As you can see, our brains ability to recognize high frequencies occurs sooner than low frequencies, hence the latency. When LoAir creates a sub harmonic signal, it is basically 1 octave below the existing low frequency energy and therefore twice as long.
All physics aside, delay compensation will help but the physics cannot be ignored, hence the “Align” feature on the plugin that phase aligns the source signal to the sub harmonic signal. For use with low frequency instruments like basses and synths that are more sustaining in nature, this is not a problem. For percussive instruments like bass drums, you may not get the effect you are looking for unless you are using it for a live performance recording where these latencies are actually part of the ‘live’ sound.
The following video demonstrates the LoAir plugin and explains further its usefulness in both post production and music situations…
Filter Modulation is currently one of the most popular effects in modern music production. You can hear this everywhere, not only in EDM but in many other styles as well. The roots of this effect stem from early analog synth technology that was primarily driven by oscillators used to create truly unique sounds that became a signature of 70’s electronic music.
Waves MetaFilter is a filter based modulation plugin that is intelligently crafted to offer far more than simple filter modulation. The plugin also offers 3 primary sources for modulation that can be used individually or blended together to create truly unique effects. Each modulation source can be used inversely as well as in it’s normal phase allowing you even more sonic possibility.
The modulation sources include a LFO, a Stepped Sequencer or a “Follow” source that modulates to the envelope of the incoming audio signal or side-chain source of your choosing. You can modulate the Frequency of the selected filter type in the top left, Amplitude of the filter including the amount of resonance, and a Delay signal that can be routed through the filter section or applied independently.
If all of this does not give you enough to work with, then go to the top right of the plugin where you can adjust the Stereo Spread, Smooth the sharp edges of your modulation work, OverDrive the audio signal or apply mind numbing Bit Crushing. The sonic palate of this plugin is out of this world and certainly a worthwhile addition to any plugin collection.
The following video demonstrates the sonic possibilities and features of this amazing plugin…
The most common frustration of mixers of all skill levels is creating separation and an open sound in their mixes. The frustration primarily stems from a lack of understanding what creates depth and size in a mix. Most mixers only understand the 2D aspects of Level (front-back) and Panning (Left-Right) positioning in a mix. The rest they fake their way through with a mix of EQ, Compression and Effects. The reality is that every level of processing interacts with every other level of processing to enhance or inhibit the sense of openness in a mix. Let me explain…
Left Right positioning is the easiest to understand because the pan control is about as simple as it gets. The Balance control is the stereo version of panning and may require width processing to enhance or decrease the stereo sound field. Levels are the second easiest to understand because louder increases intelligibility and therefore moves things forward in the speakers. A good habit to have when setting levels is to pull something back at the same time you pull something forward. This will help you avoid the ‘Everything Louder Than Everything Else’ approach that crushes your mix buss output.
EQ is the most powerful tool for setting the Up-Down aspect of the 3D sound field. High frequencies will pull sounds up in the speakers. Hi Mids move the sound toward you. Low mids sink signals back in the speakers and Low frequencies want to pull downward. Each frequency area can only serve its role effectively if too many instruments are not fighting for the same frequency area. EQ is primarily used to remove unwanted or unnecessary aspects of individual sounds and is critical to that separation in a mix. For example, trimming sub frequencies from instruments that don’t need them is a great way to open the necessary space for the bass, kick and low frequency dominant instruments to have the clarity and space they need to sink low. All five frequency areas work the same way. Just like levels, if you want to add a frequency area to an instrument, try to take the same area away from a competing instrument at the same time to avoid bunching up frequencies.
Effects processing can only be really effective if there is space for it to operate. If the 3D sound field is cluttered, there will be no space for it to exist in the mix and it will only add to the clutter. The reason why most people have trouble with reverb is because they have not created enough separation in their mix for it to be heard clearly. Early reflections and some short delay effects are an exception and also a huge component to enhancing the 3d sound field.
Finally, compression is perhaps the most powerful of all the tools at the engineer’s disposal. The attack and release settings help set the front-back sound field of individual instruments in a mix. Remember, Level is the main front back tool in a mix and Compression is essentially dynamic level control. More than just overall level, the compressor controls the whole ADSR (Attack, Initial Decay, Sustain and Release) cycle of a sound. The attack and release settings must be musical and set according to the front-back positioning you are trying to achieve. The following video helps to demonstrate how these two controls can be used to enhance front-back positioning in a mix.
There are many plugins on the market that are designed to enhance or control transient peaks. Typically, the processing either enhances transients to make a sound more aggressive or limits them to soften a sound. Because the management of transients is such an important part of mixing, having tools that offer these capabilities is always welcome addition to any mix engineer’s plugin collection.
The Softube Transient Shaper is so much more than just a tool for managing transients that I think the name is somewhat misleading. Do not be fooled by the simple GUI, this plugin offers an array of powerful solutions that not only manage transient peaks but also the sustain information of an audio signal. The combination makes this one of the most musical transient specific plugin processors I have ever seen or used.
On the surface that may be a bold statement but it comes with a 30 year history of studying the art of limiting and compression. The control of dynamics in recording and mixing is easily the most misunderstood form of processing and the results are evident with its overuse and blatant misuse in the prosumer world of recording and mixing. That is the reason why I spend so much time on this very specific topic in my courses and tutorial videos.
What makes the Softube Transient Shaper so different is it’s sophisticated and intelligent design under the hood of a simple GUI. The dynamics processing does not rely on thresholds to apply processing to the transient or sustained signal. Rather, it separates transient and sustained information using a more intelligent method so that the processing is applied more consistently regardless of the dynamics of the source material. Using simple threshold based dynamic processors to achieve this effect is no easy task.
Discussing the features here in written text will never do justice to what the capabilities of this plugin are. The following video shows the practical application of the Softube Transient Shaper in a mix…
Reverb can be one of the most frustrating things for an engineer to set up and get right. What we hear in our head does not always come up so quickly and easily. This is why engineers cling to their reverb plugins because they get quick results without really understanding why. The truth is, you can get, at minimum, a good reverb sound from almost any reverb plugin if you understand some basics for how to set it up.
The sensation of reverb is a combination of two basic principles: Size and Time. The rest of the settings are about controlling characteristics of those 2 basic principles. Reverb Type is about the sonic characteristic, Pre delay controls the timing of the Reverb, Diffusion controls the density of the reverb, Damping controls the reverb time at different frequencies, Shape controls the decay characteristics, etc…
The reason why I specifically point out Size and Time as the two basic principles is primarily because these are the two starting places for reverb placement in a mix. When setting up a reverb, the first thing you should consider is how big of a space are you trying to create for the instrument or vocal. The other is how long do you need or want the reverb to last. The decisions are largely based on the tempo, complexity of the arrangement and the complexity of the specific performance you are trying to add reverb to.
Size and Reverb time are not completely connected to each other. A large space can be very dead and a small space can be very reflective. Therefore, the determining factor for Size is not Reverb Time, it is Early Reflections. Early Reflections are the first delays from the surfaces of a space that return back to the listener shortly after the direct signal arrives. This provides the binaural cue for the size of a space regardless of the length of the reverb. Reverb time is a measure of how reflective the surfaces in that space are and how long it takes for them to decay.
With all of this basic information in place, the following video shows a quick step-by-step process for creating any reverb sound you want quickly and easily.
In the lore of vintage gear there are certain pieces that have created a unique sonic imprint over a period of time. They embody a characteristic that was a unique development at the time and served well in the context of the gear that was available. The dbx 160 is one of those pieces.
Originally released in 1976, the dbx 160 is a solid state, feed-forward, hard knee VCA compressor. What that means in plain english is that it’s design was for low distortion compression at almost any level of gain reduction. This does not mean that it is a transparent compressor, but rather that even with heavy gain reduction the distortion characteristics were minimal by comparison to what was available at the time.
The VCA component created by dbx was not the first, but it certainly had a signature sound that was later used by companies like Solid State Logic. The compression was consistently punchy and clean with the hard knee compression characteristic supplying the aggressive sound. Although simple in design, compressor’s flexibility resides in the Ratio control which is adjustable from 1:1 up to ∞:1. This full range Ratio setting coupled with the Threshold provides a lot of flexibility feeding into the Attack and Release characteristics that change based on the program material.
This compressor is not for everyone. You will need to spend some time playing with it to get the hang of what makes it tick. Once you do, you will realize how useful a tool it can be in any mix. The Waves emulation of this plugin also offers some unique additional features to the original model that add even more potential to this classic compressor.
The following video demonstrates the design and application of the dbx 160…
How much we value ourselves in every aspect of our career and lives almost always defines how people think and act with and around us. Love it or hate it, it is a truth that resonates in everybody’s life. So how much do you value yourself? Look no further than the jobs you take and the rates you charge.
Everybody wants something at a bargain. It is a marketing strategy for most companies, evidenced by the fact that there is almost always a sale going on at any given store. If you are caught in the loop of always being “on sale” a self evaluation and marketing reset is in order. Digging your way out of this perception may take some time, but it is always a risk worth taking, unless you want to keep taking gigs that don’t pay what you are worth.
If you are caught in this loop, start your next negotiation with new rates and end with a confident “no” if they are trying to hire you at rates below your value. Let them hire somebody else and even help them to do so just to show that you are not going to back down from your decision. If they come back with a counter offer at a higher rate, you have already improved your status whether you decide to take the gig or not.
Never take jobs that don’t give something back of value. Early on in your career, the value comes as experience and provides the opportunity to make mistakes while you learn. As you grow professionally, those same gigs no longer challenge you and therefore require a monetary exchange to be worth your while. Always make sure that you are getting something of value in exchange for your services and you will never be left with the feeling of being used.
The following video helps to explain this in mire detail…