In the previous post in this series I walked you through the core plugins that you should be using for your mix bus processing. In this article, I’ll take you through some of the additional tools that you may wish to incorporate into your mix template.
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Back to basics
I really can’t emphasise this enough – you really should take the time to practise the basic concepts before moving on to additional techniques. If you have a solid grasp of gain staging, EQ and compression, you’re well equipped to approach any mix.
While you certainly don’t need to have mastered these tools (I certainly haven’t) before moving on, a good understanding is necessary in order to use these additional methods successfully.
Master your mix bus processing
Once you’ve developed a good understanding and practiced using these core tools, there are several more that I would recommend to further enhance your mix.
In this lesson, you’ll learn how to do the following:
- Identify 5 additional tools for processing your mix;
- Describe how these plugins can be used;
- Apply these tools to your own mix template.
Yes, that’s right, more compression. It’s here that I need to place yet another emphasis on subtlety!
Many engineers that I’ve either researched or spoken with personally have advocated the use of multiple compressors in their mix bus chain. Why? They prefer to have several compressors working subtly than pushing one compressor really hard. I’m completely for this approach, as the benefits are obvious.
There’s nothing worse than the sound of an overcooked compressor, squashing all of the transients and literally sucking the life out of a mix. A handful of compressors, however, can have individual jobs, subtly massaging various elements of a mix into place for a more balanced, cohesive sound.
Multiband compression is a powerful tool to have at your disposal. I don’t recommend diving in until you have a good understanding of EQ and compression, but once you start incorporating multiband compression into your workflow it will be difficult to go back!
It pretty much does exactly what it says on the tin. The ‘multiband’ part refers to the process of dividing the frequency spectrum of your mix into separate groups or ‘bands’. The number of bands depends on how much flexibility is required, and usually ranges from 3-4 (although sometimes more) with a crossover curve between each.
Frequencies can vary depending on what’s required for a particular mix. As an example, typically a multiband compressor could separate groups of frequencies as follows:
- 20Hz – 200Hz
- 200Hz – 1200kHz
- 1200kHz – 8kHz
- 8kHz – 20kHz
Once these frequency bands have been established, they can be compressed individually. This means that the dynamics of lower frequencies can be controlled separately from higher frequencies, and pretty much everything in between. Multiband compression is therefore an extremely useful tool for mastering engineers, in particular, as it provides them with a greater level of control when working with only the stereo mix.
This enables you to sculpt the frequency balance and dynamics of the track even further. Once again, you shouldn’t be relying on your multiband compressor to drastically transform the sound of your mix. Instead, it should be used to gently massage particular frequency ranges to enhance the overall mix.
For example, multiband compression can typically help to tighten the low-end, add more focus to the mids and open up the highs. Keep in mind that I’m only talking about 0.5-2 dB of gain reduction or addition here, and be particular careful with addition (personally I try to avoid additive EQ). I’ve seen mastering engineers who only use their multiband compressor on high frequencies. It all depends on the track and what’s required.
Your DAW’s stock multiband will give you all of the controls you need for processing the mix bus. Logic’s stock multiband, Multipressor, for example, is great, and I would recommend spending time with only one plugin to start with to fully understand and master how it works. Once you feel comfortable, feel free to experiment with alternatives to see if they’re able to add anything else to the sound of your mix. For example, I enjoy Waves’ Linear Phase Multiband Compressor as it seems to add warmth and a pleasing colour to the mix as a whole.
In my personal opinion, the benefits of producing music digitally outweigh the drawbacks of analog. I know that’s a controversial topic for many. In theory, anything in the analog world can be recreated in digital, it’s just a case of emulating circuitry correctly and building in the anomalies (albeit not a simple task!). It’s only a matter of time before the differences are indiscernible.
One of the key criticisms of digital recording and production is that the processing is just too ‘perfect’. This creates what many refer to as a ‘cold’ sound that can fatigue the listener and, overall, lack a sense of feel, warmth and soul.
This is true in part. However many would argue that our ears have become conditioned to the sound of analog records, with most albums recorded to tape even up until the late 1990s and mid 2000s. It’s no surprise that the ‘digital sound’ doesn’t seem to be an issue for those born after the late 1980s, who are perfectly used to hearing digitally produced music.
Adding a hint of saturation on the master can help to bring back some of this analog warmth. In fact, even though most recording and production is conducted in the digital domain nowadays, engineers will frequently run full mixes and stem mixes through outboard gear to gain the sonic advantages that analog equipment can impart (with none of the disadvantages). Morgan Page, for example, routes his stems and stereo mixes out through an SSL console, and there are countless other examples.
Analog tape can affect sound in a very flattering way. Tape ‘overdrive’ is different to outright distortion. Tape doesn’t clip in the same way as a digital input. Engineers often send their mixes or submixes to tape machines ‘hot’ (i.e. slightly exceeding the amount of headroom) to overdrive the tape and subtly saturate the transients. This saturation is actually pleasing to the ear, creating the sense of ‘warmth’ that many producers refer to.
Tape absorbs transients in a musical way, and is a sound that we’re familiar with prior to digital recording. Tape machines are expensive and out of reach for most home studio creators. However, there are now a number of digital alternatives.
Waves’ Kramer Tape is an awesome example of one of these alternatives. Modelled on a vintage 1/4″ tape machine, it provides a whole range of saturation options with all of the nuances of real analog tape. The presets, in particular, are excellent and I rarely deviate from these.
Even if you’re not able to stretch for a tape emulation plugin right now, there is a whole array of harmonic distortion and overdrive plugins available – both in stock form and third party.
For example, Logic’s built-in Exciter plugin can add richness to upper harmonics, and Overdrive is an often overlooked tool that can be used subtly to emulate tape overdrive.
I’m also a big fan of free third-party tools such as Softube’s Saturation Knob. This is an incredibly versatile plugin that I’ve applied to pretty much everything in my mixes at one stage or another!
Although it’s not a problem with most stock tools, just be mindful of the additional noise that can be introduced by third-party emulator plugins. Manufacturers add machine noise and mains hum to more accurately replicate the nuances of this analog equipment, however I’d advise being careful of introducing too much noise into the mix (I personally prefer a cleaner sound). This can quickly add up through your signal chain.
The first thing I’ll say in regards to stereo imaging is…beware! I’ve discussed this tool last for a reason, as I don’t recommend integrating it into your workflow until you’ve spent a good amount of time understanding how it works and how it should be used correctly.
While I often state that there are no rules as such in music production, when it comes to the mix bus and mastering stage you need to adopt more of a clinical approach, as you have the potential to do a lot of damage at this point.
Stereo imaging refers to the treatment of the sound stage across the stereo spectrum i.e. left to right, as well as depth i.e. back and forth. For example, panning an instrument will change its placement in the stereo field, and adding reverb will increase its depth and reduce its presence.
While most of the stereo imaging that takes place in a production will be carried out in the actual mixing of a track, adjustments to the width can be made to the overall stereo mix. I’m fully aware that I sound like a broken record in this post, but subtlety is the key.
Minor adjustments to the high frequencies can help to add a sense of width to a track. However, it’s extremely important to maintain proper phase alignment, particularly among the lower frequencies. It is recommended that kick drums and bass, for example, be kept mono i.e. directly in the middle of the mix.
Furthermore, it is often highly recommended that the first stage of a mix be conducted specifically in mono so that proper phase correlation is established. Ensuring that all of the elements in your mix are properly phase-aligned creates a much more solid and powerful sound. Once this foundation has been created, only then should you begin to make subtle tweaks to the stereo width.
Indeed, adding some subtle stereo spread to high frequencies, such as the very upper ranges of percussion, guitars and vocal air, can create more excitement and movement to engage the listener. Once again, most DAWs will have some kind of stock stereo imaging tool, some more sophisticated than others. Be wary of presets as they can totally throw out the phase coherence of your track.
Feel free to experiment as it will help you to learn about how these tools can impact the stereo field, and then make finer adjustments to the higher frequencies. As always, be sure to A/B reference the before and after by taking the plugin in and out of its bypass mode.
Once you’ve gained more of an understanding of stereo imaging and experimented with its capabilities, I highly recommend looking into mid-side processing. Through some very clever algorithms, mid-side allows you to control the middle and sides of your mix separately, meaning that you’re able to retain the mono balance of your track and add width simultaneously.
I can’t emphasise enough how subtle your approach should be when using mix bus processing. It’s a really powerful tool to integrate into your mixing workflow but, as always, with great power comes great responsibility. Having this amount of control over your mix is a great advantage but it doesn’t come without risk. I encourage you to take the time to experiment and learn how these plugins work.
As mentioned, the reason this approach is so controversial is precisely because the majority of beginner producers don’t understand this fact and haven’t mastered the basics. Take the time to truly understand EQ, compression and limiting, and you’ll be much more equipped to create a successful mix.
In addition, don’t ignore the metering plugins that you have at your disposal. They may not directly affect the sound of your track, but they can greatly increase your ability to improve the quality of your productions if you know how to read them appropriately and adjust your music accordingly.
Finally, if you’re looking for more of a ‘one-stop shop’ approach to your mix bus processing, you may want to try using something like Izotope’s Ozone. Even if you’re not able to purchase a mastering plugin like this, I highly recommend downloading a trial and checking out the presets to gain an insight into how professional engineers sequence their processing chain.
Mix it up
This article concludes the templates series! It’s been quite a journey but, if you’ve been following along, hopefully you’ve created your very own template that’s ready to be used and abused for your own productions. Feel free to experiment and customise it for your own music.
Although I’ve provided you with examples of how I often approach templates, it really is down to personal preference. I hope that you now feel comfortable to test, adapt and develop your own approach – believe me, it’s an ongoing process! I’m forever tweaking and developing my own templates to improve my workflow and, in this field, I’m always learning.
I’d love to know how you’ve progressed and if you have examples of the template(s) that you’ve created. Let me know in the comments, and feel free to get in touch if you have any questions going forward.
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