In Step 4 of this series, I showed you how to add stem busses to your template and suggested ways to organise your instrumentation. In this post I’ll take a look at using processing and effects in Logic Pro, however the techniques discussed can be applied to any DAW.

Contrary to the most common approach, I’ll demonstrate the benefits of setting up your effect plugins in advance of writing or mixing.

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Benefits of setting up processing and effects in advance

There are a number of key advantages to setting up your processing and effects ahead of time.

1) Processing efficiency

If there is a possibility to reduce the strain on your CPU, you should take it. Many of the effects in your session can (and should) be applied to numerous instruments.

For example, you will need some kind of reverb for your vocals. Instead of applying separate instances of the same reverb effect to each of your vocal tracks, it is much more efficient to set up an auxiliary bus with a single instance and send all of the vocal tracks to it.

2) Cohesive sound

The second advantage to this approach is that it creates a more cohesive and realistic overall sound stage. Your vocals will sound like they are in the same space, interacting with one another. You can take this a stage further by sending multiple different instruments to the same or similar reverbs.

This can be used to emulate more traditional production styles, which tended to mimic the way a performance would occur live on stage, in one space. Many producers apply a subtle overall reverb to the entire mix for just this kind of effect.

3) Greater control

Using auxiliary busses for effects provides more control over your mix, as it allows you to further process the effects themselves. For example, you may like the overall sense of space and the decay on your vocal reverb. However, it may be too present in the context of the overall mix, and if you have drums and other dominant instruments taking up the low end of the frequency spectrum, there’s not much point in wasting energy with the low end of the reverb.

Applying the reverb to a bus allows you to EQ it separately, removing any unwanted frequencies. It doesn’t stop there though, as you can apply any additional processing as required, and any number of effects can be used. For example, you may want to apply some saturation to a delay, and possibly sidechain it from your kick drum. Auxiliary sends make this possible.

4) Speed

If a method provides me with the ability to work faster, I use it. Music production is a complex, detailed and deeply layered process. Anything that helps me to remove repetition and work at a faster rate is worth its weight in gold. As I’ve mentioned throughout this series, one of the most important reasons for adopting templates as part of your workflow is to remove as much repetition as possible. Doing the same tasks over and over again is simply wasted time and wasted energy.

You can spend this energy on the important things, like coming up with new melodies and figuring out how a project is going to transition from a verse to a chorus. Having all of the basic processing applied, and all of the effects routing set up in advance, enables you to do just that – focus on being creative.

No doubt, there are common processes that you apply in almost all of your productions. Therefore, why not save yourself some time? For instance, I know that I reach for the same simple delays for the majority of my synth sounds, such as quarter notes, and I always have some kind of short reverb on my drums and percussion to give a sense of unified space.

5) More freedom

It’s often said that limitations enable creativity and I, for one, am a firm believer. This approach helps me constantly in many areas of my life. I get distracted easily so, wherever possible, I try to boil things down to their most essential elements and set limits for myself. This approach has formed the foundation for the rest of this series. By setting limits or ‘rules’ within your project, you’re far more likely to achieve your goals and complete tracks more quickly.

Although nowadays we benefit from thousands of digital tools at the tips of our fingers, often limiting your options is far more effective for creativity. Think about a traditional recording/mixing studio. The engineer would have racks of outboard gear that they had accumulated over the years, knowing each piece of equipment inside out.

Hardware is often much more expensive than software, further limiting the options for processing by increasing the barrier to entry. However, engineers still created groundbreaking mixes. The possibilities are endless with a good compressor, EQ, reverb, delay and distortion units, together with tasteful volume balancing.

By preparing these in advance of any creative work, it saves me a great deal of time when I’m in full writing or mixing mode and I don’t want to be slowed down with routing or housekeeping, or simply the fact that I have to decide or preview a number of potential presets and waste decision power (see previous post on decision fatigue for the full lowdown on its impact).

Basic Processing

There are some basic tools that come in handy on almost every track within a project i.e. direct processing.

Now, I’m not saying that you need to process every single track because (contrary to popular belief) you don’t. However, it can certainly help to get all of these tools configured and in position should their assistance be required.

1) Gain

While I don’t recommend this as being essential, placing a Gain plugin on each of your tracks can be useful when it comes to the mixing stage. Not everyone will agree with me here, but having added control over the volumes of your tracks can be very useful. It’s not always practical to move the faders themselves, for example, if you’ve applied volume automation (they’ll just snap back into position).

You can, of course, achieve this by adjusting the output of the EQ or compressor, but having a separate control can be beneficial. I have my opinions about automating volume faders (I prefer not to) which you can read here.

2) Equalisation

I like to set up an instance of EQ on every channel because most tracks will require some kind of tweaking when it comes to the mixing stage. I’m not saying that you need to EQ every track, but the probability is likely that some kind of enhancement, reduction or repair may be necessary in my experience. If you’re recording live audio, this is certainly the case.

I’ve outlined a number of examples below:

Reductive EQ

There are certain rules in music production, but all rules are meant to be broken. While I don’t recommend using additive EQ, there’s nothing stopping you. As I always say:

If it sounds good, it’s the right way to do it.

Most of the time, however, it’s more effective and beneficial to use reductive EQ. Reducing or removing certain frequency bands can help to create more balance in your mix and address problem areas.

Roll-off

Some kind of roll-off is normally needed on most tracks to aid in achieving a cleaner mix. The most common is the hi-pass filter (or low-cut), used to remove any unnecessary low frequency content. This is particularly useful for live audio in order to remove low-end rumble. Mic stands, for example, can have a habit of transferring vibrations to the mic itself. This could be, for example, a singer’s footsteps, drum spill (during a live session) or outdoor ambience.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, it can often be useful to eliminate high-frequency anomalies. These could include unwanted noise/hiss, cymbal harshness, or simply unnecessary high-end elements from certain instruments (for example, a troublesome guitar string).

Presence

Presence can be highly desirable, but it’s all about perspective. You should choose a very select number of instruments to exhibit high-mid or high frequency content (a vocal, for example) so that they stand out in front of the accompanying instrumentation.

Presence can, therefore, either be reduced or boosted depending on what is required. Certain drums and percussion can be particularly harsh, or the distortion from a guitar amp may sound great individually, but out of context within the overall mix. It’s on these occasions that you should look to reduce the presence of these elements for a more effective balance.

In contrast, you may wish to add more ‘air’ to certain instruments, particularly vocals, to make them stand out. You need to be very mindful of which frequencies you’re boosting, as high-mids (from around 1k to 6k) can sound much too harsh. Most engineers will tell you that air can be found from around 8k upwards, depending on the material.

Resonant frequencies

No matter how much care you take when recording, resonant frequencies can always crop up, particularly when working in imperfect environments such as a home studio. Fortunately, they’re pretty straightforward to fix. Simply create a very narrow (or ‘high’) Q factor and raise the amplitude, then sweep across the frequency spectrum to locate the problem frequency. The amplitude can then be reduced to remove it. Be careful, though, not to remove a fundamental frequency has this can affect the harmonic quality of the sound.

Resonant frequencies aren’t just present in live recordings, they can occur anywhere. For example, a synth preset may contain certain frequencies that conflict with the harmonies in the rest of your track. Fortunately with synths you can normally attempt to address these at the source by altering the pitch of the oscillators or any other parameters that are affecting harmony. Failing that, reductive EQ may be your best option.

Mud

Mid- and low-mid ‘mud’ or ‘boxiness’ is one of the most common issues to plague new producers and engineers. Particularly if you’re recording in a home studio environment, or one that hasn’t been fully treated, low-mids can build up and reveal themselves on your recordings. I’ve certainly had this problem and, sometimes, there’s no way of avoiding it. Therefore, some reparative EQ to reduce the offending mids can work wonders.

Acoustic guitars, for example, can sometimes exhibit an undesirable ‘honkiness’ between 300 to 700 Hz. This is can be treated with a reduction using a relatively generous Q (depending on your particular sound, of course).

This is also essential to bear in mind when mixing. Your room is highly likely to have imperfections and frequency build-up, particularly around the low-mids. If your mixes are lacking clarity and sounding relatively muddy when played on other systems, this region would be my first suggestion to examine.

3) Compression

Not every track needs compression. I’m going to repeat that:

Not every track needs compression.

In fact, you should aim to have a certain degree of dynamic range in all of your mixes, regardless of whether or not you’re producing EDM.

However, my case for this is the same as with EQ. Compression is an invaluable tool and one that I commonly reach for. It can help to subtly sculpt sounds and develop a more controlled mix. Therefore, for certain instruments, I like to add an instance of compression in advance. I recommend reducing the parameters (mainly the ration and threshold) so that they won’t have much impact on the sound. I would even go one step further in saying that you could place your compressors in Bypass mode. This way, they can be called into action as and when needed.

“What about processing power?” I hear you ask. Stock compressors are optimised for their respective platforms and, while a certain amount of processing will be present, it will be slight. I’m happy to take a hit on this if I can save some time. However, if CPU power is at a premium for you, obviously ignore this advice.

Auxiliary Effects

As mentioned, placing effects on auxiliary busses has a lot of benefits, including a lower CPU load and the possibility to create a more cohesive sound. In order to obtain these benefits, it’s essential that you set up the routing correctly.

Creating auxiliary sends

Once I’ve created all of my stem groups and basic processing has been applied to all of the relevant tracks, I’m ready to add some auxiliary busses for effects. These are most commonly stereo busses, and they’re pretty straightforward to configure. Logic used to allow you to create multiple aux busses in one fell swoop, but for some strange reason Apple removed this feature. Regardless, I’ll show you a simple way to create multiple busses.

Step 1

Open the Mixer pane (Cmd + X) and select the last stem bus (this will ensure that any new busses created will appear after it, to the right).

Select stem bus

Step 2

Click the Options dropdown menu within the Mixer and choose Create New Auxiliary Channel Strip.

Create new auxiliary track

This will add a new aux track next to your last stem.

New aux channel strip created

Step 3

To quickly create more aux tracks, you can simply press Ctrl + N for additional bus. In this example, I’ve done this five more times to generate six aux tracks in total.

Six aux channel strips created

Step 4

Next you need to set the input for each track using an available bus. This can be done for each aux track at the same time. To configure the busses in ascending order, highlight all of the new aux tracks by shift selecting, then choose the input for the first track (Bus 6 in this example) while holding Alt.

Choosing the first bus

All of the aux tracks will now have ascending inputs from Bus 6 to Bus 11.

Busses configured

Step 5

For the output, simply leave the settings as the defaults i.e. Stereo Output 1 + 2. As a safety measure, the volume faders will all be set to -∞, so you may want to bring these back up to zero. You can do this quickly by shift selecting all six channels, double-clicking one of the faders, typing 0 and hitting return.

Fader volumes set

In the same way that I applied basic processing (i.e. EQ and compression) directly to relevant tracks within my project, I also recommend doing the same on your busses. Having the ability to adjust the frequencies of your effects separately and add subtle compression can be highly beneficial and adds to the level of control over the mix. I also recommend experimenting with applying sidechain compression to time-based effects (such as delay and reverb) as it can really add to the sense of rhythm and generate a cleaner mix, particlularly for EDM.

Once you’re in the writing process, all you need to do to send your tracks to these effects is dial up the Send knob.

Aux send knob

I highly recommend labelling your auxiliary busses, just like you’ve done with the other tracks and stems in this series, so that you have a quick visual reference when it comes to mixing. More on this below…

Basic Effects

Over the years, there are a number of effects that I’ve found that I use in the majority of my productions. These include time-based effects, such as delays and reverbs, and modulation effects.

There is a reason I limit myself to six effects busses in my template project. Six FX busses will actually get you a long way, and you can always add more depending on the specific requirements of a particular project.

Although I highly recommend setting up fundamental tools like delay and reverb, your choice of effects really comes down to personal preference. It’s worth taking some time to revisit your previous projects and taking note of which effects most contribute to your sound – this is particularly useful if you’re an artist yourself. Don’t feel under any pressure to commit to one choice or another, as you can always add or remove them as needed later on. Again, the whole point of creating a template is to save you time during the creative process.

Below I’ve provided some examples of the kinds of general effects that I tend to include in my templates. Whatever you choose, be sure to label each bus with the corresponding effect e.g. Rvb Short.

Delay

I used to think that every project needed a custom delay, but this simply isn’t the case. A number of years ago I came to realise that a few simple delays go a heck of a long way. Depending on the genre I’m working in I like to have a handful of go-to delays that I can reach for, such as:

  • 1/4 note (crotchet)
  • 1/8 note (quaver)
  • 1/16 note (semi-quaver)
  • Triplet (dub-style)

Reverb

Very often I’ll only use one or two reverbs in a track, as too many time-based effects can lead to muddiness and an overall lack of clarity.

I sometimes add a larger reverb setting for impact effects and for sounds that require a bit more drama – this can be useful in breakdowns, for example. So, basically, I stick with small, medium and large. Small reverbs, such as rooms, plates and springs, can be useful for percussion and vocals.

It’s also worth noting that you need to be careful when using multiple reverbs to ensure that the times used gel with one another, for example a short plate and a long spring may totally conflict with one another.

  • Short plate
  • Medium plate
  • Long hall

Modulation

Modulation effects can be very useful for generating interest by highlighting certain sounds and making them ‘pop’ from the mix. They can also be used to create a greater sense of space and movement, without relying solely on time-based effects. Most of the time the best approach is to be subtle with modulation – too much can sound cheesy.

Here are some of the most common examples:

    • Chorus
    • Flanger
    • Phaser

Saturation

In addition to EQ, compression, delay and reverb, saturation is one of the most powerful tools you have at your disposal, if you know how to use it. Saturation is most commonly described as a ‘subtle distortion’, but its subtlety can have a profound affect on your mix.

Saturation comes from the analog days of recording where mix engineers would run their levels ‘hot’ into the tape to saturate it, and this process formed its own kind of compression: tape saturation. By hitting or exceeding 0dB on the tape the levels were clipped, but with tape, this didn’t generate regular distortion, it created soft clipping. This effect creates a very appealing ‘fuzz’ or ‘overdriven’ sound that gives tracks more body and helps instruments cut through the mix without harshness.

The beauty of applying saturation to an auxiliary bus, is that you can dial in various amounts for each instrument in your mix, providing a huge amount of flexibility.

One of the most common mistakes that up-and-coming producers make is using way too much saturation when they first discover it (me included!). Once again, I do not advise using saturation on every element in your mix – this will just result in a wishy washy mess that lacks focus. It’s much better to saturate specific, targeted instruments such as a lead vocal or synth, and apply very subtle saturation on your overall mix bus.

Stem Processing

Once again, template projects are all about saving you time. Although you aren’t able to process specific sounds at this stage, it’s useful to set up all of the effects routing ahead of time so that you can just concentrate on writing when the time comes.

Not only do I like to add effects directly on each track, and via auxiliary sends, I also add effects to my stem busses. There are a number of go-to effects that I tend to reach for when using stems:

1) Saturation

I really like making the most of the traditional outboard stem mixing techniques by adding some subtle tape-style saturation to each submix. I really mean subtle here, as adding considerable saturation to everything in your mix can add up to one washy, blurry mess. Just some light tinkering of the meters in something like Waves’ Kramer Tape plugin can create a subtle and much needed sense of warmth on a digital mix. Be careful not to add to much emulation Noise too as this can really add up when you compress and limit during the mixdown and master. Personally I avoid it until the very end of the process.

2) EQ

You can take this new level of control further by placing an EQ on each of your stack masters. Not only are you able to apply basic EQ such as low-end roll-off and tightening mids, but you also have the ability to carve out spaces between each stem for a much cleaner overall mix. For example, bring up the EQ plugins for both drums and bass and turn on the analysers. You’ll quickly see where the competing frequencies are and you can easily experiment with various cuts until they begin working together to create one musical unit.

3) Compression

I’ve already mentioned group compression a number of times in this article as it’s one of the major advantages of stem mixing. Compressing groups of similar instruments can create a much more ‘together’ and cohesive sound. It works for anything. Guitars sound tighter, like a wall of sound, synths play as one and backing vocals sit behind lead vocals in the mix. Give it a try.

4) Multiband Compression

Multiband compression combines the best of EQ and compression in one go. Think of it like massaging sounds into place. If, after the initial EQ and compression stages, there are still frequency bands jumping out or sounding a little harsh, you can add another layer of control.

5) Limiting

I like to add limiters to each of my stems if needed. I find this helps to create a more balanced overall mix, and to ensure that the groups aren’t fighting against each other for dynamics. In each group, there may be specific sections where they increase in volume beyond what’s needed, particularly when mixing live instruments. Subtly catching these peaks with a brickwall limiter can have a big impact on the overall sense of balance in a mix.

You may also want to add some imaging processing at this stage. There are various methodologies, some people only look at imaging on the master fader. I recommend at least using some metering on each stem where necessary so that you can check phase alignment and test the mono signal before adjusting the master bus.

The final step

Well done! This was a long article but hopefully you’ve got a handle on setting up processing and effects in your template project. You’ve also made it through the first 5 steps in this series on using templates! There’s just one more step to go – Step 6: The Mix Bus.

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