Posts Tagged ‘ Compression ’

6+ ways to get bigger bass

This is about basslines, not (necessarily) the frequency range. The bassline is the harmonic foundation of a track. A solid mix often needs a solid bassline. So how do you get there? How do you stop your basslines from sounding weak or flabby? Here are some techniques to consider:

  • EQ. This is the big one. A lot of the time, EQ is all you need. The trouble is, each situation is different. I can’t tell you where to boost and where to cut without hearing your track. Because EQ is relative, the right settings depend entirely on the sound of your bassline and the direction of the mix. Pay close attention to how the kick and the bass interact. In some cases, it makes sense to have a bass with character voiced above a deep kick; in other cases it makes sense to have a deep bass voiced under the kick. Good monitoring is crucial here, because you’ll have to balance the tone across a wide range – sometimes all the way from subbass up to the top of the mix. And most lower-budget monitoring environments are pretty bad at accurately representing the critical range from the bottom through the lower mids.
  • Layering. You can’t boost what isn’t there. Often a bass sound will have a great character in the mids but doesn’t have a solid bottom end. Similarly, it’s common for a bass sound with a solid bottom end to be missing character in the mids. By layering two complimentary bass sounds, you can have the best of both worlds! Be careful though – effective layering can very easily take over the whole mix. When layering bass sounds, it often helps to filter the layers. For example – an upper layer that adds a lot of character in the mids may have a weak or inconsistent low end. By using a high pass filter to cut out that low end, a lower layer can be much more focussed and provide a stronger sound. Similarly, it often makes sense to use a low pass filter or dramatic EQ to take the mids out of the lower layer so that the upper layer can punch through more effectively. Lastly, don’t forget to pay attention to the relative levels of each layer. Often a mix needs one layer to be dominant – the other layer(s) usually can be much quieter and still provide enough definition and size.
  • Saturation. This is a magic trick for making almost any sound bigger – not just bass. When using saturation, it’s important to keep in mind that you don’t need much for it to be effective (unless you’re going for a fuzzy distorted bass). A little bit goes a long way. Also, different saturation tools respond very different to bass. It’s often useful to have several different options. Some saturation tools will rob you of low end, others will get too fizzy. A technique that often works well is to mix a saturated version of the bass with the original clean version, and to apply a low pass filter after the saturation. This will avoid the high end fizz produced by some saturation tools, and will often thicken up the lower mids.
  • Stereo width. Simply, wider sounds are often perceived as being bigger. It’s important, however, to find the right balance – too much stereo widening will reduce the body and foundation of the sound. It often makes sense to widen the mids and/or top end, while keeping the low end narrow.
  • Chorus / unison detuning. Similar to stereo widening, the use of chorus and unison detuning can make a sound bigger. And again – the balance is in using enough to make the sound bigger without reducing the body and foundation. Applying chorus or unison detuning to the mids and/or top end will avoid the bottom getting washy.
  • Sidechain compression. This is a popular technique – especially when triggered with the kick drum. This allows the bass to be louder when the kick drum isn’t sounding. By making the kick and bass take turns, the overall low end of the mix can be more consistent and powerful. It’s a distinctive sound, however, and isn’t appropriate for all kinds of music – particularly when the bassline has a distinctive rhythmic pattern. If in doubt, try it out.
  • Bonus technique: Bass amp / cabinet. Amp sims aren’t just for guitars! Processing a synth bass with a simulated bass amp can provide a dramatic tonal change. Saturation/overdrive and compression are also often included as part of the package. This technique isn’t subtle though – don’t reach of an amp sim if your bass is already pretty close to what you want. Amp sims are great when you have a weak or lousy bass that needs some major transformation. The sound of the cabinet can also help keep the energy of the bass consistent across a wide range of notes – this can be handy if your bassline is melodic or jumps around a lot.
  • Bonus technique: Compression. I think compression on synth bass is overrated. Most synths can be set up to provide a consistent level and punchy envelope without compression. Where compression shines, however, is on electric (or even acoustic) bass when performed by a musician. When working with recordings like this, applying the compression first will make the sound more consistent and help later processes – especially saturation.

With these techniques and some practice, you should have no trouble getting your bass to support the rest of your mix.



Different types of limiters

Occasionally I see people confused by all the different kinds of limiters. Words like ‘brickwall’ and ‘Maximiser’ can confusing – especially when marketing material is heavy on hyperbole and light on substance.

It’s quite simple really.

A limiter is – at its essence – a compressor with a very high ratio and a very fast attack. While their technical design is similar (reducing the gain when the signal rises above the threshold level), their intended use is somewhat different. Compressors are generally used to reduce audible dynamic range – the difference between loud sounds and quiet sounds. Limiters, on the other hand, and designed to transparently reduce peaks. When a limiter is correctly used, it should not audibly change the sound (including the dynamics of the sound). Limiters are purpose-designed compressors that are specially tuned to transparently reducing peaks.

By reducing the peak level without changing the sound, limiters are ideal for reducing the headroom required by the audio. Limiters allow a hotter signal to be recorded with a lower relative noise level (signal-to-noise ratio).

Brickwall limiters are a specific kind of limiter that is designed to prevent digital clipping (signal going over 0dBFS).  They usually have instant attack and infinite ratio.

Clipping is a process sometimes used in mixing and mastering in place of limiting. Instead of reducing the gain of the peaks, the peaks are clipped (cut off or distorted). As you can imagine, it’s a much more extreme approach than clipping. I’ve written more about clipping and limiting here:

The term ‘maximiser’ doesn’t have a specific meaning. It’s most often used as a marketing term to refer to a brickwall limiter that incorporates a blend of clipping to make the signal very loud. Sometimes maximisers also employ other processes such as tonal adjustment (such as ‘bass maximisers’), phase shifting or exciting (‘sonic maximisers’), analogue modelling (‘tube maximisers’), etc.

Don’t assume that the marketing material is a literal description of what goes on under the hood. Not to say that manufacturers lie, but sometimes the people who write the marketing material aren’t the people who design the algorithms.


Six ways to get bigger beats

Who doesn’t want bigger beats?

Well, maybe your neighbours. But maybe you don’t like your neighbours. Who am I to judge? I just supply the tools. It’s up to you to use them ethically.

Here are some quick tips:

  • Depth. Separate your drums into two groups – main foreground drums (kick and snare) and secondary background drums (hats and other percussion). Keep the rhythm of the main foreground drums simple, but make the secondary background drums a bit more complex. Make sure the foreground drums are MUCH louder than the background drums!
  • Tone. Big sounds occupy a wide frequency range. Use EQ to make your foreground drums tall. Pay particular attention to snares – they can have energy ranging from the lower mids all the way up to the highest audible frequencies. Making sure your main snare drum has energy across a wide frequency range is an important part of making your drums sound huge overall.
  • Compression. Yes, drums love compression. Everywhere else has written about this, and there’s no need to repeat it all here. Try out a bunch of compressors and see which ones you like the best.
  • Dynamics. This is not about compression. Of course you’ve read elsewhere about using compression on drums. Of course compression is important, but dynamics is more than just compression. Dynamics is the difference and changes between quiet and loud. Making sure you’ve got a good balance of quiet and loud sections in your song is key – when the loud sections come in, they’ll be very effective. If everything is loud all the time, it will be much less effective.
  • Reverb. It’s not just for pushing sounds to the background. Use a programmable reverb and set it up with the biggest size, but shortest length. This will give you a great giant sized reverb that doesn’t muddy up the mix. You won’t need to add much to the drums – just enough to give them some space. If your reverb processor is particularly good, use more of it and compress the lot – use a reverb->compression chain on a kick&snare group.
  • Space. Make sure the drums aren’t competing for space against the rest of the mix. A few huge instruments (such as a bass and lead) are ok, but if everything in your mix is big the drums simply won’t cut through with enough power. Remember – if everything is huge, nothing is huge.

There’s really not much more to it. If you can abide by these guidelines, you’ll have beats as big as you want – every time. Sucks to live next to you.


Five ways to deal with an ugly vocal

Every once in a while as a producer or engineer, a project will come your way with one of those singers. With an… unconventional voice. Maybe they’re inexperienced. Maybe their voice is just like that. Maybe they’re doing it deliberately because they like it. Whatever the reason, you’ll recognise this kind of project by that feeling you get when you hear the voice – “What on earth am I going to do with this?”

This is not to say that ugly vocals are bad – they’re ugly in the sense of being unconventional, interesting and unique. The challenge is that it can sometimes be very difficult to make them work in a mix. And it’s easy to get stuck or waste a lot of time with techniques that don’t work. So next time you’ve got some ugly vocals to deal with, try think about these tips:

  1. Pitch correction. No, don’t turn your singer into a robot. It’s worth trying, however, using stronger pitch correction than you normally would use. It won’t make a bad singer any less bad, but it can help fit an instrument into the mix in a way that EQ and compression (obviously) can’t.
  2. Low mids. Pay attention to the lower mids – anywhere between 100Hz and 1kHz. Problems in this range can sometimes be quite difficult to identify. Sometimes all that’s needed is a dip at 250Hz. Don’t overlook (or overlisten?) the possibility that you might need more lower mids. This can be particularly true for thin or strident vocals. Sometimes a subtle bump in the lower mids can bring back some much-needed warmth or weight.
  3. 2.5khz. I almost always try a dip here. Be careful – this is where a lot of the voice’s character is. Sometimes, however, there’s a bit too much character in a singer’s voice. Dipping around 2.5kHz can make a voice sound smoother. Too much, however, will make the voice disappear into mix – it’ll blend too well and lose definition.
  4. More compression. Another characteristic that a lot of ugly vocals have is dynamic peaks – the problem not being the tonal balance, but the strong peaks or wide dynamic range. In these cases it’s worth trying stronger compression – lower threshold, higher ratio, faster response. It might make the compression more obvious, but it might not be a problem if the voice already has an unusual character.
  5. Learn to embrace it! In trying to reign in an ugly vocal, don’t lose sight (or sound) of the context. Try to capture, rather than suppress, the unique character of the voice. Don’t get carried away in trying to conform the vocal – you’ll end up destroying the sound, destroying the mix, and wasting your time. Instead, approach the character of the vocal as a critical contributor to the character and identity of the song, the album or the artist.

With these techniques up your sleeve, you should be able to do something with any singer that comes your way.


What’s wrong with transient shapers?

Transient shapers are processors that adjust the dynamics of a sound. Rather than changing the dynamic range like a compressor, transient shapers operate only on the initial onset of the sound – the transient. The initial smack of a drum. The plink of a piano. The pick of a guitar or bass. They don’t work with sounds that don’t have a sudden start, such as vocals, violins, or synth pads. Transient shapers can either bring out the transient – making it louder, sharper and more prominent. They can also reduce the transient – making it softer and duller.

The tricky aspect to consider here is that the psychoacoustic (perceived) effects of a transient shaper can be similar to those of other tools.

For example, both EQ and compression can also be used to make a sound sharper or duller. Depending on the tone and envelope of the sound, an EQ or compressor can also be used to enhance or reduce the transients. They certainly can be used to make sounds more or less prominent.

In fact, for most day-to-day mixing tasks, channel EQ and compression offer almost all the sound shaping tools you need.

So why use a transient shaper?

If you only want to adjust the transient, EQ and compressors are blunt tools. Using a static EQ setting to boost the upper mids might bring out the ‘pluck’ of a guitar or ‘smack’ of a drum, but it will make the whole sound brighter. Similarly, using a compressor to adjust a transient will also affect the decay and/or sustain of the sound as well. Compressors are also level-dependent, meaning they process individual notes differently depending on how loud they are. This means that a dynamic performance will be treated unevenly – which is exactly what you want if you’re trying to control the dynamics, but not desirable if you’re trying to control the transients.

A transient shaper, by contrast, will process the sound while keeping its tone and dynamic behaviour intact. Most good transient shapers also operate independently of level, meaning they should apply the same amount of change to the transient, regardless of how loud or soft the sound is. Transient shapers are a subtle tool, and are best used when regular EQ and compression tools are unable to be subtle enough.

As always, a clear understanding of your tools will help you create  the sound you’re imagining.


Five ways to make space in your mix

Running out of space in your mix? Want to add more parts without being buried in mud? Simply want a clearer, cleaner sound? Check out these techniques:

  1. Reduce the mids and low mids. This area will add a lot of mud to your mix if you have a lot of instruments. It’s not necessarily that all your instruments have energy focussed here (although they might!), but that having a lot going on in the mids and low mids gives a feeling of mud. Having strong mids or lower mids in just one or two instruments can produce a sound of warmth and body, but more than that is usually too much. If you want to create space in your mix, clear out the lower mids especially, leaving only the essentials.
  2. Don’t squash the dynamics. Dynamic space is very important. Natural dynamics and transients give instruments room to breathe. It also makes more space in the mix (for other instruments, or just for space’ sake). Squashing the dynamics through overcompression, limiting or saturation makes individual sounds bigger, but sucks the life and air out. Of course, compression is often a useful effect, but be clear – the more compression you use, the less space you’ll have in your mix.
  3. Push sounds further to the background. I’ve written a lot about depth and effective use of background. With a deliberate approach to depth, you can draw focus to the most important elements of a song and still have a lot of space (or room for more instruments).
  4. Use panning effectively. Personally, I’ve not a big fan of panning, but it’s certainly a tool that, if used effectively, can enhance the space in a mix. Try mixing a song entirely in mono (or at least with every instrument panned centre), and then apply panning at the very last stages of the mix. You’ll hear the space open up in front of you.
  5. Consider composition techniques. Although this post is mainly focussed on engineering, composition has as much to do with creating space as mixing. Rhythm in particular can have a significant effect of the sense of space in a song. You won’t have much space if everything is playing all the time (the effect is similar to the engineering approach of making everything louder than everything else). Instead consider restricting some instruments to off-beats, syncopated rhythms or using rhythmic counterpoint. Similarly, consider the pitch range of your instruments. Greater pitch range and mobility will open up space.

So next time your song is sounding too crowded, try this techniques and you’ll be on your way to adding more space.


Five compression mistakes and how to avoid them.

Compressors are complex tools and, like most other audio engineering tools, there are more ways to set them up ‘wrong’ than there are to set them up ‘right’. If you’re careful though, you won’t fall into these common traps:

  1. Too much gain reduction. You know you’ve done this when you’ve got tons on gain reduction and you’re thinking to yourself: “It sounds great but I can’t get rid of this massive click at the start of every transient.” The click is from the attack time. Not only does it sound silly, but it will rob you of your headroom. Clicks like that are similar to deep bass – they’re not very audible, but they can easily take up a lot of level. Solution: Either use less gain reduction (you probably don’t need that much!) or use a limiter instead of a compressor. Another approach is to use a limiter after the compressor. Heavy-sounding compression is often the result of fast attack and release times rather than a deep threshold.
  2. Using compression to fix non-dynamic properties of sound. You know you’re doing this when the sound you’re compressing has no dynamics to begin with (such as a synth bass/pad/lead). When you compare the sound with and without compression, the dynamics don’t change, but the tone or harmonic content changes. In this case, the compressor is not the best tool for the job. Solution: Listen to the dry sound and consider whether you actually need a saturator or EQ. Next time, get out of the habit of inserting a compressor on every sound without first deciding if compression is what you really need.
  3. Using mix bus compression as an alternative to mastering.  You know you’re doing this when you’re rendering your mixdown to a file that will be burned straight to CD or encoded to MP3, and all you think you need to do is ‘make it louder’. Mix bus compression has its uses, but it’s not the right tool for achieving raw loudness. Solution: If you’re in a rush and you don’t care about quality, then use a digital limiter set to kill and call it a day. If you care about quality, either take the time to do it properly, or find someone to do it for you.
  4. Using mix bus compression as an alternative to working hard in mixing. Don’t be lazy! You know you’re doing this when you’re trying to use your mix bus compressor to change the sound of an individual element in your mix. Don’t use mix bus compression to address a kick or snare that is too loud – it will have unintended effects on other mix elements too. Solution: Don’t be lazy. Go back to those individual tracks that need fixing.
  5. Using side-chain compression to get two clashing parts to work together. This is using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut. As above – don’t be lazy!  Side-chain compression can be useful as an effect, but it’s certainly not necessary for simple mixing tasks like getting vocals and guitars to work together. Solution: Use tone and depth to separate sounds. More on how to do this later.

If you can steer clear of these common mistakes, you’ll be well on your way to effective compressing!