Posts Tagged ‘ EQ ’

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.


Make your synths bigger!

Everyone wants bigger synths, don’t they? What’s the secret? Is there some miraculous plugin or hardware device that the Big Names know about (and keep secret from all the anonymous internet jerks)? Or maybe it’s a special combination of side-chained multiband mid/side compression alongside fully parametric dynamic EQ and three different limiters is series (in the right order!).

Actually, it’s quite simple. You probably already know how to do this. Most of the time, all it takes is three things:

  • Wide frequency range. This is just what it sounds like – prominent highs and lows. Depending on your mix, you might not be able to extend the highs or lows as far as you’d like, especially if you’re cutting off the top end with a lowpass filter or your bottom end is competing with your kick and bass. Still, keep this principal in mind and you’ll be on the right track.
  • Unison. What’s bigger than one synth voice? Many synth voices. This technique is hardly new – orchestras often have ten or twenty violins playing the same part and choirs achieve a huge sound through many voices. Remember that the more voices you add, the less definition will be present in the sound. As always, you will need to find a balance, and it will depend on the part and the mix.
  • Spacious reverb/delay. Don’t think ‘wet’ – think long (pre)delay time, wide stereo image, high diffusion. This is not to make the sound ‘reverberant’, but to give it a dramatic sense of space. Of course, the specifics will depend on the part and the mix. Sometimes delays can be useful even in a reverb-heavy delay-light mix – it’ll add ambience and space with more definition.

But really, take a step back.


What are you doing?

Be careful that you’re not just making things messy. Big synth sounds often don’t need much more than wide frequency range (prominent highs and lows), unison, and spacious reverb/delay.

In fact, your synths are probably big enough already. The real questions is – what are you really trying to achieve? Are you trying to beef up your synths to compensate for something else (no, not that something else!)? Or are you avoiding having to address other issues? Are you distracting yourself from the bigger problems in your track?

Bigger synths will not make your music amazing.

They might be an essential ingredient in expressing yourself musically, but what are you expressing? Does it even matter? Are you copying your idols, or are you creating something uniquely you? What are you expressing that no-one else has expressed in that way?

What is your contribution?


Are you making this common EQ mistake?

Often beginning mix engineers are told to use the ‘boost and sweep’ method to find and remove problem frequencies.

Essentially, this method consists of:

1) Making a sharp narrow boost with a band of parametric EQ

2) Sweeping the frequency of the band (this sounds a bit like a wah wah), listening for any spots that are particularly unpleasant

3) Changing the gain of the band from positive (boost) to negative (cut).

Theoretically, this is a way to improve the sound – especially when you can hear something ‘wrong’ with the sound, but can’t identify it with your ears alone. This technique on its own is not necessarily bad. I find it useful sometimes too. Of course, its becomes less necessary as you hone your listening skills. Even less so if you’re using well-recorded audio or samples.

The problem is when people make the assumption that since one band of ‘boost and sweep’ is good, more bands must be better. And so the fourth step is often added:

4) Repeat until you run out of EQ bands.

This is a really great way to butcher a sound! This approach will inevitably produce an EQ curve that looks like the sonic equivalent of Swiss Cheese – full of holes. This is because looking for ‘bad frequencies’ by boosting and sweeping will almost ensure you find something to cut. Strong boosts with a narrow bandwidth will make anything sound bad. There’s no point at which boosting and sweeping will stop finding ‘bad frequencies’.

The end result will sound very unnatural because the tonal shape of the sound is so warped. In addition, this kind of EQ curve can create resonances – dramatic tonal features that are constant and don’t change with pitch. These kinds of tonal features are also common in recordings made in small untreated rooms. It’s ugly! Don’t do it!

Boosting and sweeping is one of several techniques that a mix engineer can use to identify a trouble spot. But it won’t tell you if there is a trouble spot. For that, you have to use your ears and listen to the sound in context – in the mix. Sometimes the problem really is an ugly resonance that should be reducing using a notch EQ… but more often it’s something to do with the way several sounds are interacting together. And these problems are most often caused by inadequate monitoring or a lack of direction and focus.


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.


Four ways to use mid/side EQ

Several EQs now have a mid/side mode. This opens up a lot of possibilities, but can be difficult to use effectively. Instead of simply tweaking the sound or the range of the controls, mid/side mode completely changes how the EQ behaves and sets new rules for how it can be useful and effective.

It helps to stop thinking about mid/side EQ as an equaliser – but instead to think of it as a surgical frequency-focussed stereo width adjuster. It works best on complex stereo material, such as groups or the mix bus.

  1. Mono bass. Not just bass, but lower mids too. It’s easy – use a highpass filter or low shelf (with negative gain) on the side channel. If you’ve mixed well, this won’t actually reduce the level or impact of your low frequencies (especially the ever-critical kick and bass). Instead, it will add focus and tightness in a way that doesn’t detract from the overall perceived stereo width of the mix. Experiment with the frequency – you’ll find you can probably go a lot higher than you might have expected. Unlike simply collapsing the kick and bass channels, using a mid/side EQ (particularly with a higher filter frequency) will also catch the lower mids in other instruments. And instead of making space in the mix by reducing their level, the mid/side EQ maintains their energy by simply collapsing them to mono.
  2. Top end dimension. This is achieved by utilising a high-end boost on the side channel. Usually only a small amount is required – less than 6dB. Doing this to a mix can add dimension and air without the harshness of other tools (such as harmonic exciters or other saturation). It can also help open up a ‘small’ mix without losing the focus in the lows and mids.  Some mixes will benefit from a more balanced approach – instead of adding 6dB to the top of the side channel, try adding only 3dB to the top of the side channel as well as reducing 3dB from the top of the mid channel. Not all mixes will benefit from this – it will sound more like a regular EQ boost if the top of the mix is already quite wide.
  3. Focussed vocals. This can be done by reducing the width of the midrange. As with the above two tips, the most transparent way of doing this is by adjusting the side signal (by applying a dip using a parametric band) while keeping the mid signal untouched. Doing this can reduce a lot of clutter surrounding the vocals, helping them to become clearer and more focussed. If you’ve got access to the mix, however, it’s obviously better to do it the old-fashioned way. Consider using a mid/side EQ for this job as a ‘magic trick’ that you might resort to when your other options have run out.
  4. Giant lower mids. This one’s great for special effects – try boosting the lower mids in the side channel. It’s an easy way to make something sound huge, without the associated headroom problems or (as much) mix mud. Of course, this technique is often as delicious as it is inappropriate, so have fun with it but remember to go easy in the final mix. A little bit goes a long way.

You’ll notice that all these tips focus on making changes (either boosts or dips) in the side channel while leaving the mid channel (mostly) untouched. This is deliberate – it allows the width to be changed in a way that doesn’t destroy the overall balance of the mix.

With these tips and a bit of practice, you’ll be soon finding your own uses for mid/side EQ.


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.