Posts Tagged ‘ Stereo ’

Using chorus to increase stereo width

Just a quick tip today – use chorus to make a sound extremely wide without changing the character of the sound. A simple digital chorus is often ideal for this – the one that came bundled with your DAW or a basic freeware plugin should be fine.

Use these settings as a starting point: 100% wet, 0% feedback, LFO rate below 1Hz, Depth 100%, Delay 0ms. You might also need to set the relative phase of each LFO to 180 degrees – this will make sure the left and right LFOs are cycling out of phase with each other. To reduce the pitch modulation, reduce the LFO speed.

Using a chorus like this is a little like using a Haas delay (delaying one side by less than 50ms) to increase stereo width. It’s better, however, because the chorus’s relative delay is constantly changing (whereas a simple delay is fixed). This means the illusion of direction (the Haas effect, caused by short delays) is changing, rather than static. This is more pleasant and less distracting to listen to.

I do this most often with pads and background synths when I want them to be ultra-wide – especially in situations where the source sound is mono. I’ll even use it when a stereo sound is already very wide but the left and right sides are too different for my taste, I’ll collapse the sound to mono and the re-stereoise it using a basic 100% wet chorus.

-Kim.

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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.

-Kim.

Pan how you like

I don’t think panning is an essential mixing tool.

This is because – in my opinion – it doesn’t cause any problems, and it doesn’t solve any problems.

I don’t think ‘bad panning’ is the cause of any mix problems. Try to think of the craziest approach to panning imaginable – say drums hard panned one side, lead vocals hard panned another side. Bass off-centre, etc… The opposite of common practice. Now listen to Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The mixes are great! The bizarre panning doesn’t let the music down. I don’t think unconventional panning makes for a bad mix.

In addition, I don’t know of any production problem (including composition and engineering) that is best solved with panning. Sometimes I see panning proposed as a solution to instruments clashing or something like that, but that sort of problem is actually better solved through tonal adjustment (such as EQ). The existence of that kind of problem is usually caused earlier in the process – a lack of decision-making around what elements of the mix are most important, and a lack of courage to thin out and push back less important elements. A good stereo mix makes for a good mono mix. If a mix doesn’t work in mono, chances are it’ll be pretty dismal in stereo too.

Panning is also something that’s commonly understood. I don’t see people asking questions about ‘how to use panning’. Anyone with headphones or two speakers instantly understands how panning can be used to best support a song. The only time I’ve heard panning used in a way that didn’t support the song was by an artist of mine who had made some demos using only her Mac Mini’s built in mono speaker. And as you can imagine, the bizarre panning was the least of my worries. In all the many amateur mixes I’ve heard (from people who actually care about mixing), panning has never been a problem.

The only way panning can be a problem is if people rely on it to solve problems that are better solved using other tools or techniques. In which case panning is not actually the cause of the problem – and neither is it the solution.

So feel free to pan however you like – you won’t do anything wrong. You’ll know if what you’re doing doesn’t support the song. And if you think it’s ok, it most certainly is.

-Kim.

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.

-Kim.

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.

-Kim.

Are your mixes too wide?

It’s easy to go overboard these days.

Powerful computers and free plugins of every variety make for a very real embarrassment of riches. Nowadays most home studios are limited more by experience and skill than any lack of technical capabilities. And so, we have a tendency for people to overuse their tools. Many tools (especially compressors, exciters, saturators, etc) effectively have a single controls – ‘more’. Turning it up gives you more of the effect. The really diabolical aspect is that adding a little bit often makes things sound ‘better’ (at first, anyway). So if a bit is good, then more must be better, right? Of course you know it isn’t, but once you start playing with the controls, your mind recalibrates itself to what sounds normal. Even if you’re deliberately trying to be moderate, you’ll find it’s all too easy to lose your bearings.

How many times have you wasted time trying to find the ‘sweet spot’, only to realise later that the unprocessed sound was better after all?

Stereo widening effects are a common example of this. A little bit often makes a track sound more impressive – wider and more expansive. After hearing the stereo widener, bypassing it can make your mix sound suddenly smaller and (more) lifeless. But how much is enough? How do you know when you’ve applied too much?

As usual, there’s no single answer that’s right for everyone. You need to consider where your music will be played. Different targets and/or media will require different approaches.

For example, if you’re expecting your music to be played in uncontrolled stereo spaces (such as radio, shopping centres, or television) you’d best take a conservative approach to the stereo space. You don’t know if people are going to be seated evenly between the two speakers, or if there even will be two speakers. I’ve had situations where my music was played back in mono – by taking only one side (not even by summing the two sides!).

On the other hand, if you intend your music to be enjoyed exclusively on headphones, or in cinemas, installations, or other environments with a controlled stereo space you can afford to use as little or as much stereo widening as you wish.

The difficulty comes when you’re targeting a range of playback environments. You might have your music available for download – it might be the kind of music best enjoyed on headphones, but you’d also be happy for it to be played in cars, on computer speakers, or even iPod earbuds shared with a friend. In cases like this, you need to find a middle ground – where the amount of widening doesn’t compromise the audio quality in adverse environments, but is still sufficient to express the creative intent of the song. You’ll have to regularly check our mix in mono – not just both sides summed, but each side individually. Check your mix on headphones, on large speakers, small speakers and earbuds.

It’s a compromise.

-Kim.

Five secrets to making your mix louder

Don’t dismiss this post yet! Even if you’re in the ‘more dynamics’ brigade, these tips will give you clearer mixes that suffer less in mastering. That means better-preserved dynamics and higher fidelity!

For those of you who really do want your mixs SUPER LOUD, this tips will let you push more volume without your sound turning to mush.

  1. Go easy on the bass. That includes sub bass, kick and melodic bass. It always tempting to turn them up, but the low frequencies really use up a lot of headroom (high peak level for the same perceived volume). The more headroom your audio needs, the less you can push it in mastering and the worse it will sound when it’s pushed hard. First try to compare your bass levels with commercial reference songs. Listen carefully to the level of the low frequencies in comparison to the rest of the spectrum – you might find there’s less than you initially thought! Also consider saturating the kick or the bass.
  2. Saturate those peaks. Take a look at your mix bus peak meter to see if any tracks are ‘poking out’ of the mix – often it will be the kick or the bass. Used carefully, you can use saturation to reduce the peak level of your kick or snare tracks without reducing the perceived volume. Often peak level reductions of 6-9dB are easily attainable without adversely affecting the audio quality. Limiters are usually not so useful here because they’ll tend to change the sound too much.
  3. Embrace the background. Push some instruments further to the background. If you try to put too many sounds in the foreground you’ll end up with an indistinct mush. This indistinct mush will quickly become even worse when you apply heavy limiting in mastering. Instead, try to identify the three or four most important elements of the mix (typically the snare, kick, bass and lead synth/vocal). Be bold and push everything else to the background! You’ll get a mix that’s more focussed and more powerful.
  4. Leave your stereo widener at home. Stereo widening tricks might be fun to play with, but they’ll rob your mix of punch and power. If you want those foreground sounds (snare, kick, bass, lead) to hit as hard as possible, stay clear of any stereo width manipulation. Some subtle widening is sometimes useful for special background effects, but remember – if you do it, do it in moderation.
  5. Be careful of the lower mids. The region between 100Hz and 1000Hz is the cause of many troubles. It’s very easy to put a mix together that has a lot of mud build-up in that area. To get the ultimate clear mix, get brutal with an EQ! Make some big dips in the lower mids for all background instruments, and make sure you don’t have any excess lower mids in your foreground instruments. You need to keep some lower mids, because that’s where your body and thickness comes from. Here’s a secret though – a mix with body and thickness only needs a few foreground instruments to have that body and thickness. To put it another way, a few fat foreground instruments makes for a fat mix. A lot of fat instruments makes for a flabby mix.

With these mixing tips you should be able to get a few more decibels of clarity in mastering!

-Kim.