Identifying the "little things" that really add up over the course of a mix...
April 09, 2014, by Matthew Weiss
Have you ever believed that there’s just something badass engineers do that the rest of the world isn’t privy to? Are you disappointed when everyone on forums seems to agree that engineers are just using really good judgment and generally using basic processing?
Well, don’t get your hopes up too much. 95 percent of a great mix stems from great decision making and the use of basic processing that everyone has access to. But, that last 5 percent does contain a bit of secret sauce. Secret awesome sauce. Every seasoned engineer will have their own recipe. I certainly have mine.
I want to share some personal techniques. These are little things I do that really add up over the course of a mix. Each one of these techniques are based around one idea: you don’t really hear it when it’s there, but you miss it when it’s gone.
By building these subtle effects into my mix I create something that elevates the overall sound without dramatically changing it — which is often a desirable goal when mixing. They also amount to some of the things which just seem to separate a finished mix from a rough mix in that way that’s hard to put a finger on.
1. Fast decaying reverbs
One of my principal approaches to mixing is to create depth and polish.
Often times I may want something to have a 3D image and “glossed” tone, but I don’t necessarily want to hear an audible reverb or delay.
Tucking very short reverbs into generally dry sounds very quietly can add just a bit of depth and hi-fi-ness to the source sound. I’m constantly experimenting with algorithms, timing, and various other settings and I recommend you do the same.
The only generality here is that I tend to lean a bit more toward early reflections with medium diffusion (when diffusion settings are an option). There’s also a few presets in the delay plugin by FabFilter called “Timeless” that I like for this purpose.
You don’t need a lot of this stuff. I’m turning my returns down as low as -15 to -20 dB below the source sound. Just enough so you miss it when it’s gone!
2. Subtle distortion or saturation
A touch of distortion can really make a sound pop in a mix. If it doesn’t sound “distorted” but brings a bit of harmonic energy into the fold I’m usually into the idea.
Not to sound like a FabFilter commercial here, but I like to experiment with Saturn because it gives me very fine control over the specifics and degree of the distortion.
3. Micro panning
Finding movement is paramount to a successful mix. A tiny degree of panning, almost too little to hear unless you solo the source, can go a long way in this regard.
This is a go-to move for sequenced hi-hats (I’ll tend to pan quickly). And very useful for background pads/noises as well (a slightly slower pan is usually good for the sustainy sounds). Delay returns are also a great place to play with moving pan positions.
4. Subtle volume rides at section changes
Volume automation is not just good for evening things out — it can also be great for creating contrast. Next time you’re going from the verse of a song to the chorus try a few of these little techniques.
Bump the chorus up on your submix/master fader channel by 1 dB. Bump the very first moment of the chorus up 1 dB above that, and quickly return it back down. Find a sustaining element right before the chorus and start pulling it up a bit in level creating a subtle crescendo movement.
Even the vocal reverb/delay return can be good to bump right at that transition point.
5. EQ/compression/distortion on reverb and delay returns
I have a cool video tutorial on this but felt that it was worth mentioning here.
Reverb/delay returns are elements in the mix just like anything else. Coloring the ambience in a slightly unique way can help create tonal complexity and augment the sense of depth.
6. Removal of unwanted sounds
A great deal of what you’re hearing in a great mix is what you’re not hearing.
The removal of bleed and mouth noises, the reduction of breathes, the taming of plosives and sibilance. All of these excess sounds add up to one things: distraction.
Not to say breath noises don’t have their place — but you’re the master of the playback so be decisive about what you don’t want, what you do want and how much.
Ultimately we as engineers are doing our best to get the music through the speakers in the most captivating way possible. Sometimes that’s about the big picture. But it’s also about all the little things, the subtle decisions we make, that amount to something bigger than the sum of its parts. That’s why I may do things that the average listener probably won’t consciously hear.
Matthew Weiss engineers from his private facility in Philadelphia, PA. A list of clients and credits are available at Weiss-Sound.com. To get a taste of The Maio Collection, the debut drum library from Matthew, check out The Maio Sampler Pack by entering your email here and pressing “Download.”
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