[Editor’s Note: This article was written by Sirma Munyar, and is the final piece in a three-part series. Be sure to check out part one and part two.]
In the second part of the series, I explored some arranging and instrumentation strategies for newcomers.
In this final offering, I’m going to introduce processing and mixing techniques every producer should know about.
- You don’t have to learn how to use every single audio effect out there, but you should understand the ones that are essential in any mix.
There are 4 audio effects that producers and mixing engineers use more often than any other: EQ, compressor, reverb and delay.
You can liken the equalizer options in your DAW to the one you have in your car sound system.
You know how you can boost and reduce the bass amount or make your listening experience all about the treble range? EQ plugins offer that control and so much more.
With an equalizer in your DAW, you can achieve the tonal balance you’re looking for by boosting the volume of certain frequencies while reducing others.
The best way to internalize the capabilities of an equalizer is to turn to a fully parametric EQ. For instance, Logic Pro X’s Channel EQ and Ableton’s EQ Eight are great choices.
Compression as a concept is a confusing one for most beginners.
The reason for this is because more often than not, loading up a compressor with a preset might lead to an increase in volume due to the makeup gain settings.
You see, most compressor preset designers want to offer beginners a solid starting point that will inspire them. This is why after tweaking the parameters in a compressor that will do the actual compressing, they turn the makeup gain knob up, so that you get that fat, even and excitingly loud sound with the touch of a button.
While there are some great preset choices out there, when it comes to learning every parameter in a compressor, it’s best to work with a blank canvas.
The first thing you need to accept is that a compressor’s job is to compress- not expand.
As you get deeper into music production, you’ll find that there are various types of compressors, some of which have less amount of knobs to play with than others. Almost all of them will have a threshold parameter though, and this is because without you determining the threshold, the compressor won’t know when it’s supposed to compress.
Say you move the threshold knob to -20 dB. By doing so, you tell the compressor to compress the performance whenever it reaches a volume level that’s above -20 dB. Therefore, increasing the level of the threshold will result in a louder sound. As you turn the threshold down, you’ll notice that the performance is getting quieter and more squashed.
Once you determine the threshold setting, you can turn to ratio to decide the amount of gain reduction that should occur.
(Compressors Explained – Sound Basics with Stella Episode 3: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IbIC7B4BU6g)
Say you have a vocal performance that’s highly dynamic. There are moments when the singer belts out the song as well as instances they almost whisper.
With the ratio knob, you can keep the loud moments under control.
If the ratio is sitting at 2:1, that means for every 2 decibels the performance reaches above the threshold, the compressor will only let 1 dB through. Likewise, if the ratio is sitting at 8:1, that means for every 8 decibels the performance reaches above the threshold, the compressor will only let 1 dB through. This is why a compressor with an 8:1 ratio setting will work harder than one with a ratio setting of 2:1.
Once you control the dynamics of your performance, you can then turn to the makeup gain parameter to put back the decibels you lose in the process of compressing.
Even most people who know nothing about music production have a rough idea about what a reverb effect is supposed to do: reverberate the sound.
There are certain types of reverbs that are considered traditional, such as plate, room and hall. There are also artificial warped and synthesized spaces with ever-modulating reverberations. But in most productions, the standard options will get you the results you’re looking for.
If you know nothing about how to control the amount of reverb, turn your attention to the dry and wet parameters. Just like most other plugins, software reverb effects come with presets. Once you come across one that you like, you can turn the wet fader or knob up to increase the amount of reverb in the mix.
Universally, in any audio effect, “wet” represents the affected version of the performance while “dry” represents the original, unaffected version.
Delay is often confused with reverb, because in some cases, the results they achieve might sound quite similar.
While reverb plugins offer you an artificial space in which the sound you process with it virtually reverberates, a delay effect takes that sound and plays it back to you slightly delayed.
(Reverb and Delay Explained – Sound Basics with Stella Episode 4 by Waves Audio: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-jPPJEHMepA&t=1s)
You can tempo sync a delay plugin and make it play back echoes in quarter notes, eighth notes or various other smaller and bigger note divisions. Alternatively, you can leave the tempo sync button off, and determine the time in milliseconds.
In most delay plugins, you’ll see a wet/dry setting you can control with ease. Sometimes, in some plugins, the amount of the effect in the mix might be controlled via a “mix” knob instead.
One parameter you should be aware of in particular when it comes to delay effects is feedback.
If the feedback knob is all the way down, you’ll hear the echo only once. As you turn it up, the echoes will multiply, resulting in a continuously growing, chaotic sound.
2) Learn about automation to control the volume fader and effects settings throughout your song.
Automation allows you to write in what needs to happen when in your session. In a way, it’s just like songwriting.
For instance, if the volume of the lead vocal needs to be turned down in just the chorus section, you can use volume automation to make it happen. Once you do, your DAW will automate the volume fader of that channel.
Likewise, you can automate almost every parameter in every plugin. Total game changer!
3) Make sure your master channel is not clipping.
If the mix is too loud, it will distort in certain places. Turning your master or stereo out channel fader down might seem like a quick solution to this problem, but in reality, the right solution is to go back and fix the mix itself.
This is why it’s always recommended to mix down, not up, from the start. Ideally, during the loudest moments of your mix, your master channel should be peaking at -6 dB.
4) When you bounce your session, leave the “normalize” option off.
The “normalize” option automatically takes your mix to a listenable volume level. Since a healthy mix tends to be relatively quiet, most DAWs offer this option on the way out. But in some cases, “normalize” can do more harm than good by distorting the loudest moments in your mix.
If your goal is to bounce a mix without any loss of sonic quality, don’t “normalize”. A limiter plugin you insert on your master (or stereo out) channel is a much safer way to boost the volume of your session.
SIRMA is an independent singer, songwriter and producer. She’s the creator of the Modern Pop Vocal Production course on Soundfly and has a degree from Berklee College of Music.