EQ – the most important processor in your armoury
It’s a fact of studio life that producers spend an inordinate amount of time investigating – and investing in – the latest, flashiest plugins when the tool that will make the biggest difference to the quality of their mixes is one they already own, the humble equaliser.
Getting the most out of EQ means understanding the deep-level differences between different types of EQ. Some EQ is tonally neutral – which is to say it does its job in a transparent way. These EQs are best used for detailed sculpting of sounds, typically notching out problem frequencies.
Others deliver more obvious colour and character, and are typically used for gentle boosts and to give signals a pleasing sheen in the high and low ends.
You should aim to have at least one high quality type of each EQ in your plugin folder, with go-to examples of transparent EQ including the Oxford and Cambridge models and excellent SSL X-EQ.
At the same time, there’s no need to overload your plugin folder. The truth is you don’t need dozens of EQs – just a handful of ‘neutrals’ and ‘colours’ that you know inside out. Israel
EQ – Top and tailing
One of the most effective ways to up the quality of a mix is to cut unwanted frequencies from as many signals as you can.
These unwanted frequencies tend to reside at the upper and lower parts of the frequency spectrum. In a vocal part, for example, you’ll find rumbles and low-level mic noise as far down as 30-40Hz playing no useful part in the sound other than clogging up the mix and reducing available headroom.
Many producers take an all-out approach here, adding a low-cut filter on every channel to remove unwanted low-end. Shakers, hi-hats, leads and pads, for example, invariably contain low frequencies that you don’t need in the mix.
Some producers do the same at the top end of a signal – using a high-cut filter to pull back on harsh and brittle top end frequencies.
The aim of these cuts is control – a finessing of individual signals so that you only have what you want/need in a mix. Even if you can’t hear the contribution of unwanted material, use a spectral analyser to check your ears aren’t missing anything; you may be surprised by the amount of barely audible but headroom-hungry low end in a humble snare drum sample for example.
Making judicious ‘top and tail’ cuts across a mix can really tighten it up, increasing clarity and punch. You can hear examples of this approach in the Music Loops sections of SM White Label Deep House & Nu Disco Volumes 1 and 2 where each element has been EQd to sit in its own place in the mix so the collective elements all fit nicely together. Sean
De-essing – Not just for vocals
De-essers can be used on a range of different sounds – not just vocals. One of the signals I’ve been using them on increasingly in the past year is analogue drum machines. Because many of them were built to tight budgets and subsequently feature relatively cheap converters, older drum machines can get pretty hot in the 2–5kHz region. Of course, you can use EQ to notch out the relevant frequencies but a de-esser with a central frequency around 3.4-4kHz trimming 3-4dB worth of gain does the job just as well – and often impacts less on the wider signal.
Removing this overly strident content has two benefits: one, a warmer, rounder sound; two, because you’ve refined the sound’s frequency spread you can often afford to push it louder: I often get an extra 2dB more volume from a drum hit by controlling the upper-mids. Israel
Mix as you write
Broadly speaking, dance producers seem to divide into two fairly evenly split groups: those who mix as they write and those who make a rough mix as they write before devoting a day or so to the final ‘mixdown’.
My own view is that if you aren’t mixing to a close-to-finished standard while you’re writing, you run a constant risk of losing track of the feel and all-important groove of a track. Because the interrelation between sound design, composition, arrangement and mixing in dance music is so blurry, tweaks to any one constituent part of the process invariably impacts on all the others.
If you make even a minor tweak to the the attack envelope of a kick drum, for example, this will change the whole feel of the groove, necessitating not just changes in the compression (and often EQ) of the kick drum, but also potentially of other rhythmic sounds too.
A mix is a complex ecosystem in which the many constituent parts are fundamentally interlinked. Trying to pull them all together at the end requires so much more work than an organic and ongoing polishing as you introduce new layers. Sean
There’s nothing worse when you have a kick-ass creative idea than to be wasting time setting up mix environments and managing signal flow. A good template track helps solve that problem.
My template track for Ableton Live 9 has my favourite plugins pre-loaded and labelled, and audio/midi channels with the I/O armed and ready so I can use my hardware instruments right away.
Also, because plugins and loops tend to be quite loud, all my tracks are pre-set to -5dB. These simple things have boosted my productivity significantly; when an idea comes now I can just start working on it straightaway. Sean
Compressing effects tails
It’s standard practice to compress individual channels, but not as many producers compress effects tracks. I’d argue that placing a compressor after a reverb or delay plugin is pretty much essential.
Without control after an effect you risk it filling up gaps in a sparse mix or washing over other elements and increasing low-level mix mud. Placing a compressor after the ambient effect gives you far more control over the tail, allowing you to more accurately control how it bleeds into/interacts with the subsequent mix elements.
For even more control, and to nail down tail interplay between parts, set the compressor up as a ducker (or use a dedicated ducking plugin) so that the compressor reduces the gain significantly when the next mix element comes in. This is similar to the kind of gated snare effects of the ’80s but can be used more subtly to ensure there are no ‘tail overlaps’.
Although the results of this extra level of care might seem minor, taken across a whole mix this micro attention to detail can significantly improve clarity while also benefiting the overall groove and movement of a track. John
Compression is not a solve-all
If you’re wondering why an important bass or lead sound isn’t cutting through a mix, don’t automatically turn to compression to fix the problem. Too many producers misunderstand the most basic fact about compression: that it reduces dynamic range and therefore often reduces a sound’s energy and impact.
If a sound isn’t delivering the goods in a mix look beyond compression. Is the fader level set correctly? Does a judicious EQ boost solve the problem? Can you cut frequencies in other parts that might be masking the weak sound?
If even these tweaks don’t help then it may be your choice of sound is wrong or the overall arrangement is too busy. Put another way: if a pivotal sound is unable to cut through a mix then the solution is likely to involve a good deal more than running it through a compressor. John
Turnround bass edits
Spice up basic basslines by editing them in MIDI. Hone in on notes at the end of each bar, slice them up with a note chopper of some sort, and experiment by raising the chopped notes by two, three – even four octaves. This technique was used extensively in Synthwave to achieve the Com Truise bass sound. John
Finding one bass sound to rule them all is not always easy; some deliver the goods in the upper mids while neglecting the subs while deeper cone-rattlers may have no problem grounding a mix but may lack presence. The solution? Layering.
In the same way you might layer a bass-heavy kick with a live mid-heavy drum sample for the best of both worlds, layering different bass sounds can deliver sub girth and mid punch. The secret is choosing complementary sounds and then, crucially, filtering out content in each so that they don’t overlap.
This means cutting the higher punchy bass’s low frequencies at around the 150Hz mark and then rolling away the sub bass at anywhere between 45–80Hz depending on the key of the track. Finally, slowly reduce the frequency of the punchy bass filter until it starts to blend seamlessly with the sub. Experiment with the slopes of the filters to get the right amount of overlap. This trick was used a lot to get the fat ’80s Italo’-style bass sounds in Synthwave. John