Less Can Sometimes Be More
Being more judicious with the samples and synth patches you use in your projects, and you may find you need to apply less and less processing on each individual element, which will, in turn, lead to a cleaner and more spacious mix. Some producers will attest that when they are writing a track, and they’re using minimal amounts of EQ and/or compression on each sound, they are generally in a good place. This limitation allows you to focus on choosing the right synth or sample for each task.
While a standard technique is to drop low-frequency elements out to define a breakdown section, an excellent way to drop or increase tension in your project is to automate the gain of individual tracks. A nice way to keep percussion and hi-hat elements in breakdown or bridge sections, but drop the tension, simply highlight those regions and pull down the gain. Applying -2db gain change to five or six different elements in the same section, the listener won’t necessarily notice such a transition, but it will play out more like a subtle drop in tension. You could then apply a -4db drop to the next 8/16 bar section, actually dropping things down, which will allow for a more impactful drop section that follows.
While we’re all familiar with sidechaining elements to our kick drum for a cleaner mix, we can also apply a multiband compressor at this stage for deeper control. For example, if we’re using a full frequency bass sound in our project, using a multiband compressor we could set the sidechain only to duck the frequencies below 200Hz (or wherever your kick drum is peaking). This will lead to fewer frequency clashes between the kick and bass, without the loss of power in the bass, which a heavy sidechain can sometimes cause. We could take this technique a step further and use it to sidechain other elements. For example, apply a sidechain to our lead sound that is being triggered by our vocal, but use the multiband compressor to only engage the sidechain around the 500Hz to 2kHz frequency range on the lead, as that’s where most of our vocal is sitting. This technique applied in this way not only cleans up the mix but will also deal with any frequency masking occurring between the two sounds.
Traditionally employed on vocals to reduce sibilance, DeEsser’s can also be just the ticket for controlling a harsh upper midrange on a mix. Try using a DeEsser either on hi-hats or across the whole drum bus (as well as with vocals of course). Toneboosters Sibilance V3 even has a ‘mix de-harsh’ setting, and with a few tweaks will successfully reign in some of those offending frequencies, leading to a warmer and less digital sounding frequency balance.
Speed Is Everything
The quicker the mix comes together, the more naturally you will blend all the elements. Trust your instinct rather than overthinking each and every process. Save plugin channel strips if you tend to load a similar series of plugins on each synth or drum sound in your project. Likewise, do the same for any reverb or delay sends you set up. Save plugin presets too, it doesn’t mean you need to apply the same effect each time, but this will give you a solid starting point, you will no doubt tweak each preset differently for each project, giving the effect a fresh feel every time.