Mixing Secrets For The Small Studio - Additional Resources
Workflow Demonstration Video
(To download all WAV examples at once: 186MB ZIP)
Distortion At Mixdown: Distortion can work wonders for adding body and sustain to percussion. Take the kick drum from Mix Rescue October 2009, for example ( Ex12.01: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ), and hear how its tone and length can be enhanced by judicious parallel distortion processing without any risk of the drum ‘breaking up’ ( Ex12.02: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ). For pitched instruments, distortion can have many uses at mixdown. For bass, it can add mid-range emphasis so that the sound carries through better on small speakers, as in Mix Rescue July 2009 (without distortion Ex12.03: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ; with distortion Ex12.04: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ). For soft-sounding electric guitar tones, such as those in Mix Rescue August 2010 ( Ex12.05: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ), there’s only so much you can harden up the tone with EQ – this is about the best I could do ( Ex12.06: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ). Adding in controlled distortion, however, is much more successful ( Ex12.07: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ). Rock lead vocals often benefit from some distortion to help them overcome the powerful masking effects of dense and distorted instrumental textures. Take the lead vocal from Mix Rescue March 2010, for example ( Ex12.08: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ). Although it has plenty of high-frequency definition on its own, once it’s in the mix ( Ex12.09: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ) it seems veiled and lacking presence. Adding extra high-frequency density with a parallel distortion effect makes the voice sound a bit crunchy in solo ( Ex12.10: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ), but clearer and closer within the mix as a whole ( Ex12.11: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ). When using parallel distortion, however, you need to be careful that the distortion contribution doesn’t cause undesirable phase-cancellation with the undistorted sound, as in the following example. The lead vocal from Mix Rescue April 2010 was short on aggression and midrange density ( Ex12.12: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ), but adding in a promising-sounding parallel distortion effect initially made the sound boxy in a really nasty way on account of unfavourable phase-cancellation ( Ex12.13: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ). Simply phase-rotating the distortion return channel gave a much more useful tone ( Ex12.14: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ), without any change whatsoever to the parameters of the distortion effect itself.
Programmed Subsynths & Doublings At Mixdown: Let’s say that you’ve decided that this bass-guitar sound is lacking in low end ( Ex12.15: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ). One option would be to apply a subharmonic synthesizer effect of one sort or another, but in my experience more predictable results are usually delivered by programming a complementary subsynth line ( Ex12.16: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ) which can be combined in a carefully controlled manner ( Ex12.17: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ). Notice that although the synth’s artificial nature is clearly apparent when it’s soloed, it nonetheless melts inconspicuously into the mix as part of the composite bass-guitar sound. Adding a subsynth patch underneath an existing bass part isn’t necessarily just about frequency information, though, because it can also be used to add rhythmic impetus, as in Mix Rescue May 2009 ( without subsynth Ex12.18: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ; with subsynth Ex12.19: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ). Furthermore, doubling bass lines with MIDI sounds in a higher register also has its uses for filling out the line’s apparent mid-range tone, as in Mix Rescue March 2011, where a distorted and flanged MIDI clavinet sound is being used: here’s the mix without the doubling ( Ex12.20: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ) and with the doubling ( Ex12.21: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ).
Reamping & Overdubbing At Mixdown: Software reamping can be very useful for replacing inappropriate bass-amp sounds. For instance, the bass DI signal ( Ex12.22: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ) from Mix Rescue August 2010 sounded fairly promising with just a little EQ, compression, and ambience. However, the raw recording of the bassist’s amp ( Ex12.23: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ), while not obviously broken-sounding, nonetheless wasn’t adding anything very useful in terms of low end or sonic character when combined with the DI ( Ex12.24: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ). Experiments with EQ failed to unearth a more appealing tone, so I reamped the DI signal instead ( Ex12.25: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ), which yielded a much more successful combination ( Ex12.26: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ). Reamping can also be used to supplement guitar parts by adding new tonal layers, as in Mix Rescue December 2009. Here’s a mix of the supplied bass-guitar and double-tracked rhythm guitar parts ( Ex12.27: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ). Because the rhythm guitar had been overdriven too much, mix processing wasn’t able to give the sound any character or improve the note definition. Fortunately, a DI feed from the guitars had also been recorded during tracking, so I was able to layer in two reamped parts ( Ex12.28: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ; Ex12.29: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ) to achieve a much more satisfactory tonal transformation, as you can hear when all the parts are mixed together, along with an additional subsynth part I programmed to fill out the low end ( Ex12.30: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ). One final reamping example, this time in a full-mix context from Mix Rescue March 2010: here’s the mix without any reamped additions ( Ex12.31: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ) and with the reamped layers added ( Ex12.32: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ). Where reamping is not an option for whatever reason, you can still pull similar stunts by surreptitious overdubbing, as in the following example from Mix Rescue February 2008. Here’s the original double-tracked guitar recording ( Ex12.33: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ), which has once again lost note definition by being too heavily overdriven during recording. A stiff dose of mix processing improves things a little ( Ex12.34: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ), but adding in a simple double-tracked overdub part ( Ex12.35: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ) is able to take the combined tone much further ( Ex12.36: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ).
Triggering Samples At Mixdown: Some subharmonic synthesizer plug-ins can add weight to drums quite successfully. For example, the kick drum from Mix Rescue July 2009 ( Ex12.37: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ) is processed with the 50HzKicker algorithm in Cockos’s freeware ReaJS plug-in to add a rhythmic 45Hz low-frequency sine-wave pulse ( Ex12.38: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ). Combining the two gives a heavier and lengthier end result ( Ex12.39: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ). However, because subharmonic synthesizers can be a bit fickle in how they respond, I usually prefer filling out drum sounds by layering additional samples alongside. So when presented with the task of adding attack and weight to the kick drum ( Ex12.40: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ) in Mix Rescue February 2010, I chose instead to layer in a carefully selected sample ( Ex12.41: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ), easily achieving a much more useful combined tone than any mix processing would have been able to achieve ( Ex12.42: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ). Your choice of additional sample in each case naturally depends on what elements the supplied drum sound is lacking, so (by way of contrast) in Mix Rescue May 2009, for example, where the supplied kick drum ( Ex12.43: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ) required additional midrange cut-through, I actually decided to layer an extra snare sample over it ( Ex12.44: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ), resulting in this composite timbre ( Ex12.45: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ). Added samples aren’t just something for adding to kick drums either, because snares are often replaced, and even percussion can sometimes be usefully supplemented in this way, as in my Mix Rescue July 2009 remix, which had a rather limp-sounding hi-hat part ( Ex12.46: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ). Layering in a simple programmed hi-hat part with a more assertive sound ( Ex12.47: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ) gave a combined part with much more rhythmic impetus and solidity ( Ex12.48: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ).
Pitch-shifting For Tonal Change At Mixdown: Here’s an example from Mix Rescue July 2009 of changing the tone of a part using pitch-shifting. Although the original synth track in this case sounds like it would cut through the mix fine on its own ( Ex12.49: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ), in fact it was struggling to make its presence felt because of masking from other more important parts in the arrangement. My solution was to mix in a pitch-shifted upper octave ( Ex12.50: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ), relocating the sound’s energy into a higher register and thereby side-stepping most of the masking issues.
Synth Pads At Mixdown: Synth pads are a lot more use at mixdown than a lot of people think, and the crimes of the 1980s are no reason to ignore the usefulness of this production technique. For a start, traditional block-chord pads can add subtle warmth and richness to a mix, even if you mix them in at a level where they can’t be heard in their own right. Take Mix Rescue June 2010, for instance. Here’s a section of the mix without any pad ( Ex12.51: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ). Adding this pad ( Ex12.52: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ) doesn’t make the full mix ( Ex12.53: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ) sound like it has a synth in it – it just makes the guitars and bass feel fuller and more sustained. Even acoustic music that isn’t normally associated with synths can be enhanced in this kind of way if the pad synth is programmed and mixed sensitively. For Mix Rescue April 2009, for instance, I wanted to add extra warmth and sustain to the guitar, so one of the things I did was introduce this very subtle pad ( Ex12.54: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ), changing this mix sound ( Ex12.55: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ) to this mix sound ( Ex12.56: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ). Pads needn’t just be about adding sustain, either, because you can easily enhance rhythmic parts too, as I did for the guitars in Mix Rescue November 2009. The reason I did it was that the guitar tone had been distorted too much, and I wanted more ‘note’ to the sound. Adding this pad ( Ex12.57: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ), enabled me to change the combined sound from this ( Ex12.58: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ) to this ( Ex12.59: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ), effectively reducing the level of guitar distortion by adding extra ‘note’ synthetically. And I’d challenge anyone to spot that there was a synth in there without knowing about it beforehand – the band certainly didn’t! Sometimes, though, it can still make sense for a synth pad to be audible, especially when it can supply additional stereo interest. For example, here’s a synth part ( Ex12.60: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ) I added during my Mix Rescue March 2010 remix. Here’s what the texture sounded like before ( Ex12.61: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ) and after ( Ex12.62: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ).
A Combination Of These Techniques In Practice: Mix Rescue June 2010 required several of the above techniques working together in order to achieve a fuller sound, as you can hear in this file ( Ex12.63: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ). Now let’s progressively strip away all the added layers, so you can hear the extent of their contributions: some sample-library guitar parts (isolated Ex12.64: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ; mix without Ex12.65: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ); a synth pad (isolated Ex12.66: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ; mix without Ex12.67: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ); a simple rhythmic electric-piano part (isolated Ex12.68: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ; mix without Ex12.69: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ); and a selection of different cymbal samples (isolated Ex12.70: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ; mix without Ex12.71: WAV/MP3 play_arrow ).
Affordable Distortion Plug-ins: There are masses of freeware delights here: Audified Amplion Free; Audio Damage Fuzz Plus 3; Black Rooster Audio Cypress TT15; Brainworx Bx Rockrack; Creative Intent Temper; GVST GClip & GRect; Dead Duck Crusher &: Overdrive; Ignite Amps TheAnvil & ProFET; IK Multimedia Amplitube Custom Shop; Klanghelm IVGI; Kuassa Amplifikation Lite; LVC Audio ClipShifter & PhreePhuzz; Melda MBitFun, MSaturator, MWaveFolder & MWaveShaper; Mokafix NoAmp32‑bit; Native Instruments Guitar Rig Player; Plektron Guitar Amp 2 Free; Rebel Audio OverToner; ToneBoosters TB ReelBus; Tritik Krush; Variety Of Sound FerricTDS32‑bit, TesslaSE/PRO32‑bit & ThrillseekerXTC32‑bit; Venn Audio Free Clip; Voxengo Tube Amp & Boogex; Wave Arts Tube Sat Vintage; and Xhip Multiplier, Quantizer & Rectifier.
Affordable Exciter Plug-ins: The best freeware I’ve found so far for emulating the high-frequency enhancement effects of the Aphex Aural Exciter are Greenoak’s freeware Excitifier32‑bit and the Exciter algorithms in Cockos’s freeware ReaJS. However, Elogoxa’s freeware X-Cita32‑bit and Rothmann’s freeware Roth-Air are also worth checking out, and if you’re already a fan of the Toneboosters Bus Tools bundle, then try out the exciter algorithm within TB Evoke too.
Affordable High-speed Modulation Plug-ins: Any modulation plug-in with a higher-than-20Hz modulation rate will generate additional harmonics. For freeware options, try AudioThing Filterjam, Dead Duck RingMod, Melda MFreqShifter & MRingModulator, and Xhip Ringmod.
Affordable Pitch-shifting Plug-ins: Most DAW platforms now have general-purpose shifting built in, but if not then consider trying out the low-cost Cockos Reaper DAW, which includes the ReaPitch plug-in as standard. Alternatively, give Aegean Music’s freeware Pitchproof a whirl.
Affordable Subharmonic Synthesis Plug-ins: If you’re looking for freeware, try Chris Hooker’s Octaver OCD232‑bit, Mda SubSynth, Metric Halo Thump, or the 50HzKicker algorithm in the Cockos ReaJS. Waves LoAir is a decent payware plugin that’s also reasonably affordable. Personally, though, I still prefer in general to double bass parts with a dedicated MIDI subsynth patch wherever I can, if necessary using Celemony’s Melodyne to transcribe the audio line’s MIDI notes.
Affordable Resonator Plug-ins:: If you’d like to experiment with the possibilities here, try Decade Bridge Speculum, Melda MComb, Stone Voices Brandulator, Wok Wave Resom32‑bit, and Z3 Audiolabs REZ332‑bit.
Affordable Drum Triggering: For most simple triggering applications at mixdown, the Cockos freeware ReaGate plug-in will do fine if you already have some kind of software instrument to feed the MIDI to, but Slate also offer a freeware version of their all-in-one flagship drum-replacer SSD5 Free. If you want something more sophisticated, then you’ll probably want to invest in some commercial software such as Slate’s SSD5 , SPL DrumXchanger, and Wavemachine Labs Drumagog, which are all well-respected and include a selection of built-in samples. If you’re just looking for free samples, there are lots available from Freesound and MusicRadar’s SampleRadar page. For commercial drum samples, check out the Time+Space and EastWest sites in the first instance. Also, if you just want more rattle to your snare sound, check out Waves Factory’s fabulous little freeware SnareBuzz plug-in.
On-line Session Musicians: If you need an overdub to supplement your arrangement, but don’t have access to suitable instrumentalists or recording equipment/venues, then it’s well worth checking out some of the on-line session musician services that are now available. Three of them were compared in the Sound On Sound magazine article ‘Remote Working: On-line Session Services Compared’, which includes audio examples of what each managed to achieve on the same demo song. I also used one of the most well-known services, StudioPros, when supplementing the guitar parts in Mix Rescue July 2011, which again includes a number of audio files.
Using Synth Pads: Learn more about the applications of synth pads in this article: ‘Creating & Using Synth Pad Sounds’. For a comprehensive overview of sound synthesis in general, check out Gordon Reid’s gargantuan Sound On Sound ‘Synth Secrets’ article series.