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How to Create and Maintain a Sound Palette

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Have you ever listened to each individual track in a mix and think, "Hey, they sound awesome!" only to listen to the whole mix and go "eww..."? Well my friends, that usually the result of no coherency in your mix.

Just like the colors in a painting, a mix must flow in a way that makes sense for that song. Da Vinci, Monet, and Warhol paintings are all masterpieces in their own right, but mixing their styles would most likely render something less than desirable. The same can be said for a mix in which the drums, guitars, bass, vocals, etc. all sound great on their own but don't make sense together.

In order a mix to sound great there needs to be a palette of sound colors that all work together to create a final masterpiece. In this tutorial you will learn the techniques to sculpt and paint your own sonic masterpiece from mic selection to mastering.; all the while maintaining the coherency in the mix. If you are ready, push up your fader and lets paint!


Choose Your Colors: Pre-Production

The very first step in creating a coherent mix is to decide what the final mix should even sound like. If you do not have a clear direction of what you want your final mix to sound like then you might as well be painting in the dark! This is usually the most difficult process as it will define the sound of an entire album in many cases so it has to be right.

Often times words like warm or cool come to mind for many people but these are vague terms that carry many different meanings depending on who you ask. The engineers definition of warm might be completely different from the musicians and both could be different from the producers opinion. Here are a list of words you should probably avoid if possible...

  • Warm: By far the most abused and hated word for any engineer to hear. Its over used and vague beyond belief. Don't use it!

  • Cool: Just like its brother warm, Cool is an evil word. Some people think cool should sound mellow and dark which could easily be someone else's definition of warm. Seeing a problem yet?

  • Dark: Yes I used the word dark to describe cool so you already should see a problem here. Dark for some means less high frequencies while others might really be thinking something heavy sounding (think Metal music).

  • Bright: Ironically there is usually not too much wrong with the word bright as most people will take it to mean louder high frequencies but others could easily take it as the absence of lower frequencies.

  • Hot: Just as bad as the word warm. Stay away!

While there can be loads of other evil words these are the ones you will find most frequently. Instead of thinking in these terms let me pose to you some other words that might give a better sense direction when determining sound color. See what you think of these...

  • Clarity or Definition: When you think of something clear you can see right through it and see what is behind it. Something defined has a very obvious point to it; no questions need to be asked. In music this could be taken to mean a mix that gives every instrument its own place. The kick and the bass work happily together, the guitar doesn't get in the way of the vocals, etc. In addition, you often times will hear the transients (attack) of an instrument and are not left wondering why the chord magically changed for seemingly no reason (Late 90s and early 2000s pop alt rock music is notorious for this).
  • Openness: Just because something is clear doesn't mean it has to be open. When a piece of music is open it has a lot of space for all the tracks to breathe and be heard. Jazz or classical music is often a good example of open music but may not be surgically clear like a modern punk or metal album. In clear music you usually want to hear the room ambience a bit (or artificial reverb) to give the mix a sense of space.

  • Fullness: A track that has a full quality to it really fills up the sonic spectrum. Many people would consider the fullness of a instrument to be in its mid to lower range. A good example would be an acoustic guitar that gives the body of the guitar versus one that is more string noise.

While these are the only three words I supplied I believe they are all you really need. If you treat each word as a continuum in which one end is the exact definition and the other is the exact opposite, you can now have degrees of openness, clarity, and fullness. You could have a mix that has very murky (not clear) instruments but has plenty of space to the mix so you hear that each instrument is murky in its own way and not just one giant murky puddle. Or you could have a track that is surgically defined but still fills up the sonic spectrum.

Generally speaking you only really have room for two of the above in a mix. Often times when your mix has a more full sound to it, you end up filling in the space. If you really want that full and open mix you probably will have to sacrifice some clarity in the top end to make room for the "air" in a reverb. You can of course balance out all three if you choose. All in all you shouldn't really need more than two anyways. Metal and rock are usually clear and full or clear and open (depends on what decade you are going for), Jazz and classical will be open and clear, pop is more often than not full and open or clear and open, a vintage sound is going to usually have a full and open quality to it.

Now that you have a better perspective on what your options are as far as sound colors go, it is time to pick your colors. Remember, this will direct the sound from start to finish. You can always go back and change things if you need to but it is usually best to avoid this at all costs.


Get Your Colors: Recording

Now that you have decided on the sound palette you wish to work with its time to actually get those sound colors. Just how a painter mixes colors to enhance and create new colors, you must take into account your microphones, their placement, and your preamps to get the sounds you want. This is by far the most important step in the process to get right because if it doesn't sound how you want it to now, then it won't when you mix. In order to make sure we get the sound we want we first need to take into account how we are going to place our microphones.

Microphone Placement

Any experienced engineer will tell you that microphone placement is key to getting a good sound. A novice engineer can make a $5000 microphone sound horrible and an experienced engineer can make a $100 microphone sound amazing (trust me I've seen both). With so many instruments in the world today, it would be impossible to cover every single one and how to record it. Instead we will approach microphone placement from a very general perspective and how it can play into clarity, openness, and fullness.

  • For a clearer sound on a sound source you are going to want to capture the higher mids to high end of its frequency range. Here is where the definition lies in most every sound source. Use your ear to find where that particular range is coming from and aim your microphone there. You can even pull back your microphone just a little to help reduce the boxiness and by relation make the top end stand out better. Another option is to just aim your microphone so that it doesn't pick up the lower ranges as well (good trick for cymbal mics).

  • For an open sound you are going to need to need to pull back your microphone; probably a little further than you may think. Doing this will give the instrument's sound time to develop and help capture a little bit of the natural tone of the room. Be careful however if you are in a bad sounding room as no one will want to hear flutter echo and the like.

  • If the full sound is what you are after then don't be afraid to get right up in the instruments face. This why we often record guitars with the microphone right up on the grill because rock usually demands that in your face full guitar sound. Be careful however that you do not over accentuate the bottom end unless you are very sure you want that powerful bass range.

Microphone Selection

If placement is key then the microphone choice is the hand that turns the key...(ok bad joke) It is critical that you choose the right microphone for the job. Now if you will excuse me I am going to get on my soapbox...

IT DOESN"T MATTER IF IT IS TUBE, SOLID STATE, CONDENSOR, OR DYNAMIC, WHAT MATTERS IS "DOES IT SOUND RIGHT FOR THE JOB?"

Sorry about that, now that we have that cleared up let me elaborate a little. I have heard tube mics that turn things to mush and tube mics that were clearer than solid state mics. There are condensers that have a great low end response and dynamics that have a great top end. It all depends on the mic and how you place it. Make sure your mic compliments the placement and the sound color you are going for. Here are some guidelines but remember...THERE ARE ALWAYS EXCEPTIONS.

  • Dynamics generally will not be quite as clear as condensers but can easily sound clear depending on placement.

  • Tube mics will most often sound not as clear as a solid state but they have a lot of character to them (which may or may not work for your sound palette).

  • Cardioid microphones are good for getting a defined or full sound since they have good back rejection. If you play with their proximity effect (bass boast as you get closer to the sound source) you can get plenty of variation in how full the instrument will sound.

  • For that open or more natural sound I would whole heartedly say go for an Omni directional microphone as they will pick up from all directions. Careful again if your room sound is less than desirable.

  • An interesting option for fullness and openness is the figure 8 microphones. Since they pick up in two different directions a ribbon is good for getting a full sound with adding just a little bit of breath. Traditionally they are not as defined as a condenser but still maintain a nice smooth top end.

  • Another consideration to assist in your sound is large diaphragm or small diaphragm microphone. Generally small diaphragm microphones will have a clearer top end because it is easier for the high frequencies to move a smaller capsule than a bigger one. But like always nothing is absolute.

Preamp Selection

The final piece in the puzzle to getting your sound palette the way you want is the preamp. If your preamp selection is limited (say just a single interface) then you really do not have too much to think about. If however you have some boutique preamps or just different preamps to choose from, you now have a decision to make. It is always good to decide what your "neutral" preamps are so that you can compare everything else up against them. When it comes to pairing up a preamp with a microphone you generally have two options...

  • Choose a preamp that enhances the sound of the microphone. This will accentuate the natural sound of the microphone making its sound even more obvious.

  • Pick a preamp that contrasts your microphone selection to try and balance out the sound. An example would be taking a small diaphragm condenser and pairing it with a tube preamp.

I personally am a proponent of contrasting and balancing out the microphone in the preamp but there are plenty of situation when you would not want to do this. If you know you want that mushy bass sound you can use a large diaphragm dynamic like a RE-20 and pair it with a tube preamp. The choice is yours and yours alone.


Paint a Picture: Mixing

Now that you have recorded your tracks and acquired your sound palette it is time to paint a sonic picture. If you recorded everything well then you will find that by simply adjusting levels you will already have a great picture! You will know when you have recorded something well because it will practically mix itself.

However even a great picture isn't perfect without those little details. There are far too many variables to cover in a single tutorial on how to mix. However there are some general rules and concepts that can be applied to most any mixing situation. Here are some tips to refining the sound a little bit further...

  • When using compressors you inevitably are going to be filling up the sound space a little bit because you are reducing the dynamic range. The more you compress the sound the more it will sound right up in your face. Also keep in mind your attack and release times as well as the style of compressor you are using. If you crushing the transients down you will gain even more volume but look the snap and some of the clarity to your mix.

  • If you want that super clear mix then you need to be very careful with how you handle reverb. Your super tight and clean recording can easily get washed out. Then again if you are after a great send of space then let the reverb fly but still don't wash everything out. Try using multiple reverbs if mixing rock, pop, etc. but if working with Jazz or Classical that sounds a little too dry try using a subtle bus reverb for the whole mix. Finally if you want a open but full sound then try to place the reverb in a frequency range that doesn't clash with the instruments too much; this will give the illusion of more space than is actually there.

  • When it comes to EQing you are going to have a lot of choice to make. Just like with compressors, you have character EQs (incurs phase shifts) and surgical EQs (no phase shifts) and need to decide what is best for your project. If you really need that clear and open sound then I would use a surgical style EQ and cut out a lot of unnecessary frequencies to free up more sonic space. If however you want a lush full sound then a character style EQ may be more up your isle.

  • Another set of options are transient shapers and gates for those of you who need that defined punch in your mix. Clever usage of these tools will add more emphasis to the attacks in your mix and down play the sustains. However you can often use a transient shaper in reverse to downplay the attacks and give you more room to make a full mix as well.

The main purpose of mixing to enhance your soundscape and create a sonic work of art. Don't try to fight the direction that the mix wants to take too much. The more you fight it the more you are probably going to realize that you will need re-track something.


Enhance Your Image: Mastering

You have created a sound palette and painted a wonderful picture with your mix. Now you must really bring forth the best in the painting by adding some color correction and enhancement. What? Cant a painting go digital for some color correction?

Mastering is a very misunderstood art form that is abused by those unfamiliar with the process. Many times people will simply squash the life out of a mix to make it louder and call it mastering. Mastering is more than just making it loud, its examining the mix as a whole and subtly enhancing the qualities of the mix (or sometimes fixing what is wrong but you wouldn't let there be something wrong would you?).

When mastering you often use the same techniques like you would in the mixing stage but will apply your effects much more subtly. Your aim is to really bring out the sound of the song and the entire sound palette that you have been working for the whole time. Generally at this point in the process you would want to avoid reverbs, flangers, phasers, chorusing, etc. unless you have a very good musical reason to do so. Multi-band compressors will be your friends in mastering as well as solid bus compressors, linear phase EQs, and (in some instances) saturators. Saturation is usually reserved for a mix who wants the tape sound but still wants the clarity of a digital modern workflow. Saturation is performed either by plugins, converting to tape and back to digital, or by re-recording the mix through different mic pres.

Some people believe that you can only master in the analog domain while others would maintain you need super clear digital plugins. The truth is you need to find a workflow that works for you to get the sound you are after. Don't forget your sound palette you have worked so hard to craft; strongly standing beside analog or digital when your project needs the opposite is a pointless mistake.


Conclusion

To create a coherent and flowing final song you need to maintain continuity in sound from beginning to end. If you can really nail down the sound you are after before you ever set foot in the studio then you will have an efficient and pleasant recording experience.

I recommend keeping your sound palette the same throughout an album if you are planning on recording an entire album. If it is just a song by song basis then try different approaches and see what palette you like! It will inevitably take practice to get good at painting a mix, but every art requires patience and practice.

Now get out there and let me hear your works of art! Take care!

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