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Mixing for the ’80s

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How far we have come from the age when men's hair were longer than their female counterparts, their pants tighter, and their voices even reached higher. The days where tides of reverb used to wash over every instrument and snare drum sounds used to explode in the background. Heavily delayed and chorused guitar solos signalled the inevitable one-minute outro solo, accompanied by the predictably high-pitched scream of the lead singer. Who doesn't remember the '80s? Even if you weren't born early enough to appreciate the decade, you have probably heard all the legendary anthems that made people rock out and the beautiful ballads that helped teenage boys over their heartbreaks.

Humor aside, a fair number of recording and mixing techniques of the '80s were frowned upon in the following decade. Grunge and Alternative Rock weren't so fond of chorused solos or gated reverbs, so many of those tricks were left by the wayside. Not to say that they aren't used anymore, but there is a difference between using the standard sound of the decade and using a mixing trick from said decade.

That said, let's get into some standard mixing tricks from the '80s. We'll be checking out how to create a explosive gated reverb, the standard snare drum sound of the era, as well as some heavily chorused and delayed guitar with thickly reverbed vocals.


Gated Snare Reverb

A signature sound of the eighties is the sound of the exploding snare. Huge reverb explosions following each snare hit, but quickly vanish into it again. This is done by gating the reverb and triggering it from the snare. This way you get all the effect of a big reverb sound, but none of the decay that would follow to muddy up the track.

Two great examples of a typical '80s snare with gated reverb:

Prince – Purple Rain

Phil Collins – Against All Odds

You can definitely hear the similarities between the two snare drum sounds. They have a enhanced “crackle” character from the gated reverb that gives it it's signature sound. Phil Collins is almost always mentioned in the same sentence as gated reverb, as he is that famous for using it, and I personally think the snare drum in Purple Rain is one of the cooler snare drum sounds of all time.

Lets see if we can make a simple drum beat sound like something out of a a typical eighties sound. As I've established, you go a long way with a gated snare and some heavy dose of general reverb over everything. We want to keep it simple, but huge!

Here we have the drum beat we are going to '80s-ize.

These are just generic kick, snare and hihat samples taken out of a Reason library. Nothing special, but enough to work with. As you can hear, everything is very dry and uninteresting. Nothing you could instantly recognize as a great ballad beat. We need to process these drum sounds to make them big and interesting. Let's get to work with the snare first.


Step 1 – Sending the Snare

First step is to send the snare track to an auxiliary bus so we can work with a gated reverb sound from there. As always with reverb, we're sending it so we can process the reverb separately from the dry snare drum.


Sending works similarly in all DAWs, so just put your send on 0 dB and we'll go from there. Put a reverb on your aux bus. I
am using Logic's Space Designer, but any reverb device that you are using works as well.

I put in a 2.5 second plate reverb. It's a fairly long reverb and as you can hear below the decay is quite long. In your reverb engine of choice, put in either a nice Plate or Hall setting, with around 2.5 seconds of decay.


If you are using Logic you can just copy my settings from above. If you are using any other DAW, try finding a preset that sounds similar. I experimented with a few different room modes, hall, room etc until I decided on this Snare Plate setting. I was kind of going for a Purple Rain type sound, so I'm following that. But if you want a different type of snare reverb, feel free to experiment. For example, for a more anthemic rock snare sound, go for a big hall.


Step 2 – Gating the Snare

Now we have to get rid of that decay as it muddies up the track and is way too long for what we want it to be. Insert a gate on the same aux track after the reverb. Use the following settings on the gate:

  • Threshold : -26 dB
  • Attack : 6 ms
  • Hold : 190 ms
  • Release : 253 ms

The last thing you do with the gate is to trigger it to the snare track itself. That way is triggers off the original track and not the reverb itself. Find where it says "sidechain" in your DAW and link it to the snare. There are different ways to sidechain things in different DAWs. In Logic it's easy as you can sidechain directly to the audio track, but in Pro Tools you need to create a bus from your audio track that feeds the sidechain. If you are having problems with your DAW and sidechain, consult your manual as it will probably be explained there.

Now you should have converted this:

to this:

Now for some added extra touch, I've inserted an EQ after the reverb. I wanted the reverb to be more meaty so I dialed up 6 dB of a 160Hz for some body on the reverb. EQing your reverb returns can often be very interesting and gives you greater control over the reverb sounds.

You can filter out frequencies and/or boost parts to make them stand out or blend in, all depending on what you are going
for. EQ isn't just good for repairing source sounds, but can also come in handy for modifying effects returns - not only reverb, but other effects like modulation and delay.



Step 3 – Sending the Drums to the '80s

Now that we have the snare sound more or less down, it's time to add in the remaining drums. We'll just do this the simple way, by sending every drum to a large chamber type reverb. The eighties was the era of spacious drum sounds so we'll be using a considerable amount.


By using a long chamber reverb we get the big room sound that is so recognizable from the eighties. Whatever reverb engine you are using, just be sure to select chamber, hall or a big room setting with about 2.5–3.0 seconds of decay.

As you can see in the picture below I have a 2.7s big chamber setting on. I filtered out the lowest end, at about 35Hz because the bass drum was muddying up the reverb. On a related note, you can actually filter out everything below 32Hz on every instrument because it doesn't really have an effect on your sound and may just be taking up unnecessary space in
your mix.

Here are the send setttings I used:


You can see that I sent very little of the bass drum, a little more of the snare and a considerable amount of the hihat. Then I panned the hihat a little to the right for an added touch.

Now you may ask yourself why I go through all the trouble of gating the reverb on the snare if I'm going to send it to a different reverb anyway. The thing is, if I don't send any of the snare to the chamber reverb, the snare sounds unnatural and out of touch with the rest of the rhythm track. We want it to sound like an actual drum track, not a series of samples so that's why we put all the drums into the same room. That way we glue all our samples together so it sounds like it's actually being played by a drummer.

Compare the snare drum without the chamber reverb:

with the one where it sits nicely with everything else

Although it's not the most complex technique in the world, it gives your drumbeats that extra character. You can go a long way with making your drumbeats sound like they're from the eighties if you follow these simple passages. Give your snare a bite of gated reverb and then top off your drums with a hefty dose of reverb and you're done. Instant power-ballad.

Next, let's see what we can do for your guitar lines. They need some heavy processing in order to blend into the glassy clean eighties sound, or the heavily delayed lead outros we all love and cherish.


Chorused Lead Lines

The '80s was the era of the guitarist. The incredible skill and skill the guitarists that emerged from the eighties was rivaled by
none. Steve Vai, Marty Friedman and Randy Rhoads were just a few of the incredible rock guitarists that decade introduced. These virtuoso also liked playing with their guitar sound, trying to make their guitar sound bigger than the one next to them. By using long delays, lush choruses and spacious reverbs they gave the era some it's defining character.

We're going to make a small clean lead example, perfect for complementing a vocal in a power ballad. A small single note line can sound pretty tiny by itself, but after we put it through some eighties tricks like a big reverb, chorus and delay, it really shines!

This is the line we're going to transform:

Pretty dull huh? Doesn't really scream anthemic lead line does it? Let's see what we can do with it. First of all, when recording, try to get the sound of a Marshall tube amplifier, like the JCM 800 with a 4x12 cab. You might not have the space, nor the tolerating neighbors to actually record a huge stack like that so if you can get your hands on a convincing amp modeler, try to find a preset that emulates the eighties stacks. By just putting my lead line through an amp modeler, designed for a vintage stack sound,the sound became a whole lot better. We got rid of the DI sound of the guitar and
replaced with a fairly convincing amp sound.

Now let's add the modulation sound of choice to the sound. Crystal clear chorused lead-lines were a mainstay of the era, so we're channeling in some chorus onto our track. Insert a chorus plugin on your guitar track. If you have a guitar pedal modeler like Guitar Rig, or Amplitube, even better. Use them to create an even more convincing chorused sound.


We don't want the chorus to be too wobbly, so be sure to keep the Rate low. We want it to shimmer so we're adding a fair amount of intensity. If you are using other chorus pedals, this might be marked as Depth. The more depth or intensity, the more out of tune the guitar sounds, so we want just the right amount of shimmer. Because we're putting this chorus as an insert onto the instrument instead of as a send, we're putting the mix to 50%.

Now let's see what we've got:

A little bit of shimmer added, but it's still lacking. We need it to be bigger. We're imagining a lead for a big power ballad, so we have to give it a big sound. And what's better to use than some big reverb to add fullness and depth. Use whatever reverb engine you have on hand to send your lead line to. Select a medium to large hall setting with a decay time of about 2–2.5 seconds. Add the reverb underneath the guitar line until it feels big and spacious.


For you Logic users I've used the Space reverb preset in the Medium Hall category. Listen to what we've got so far.

We've come pretty close to the finished product, but there's something lacking. We need some extra frosting on our cake, to give the guitar line some added sparkle. Let's add some delay to really jazz up the lead. With delay we add an extra dimension to the line because now the line seems to come from everywhere as the delay repeats in both speakers.


We're syncing the lead to the beat and putting different grooves and note values to both left and right signal. That way every repeat is different, and the effect is like the line is coming from everywhere, perfect for a big sound.

Here's the final processed '80s clean lead line:

By just using some standard effects like chorus, delay and reverb we've completely transformed a simple lead line to a super spacious instrument, perfect for a huge ballad. If you are producing a more distorted rock song, you might want to back off on the reverb just a little, so as not to lose definition. But those delay lines really shine when distorted. Now that we've gone through our guitar lines, let's see what we can do process some vocals. We want some badass vocals to shine through in our power-ballad, so let's get to work!


Heavily Reverbed Vocals

A standard in the '80s era was the heavily reverbed and big vocal sound. The 1980s power ballad would be nothing without a rich vocal washed in a long and thick reverb. Today we like things a bit more dry, but that doesn't mean you can't learn a few tricks from that era. Having the ability to flick an “'80s Switch” on your vocals is both entertaining and useful. That's why I'll take the opportunity to teach you how to dial in some super thick reverb, with a hint of predelay to have everything thick but defined.

In the following passages I'm going to go through a few different techniques to make your vocal thick and big. We'll be using some chorused delay, both in mono and stereo, and some predelayed reverb for extra space. By using delays we thicken up the vocal without adding any space to it, but when we add reverb to the thickened vocal we get both a powerful doubled vocal and a big reverb wash following it.

I'm using a song I've probably used in some tutorials before, but it has a fairly balladesque chorus so I'll use the melody as an
example.


Step 1 – Thicken Up the Vocals

The original vocal is fairly dry. Recorded in a dead room and doesn't have any natural reverb on it. It even has a little headphone bleed, but I'm not going to worry about that for now. Let's thicken up the vocal with some artificial double tracking.

Send your vocal to a auxiliary bus. Insert a mono delay on the aux bus. I inserted Logic's mono tape delay but you can use whatever you have at hand. Try to duplicate these setting you can see below.


As you can see, we have a typical A.D.T. setting. A delay setting of 23 ms on a 100% wet setting, as per usual. I put in a little LFO Depth for good measure, just to get a little chorus feel to it. Also, try experimenting with EQ'ing the delay, as I cut the low end out of the delay at 390Hz, just to get rid of a little low mid muddiness.

This is what we got so far. A thick little A.D.T. trick.


Step 2 – Stereo Delay

Now let's go even further by adding a stereo delay after the mono delay. Now we'll have a delayed mono signal in the center,
complimenting the lead vocal, as well as two separate delayed signals on the left and right, giving it a nice stereo depth.


Give the left channel a delay time of 30 ms, and the right channel a delay time of 20 ms. Now we have a dry source sound, a mono delay of 23 ms in the center, and two different delays of 20 and 30 ms on the left and right channel. A whole lot of different delays for the same signal, but surprisingly doesn't have any special phase problems. Just the same ballad melody, but much thicker.

Listen to what we've got so far.


Step 3 – Big Reverb

Now for the big finale. Vocals in the eighties were nothing but puny if they didn't have long lush reverb complimenting them. So what we're going to do is send them to another aux bus and give them that extra bigness they need to excel.


As always, I'm using the Space Designer in Logic, but don't worry, any reverb engine works fine. We're just looking for a fairly long hall type reverb. So if your reverb engine has a hall setting, use that one, otherwise just adjust the room size until the reverb sounds long and lush.

Notice that I'm also delaying this reverb 50ms using the pre-delay dial. This way the reverb doesn't interfere with the intelligibility of the vocal line but enters a little afterwards. You could probably go up to a 100ms and it would still sound great.

Here's two examples of the same reverb, the first one with a 50 ms pre-delay, and the second with a 100 ms.

And lastly, here you can hear the vocal in context. I used the one with a 100 ms pre-delay and you can hear the powerful and lush enhancement our vocal mixing has done for the melody.

By mixing a few delays and reverbs to the vocal we're able to thicken it up, widen it and give it the bigness it needs for the type of production we're recording for. Not only suitable for '80s ballads, you can use these tricks for whatever type of production you are doing. Maybe you just need the delay tricks, or maybe you just want the bigness of the reverb. Whatever it is, you can pick and choose and experiment until you find what you're looking for. This is only a guideline in the right direction.


Conclusion

Although we look back on the '80s sound with a shudder, thinking of the cheesy fashion and overused make-up, there were certainly some production tips born there. They went as far and as big as they could and we've been backtracking ever since, combining the old tricks with new music, coming up with different genres and productions.

These tricks don't only lend themselves to the instruments shown either. In today's mixing world, anything goes and if you want to put a gated reverb on vocals, be my guest. Anything goes, and as long as you are happy with the result, and you think it sounds good, then that should be good enough.

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