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The Mixing Magician: Adding Subtleties Without the Audience Noticing

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Mixing isn't about cramming as many plug-ins into a mix as possible. It's not about showing off all the effects you have in your arsenal and putting a different setting on each track. Mixing, in the end, is always about the song. As a mixing engineer it is your job to take the song that was recorded and make it into an even shinier production. You want the band to really shine and be happy with the end result. You don't want the reaction to be: “Wow, he sure piled on the effects didn't he?” You want each instrument to sound great in its own right but not dominating the rest of the mix.

The trick is to be able to use any effect you want to get the job done, but without anybody noticing. You want that guitar to sound absolutely amazing but when you turn off all the processors and effects that are making that part sound so good, suddenly it sounds weak and dull. Mixing music is an art, and you should be able to use any tool at your disposal to sculpt the work of art a musician has given you.

In the following Premium tutorial I'll be going into some subtle uses of modulation effects, using EQ to create pseudo stereo as well as some other assorted mixing tricks.


The Most Commonly Used Effects

By using mixing tricks like these we are essentially using all the same modulation effects: chorus, flanger and all that as well as delay and reverb as normal. The difference is that we are using shorter times, lower levels and subtler processing than before. We're not using chorus or reverb in the same vein as they did in the eighties. We're taking some already good sounding tracks and making them sound exactly as the recording artist wanted them to sound, except better.

Simple tricks to make effect blend in:

  • Using sends – You should use effects as send effects anyway, but some people prefer putting modulation effects as inserts on things like guitars and such. But by having a dedicated aux track that only has the effect we can easily dial in how much of the effect as we want. Basically adding in the effect until it enriches the original sound, but not so much as to dominate the overall sound.
  • EQing effects – Since we have the effects on as sends we can easily add EQ to our effects and filter out the things that stick out. It's easy to make an effect blend in by filtering out some of the high frequencies, or by toning down the bass if it's a bass heavy or rhythmically complex part.
  • Short and sweet – Most modulation effects (chorus, flanger, phaser etc.) have some sort of time modulation, from 5–35 milliseconds or so. Sometimes you can set the delay time of these effects and sometimes you can use them in conjunction with delay. By using short delay times and low levels you can trick the ear into thinking that it's not hearing anything except one instrument, even though if you would solo said instrument it would leave much to be desired.

We'll go into each particular trick in a little more detail later, but let's talk about compression a little bit before.


Using Groups with Compression

Using very subtle compression can help glue things together quite nicely. Some high-end compressors even have a nice sound to them even if they aren't really compressing. A nice trick to use if you want to save processing power on your computer as well as tying some instruments together is to route them to a separate bus. Using sub-groups like this can help save CPU power as well as making the whole mixing process easier.

Say you have five different vocal tracks that kind of work as a complete whole, or if you have a wall of guitar tracks that are playing very similar things. By routing them all to the same track you can add some subtle compression to make them sound as a whole. If you've already leveled off each separate track to where it's more or less stable a buss compressor over your group can really make that ensemble sound together.

Here is an example of a quiet guitar track that has about four or five guitars on it. The first example is of the guitar tracks without any processing, each guitar has a nice relative level to the others but they do vary in dynamics a little bit.

Listen to the build-up part where one guitar gets significantly louder than the others. That's where I would need to apply some compression to it, since by lowering the level of the guitar would mean that it would sound too quiet during the quiet part. But instead, since I have all my guitars routed to a sub-group, I'm just going to add a buss compressor on that sub-group instead, thereby affecting every guitar track. But I won't be compressing that hard so the compressor won't really be working at all except in the louder part. During the quiet parts, it just has a steady and even subtle compression going on but when the chorus kicks in it calmly pushes down on the harder guitar parts, making the whole thing sound more like a complete whole.

The effect is extremely subtle, but that's what we're going for. Subtle mixing and smart CPU saving is what this trick is all about. Just make sure you are routing the complete tracks to the bus instead of using sends. By using sends you are taking a copy of the original track and modifying it along with the original. But by routing the outputs of the tracks to a separate bus you are only modifying those tracks, instead of having extra copies of them.



Subtle A.D.T. With Stereo

Artificial double tracking is a technique that's been around forever. By automatically doubling tracks and delaying them some fractions of a second from each other you get a doubling effect like there are two guitars playing the exact same thing at the same time. However, for the purpose of this tutorial we don't want to go the traditional route of tricking the audience into thinking there are multiple guitarists playing. We want them to think that there is only one guitarist playing and that his sound is thick and big.

Stereo effects, and artificial stereo effects are usually created with time-based effects such as chorus and delay. The subtle differences in phase you get when you combine two guitar parts that are identical but not played at the exact same time is what creates that desirable doubling effect. But if you add too much delay to the guitars you immediately notice that there are two guitars playing. And if you just copy and paste the same guitar track to a new channel you only get a louder signal, not really any thicker than before. You will just end up with more tracks to deal with that aren't really contributing to the mix at all.

There is another different way, that's much more subtle, that we can create a pseudo-stereo effect. It's by using EQ. If you EQ two guitar parts differently you are essentially changing the frequency response of each track, making both guitars sound distinct. It's similar to using multiple microphones when you are recording. Each microphone has a different frequency response and characteristic, and each one translates the sound differently. So when you have one guitar track recorded with multiple mics, you can blend the best of what each has to offer.

So by copying a single guitar track and modifying them both with distinctly different EQ settings we can this pseudo-stereo effect. And of course, if you want to take it a little bit further, but without making it a noticeable A.D.T. trick you can add just a tiny bit of delay, of only 5-10 milliseconds or so without any feedback. That should be a good starting point in getting a guitar track to sound more powerful.


Blending In With Modulation

Although modulation effects have a reputation for being quite noticeable and extreme sometimes, like glamorous prima donna movie stars, you can also use modulation for the exact opposite. Some effects, because they play with delay and time causing some phase differences, can actually soften some parts up that you don't want to get too much attention. By adding extremely subtle amounts of flanger for instance, will cause some subtle softening of guitar parts.

Listen to the example below where the first chord run through is just a normal clean-sounding guitar, and then when it repeats itself there is just a tiny amount of flanger added. Notice how the flanger softens up the initial chords strums. This would be ideal if you had a busy mix an wanted to push that guitar a little bit out of the spotlight without having to add too much reverb or lowering its volume too much.


Subtle Distortion

There are quite a few ways to use distortion or overdrive on tracks without overloading the mix and making it all, well, distorted. Saturating and overloading tracks on tape in the old days was a trick to get that hot sound, and with some of today's plug-ins you can achieve similar warm sounding effects without breaking the bank. Of course if you have access to tape machines and vintage valve audio gear that gets hot and bothered when you saturate it then you might not need this trick. But if you just want some extra snap, or power to your snare drum for instance, then using some sort of tape saturator can give you a very desirable sound.

With some tube distortion emulation and some punchy compression you can crank up your snare drum and really get that backbeat going. The first half of this next clip is a normal drum loop without any processing on the snare, except the reverb that's been put on it. And the second half is when a tiny bit of saturated compression and overdrive are added to the mix.


For some people this might sound a bit too garage sounding, but it's very possible to squeeze out a crunchy snare sound with the right tools. Distortion can be used on a lot of other things you might not have thought about. It's not only limited to making guitars sound fat and juicy, vocals can benefit from some overdrive sometimes. If you use it sparsely as a send effect you can add some extra growl to a rock vocal.


Shelved Reverbs

Say you have a client that wants a dry mix. This client is a rock band that hates the eighties and shuns at the word reverb. They won't have anything to do with it and won't settle for anything that sounds spacious or airy. You, on the other hand, know that it's impossible to not add any reverb to an album. It will just sound so extremely dry and offensive. Everything will be competing for center stage and you just can't imagine it sounding good like that. Luckily, there are a few things you can do to make a track sound dry and aggressive but still managing to spread the elements out a little bit. We can use dark and short reverbs as well as delays to create a pseudo “space” around the track.

Let's take this vocal as an example. This is a pretty alternative rock track, medium tempo and there's not a lot of room for lush reverbs obviously. But for some reason, reverb makes everything glue together and there couldn't be a clearer to demonstrate it than through these two sound clips.

In the first example we have the vocal playing with the rest of the backing track and it just sounds plastered on top of the rest of the instrument. There is not coherence to the two elements and the vocal sounds really out of place. But as soon as we add a little bit of reverb, a small bathroom style reverb that I even EQed out the high frequencies the vocal immediately glues to the track, sounding much more together.

Here the vocal just sounds awful. Way to dry compared to the rest of the track and just very out of place. But in the next sample we've managed to fix all that with some subtle use of reverb. And since we don't want to the reverb to stand out so much by itself, it's both short and its high frequencies are cut.


This is an EQ plug-in I inserted after the reverb plug-in in the auxiliary bus. Many reverbs now come with included EQ so that you can filter, boost or cut to your hearts desire, shaping the sound of your reverb as you want. Using EQ filters is a very successful way to manage reverbs and it can create that special sound of your mix.

You don't only have to filter out the high end. That's just if you want to blend the reverb in more. If you wanted to accent it even more you could do the exact opposite and filter out the low end and push the volume up. And that doesn't only work for reverb, but for any effect or instrument. If you need to blend something in more, consider taking out the higher frequencies. But if you would like a part to stand out, rolling off the low end spectrum would be the way to go.

One engineer might favor dark and short reverbs so he uses small room modes and tries to EQ most of the high end out of them. But another engineer might favor bigger reverb that sound bright, wanting long reverb trails and bright slap reverbs. Suffice to say, the same song mixed by those two engineers would most surely end up very different from each other.


Let the Light Shine on the Simple Vocal


There are a few simple things you can do to either repair a badly recorded vocal, or lift it up to new unknown heights. You want the vocal to be thick and warm but no matter how you EQ and compress, you just can't seem to get that sound you're looking for. It needs some added brightness to take out that dull sound but no amount of cutting the low mids or boosting the presence in the high mids does it justice.

Sometimes you get tracks that were just recorded with pretty cheap budget equipment. Although it's most certainly ideal to record with the best recording equipment possible, sometimes the bands that record themselves don't have the money for that. Then it is up to the mixing engineer to try to make the most out of it. With some magician tricks we might be able to make a badly recorded vocal a little bit better. Maybe not incredible, but at least a little warmer, brighter and sweeter.

There is a plug-in that is synonymous with excitement in your arsenal - namely, the exciter. The exciter can come in handy quite often if you are constantly struggling with dull tracks. An exciter add artificial harmonics to the high frequencies of a signal giving it a high frequency sheen that can lift up the most muddy and dull instrument, whether it be vocal, guitar or whatever. You can use it to add some snap to your kick drum and snare, you can use it to lift up guitar solos and string sounds of bass guitar and most importantly, add some air to a lifeless vocal.

When I need to add some high end and life to a vocal track I usually do it through the sends instead of the main track itself. I would EQ the main vocal track as well as I could, using whatever means necessary, along with whatever compression trick I deemed acceptable. Then what I would do is send the vocal and do a typical artificial double tracking on the vocal with some delay, different compression and EQ. But on top of that I would add an exciter to the doubled track, making it stick out more and compliment the main vocal. I've found this trick to be incredibly useful and really good in a pinch if you don't know how to revive your lifeless vocal track.


Conclusion

Being able to use every trick in the book to its full extent, without it being incredibly noticeable to everyone, is a very desirable trait for a mixing engineer. At least, it's good to be able to put on the subtle mixing hat if the job calls for it.

It's always a good idea to be versatile and be able to jump into any situation or genre possible, following the desires and genre specific sounds each band wants. I hope that by using some of these tricks you can up the WOW factor the next time you're working with an artist.

There's nothing cooler than taking a song and without seemingly changing anything, it all of a sudden sounds a hundred times better to the audience. Just because of all the tricks you're doing behind their back.

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