Adjusting Effect Levels for Mix/Bus Compression

I spent a few hours yesterday doing final bus compression for the track I’m currently working on. Approaches to and techniques for bus compression were one of the things I learnt most about during 2016, and yesterday I had a kind-of ‘lightbulb’ moment, which will hopefully lead to better results in this area going forward.

I’m a ‘reluctant participant’ in the whole competitive levels/loudness wars thing. Fundamentally I like the groove, emotion, impact, etc which a decent dynamic range can impart on a track. But at the same time I understand the need to achieve an overall loudness level that’s similar to other tracks in the same genre (especially because not doing so simply makes your music difficult for DJs to mix).

In the past, I’d always equated greater amounts of bus compression to a loss in clarity. To some extent this is true, as compression will narrow the dynamic range of the sound and hence simply reduce the ‘depth’ of volume variation available. However I’d always found that compressing the entire mix necessitated a compromise of getting closer to competitive levels while sacrificing some detail and clarity.

About halfway through last year I had a mini breakthrough of sorts, when I realised certain settings on bus compressor plugins can have a big effect on the quality of the resulting audio. Specifically I usually use Cytomic’s ‘The Glue’ as the first stage in the bus compression chain, and I found that simply setting the oversampling rate to the recommended or higher levels (4x or more when auditioning) gave far clearer audio quality than the default lower settings.

For my current track I had spent a bit longer than usual honing the reverb plugin settings, and fine tuning the reverb send levels. After this I was really happy with the result… it had a nice balance of having a good depth/space with sounding too ‘washed out’, and seemed to translate well to several different sets of speakers and headphones. But yesterday it was a bit disappointing to have some of this clarity and balance lost when I started pushing the final mix through bus compression. When I listened closely it wasn’t so much a by-product of compression, but more that the levels of the reverbs and delay effects were stronger. When I thought about it, the reasoning was obvious… I’d squashed down the top 3-6 dB of the volume range, so obviously sounds down at -15 to -20dB (like the reverb layer) had been effectively pushed up by a similar amount.

I usually do final bus compression in a separate Reaper project to the mixing, using just the final stereo mixdown as a source track (my aging PC can’t handle multiple reverb plugins and CPU hungry bus compression at the same time). So I went back to the mix project and rendered another version of the stereo mix with reverbs and main delays turned down around 1.5dB. Running this new version through the same compression chain resulted in a much clearer mix… it sounded a lot more like the former original stereo mixdown… just louder (which is exactly what I was trying to achieve).

Anyway, in hindsight I’m a bit surprised it’s taken me this long to figure out this technique (the basic point of compression after all is to reduce dynamic range), but I’m going to experiment a bit more, and hopefully end up with a lot cleaner, clearer final mix than for past tracks.

Another way to potentially prevent the issue could be to ‘mix into’ a compressor or limiter during writing/sequencing/mixing. This is a bit unorthodox technique historically, but seems to have gained popularity in the last few years (I seem to have read a lot of articles recently where people discuss working this way). The idea is to put a limiter/compressor on the master bus right from the early stages of writing (using generic/default settings close to what you’d usually use for final bus compression). This way you’re always evaluating level balance with compression already ‘baked in’. I don’t usually use this technique because for some reason I like to keep a clear separation between the mixing and final ‘mastering’ stages… but based on yesterday’s experience I can definitely see the merits, so may try it in a future track.

When the Problem is Staring You in the Face

I had an interesting experience over the last couple of weeks, with a mixing problem that should have have been obvious and easy to fix, but because I was too focused on details, I missed the bigger picture and let the problem persist for way longer than it should have.

I’m still in the finishing off stage of a track which has ended up becoming the most drawn out and time consuming piece I’ve worked on so far. I just looked back to previous posts and realised I said I was on the ‘home straight’ with it more than 2 months ago.

Part of the reason this track took longer than others was that it was the first where I’d used an acoustic instrument for one of the main themes… an acoustic piano riff (from NI’s ‘New York Grand’). As with acoustic percussion samples I’ve discussed in a previous post, any recorded acoustic instrument is inherently going to have a much greater dynamic range than synthetic sound. And to fit this into the generally very narrow dynamic of club music, considerable but careful application of compression is required.

The piano riff I came up with, I thought, had a nice dynamic… getting thicker in texture and a bit louder/stronger towards the end of the riff… I felt this gave it a bit greater feeling of tension. Although a fair amount of compression would be required to make the riff fit well in the mix, I was keen to try and preserve as much of that dynamic as possible. Hence when mixing I was too focused on trying to preserve dynamic of the riff that I’d liked in the soloed part. This unfortunately led me to being too cautious in applying compression, and ended up pushing the piano part way too high in the mix (in order to get it to stand out properly). Added to this was the mistake of not following my own advice and regularly checking back against reference tracks, so when I finally did do a side-by-side comparison with my usual reference material I’d created a kind of ‘inverted smile’ in terms of frequency spread… with piano and mid-range way too dominant, and not nearly enough bassline nor cymbals.

Once I figured out my mistake, it was pretty easily corrected with a simple application of Waves’ Renaissance Axx compressor (after having spent at least a week going in the wrong direction)… sure I had to sacrifice some of the nice dynamic I had originally wanted to highlight, but looking back, I think that original desire was misguided. The track I’m writing is in a minimal-techno style… where narrow dynamic and very loud overall track levels are commonplace… the expectation to keep a main acoustic instrument part fairly dynamic, and achieve a competitive level in the overall track was a bit unrealistic.

So 3 important lessons I learned for going forward…

  1. Audition parts in the context of a mix. Things that sound good on a soloed part may no longer sound so good, or even be completely lost in the context of a whole mix. I was too swayed by trying to work towards a soloed piano sound which I thought sounded good… it would have been better to have always auditioned it in the context of the mix right from the start.
  2. Be realistic about how much dynamic range you can achieve in styles which are innately highly compressed.
  3. Listen to and compare to your reference tracks regularly!

Starting In The Middle

I read a good piece on musicradar the other day about approaches to arranging (or what I usually refer to as ‘sequencing’).  A couple of the tips in that article really resonated with me (namely 1 – ‘start in the middle’ and 5 – ‘draw it out’) because they were things that I ‘discovered’ myself during my work in 2016.  The most useful of those was the idea of ‘starting in the middle’ so that’s what I’ll discuss today.

Sequencing is one of the things that I find more difficult in the production process.  At the point of starting sequencing you’ll usually have a bunch of track elements or layers you’re happy with, and you need to get from that point to having a rough form of a track, making sure that the sequence remains interesting throughout, and showcases the element or layers as you’d intended.  This is a pretty big step, and the path to get there is ambiguous… and in fact there’s not one, but many paths that could eventuate… i.e. there’s actually an almost infinite number of possibly sequences which could turn out good.  I think because of this I used to sometimes experience hesitation at starting out (similar to what I wrote about in my procrastination post).

For some reason I always used approach sequencing in a linear/serial way… i.e. starting from the absolute first beat in the intro, and working through the sequence to the end.  But I found this was difficult and often lead to uninteresting sequences (like the first 2 minutes of the track ended up just predictably introducing a new element every 16 beats).  At some point during 2016 I decided I needed a new approach to this, and that’s when I found the same ‘start in the middle’ technique described in the article…

By the time you start sequencing, you would have likely been working on the individual track elements for a reasonable amount of time… hence you’ll have a good idea of which elements/layers sounds good together, and which combinations and build-ups of layers you want to showcase as the main theme of the track… so since that should be clear in your mind, start by sequencing that part… i.e. create the main build/peak part of the track first. You might also have other ideas for kind of ‘precursor’ builds to the main build/peak point, so put those in the sequence too. Once you have these main ‘points of interest’ in the sequence, you can more easily ‘fill in the gaps’ between the points (more easily than trying to build the sequence start to end). Most DAW platforms should be capable of inserting and deleting time measures (and preserving automation lanes etc…) if you need to extend or contract the gaps between the main points, so there shouldn’t be any technical limitations either from working this way.

I now find that the intro and outro are usually actually the last parts of the sequence that I make… and they often don’t require too much attention, given that in club music your main goal for these parts is usually not to make them interesting, but to make them easy for a DJ to mix with the next or previous track in a set.

This was a technique which I found a huge help in expediting the process of arranging/sequencing.  The ‘draw it out’ technique also mentioned in the article was another, so I’ll write about that (and maybe include a real sequence drawing I used for a track) in a future post.

Spending Time Appropriately

I’ve blogged before several times about sample manipulation and clean up (i.e. EQ, compression, gating, etc…).  I use a lot of live-sampled sounds in my tracks, often as main/key elements in the overall composition.  So in these cases, properly cleaning up and compressing samples is really important, if I want these elements to stand out well and sound clean in the mix.

For the track I’m working on at the moment, I’m in the middle of doing all the incidentals, and part of that is incidental percussion.  I usually first sequence all of these sounds in the track’s Reaper project, and afterwards go through and automate EQ and compression to get them sitting in the mix properly (usually with a single EQ and compressor instance and using automation to adjust the parameters for each incidental).  That process can be pretty tedious, so I decided this time I’d do all the sample EQ and compression up front (i.e. before sequencing) in audio editing software.  This also was pretty daunting at first, because I had about 20 samples to treat, and I usually spend a good 5-10 minutes per sample finding the right EQ and compression settings, and auditioning on monitors and close listening through headphones.  But as I started working through them, I realised I didn’t need to spend so long on each one…

For samples which are used as key elements in the track, overly careful EQ and compression is really important… your key elements will either comprise the main ‘themes’ of a track, or at a minimum occur many times during the track’s progression… hence you need to spend time making fine and careful adjustments to get them sounding as good as possible.  On the other hand, the incidental samples I was working on might play in total a couple of times at most during the entire progression… plus they often occur at sonically ‘busy’ parts of the track (builds, peak points, etc…), where slight quality issues (like a tiny bit of distortion, or slightly wrong EQ) will likely be masked by all the other sounds occurring at the same time.

It made me realise I could afford to be (what I would usually consider) a bit ‘sloppy’ with my approach to this sample editing… only audition on monitors, and sometimes running mild effects like a slight limiting or compression with minimal or no auditioning (I use Waves L1 and C1 a lot for this purpose, and have used them so much I can usually apply mild adjustments without needing to audibly auditioning).  And more generally it made me think about using your time appropriately.  Time is a precious commodity for a producer… particularly if it’s not your profession and you have limited time to start with.  So you need to really think about the areas where it’s necessary to spend time, and the areas where you can afford to take a more ‘quick fix’ approach.


I’m finally on the ‘home straight’ of a track that started out simple, and has ended up taking ridiculously long to finish.  I’m basically at the stage now where there’s two significant things that need to be done in addition to mixing and general final polishing… ‘decorating’ the build/peak points of the track, and adding all the incidentals.  Even though these two tasks should be straightforward, I’ve been subconsciously dodging them for the last week or two… and I’m now at point where I’ve done every other minute (and occasionally unnecessary) tweak to other parts of the track in an inadvertent effort to avoid them.

Today I consciously realised that I’ve been side-stepping these tasks for days, and after some thought the reason became clear.  Both of them are time consuming, and a little tedious… often involving listening over and over to small sections of the track and making repeated small changes to automation curves.  It’s a ‘routine’, rather than ‘creative’ process… I can clearly envisage the end point I want to be at, but unfortunately getting there requires a lot of time, trial and error, and repetition of the same task.

Interestingly, before 2016 I often experienced similar procrastination when trying to come up with new ideas for tracks and parts within tracks.  However, now that’s a process I usually enjoy… so it made me think about what’s changed.  I think it boils down to 2 main things…

  1. A lot of the procrastination around coming up with new track ideas stemmed from a fear of failure… i.e. fear of the disappointment of spending a lot of time trying things, and not coming up with anything good.  Now though, I really look forward to and enjoy discovering new ideas.  My experience during 2016 proved on numerous occasions that I could come up with ideas that were way outside of my expectation, imagination, and perceived limits of my own ability.  The fear has been replaced by a curiousness, and almost an excitement about what kind of ideas I’ll discover, that I can’t imagine right now.
  2. My understanding and knowledge of the instruments I’m using has improved a lot… not only can I experiment with more ideas in a shorter time, but I have a greater ability to think about a way of manipulating or creating sound, and then actually realising that sound through the equipment (i.e I’m better to being able to audibly create sounds I can hear in my head).

So I’ve eliminated procrastination in writing new material, but it’s still slowing me down with more routine tasks.  I think it boils down to what I touched on in point 1 above, and can be well explained using the following analogy… Coming up with new track ideas has become like going on holiday to a country you’ve never been to before… you don’t know what you’ll discover, but there’s a fair chance it will be new and exciting, and even the process of getting there is often an adventure.  Conversely, creating incidental parts is a bit like doing the weekly shop for a big family… the end result is not particularly outstanding nor exciting, but is necessary… and the process of getting it done is lengthy and a repeat of something you’ve done many times before.

So what’s the answer to avoid procrastinating? Unfortunately I don’t have any easy nor groundbreaking solution… what needs to be done can be easily interpreted from a quote I heard many times from former mentor (and i believe variations of which have been used by Lewis Carroll, George Harrison and others)… “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will do”… i.e the best thing you can do is just make a start and get moving.

I guess I’ll leave it there… I’ve got shopping to do.

Breaking Musical Rules 2

This is the second in set of examples of musical structures which sound good despite being well outside of the rules of traditional Western music theory, and revolves around pad sounds.

Pad sounds usually exist (as the name suggests!) to ‘pad-out’ an arrangement, and give it some additional texture and depth.  As they’re usually designed to sit behind the main instruments/elements of a track, you can often get away with more abstract textures, created by more complex chords.  I can still clearly remember my eureka moment many years ago, when I discovered that really nice pad sounds could be made with a low-pass filtered synth patch, played by a thick, jazzy chord (9th, 11th, etc…).

During 2016 I experimented quite a lot with different ways of making pad sounds, and discovered that you don’t have to limit textures to complex jazz chords… you can use all kinds of diatonic structures and ‘chords’ which are way outside of the bounds of traditional music theory.

The example I’ll use is part of the pad sound I used in ‘Push On‘.  I used a couple of different instrument layers to arrive at the final sound, but one of those layers used a preset sound from Spectrasonics Atmosphere.  The soloed layer sounds like this…

… and was played using the following ‘chord’…


That’s basically the first 4 intervals of a C major scale played together in consecutive octaves.  It’s also miles away from anything that you’d learn from traditional Western music theory (it can actually be ‘played’ by two very comfortably spaced fists on the keyboard!).  This is the kind of chord I would never expect to fit into anything but the most avante-garde of music styles (due to preconceived ideas of what harmonies will work), and hence would be very unlikely to try or experiment with when putting a track together.  But I discovered last year that you can often use these types of complex and unconventional chords for pads (I used similar and often more complex chords in other tracks I produced in 2016 aswell).

Part of what makes it possible is the use of low-pass filtering in pad instruments.  If you were to play the same chord on a loud piano or with an orchestral string patch, the mash of upper harmonics it would produce would sound quite messy and dissonant (like playing the piano with your fist!).  But as this patch has a lot of those upper harmonics rolled off, it allows more complex (and traditionally dissonant) sets of intervals to work better together.

Just as a reference, a single note played on the same Atmosphere patch sounds like this (with no high-pass filter and hence more low end)…

When creating pad sounds, it’s worth messing around with complex and unconventional chords and intervals.  It often allows you to create much more texturally rich and deep sounds than you could achieve with more traditional chords, but still maintaining consonance in the overall result.

Getting Into a Mental Space To Be Creative

If you want to make the most the time you devote to writing or producing, you can’t constrain yourself to only working effectively when you feel inspired

In my usual (i.e pre-2016) work as a system engineer, I never used to have to think much about getting into the right mental space in order to work productively.  Ofcourse making software is fundamentally a very different discipline to producing music, but I always found with software I could start working pretty much immediately… there was a clear, tangible problem that needed to be solved, and to get to the solution you just had to start working on it.

With music production it’s often very different… to be effective (and sometimes just to get started well), it’s important to be in a creative headspace.  This is moreso the case with certain stages of the production process… e.g. being in a creative headspace is much more important if I’m trying to come up with new parts or tracks, than it is if I’m doing something more routine like mixing.

Also, the success of the start of a day producing can be heavily influenced by the success (of lack thereof) of the previous day.  Specifically… if I’ve ended the previous day frustrated that no good ideas were coming, or trying unsuccessfully to fix a problem in the mix, it could make it more difficult to motivate yourself, and to get off to a positive start.

So, it’s critical to try and get yourself into a mental space that’s conducive to being creative… and a really good routine I’ve found to do this is…

  1. Start the morning in a place separate to the studio – It can be difficult/intense to spend 8+ hours a day in a single room… I particularly found this in early 2016, having come from a busy and spacious office environment and constantly changing locations (for meetings etc…), to being stuck in one small room and in front of a PC all day.  I would always start the day in a completely separate physical space (usually a coffee shop close to home).
  2. Listen to some music you like – This is something I usually do while having said coffee.  It always helps to spur creativity by absorbing inspiring examples from the same creative discipline.
  3. Read some material which gets you thinking in depth about producing – For me, this is the most important technique… if I can read something inspiring about production (or in fact anything music related), it immerses your thoughts in that space, and has a hugely positive effect on getting you into a creative place.  It’s also a great antidote to the kind of frustrations or lack of inspiration mentioned above… often giving you fresh ideas, or approaches on how to attack a problem.  Specifically, the material I commonly use is…
  • Inspiring music news sites and blogs (CDM is a favourite for me)
  • Seeing how other producers approach their work (e.g video channels like Fact TV and Electronic Beats)
  • Magazines like Sound on Sound… esp practical columns like Session Notes, Inside Track, and Mix Rescue

Inspiration tends to come and go unpredictably… and if you want to make the most the time you devote to writing or producing, you can’t constrain yourself to only working effectively when you feel inspired.  Being able to put yourself into a more creative headspace moves you towards having more control over periods of inspiration, and allows you to best utilize your time.