Improving the Clarity of a Mix

Isolating and bringing out individual parts when mixing, and improving the overall clarity of a track can be challenging as an amateur producer. It’s easy to mistakenly believe that there is a single ‘magic’ solution, that through lack of experience you don’t know about. The reality is that magic solutions rarely exist, and achieving improved mix clarity is usually the result of a series of small changes, which sound insignificant in isolation, but combine to make to fairly major change to the mix.

Cantana 2 was the first track I’d written which used an acoustic sound (i.e. piano) for its main theme. This presented some new challenges in terms of getting a fairly dynamic acoustic sound to sufficiently stand out over other parts. In this post I’m going to go through a series of small changes I used which helped me to get the piano sitting much more prominently in the mix, to separate it from the pad sound in the track, and to improve the overall clarity of the mix.

The starting point is a clip from the very early stages of sequencing and mixing the track. At this stage there was little delay, and no reverb across mix (hence the fairly raw sound compared to the final version on soundcloud)…

Initial clip

The first step to try to bring out the piano was to apply a compressor to it. I used Waves Renaissance Axx with the following settings…

improving-the-clarity-of-a-mix-1

…which evened out the general level of the piano and made it a little more ‘intelligible’ (apologies for the loss of one channel of the pad during the first part of the clip)…

Compression on piano

Next I applied EQ to both the piano and pad sounds, using the following curves. Notice that the 2 curves are complimentary, in that they accentuate different frequency ranges in each sound…

improving-the-clarity-of-a-mix-2
Pad EQ
improving-the-clarity-of-a-mix-3
Piano EQ

EQ on piano and pad

Next I used Voxengo MSED to slightly reduce the sides component of both sounds. Often to separate sounds you can use opposing settings on each (i.e. one wider and one narrower, to separate them). In this case I felt that both the piano and pad were a bit too wide, and were getting lost against the bass and drums, and the pad especially was dropping too much level when the track was monoed. I reduced the sides component of the pad and piano by 2.6dB and 2dB respectively…

Reduced sides component on piano and pad

I felt like there were still too much ‘mud’ in the mix, and a big contributor to this was that both these main sounds were competing in the low/mid range. High pass filtering the piano made it sound a bit synthetic and unnatural, so I added a high pass filter at around 400Hz to the existing EQ curve on the pad…

improving-the-clarity-of-a-mix-4

High-pass filter on pad

Using compression sidechained by the bass drum on instrument sounds has been a well used technique in electronic styles for a while. In this case I used Noisebud’s ‘Lazy Kenneth’ to simulate the effect of sidechained compression on the pad, to make a bit more general ‘space’ for the other sounds…

improving-the-clarity-of-a-mix-5

(Simulated) sidechained compression on pad

I was still not happy with the clarity of the pad sound. When creating and auditioning it in isolation I’d used a low-pass filter with quite a lot of resonance. This sounded good on it’s own, but was not sitting well in the mix. I was one of the filter modules in Kontakt, and I reduced the resonance amount from 46 to 31% (and made a similar, proportional change in places where the resonance was automated)…

Reduced pad filter resonance

This final step in this series of changes was to try and further separate the pad and piano by using volume automation to drop the pad level by 1dB whenever the piano was playing…

improving-the-clarity-of-a-mix-6

Volume automation on pad

Ultimately I used further tweaks and processing after this to arrive at the final mix, but this series of steps shows the main changes I made to try and separate out the pad and piano. Listening to the first and the last clip, there’s a significant difference in the overall clarity of the mix (and even moreso comparing the first clip to the final mix on soundcloud).

Hopefully this gives some insights and ideas on techniques to improve your mixes, and demonstrates that usually it’s the sumtotal of multiple subtle changes that give an overall significant difference in the clarity and quality of a mix.

 

Bus Compression 3

Back in October last year I wrote a post about bus compression, and what at that time was my default effects chain for master bus compression. Some time’s passed since then, and my standard master bus effects chain has evolved further, and using this chain and new techniques I’m now able get pretty significant level increases (5-6dB) whilst still maintaining a reasonable transparency and general mix clarity.

New Plugin

The biggest change to the setup is the final limiter plugin. Previously I was using Waves L1 for this, and whilst it’s a useful tool, and definitely very good for transparent limiting on individual sounds, it’s also getting pretty old (not sure exactly when it was released, but it was more than 12 years ago), and I find that across a whole mix, it tends to add artefact, and lose some transparency when more than around 3-4dB of gain reduction is applied. After looking at a couple of different options as a replacement, I bought the T-RackS Stealth Limiter after reading a couple of favourable reviews. I have absolutely no regrets about this… the amount of gain reduction it can provide without any adverse artefact is quite amazing (this was one of the reviews that convinced me incase you’re interested).

Effect Chain

I’ll go through the exact effect chain and settings I used on Cantana 2. In the previous post I discussed using Waves L1 as the first step in the chain, to even out transients and allow subsequent compressors to work more easily… and this aspect hasn’t changed. In Cantana 2, I used threshold of -3.5dB, with the fastest release setting, just to catch and even out the really fast peaks…

bus-compression-3-1

Another significant change is that I now tend to use two instances of Cytomic’s ‘The Glue’ in series. The main difference between these two instances is in the attack and release settings… the first tends to use quicker settings in order to further (but more gently) even out peaks, whereas the second uses slower attack and release to provide a smoother, more general gain reduction.

For the last couple of tracks, I’ve used parallel compression in the first Glue instance… using a high ratio and low threshold to really squash the sound, and then using the dry/wet control to blend it back with the original signal. The settings used for Cantana 2 are shown below…

bus-compression-3-2
Threshold: -17.8dB
Makeup: 3.8dB
Mix: 12%

One thing I’ve found with parallel compressing in this way, is that it’s easy to either compress the wet signal too much, or blend too much of it back, and adversely change the level balance of different instruments in the mix. I had this problem with Cantana 2 initially, where the snare/clap sound in the original mix was still quite dynamic and peaky… this meant that the low threshold / high ratio settings tending to really squash the snare and introduce ‘unmusical’ pumping. When blended back with the original signal, the net effect was that the level of the snare dropped in the mix (sounded very similar to dropping the snare level by 1-2dB in the original). I fixed this by going back to the original mix project, and adding a bit more compression to just the snare track… this reduced the peakiness, and allowed The Glue to compress the whole mix more smoothly. Still I was surprised that the difference between what I considered the ‘right’ setting for the threshold, and having too much compression was only roughly a couple of dB, as the two clips below show (in these, the first Glue instance is set 100% wet for demonstration… 12% of this was mixed  back with the original signal in the final settings)…

Threshold: -17.8dB

Threshold: -19.8dB, Makeup gain increased to level-match. Notice the drop in level/clarity of the clap/snare, and pumping effect on the piano part.

The second instance of The Glue used a lower ratio, and slower attack and release (release set to the ‘Auto’ setting). This created a kind-of ‘continual’, general compression over the mix, to give a couple of extra dB of gain reduction…

bus-compression-3-3
Threshold: -14.2dB
Makeup: 3.2dB

One interesting comparison between the instances of The Glue, was the movement of the virtual ‘compression’ needle in the UI. The needle in the first tended to move quite quickly in response to the dynamics and rhythm of the track, whereas the second tended to stay around the 3-4dB mark with little movement. Before buying The Glue I hadn’t used a hardware compressor (nor plugin) which had a needle to show the amount of gain reduction… but I’ve found it’s a really useful supplement to know what the compressor is doing, and understand whether it’s imparting the effect you want.

The final link in the chain is the T-RackS Stealth Limiter, and for Cantana 2, I used the following settings…

bus-compression-3-4

This was quite a lot of limiting, and to be honest more than I would like to use, but necessary to be competitive with other tracks in the same style. The nice thing was that the progressive application of compression through the whole effect chain meant that I could use such aggressive settings in the Stealth Limiter whilst still maintaining reasonable clarity and transparency.

I find that applying compression like this to the master bus can sometimes cause a loss of high end, and in the case of Cantana 2 I used an EQ with a very slight high shelf boost to compensate for this (placed before the Stealth Limiter)…

bus-compression-3-5

Anticipating the Effects of Compression

I touched on this briefly in my last post… obviously introducing compression (and especially significant amounts of compression) is going to alter the level balance of different elements in a track… and I’ve found it can be beneficial to anticipate these changes and compensate for them in your original mix accordingly. The case I discussed in the last post related to reverb… reducing the dynamic range of the sound brings the level of quieter parts (like reverb effects) closer to the main sounds in a track, so in Cantana 2 I dropped the level of the overall reverb sends by a couple of dB in the original mix, and then re-rendered it for bus compression. I did a similar thing for some of the low-level background/atmospheric incidental and percussive sounds in the track too… without dropping the level to compensate for the compression, the final compressed mix turned out a bit ‘muddier’ than the original. Another useful tip is to render small, key parts of the original track (rather than the entire track) when auditioning these level changes. I’m using a fairly old PC, so the mix project (with stacks of plugins and including multiple CPU-intensive reverbs) only renders in slightly better than realtime… it’s much more efficient to try dropping the levels of the quiet parts by a certain amount, and then just rendering short clips of the key sections of the track. These short clips can then be imported into the bus compression project, and the changes auditioned without having to wait for the entire track to render.

Results

The net result of this new approach is I’m able get more competitive levels, and still maintain a more clean/transparent mix than before. It again reiterates my belief in a progressive/layered approach to compression that I discussed in my first bus compression post. The less work a compressor has to do, the more easily and transparently it can do it, so using multiple, staged applications of compression for different specific purposes seems to make sense. Following this idea over the last 12 months has also made me have a greater consciousness of compression and evenness of levels during the writing and mixing phases of a track… so my mixdowns prior to bus compression tend to have a lot smoother and more even levels to begin with. You can see this by just visually comparing the pre-bus compression render of an earlier track (The Yellow Room) against Cantana 2…

bus-compression-3-6
‘The Yellow Room’ pre-bus compression waveform
bus-compression-3-7
‘Cantana 2’ pre-bus compression waveform

If you’re writing in a style where competitive levels are important, the more you even out the levels in the early stages of writing and mixing, and the more progressive approach you take to master bus compression, the more easily your final limiter will be able to get to the required competitive level.