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!

Finding Creative solutions to Mix Problems

Last month I wrote about how your ‘ear’ for identifying and fixing problems improves significantly when you dedicate yourself to producing full time.  Recently I had a situation which showed exactly this, and where my solution for fixing a problem was far different (and much more successful) than I would have come up with 9 months ago.

When I was writing ‘Cantana 1‘, I had come up with a patch for the main synth ‘stab’ sound…

The patch was made in V-Station using some FM between 2 of the oscillators, and I was fairly happy with the sound… thought that the FM gave a cool kind of gritty edginess to it.  But when it came to making the sound fit in the mix, it was really difficult to get it to properly stand out… it just seemed to get lost behind the other instruments and percussion.

I’d faced the same problem in the past (often with V-Station patches), and in those cases I’d often used large mid-range EQ boosts to try and correct the problem.  But this had also had limited success, often making the sound a bit ‘bloated’ and muddying up the mix.  When faced with this problem in the past, it could have quite possibly led me to abandon the sound altogether, just because I couldn’t get it to mix nicely.  I guess my thinking was along the lines of “it’s not fitting well, and I don’t know what else to do to fix it, so I’m just going to get rid of it”.

However, armed with the experience of the past year, plus the additional confidence that comes with that, I looked at the problem a bit more analytically…  The chord and the original patch I was using was quite low in terms of pitch, and as the FM was turned up quite high, there were a lot of ‘fizzy’ harmonics in the sound.  Hence, it seemed that the problem was a simple lack in mid-range frequency content… in the context of the track, the bass line and percussion were already supplying the low and high frequencies, and I needed this sound to ‘fill in the middle’, and provide the main theme.  But due to the patch and chord used, the mid-range was quite lacking… EQ would likely not have fully solved the problem too… you can’t EQ frequencies that aren’t in a sound to begin with.

In this case, I used a second instance of V-Station with a similar patch, but one with no FM and whose oscillators were much more centred around the mid-range.  It had a much cleaner and more rounded sound…

I fed both V-Station instances from the same MIDI track, and blended the V-Station audio outputs.  The result was as follows…

Whilst in isolation I actually prefer the original FM patch, the blended version was much easier to fit into the mix, and saved a lot of headaches trying to correct things with EQ (and potentially tedious automation of the EQ to adjust to the filter sweeps used on this instrument).

In retrospect, it was nice to see that I’d discovered more creative solutions to problems, and was able to analyze a problem to provide a solution, rather than giving up… my thinking was more along the lines of “there’s a problem here… now what’s causing it”, and this led to a preventative solution, rather than the corrective (and likely less successful) solution of messing with EQ.  It shows that (as mentioned in the previous post) your mixing and producing skills can really improve with dedicated and regular practice.