I touched on anticipation in a previous post… i.e. the idea of adjusting aspects of your track early in the production phase, in anticipation of the effect of subsequent phases and processes. I hadn’t really considered this concept much until I wrote that post, but it’s recently got me thinking more about anticipation, and where else I could use it to improve my tracks and production process.

My tracks are becoming too complex. My recent Cantana tracks are a case in point. I wrote both of them with the intention of adopting a kind of ‘back to basics’ / ‘kiss‘ type of approach… i.e. minimal style, fairly sparse instrumentation with few sound layers… the idea being to see how quickly and simply I could put a reasonable-sounding track together using the skills I honed over 2016. Ironically, they turned out to be the exact opposite… among the most time consuming, and complex (in terms of production and process, if not sound) tracks I’d ever written. Reflecting on this, I think part of my problem is not anticipating things properly… Cantana 2 in particular ended up with around 5-6 layers of low-level background instrumental and percussion sounds, intended to add some depth and complexity to the sound. I added all these layers in the very early stages of writing before I’d added any spatial effects like reverb and delay. The problem was that when I did come to add reverbs and delays towards the end of the mix process, doing so just made the mix and general sound too full. There were already so many of these small parts and sounds in the background of the track, that were was not enough room for them to co-exist with the reverbs and delays. To fix it I basically ended up just pushing down the level of all these small parts in the mix… to the point that I wonder whether removing them completely would have sounded any different.

My mistake was not anticipating the effect of reverb and delays at the early stage. I think I was so caught up in worrying that the mix sounded too thin, that I just kept adding more and more of these small layers, not realising that a lot of the space they were consuming would have been consumed by spatial effects anyway. And it caused me headaches in the long run, because as a result of all these layers, the track turned out very dense both in terms of frequency and dynamic, making it more difficult to mix (i.e. compress, EQ, and level, and to get enough separation between the different layers).

Ofcourse another potential remedy to the problem is to actually build in the reverbs and delays right from the start. I expect this is the approach a lot of other producers would take. For me, for some reason I do like having some distinction between ‘phases’ of the production process… I think also because I’m working on an older PC, and there’s a benefit to consolidating and sharing CPU-hungry effects (especially reverb) between multiple sound elements (which is easier to do in a single stage).

Going forward I’m going to make a conscious effort to allow the track to sound thinner and more sparse than I think it should, in the early stages of coming up with ideas… anticipating that these gaps will be filled by the addition if things like reverb and delay later in the process. In fact to help enforce that idea I’m going to try and compose the track 95% using only Korg Volcas, which implicitly limits the number of layers I can create.

Hopefully that will allow me to finally move towards tracks which are simpler, and quicker to finish.

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.