Mixing and Mastering/Bass Mixdown
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In this section I am going to be using some harsh words about the realities of sound engineering and some of the things that beginner engineers and even magazines say. If you are offended by these... good, I hope it gets you offended enough to sit up and think about what you are doing, how you are doing it and to realize that there is no magical piece of equipment or plugin that will make your music sound terrific.
I've thought long and hard about writing this article because none of us want to give away our 'secrets' and believe me when I tell you that if you want to make your dance music sound stunning then this is THE secret. You will need to know much more than just this but without this knowledge you are going nowhere.
Why am I doing this?
There are two reasons: Firstly over the past year there has been so much badly produced crap thrust onto the market that it has become saturated to the point where distributors around the world won't touch certain styles with a barge pole. They know that only one release in twenty will be any good so they don't want ANY of it. So rule number one, if you genuinely care about the music you are making don't let your ego take over, "I'm the best producer in the world because I've got a record out, my mates all think I'm fantastic". Yes, but no one in the industry does, they think you are a joke because you are killing the music that we all love with your garbage and you don't even realise it. Please, please, please do not even THINK about releasing something yourself or trying to get it released with a label until you are absolutely sure (and be honest with yourself!) that you are good enough and ready to produce the goods time and time again. Don't be desperate to get a record out, learn your craft, pay your dues and be patient. After all you want a reputation for releasing great music and not the other kind, don't you?
The second reason is this and again it is to do with ego. After a while, it could be six months, it could be five years: who cares? No one is counting. You will be writing music that is good enough for release if you have the talent for it, without a doubt but you may not have handle on the mixdown. In other words you can program great drum tracks, brilliant bass and synth lines and arrange it all perfectly but when you listen to your recordings they don't sound right. They lack volume and punch, the clarity isn't there, the bass doesn't cut through; they sound right but they don't sound right: that professional 'sheen' isn't there.
I'm sure everyone has seen on letters pages in magazines and on web forums a query where someone says something along the lines of:
"My track needs to be louder and kick more, it's nothing to do with compressors, EQ or limiters as my mix is perfect. It's just that the sounds need to stand out more. Should I use a different keyboard for my bass sounds? I was thinking of buying that WalNord Super Lead. I've mastered the track using the Super-Thrasher Maximiser. That may be the problem - if I only had the newer version with the tweeter fryer add-on my music might sound how I want it to"
The reply will follow saying that the WalNord is indeed superb (they advertise in that magazine) and yes the tweeter fryer is great (they've just given it a superb review) and you could also try to compress the life out of every single track separately, buy the new YamiRolorg super expander, put cheese in your ears etc. etc.
ALL WRONG AND ALL UTTER UTTER GARBAGE.
The mixdown isn't good enough. End of story. No amount mastering, Eqing or whatever other post-mix trickery will make a terrible mix sound good. You cannot polish a turd. The person that asked the question will be making the same mistakes over and over because he isn't asking questions of himself - he already stated that his mixes are nigh on perfect - how can you improve on that? Whatever anyone makes, even top professionals, it is never perfect. There is always something that can be improved. Also, always remember that while magazines can indeed be very informative, they are also there to sell you things.
It can take years to learn to perform a mixdown properly - you may not have the time or the inclination, in which case I recommend that you hire a studio to mix your tracks down for you. There are several well-known producers and engineers that supply this service, myself included. Yes, even this article is trying to sell you something but at least it is something worth buying if you really care about your music and want it to be the best that it can be.
If you ever get the opportunity, get yourself in a studio with someone that knows what they are doing - you will learn more in one afternoon than you will learn from reading twenty articles like this because you will see what is being done and you will, more importantly, hear the results.
Whatever kind of music you are making, any mixdown should have punch, depth, width and space. It cannot have any of these if the bass end (bottom end) isn't mixed correctly. The bottom end is the foundation on which the rest of the mix sits, get it wrong and you are on very shaky ground.
This article assumes that you are making dance music, in particular hard dance music (four on the floor kick, heavy bass line). The principles work just the same for any other kind of music but some of the ingredients and proportions may be a little different.
The first step in getting your bass mix right comes from choosing the right sounds to use in the first place, don't be tempted to try and fix it in the mix. If you want more bass in your track it isn't simply a case of turning up the bass EQ but if you want to make a pigs-ear of it then by all means do.
Years ago the 909 kick was de-rigueur but these days one of those straight out of the box sounds weedier than a gnats fart. Hard dance music is just that, HARD. The kicks need to be huge. How do you go about getting a huge kick? One way is to simply sample somebody else's (naughty) but that isn't being very creative. Over the years there have been literally thousands of different kick drums made and the sound is constantly being refined and reinvented. Whenever you buy a new record or get a new CD, always sample the kick drums to store in your library for later use.
Some may need cleaning up - random noise or cymbals may need to be removed. I'm not going to tell you how to do that because I want to make you think but I will give you a pointer: noise reduction is not the answer on a single kick, it will ruin the sound.
When you come to start writing a new track the first thing you will need to do is create a NEW kick. You already have your huge library of kicks to hand so you can start by getting several kicks that you like the sound of and that you think will fit together and then start experimenting layering those kicks together in various amounts. You may only need to use two or three kicks to get the sound you want. The sound can then be further refined with the use of compression, EQ and distortion or any other effect (careful!).
At this point you are using EQ creatively to alter the sound's character significantly. Extreme boosts don't tend to work well in the bass area, as you will find that you have problems when it comes to the mixdown. Compression can be used to tighten the kick, lengthen the decay or to add pop to the attack; again this is using compression as a creative tool. Always save your layered kicks and make new kicks with those too - your library will constantly grow and your 'depth of sound' will get greater.
You've got your kick, now you need a bass to go with it. It's a good idea to just sit in the studio for an afternoon every now and again and program bass sounds on whatever synthesisers you have available, sample them off and store them away for later use - it is much easier to have a library of bass sounds to hand than to try and program a sound that will fit with your kick drum. Again your bass sounds can be layered together to create new ones. You can also significantly change the character of your bass sounds with EQ and/or filtering. Again we are being creative at this point and trying to make the character of the sound how we want it so anything goes.
Mixing the two together
The mixdown is usually the last thing that gets done to a track, after all the programming, writing, arranging etc. Mute everything apart from the kick and the bass (which incidentally must have their own separate mixer channels). Don't be tempted to try and mix anything else in your track until you have your foundations in place, you will be wasting your time.
There is a minimum of facilities that are required to be able to get that pro sound in the bass on every track that you mix. It can be done with less equipment but much more time needs to be spent when you create the kick and bass sound in the first place (as will become apparent).
An absolute must is a decent pair of monitor speakers, positioned correctly and with you sitting in the correct position. Your room needs to be well damped and you will find from time to time, if you are in a small control room or project studio, that depending on what frequencies are in the sounds you are using different items in the room will buzz or vibrate - you need to damp or shield these so you can hear what is coming from the speakers and nothing else.
Also required is a mixing desk or facility (could be in your PC) where you can group tracks together, a compressor and decent EQ. If you are using an analogue desk you will probably not have enough EQ to do the job and will need to insert extra parametric (preferably) or graphic EQ on both the kick and bass channels.
So, first things first - listen to any hard dance records and you notice that the kick and the bass are at roughly the same volume level. So, presuming that your desk is normalised, solo the kick and adjust the volume so that it is peaking at around +3 to +6 DB on the main output meter (if your mixer goes to +15). You want the maximum amount of volume coming from the kick channel (if you are in software you can set this to slightly below maximum) while leaving enough headroom on the main outputs to fit the rest of your mix in. Why is the kick so loud? We want to get the best signal to noise ratio possible and to use the full bandwidth available on the mixer.
The same process is then done with the bass, solo it and set it to the same (or just slightly less) level on the main meters.
Listen to the two sounds together and note what the main meter is now doing - depending on what parts you have written the output will be moving around somewhat. Ideally you want the volume level in the bass end to be fairly constant otherwise headroom will be used up for no reason and bass 'power' will be lost. Compression needs to be used to smooth the levels out. This has the effect of increasing the average volume whilst using no more headroom. Both the kick and the bass need to be compressed together so the two channels need to be grouped and a compressor placed on the insert of the group. How the compressor is set very much depends on the material and there are several articles on compression out there. A good starting point would be to use 6:1 compression with a fast attack (to let the peaks on the kick to come through) and a release of around 150ms. The amount of gain reduction again depends on the source material.
Depending on the speed of the track the compressor's release setting can cause 'pumping' - that is where the overall volume pumps up and down in time with the track. You may want this effect or you may not. If you are going to make the mix pump be very subtle otherwise it just sounds naff. The compressor type will affect the character in the bass end so use the right one - you might want to use a fairly transparent compressor or you might choose to go with a very hard compressor for a more noticeable and aggressive effect. One thing to notice is that on notes where both kick and bass coincide, the volume of the kick will lessen if too much processing is applied.
Volume and compression are now set. Already the bass mix will seem to have much more energy than when you started out. Now comes the difficult part...
EQ'ing the bass
Previously creative EQ has been used to make new sounds (art). Now EQ is going to be used in a much more technical way to perfect the bass mix (craft).
A couple of notes before we start, if the bass sound is bass light don't try to simply boost the low end EQ - it makes for a muddy mix. Always remember that if you cut one end of the frequency spectrum comparatively you are boosting the other end. So to boost that bottom end you would roll off the top end and increase the volume level back to where it was previously. EQ cuts sound much better than boosts when mixing down, especially in digital systems.
To get a tight mix you need to be very accurate with your Eqing so be warned, this is going to take time, especially for a start. If it means spending a couple of hours just to EQ the bass then put the work in, the results will be worth it.
Every kick and bass you mix together will be different so there is no point in having or using the same 'magical' EQ settings unless you use the exact same sounds every time. I would recommend sitting down and listening to the bass end in some really well produced tracks. What do you notice? The kick and the bass don't interfere with each other, they sound 'tight' and they don't bloat out the whole mix. They 'sit' right.
Now we are going to get our bass to sound like that. This is where the decent monitors come in, without them you will really struggle to do the job.
Crank up the volume
That's right, really crank it up! If you are using near-fields you should be around 3- 4 feet away from the speakers, you need to be monitoring loud enough so that you are really 'inside' the sound. Don't monitor so loud that your ears start to hurt, go numb or ring - if you do you are monitoring too loud to be able to hear things properly and you will be doing yourself some damage. Don't try and mix the bass by monitoring quietly - what you have already probably sounds great when listened to at those volumes. It isn't! This is heavy music that is played loudly in clubs, not on tiny home stereos.
A quick note on 'harmonics'. All sounds are made from a combination of sine waves. If you want to see the maths behind this look on the web for 'Fourier Analysis'. In any sound there is a fundamental (or root) pitch plus a combination of harmonics. A harmonic is simply a multiple of the root pitch, i.e. the second harmonic is a sine wave at twice the pitch of the fundamental. So a square wave for example is made from a root sine wav plus every odd-(integer)numbered harmonic going upwards in diminishing amounts.
Listen carefully to the bass. If it sounds bass light in comparison to the kick, use a high cut EQ (or the lo pass filter in your sampler) to reduce the high frequencies and thus boost the bass. The frequency to cut to depends very much on the bass sound itself. If it is almost pure bass you could get rid of everything above 500-750 HZ. If the bass has a clanky attack you may want to keep that clank in and cut at a higher frequency - 1000 to 2000 Hz maybe. It's all relative to the sounds you are using.
After each EQ change check the volume of the bass on its own again to make sure it is still at the correct level. If it has changed alter the volume accordingly.
You will notice that as you progressively EQ the bass that it will start to sound very different to the sound you started with, this is normal and nothing to worry about, you've just got used to hearing the sound in its' unaltered state. Don't get into the mindset where you can't EQ the sound in a certain way because it makes it different to how it 'should' sound. It has got to sound that way to work with the kick.
Listen very carefully at the lower end of the frequency spectrum. Does it sound like there is a constant hum or note down there that runs through the notes that are being played. If there is then that is a 'ringing' harmonic - in other word one that isn't needed, all it is doing is using up valuable headroom and bloating the mix out. If you listen again you will also perhaps note that it makes the mix sound too fat and interferes with the kick, frequencies around 110-115 Hz are the usual culprits.
The frequency needs to be isolated and reduced until things sharpen up. The best EQ to use for this is a parametric as specific frequencies can be isolated but a graphic can be used at a pinch. The results will never be as sharp though. You now need to listen elsewhere for harmonics that ring out or whistle - these can be anywhere in the frequency spectrum. You might want to keep one or two of them in there if they are in tune with the bass notes playing (a-la Klub bass) but be careful what you leave. If you leave the wrong harmonics, especially as you start to move into the 200Hz region they will start to interfere with the lower-mids of the sounds in the rest of your mix. Again when you get a handle on where the 'bad' harmonics are, isolate them with a band of parametric EQ and reduce them until they no longer ring out.
So that's the bass EQed. Well, not quite. The sub end of things needs to be looked at, if there is too much sub in there the mix may sound great on your small speakers but when you play it on something larger you could max out the amps or blow the cones out. A nice little check is to listen to the mix through headphones. For a few seconds crank the headphone volume right up and listen to the kick drum - it will be making the headphones buzz quite a lot. Now listen to the bass, if it's making the headphones buzz about the same amount then things are OK in the sub department. If it's REALLY making the headphones buzz then you have too much sub on the bass. Another check is to look and see how much the bass sound makes your speaker cones flap in comparison to the kick - if it looks like your cones are about to blow with the power then, again there is too much sub in there. If your speakers are larger or you have a sub box then you are laughing. I bet the neighbours love you! A low shelf at 49Hz with about 2-3 DB of reduction will suffice if you have too much energy in that region.
It's almost there now. It's now a good idea to add an open hi hat, set a rough volume level for it and then listen to see if there are any harmonics that shouldn't be there between the 'real' bass and the hats. If there is, again, using parametric, get hold of those frequencies in the bass and EQ them out. That's the bass EQed.
Now go back to listening to just the kick and the bass. Listen with more of an emphasis on the kick. Mostly you don't need to do any EQ work on the kick but sometimes there will be just the odd harmonic that seems to 'ring' out on top of the kick and the bass. If it's too much and clouds things up, reduce it, again with a parametric.
And that is it. Job done. The track should now have a tight and punchy bottom end that will rock on any sound system. There are now just the other 50 sounds to sort out.
Come on super engineers, collaborate! This is a good start.
NOTES - Mastering is a separate process from mixing. A Mastering Engineer will want 3 or 4 db of headroom to work with. So do not mix to 0db on your DAW, mix to an output of 3 to 4 db below unity. Also, do not compress your master output bus too severely - if at all. The Mastering Engineer will add compression also.
- This is obviously not a definitive article and you will never find one when it comes to mixing, too many variables to take everything into account. Hopefully it will give you some basic understanding about the frequency range and what to cut or boost to bring instruments out of the mix.
- Most EQ should be subtractive - try to achieve a good sound and then sculpt away any problems using EQ, rather than trying to use EQ to "fix" a problem. This is a firm rule for acoustic and vocal music, obviously Dubstep etc is a special case.
Each instrument has a space in the frequency spectrum, so talking about the kick and bass, you enhance the kick and cut that freq in the bass. That way they don't fight for space in the mix. You do the same with the rest of the mix, leaving room for an instruments scope.
- 20 Hz and below - impossible to detect, remove as it only adds unnecessary energy to the total sound, thereby most probably holding down the overall volume of the track
- 60 Hz and below - sub bass (feel only)
- 80(-100) Hz - feel AND hear bass
- 100-120 Hz - the "club sound system punch" resides here
- 200 Hz and below - bottom
- 250 Hz - notch filter here can add thump to a kick drum
- 150-400 Hz - boxiness
- 200 Hz-1.5 KHz - punch, fatness, impact
- 800 Hz-4 KHz - edge, clarity, harshness, defines timbre
- 4500 Hz - exteremly tiring to the ears, add a slight notch here
- 5-7 KHz - de-essing is done here
- 4-9 KHz - brightness, presence, definition, sibilance, high frequency distortion
- 6-15 KHz - air and presence
- 9-15 KHz - adding will give sparkle, shimmer, bring out details - cutting will smooth out harshness and darken the mix
- 60Hz with a Q of 1.4 - Add fullness to Kick drum
- 5Khz with a Q of 2.8 - Adds attack to Kick drum
- bottom (60 - 80 Hz),
- slap (4 kHz)
- EQ - Cut below 80Hz to remove rumble
- Boost between 80 -125 Hz for bass
- Boost between 3 - 5kHz to get the slap
- PROCESSING Compression 4:1/6:1 slow attack med release.
- Reverb: Tight room reverb (0.1-0.2ms)
- Apply a little cut at 300Hz and some boost between 40Hz and 80Hz.
Control The Attack:
- Apply boost or cut around 4KHz to 6KHz.
- Apply cut somewhere in the 100Hz to 500Hz range.
- kick - bottom depth at 60 - 80 Hz, slap attack at 2.5Hz
Fatness at 240HZ, crispness at 5 KHz
- 100Hz with a Q of 1.0 - Add fullness to snare
- 200Hz - 250Hz with a Q of 1.4 - Adds wood to snares
- 3Khz with a Q of 1.4 - Adds atack to snare.
- 7Khz with a Q of 2.8 - Adds Sharpness to snares and percussion
- fatness at 120-240Hz
- boing at 400Hz
- crispness at 5kHz
- snap at 10kHz
- EQ - Boost above 2kHz for that crisp edge
- Cut at 1kHz to get rid of the sharp peak
- Boost at 125Hz for a full snare sound
- Cut at 80Hz to remove rumble
- PROCESSING - Compression 4:1 slow attack med release.
- Reverb - Tight room reverb (0.1-0.2ms)
Fullness at 120 Hz, boominess at 200 - 240 Hz, presence at 5 kHz, sibilance at 7.5 - 10 kHz
- Roll off below 60Hz using a High Pass Filter. This range is unlikely to contain anything useful..
Treat Harsh Vocals:
- To soften vocals apply cut in a narrow bandwidth somewhere in the 2.5KHz to 4KHz range.
Get An Open Sound:
- Apply a gentle boost above 6KHz using a shelving filter.
Get Brightness, Not Harshness:
- Apply a gentle boost using a wide-band Bandpass Filter above 6KHz. Use the Sweep control to sweep the frequencies to get it right.
- Apply some cut in a narrow band in the 1KHz to 2KHz range.
Bring Out The Bass:
- Apply some boost in a reasonably narrow band somewhere in the 200Hz to 600Hz range.
Radio Vocal Effect:
- Apply some cut at the High Frequencies, lots of boost about 1.5KHz and lots of cut below 700Hz.
- Apply lots of compression pre EQ, and a little analogue distortion by turning up the input gain. Apply some cut at the High Frequencies, lots of boost about 1.5KHz and lots of cut below 700Hz.
10khz with a Q of 1.0 - Adds brightness to hats and cymbals - sizzle (7.5 - 10 kHz) - clank (200 Hz) EQ - Boost above 5kHz for sharp sparkle - Cut at 1kHz to remove jangling PROCESSING - Compression use high ratio for high energy feel Reverb - Looser than Bass n Snare, allow the hats and especially the Rides to ring a little Get Definition - Roll off everything below 600Hz using a High Pass Filter. Get Sizzle - Apply boost at 10KHz using a Band Pass Filter. Adjust the bandwidth to get the sound right. Treat Clangy Hats - Apply some cut between 1KHz and 4KHz. Hi-hats/cymbals - clank or gong sound at 200 Hz, shimmer at 7.5 kHz - 12 kHz
- Apply some cut to the guitar between 1KHz and 5KHz to bring the vocals to the front of the mix.
General - Apply a little boost between 100Hz and 250Hz and again between 10KHz and 12KHz. Acoustic Guitar - to add sparkle try a gentle boost at 10KHz using a Band Pass Filter with a medium bandwidth.
- Try applying some mid-range cut to the rhythm section to make vocals and other instruments more clearly heard.
Voice - presence (5 kHz), sibilance (7.5 - 10 kHz), boominess (200 - 240 kHz), fullness (120 Hz) Electric Guitar - fullness (240 Hz), bite (2.5 kHz), air / sizzle (8 kHz) Bass Guitar - bottom (60 - 80 Hz), attack (700 - 1000 Hz), string noise (2.5 kHz)
Toms - attack (5 kHz), fullness (120 - 240 Hz) Acoustic Guitar - harshness / bite (2 kHz), boominess (120 - 200 Hz), cut (7 - 10 kHz) Bass - Compressed, EQ'd with a full bottom end and some mids Rack toms - fullness at 240 Hz, attack at 5 kHz Floor toms - fullness at 80 - 120 Hz, attack at 5 kHz Horns - fullness at 120 - 240 Hz, shrill at 5 - 7.5 kHz Strings - fullness at 240 Hz, scratchiness at 7.5 - 10 kHz Conga/bongo -resonance at 200 - 240 Hz, slap at 5 kHz
General EQ Reference
- Boost: To thicken up bass drums and sub-bass parts.
- Cut: Below this frequency on all vocal tracks. This should reduce the effect of any microphone 'pops'.
- Boost: For bass lines and bass drums.
- Cut: For vocals.
- General: Be wary of boosting the bass of too many tracks. Low frequency sounds are particularly vulnerable to phase cancellation between sounds of similar frequency. This can result in a net 'cut of the bass frequencies.
- Boost: To add warmth to vocals or to thicken a guitar sound.
- Cut: To bring more clarity to vocals or to thin cymbals and higher frequency percussion.
- Boost or Cut: to control the 'woody' sound of a snare.
- Boost: To add warmth to toms.
- Boost or Cut: To control bass clarity, or to thicken or thin guitar sounds.
- General: In can be worthwhile applying cut to some of the instruments in the mix to bring more clarity to the bass within the overall mix.
- Boost: To thicken vocal tracks. At 1 KHz apply boost to add knock to a bass drum.
- Boost: To make a piano more aggressive. Applying boost between 1KHz and 5KHz will also make guitars and basslines more cutting.
- Cut: Apply cut between 2 KHz and 3KHz to smooth a harsh sounding vocal part.
- General: This frequency range is often used to make instruments stand out in a mix.
- Boost: For a more 'plucked' sounding bass part. Apply boost at around 6KHz to add some definition to vocal parts and distorted guitars.
- Cut: Apply cut at about 3KHz to remove the hard edge of piercing vocals. Apply cut between 5KHZ and 6KHz to dull down some parts in a mix.
- Boost: To sweeten vocals. The higher the frequency you boost the more 'airy/breathy' the result will be. Also boost to add definition to the sound of acoustic guitars or to add edge to synth sounds or strings or to enhance the sound of a variety of percussion sounds.
For example boost this range to:
- Bring out cymbals.
- Add ring to a snare.
- Add edge to a bass drum.
- Boost: To make vocals more 'airy' or for crisp cymbals and percussion. Also boost this frequency to add sparkle to pads, but only if the frequency is present in the original.
Achieve a balance of the sound as you would like to hear it.
YOU MUST USE AND TRUST YOUR EARS. Use your software to save channel strip presets of each instrument for future reference. Important - use near-field monitors and a good pair of headphones to have a clear picture of the sound image. If you do not have a properly acoustically-treated room it is likely it will sound good in your room but not outside. By using headphones as well as near field monitors you can appreciate frequencies you might be loosing in the room. For headphones, I use AKG 702 (superb) and SONY MDRV 900 (very good) so you can have different sound and hopefully you will educate your ears for your room.
Now you can set your channel panning and begin mixing.
NOTE - not everybody has a 909 and a tubetech. If you are working on plugins play your drums then compress it at a ratio of 4:1 soft knee. Set the threshold until you achieve gain reduction until 4 db and set output to 4 db to compensate. Now for EQ. Set attack to 11 o'clock so the sound has time to build before it is compressed - and the release to 11 o'clock.
You must not apply hard compression on plugins otherwise you will destroy the sound. Better off applying a little compression to each track, then a little in the buses.
Tutorial written by the British hardtrance producer