Stop repeating the same mistakes
In my experience running Berklee’s Electronica Club (soon to be called the Electronic Production Club), I’ve noticed a number of recurring mistakes producers make. In the past, I would often redirect them to the internet for help. However, I have recently been surprised by the lack of accurate information available online. Many crucial tips and tricks are buried deep in the pages of blogs and forums, beyond the reach of people looking for general directions that will have a big impact on their tracks. With this in mind, I’ve put together a list of the top 3 mistakes I hear when listening to the demos people send me.
1) Lacks Basic EQ “Reflexes”
Here I am not talking about specific sound processing techniques but rather general mix hygiene techniques that should become as automatic as putting your hands out when you trip. This is why I call them EQ “reflexes”.
– Low Cut (almost) Everything
Without a sub, an EDM track has no real presence in a club or festival environment. It is these sub frequencies that create the physical vibrations the audience feels and reacts to.
If you were to insert a spectrum analyzer on a lot of different tracks, you’d realize that – in most cases – the sound you’re processing contains frequency content in the 20 Hz – 100 Hz range. If you’re looking at the sub or kick, that’s fine; but for any other sound (hats, synths, effect sweeps), these frequencies are not really perceivable or fundamental and do nothing but muddy up the low-end. Make sure you high-pass/low-cut these sounds with a 4 pole (or steeper) filter. Or more than one…
How can you be sure when to low-cut and when not to? If you’re unsure, place a low-pass on the channel and isolate these low frequencies. Now that you hear them, are they an essential part of the sound? Solo it with the sub channel. Are they interfering?
Here’s a frequency analysis of a high hat with a high-pass on it around 500 Hz. As you can see, there is no longer energy present below 100 Hz.
This is the same sample without the EQ. As you can see, although it is quiet, there is some frequency content below 100 Hz. You wouldn’t expect to see this because it’s very hard to hear. Nevertheless, this content is present in most sounds. An accumulation of low frequency content will interfere with the sub and take energy away from it.
Here is the original and high-passed version. You’ll notice that cutting away these low frequencies has little to no perceivable effect on the isolated sound.
People are generally aware of how important it is to low-cut most channels. However, I rarely hear about the importance of doing the same thing at the other end of the spectrum.
In an electronic production, chances are, you’ll have a white noise or cymbal layer in the high end (10 kHz – 20 kHz). There is no denying that these frequencies are important to a lot of sounds. However, leave them untouched and the overall mix result will be sharp and potentially jarring. Take a 4 pole or steeper high-cut/low-pass filter and lower the cutoff frequency until you feel you’re taking away characteristic, important frequency content. Then back off a little. Solo your white noise layer/channel. Then, see if the initial sound still sounds too thin or if the cut enables the white noise layer to come out better.
– Problem Frequencies
We’ve talked about treating the sound at each extremity of the frequency spectrum, but there are also things you can do to clean it up from the inside.
Take an EQ band with a bell curve and add a significant amount of gain at a high “Q”. Then move the bell around until you hear a strange resonance or area that seems out of place. Compare completely removing the problem band with a notch setting to simply lowering the gain of the band and decide whether the removal or attenuation is more suitable. Then switch the band on and off (A-B) with the sound playing to see if the change is favorable or not.
2) Too Much Mud!
– More dry
In production lingo, ‘mud’ usually refers to unintended, unwanted interference in the low-mid and low-end of your mix, making it seem crowded and damp. A common source of mud is the wet effect tails from reverb or delay that are difficult to distinguish and, thus, mold with different sounds, taking the focus away from the frequencies that really need to be there.
Before applying reverb or delay, imagine what you’d expect it to do. Do you want a long ambient tail? Do you simply want to add some body with a short decay? Once you’ve consciously figured that out, see if you have the space in your mix to make that wet signal audible. Then, listen to all the elements while adjusting the dry/wet and find the driest setting at which the effect is apparent and meliorative to the track.
– Return tracks
Another way to apply these effects in a more precise way is to use return tracks. Return tracks enable you to treat the wet signal exclusively. This means that you can EQ your reverb tails so as to eliminate any unnecessary frequency content from them. It also means that you can physically place your wet signal in a different part of the stereo field than the dry signal using panning or other stereo modelling tools. This can help it stand out without muddying up the original sound.
This image shows the comparison between an untouched reverb tail and an EQed one. You can see from the bottom line that the EQ has removed a lot of frequency content in the highs and lows. Using return tracks enables you to do this and thereby use reverb in a more effective way.
Listening to the lead synth with the reverb tail EQ’ed and unEQ’ed, you’ll notice how much low end and high-end frequency content it is adding. This should be a red flag. In context, those frequencies would be interfering with the sub and muddying up the cymbals.
Synth with EQ ~
Synth no EQ ~
Note that I’m using a dry/wet setting that is excessive so that you can hear the wet signal very obviously.
A final, mud-reducing precaution would be to gate sounds so that they are only playing when needed. Often recorded tracks will have noise between intervals of the sound you’re actually trying to capture. For vocals, this noise could be feet shuffling, breaths or traffic going by outside and although it may be very quiet, it adds unnecessary frequency content to your track, mud. (See blog: Noise Reduction: Gates)
3) Under-Mixed Drums
It takes a lot of critical listening and patience to create the drums for a track. Not only do the individual hits have to sound compact by themselves and organic as a whole, they have to sound good with other elements. Under-mixed drums that don’t take a central place in the mix is a common issue among learning producers, one that takes a little work to solve.
Side-chain compression is the main reason drums sound so powerful in relation to the other elements in the best EDM mixes. Basically, this type of compression causes sounds to duck (drop in level) when a side-chain signal (key) is triggered. This side-chain signal can be the output of any track in SoundBridge. In my example, I am using a ghost-key – an external sidechain source whose output you don’t actually hear, sort of like a control signal. It is usually very short, at unity gain, but muted. The compressors that it is routed to often have strong compression settings to ensure enough room is created for the drums. The side-chain signal should be present on every kick and snare hit.
As you can see from this image, my side-chain signal is essentially a white noise clip about as short as the drum transients. I’ve aligned it with the kick and snare in order to compress the synths at the right moment. The advantage of using a ghost-key instead of the drums themselves is that, with a ghost-key, the ducking will still happen even if the drums aren’t playing, creating that cliché pumping effect.
On the channel that I would want to duck, I would place a compressor. It will receive the control signal from my side-chain channel and compress the entire output signal instantaneously.
Here is the track with the lead getting side-chained ~
And without the side-chain ~
Your kick and snare will most likely have important harmonic frequency content around 100 Hz and 200 Hz, respectively. Try busing (grouping) similar channels like synths and basses and EQing them with notches at these respective frequencies. You’ll create a gap in the spectrum that will only be satisfied by the characteristic frequencies of your main drum hits; hence creating a substantial amount of space for them.
– Keep Them Dry
Your drums have to remain pretty dry to remain punchy. Ideally, you shouldn’t have any reverb on the low-end. Nevertheless, it can have it’s place on snare, hat or cymbal layers, but apply it in moderation. Think about it. If you want your snare to have a splashy white noise tail, you’re better off actually layering a white noise splash, rather than trying to lengthen it with a reverb tail.