My exploits into the world of mixing continued this week as I tried to answer this one question:
Why does my mix sound like shit when I stack it up to a pro mix?
Why does my mix sound like shit?
Now, to be fair, I recently compared my latest versions of a couple tracks versus the first bounce since I started working on the album, and versus when I was “done” with the song pre-album. Holy shit, it’s night and day. I’ve really come a long way, indeed I have. Although there’s one problem:
A few months ago I just had no idea how shitty a mix engineer I was. Well, I’m still a shitty mix engineer, but I’m a less shitty mix engineer.
From last week, I had decided that I would push and push and push and push on one song until I got it to the level. That song is Free and, although I’m still not there – I have managed to inch closer this week.
The track ended last week with mud in a couple spots. I’ve spent a ton of time trying to fuck with EQ; I decided to leap back into a weakness I knew I had – but thought I got better at – reverb.
In addition to figuring out some density issues that I thought was related to reverb – my mis was thin compared to the pro mixes in a few spots. Again, I’d been fucking with EQ for hours and still hadn’t figured it out – and I began to wonder if the reverb issue was cluttering my ability to see where I could get the right kind of thickness.
- I wanted to fix my shitty mix
- I thought i had problems with my verbs
- And I was falling short on a promise of girth.
Adventures in Reverb
To say the least. I hit the books (the internet) and tried to see if I could isolate some tips. My idea at this point was:
Reverb is a room. I’ll put all the instruments in the same room and they’ll gel better. I know they will. It makes sense, it’s physical and natural. And, I’ll trust the presets.
Yea, this has to work… right? Tips online:
- Let your mix breath by making sure the reverb decay is always shorter than the time between two snare hits
- Some people never put reverbs on pads, like ever
- No one but me seems to think that putting every sound in the same room is a good idea.
- Everyone likes to use plates on whatever their one or two more favorite things in the track are going to be (i.e. vocals)
- You can use a transient scaping plug on your verb output to help your transients pop a little bit
- Don’t forget the predelay is your friend when you actually wanna hear something cut
- And finally, based on tempos, there are some decay times that work better.. musically speaking
And with that, I started fucking with stuff. Plates on the lead, cut the decay times, fuck with predelay, treat my drums different than my other instruments, and so on.
I should say, that cleared up a bunch of shitty sound curtains I just couldn’t hear past.
Spectral Drunk Time
I didn’t get too much past that and the weekend came. My friend was over, we got drunk, and I decided to show him this Aphex Twin track (Equation) where the artist managed to draw his face… in the spectral analyzer. Pretty cool.
Then, drunkenly, I thought I’d show him some more tracks, and show him mine. I finally recognized the ‘freeze’ button in the spectrum analyzer so I put my track next to Get Lucky one of the tracks I’ve been A/B’ing against. The results were pretty interesting.
The first one is Free on the left, and Get Lucky on the right. The second, I’m on the left, but that picture is what the 3d spectrum analyzer looks like. Neat eh?
So, go up to the top photo and look at it. There’s a pretty clear cut where I switched tracks, hopefully you notice it. There are a couple things to notice:
- The Daft Punk track, below 500Hz is all pink. Look on the left at my track below 500. I got some pink in there (pink means there’s a lot of energy there), but it’s not nearly as pervasive over that whole range. There are indeed, ‘big ass holes’ – and I wondered if this is where I lost the thickness I was looking for.
- I got some hotspots in 700-1000 where as the Daft Punk mix feels pretty sparse by comparison.
- Everything above 2k is generally thicker
- His lines have more black between them. I imagine this is what folks refer to as ‘breathing’. See how on the left, for my track, there’s breathing, but there’s all this blue? I suppose that comes from my delays and reverb tail (Get Lucky is a bit light on delays, and the reverb feels like a big space… but short).
Now, you aren’t supposed to mix with your eyes. But when your ears don’t know where things go yet (they will… someday), the eyes can help clue you in where to look. You certainly can’t look and go “oh, mine is green at 255 Hz, I’ll just go boost the bass there or whatever.” Yea, that totally doesn’t work. But, it basically gave me places that I figured I could concentrate my efforts. And the end of the day, I’m still waiting for the A/B versus a pro track to tell me I’m ball parking it. Gotta remember a couple other things when looking at pictures too:
- The Daft Punk track is mastered. The loundening process will even stuff out a bit overall.
- My track has different instruments, different harmonics – so yea, the picture is gonna be different.
That aside, it was also interesting to see similarities. Overall, we’re loud in the bottom and light in the top. Anyways, I fucked with the mix for a while, and made a couple more pictures. I’d say I’m A/B’ing better, and I threw a loudening plug on the track to help me compare it visually a little.
I’ll show that at the end. Some woes first.
Compression vs the built in effect
So, remember I was talking about the weird mud that I wasn’t able to eq my way out of? Well, in my reading, whenever you see articles about reverb – they also tend to bring up delays. And sometimes even choruses. Hrm. Well, I knew about the delays, but maybe there were a couple I hadn’t thought of.
In particular there was sort of the main synth driving the song. It had a chorus and a delay.. and they sounded pretty good. They were, in fact, from the preset I chose (the synth is U-he Ace fyi).
Given the nature of this synth and what I just read, I thought back to my training.
Compression makes shit louder.
You know, like tails and intensifying a chorus effect. Huh… yea… this could be disastrous on a mix… couldn’t it? And of course I compressed the synth. I wanted to thicken it up. Oh shit… what had I done?
On top of that – if I had a busier part of the mix – I should probably do some automation to back off on some of those effects. This would give me more room to keep things fatter when, let’s face it, you weren’t gonna hear the delay on the synth anyways.
Remember folks: If you can’t hear it, and it’s still there, it’s taking up space in your mix you can give to something more important. Like phattitude.
Getting the exact sound as I had with the synths plugs was going to be impossible. Plus, I wasn’t sure what my favorite chorus was going to be. I had a couple, but I figured I’d play with some other ones, and buy an epic one if necessary. The chorus line-up was:
- Ableton Live’s chorus
- Valhalla Ubermod (I already owned this and use it often for chorus stuff, among other things)
- Soundtoys Echoboy – cause I read it was cool on gear sluts
- UAD Roland Dimension D – cause I read it was cool on gear sluts
- Airwindows StereoChorus – also, cause I read it was cool on gear sluts… and free.
Now, I went into this with a high opinion of Valhalla Ubermod. I also use a Valhalla reverb plug and love it. Simple interface, sounds great, and a great price. I started there, it was okay, but I wanted to know what my options were. Summary:
- Ableton’s just didn’t do it for me. Plus, like many of their plugs, I’m not a fan of the interface
- Soundtoys never bothered to send me the demo license. Plus, 200 bucks for a delay plug? yeesh. Maybe someday i’ll actually get the demo license from them (they’re also ilok based, bleh).
- The Roland emulation sounded pretty good. But since it’s modeled after old hardware, it was fairly limited in it’s application (no mix knob). I decided it wasn’t worth 200 for me to have this.
- Airwindows sounded good, but just didn’t get me the sound I wanted. This guy is neat though. He’s got a ton of plugs that are free and his whole thing is ‘no bullshit in the interfaces’. Seriously, all the plugs just have sliders and a white background. Check them out.
- The ubermod was the most interesting at the end of it, so I went there.
I put that directly on the track. Then I needed a delay replacement. I ended up using ableton’s ping-pong delay on a send. I actually really like that ping pong. I wasn’t doing a ping pong before, but I was going to do the delay differently overall anyway, so I figured, why not. I also played with Ableton’s Simpledelay and a waves delay plugin before settling on that.
Awesome. Great. Yay. I’m getting more control. Some shit is still weird though. It’s like, there’s all this low energy, but when I play the mix back on some systems, it sounds strangely thing. Wtf is going on?
Well, it had nothing to do with my chorus or delay. But, you wanna know something awesome that, I can’t understand how I missed. Fuck I really can’t. Maybe it was obscured by the delay and chorus on the preset on the synth.
So uh… in Ace you can program and little pattern you want. Then you can route it to any knob you want. Guess what?
Yep… you guessed right – Ace was auto-panning for me.
Fuck. fuck fuck fuck fuckfucking fuck. This is that moment where I feel incredibly stupid. Fix that.
Of course, now things sound way different. I work on the mix a little bit, but something’s weird. It’s like… the rhythm is all fucked up on this synth.
It’s truly amazing what will uncover as you work through your mix. Turns out, I did some stupid shit with midi when I first programmed it. There were a couple of chords that were off a whole 16th or so. And then there were a bunch that were sloppily timed.
And you know, this midi region was cut and pasted everywhere, then automated on top of. Basically, this means that I get to fix them all by hand, even though they all have the same issues.
1.5 hours and a sore shoulder later… it’s good to go.
I’ve actually got some thoughts on A/B that I’ll save until next time. It seems that, sooner or later I uncover problem after problem. I find it amazing how many of these I built into the song. It’s a lot like writing software. You hit feature complete, then spend two years working out the bugs. And sooner or later, I seem to keep coming back to the fucking kick and the bass (yea, I forgot to rant about that). Someday, I hope to be awesome at it.
And with that, I did want to share the ‘after’ pic from the spectral analyzer. Anyways, here it is (with the loundener on):
Hrm – that’s a bit closer eh? I’m on the left, fyi.