Tutorials20 Tips: FX in the Mix

The way you use effects and processors can make or break a mix. Paul White offers 20 useful tips to help you get it right first time.

Recording can be fun, but for me, the most rewarding part of any project is doing the final mix. It’s at this stage of the proceedings that effects and signal processors can be used to turn a simple recording into a major production — but it’s also easy to overdo things and spoil the end results. This month I’ve put together 20 easy-to-remember tips that will allow you to control your effects units rather than vice versa. And so, without further ado and in no particular order of importance:

1. Reverb creates the illusion of space, but in doing so it also ‘smears’ the stereo localization of the original sound source, just as it does in real life. If you want to maintain a specific stereo placement for one or more sounds in a mix, consider using a mono reverb effect and panning the reverb to the same position as the original dry sound.

2. Reverb is very useful for making vocals sound more musical and for making them sit with the rest of the mix, but adding too much will have the effect of pushing the vocals back, rather than allowing them to take front position. Experiment with pre-delay values of 60-100mS to help counter this, and also try using a reverb patch that has a lot of early reflections, as these help reinforce the dry sound. You can learn a lot from listening carefully to records you like to see how much and what type of reverb is used. Often it’s rather less than you think.

3. Bright reverbs can flatter vocals, but may exaggerate sibilance. As an alternative to de-essing the vocals, try instead de-essing the feed to the reverb unit, so that sibilance is removed before the reverb is applied.

4. Reverb is probably the most important effect in the studio, so don’t compromise by using a low-quality software reverb plug-in just because you’re short of processing power. Use a good external hardware reverb unit if you have one, otherwise choose a more powerful software plug-in to treat the vocal track in non-real time. This may involve off-line processing or doing a real-time ‘bounce to disk’ of the vocal track in isolation, via the plug-in.

5. Vocals almost always require compression, but rather than doing all the compressing at the recording stage, apply a little less compression than you think you might ultimately need, then add further compression when you come to mix. This dual-stage process ensures you don’t record an over compressed sound, whilst still allowing you to even out the level of the recorded signal.

6. Compressors bring up low-level noise just as effectively as they do low-level signals, so try to gate the signal prior to compression when you’re mixing. Also, use no more compression than you need, or the signal-to-noise ratio may be compromised unnecessarily. However, it’s usually unwise to gate the compressor input during recording for the reasons explained in the next tip.

7. Avoid gating during recording if at all possible, as a badly set gate can completely ruin an otherwise good take by chopping out low-level sections of the wanted audio. Instead, gate during mixing, when you have the chance to reset the parameters and try again if it doesn’t work out first time. A further benefit of this approach is that any noise, crosstalk or spill accumulated during recording will also be gated out.

8. Always gate signals prior to adding reverb if you can — gates can easily chop off the tail end of a long reverb. Furthermore, if you add reverb or echo after gating, any minor gating artifacts may be completely hidden by the natural decay of the reverb or echo. Any noise added to the mix by the reverb unit should be negligible providing you’ve paid attention to gain structure and level setting when adjusting the effects.

9. Don’t always set your gate to fully attenuate the signal when the gate is closed. In some situations, it may sound more natural if a low level of background sound is still audible between wanted sounds, and when working with drums, you’ll find the gate opens faster if the range control is set to around 12dB rather than to maximum.

10. Single-ended noise-reduction units (the type that work by applying level-dependent top-cut) can be very useful in reducing the perceived level of hiss during material where there are no silences that would allow a gate or expander to operate. However, make constant A/B comparisons to ensure that there’s no obvious top-end loss when the unit is switched in. If there is, lower the threshold slightly until you get an acceptable compromise between high-end loss during low-level passages, and audible hiss. As with gates, applying reverb after dynamic filtering may help disguise any side-effects as well as safeguarding the reverb tails from being truncated.

11. Don’t add long reverb to bass sounds unless you have an artistic reason to do so, as this tends to muddy the low end of the mix. If you need to add space to a kick drum, try a short ambience program or a gated reverb as an alternative. If you are in a position where you need to apply reverb to an entire drum mix, roll off the low end feeding the reverb for a cleaner sound

12. Chorus is a useful effect for creating the illusion of space and movement, but it also tends to push sounds back in the mix, rather as reverb does. If you need a sound treated with chorus to stand out in a mix, try either panning a dry version of the sound to one side and a chorused version to the other, or ensure that the song’s arrangement leaves plenty of room for the chorused sound.

14. Equalization is often used as an alternative to getting a sound right at source, but the result is seldom as satisfactory as doing things properly. Nevertheless, on occasions where equalization is necessary, applying cut to the over emphasised frequencies rather than boost to weaker ones generally results in a more natural sound, especially with vocals and acoustic instruments. This is especially true of in-desk equalizers or budget parametrics, as they often sound nasal or phasey when used to boost mid-range sounds.

15. Sounds can often be made to sit better in a mix by ‘bracketing’ them with high- and low-pass filters so as to restrict their spectral content. Many console EQs don’t have the sharp filters necessary to do this, but the side-chain filters fitted to many gates are often ideal for the job. Simply set the gate to its side-chain listen mode, then use the filters to shave away unwanted high and low frequencies. Acoustic guitars often work better in a mix if the low end is rolled off in this way, though the high end can usually be left alone.

16. When setting up a mix, try to get the mix sounding close to right before you add any effects or signal processing. Once you’ve got this right, add further vocal compression if needed and also apply just enough reverb to make the vocals sit comfortably with the backing track. When you’re happy with the overall timbre and balance, adding effects for ‘effect’ should be easier. Remember that, in most cases, effects are there just to add the final gloss — they won’t compensate for a poor balance or bad basic sounds.

17. Still on the subject of effects in the mix, don’t be tempted to hide poor playing by heaping on more effects, it never works — take it from someone who’s tried everything at one time or another! However, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, slightly imperfect vocal pitching can be tightened up almost magically using pitch-correction processors, such as Antares’ Auto-tune software or ATR1 hardware.

18. Go easy when using enhancers to treat complex signals such as a whole mix as it’s very tempting to go too far. Make frequent use of the bypass button to remind yourself just how radically the sound has changed, and if you’re adding more than a little high-end enhancement, check the bottom end to see if that needs bringing up to keep the overall mix in balance.

19. Often it’s better to enhance just some elements of a mix so as to make them stand out from the rest. The best way to do this is to connect the enhancer to a pair of group insert points, then send all the sounds that need enhancing to that group. Listen carefully to enhanced vocals as the process can often exaggerate sibilance problems.

20. Treatments designed to increase the stereo width of a mix (other than the simple mixing-antiphase-signals-into-the-opposite-channel trick) can have detrimental effects on mono compatibility. Use your console’s mono button to check that your mix doesn’t lose too much when it’s played in mono, as this is important when material is played over mono radios or TVs. Listen to see if the subjective balance or timbre changes by an unacceptable degree. If it does, either use less overall width expansion or leave the main mix elements untreated and only process secondary sounds, such as incidental percussion, sound effects, effects returns and so on.

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