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A Concise Guide To Compression & Limiting by Paul White


A Concise Guide To Compression & Limiting by Paul White

Settings and Characteristics





Autoattack/ Release


Stereo Link

All in the ear

Using compressors

Side Effects


Introduction Compression and limiting have been covered before, but like the brown mould that you blitz every few months in the bathroom only to watch gradually return, questions on the subject steadily build up again, mere months after we explain the basic principles in an article such as this one! On the one hand, musicians are encouraged to give an enthusiastic and dynamic performance, while on the other, their levels must be controlled to some extent, if we are to create musically acceptable mixes. One tool that is vital in helping us to do this is the compressor, but before looking at how they work, I'd like to outline the types of problems they are designed to solve. While the faders on a mixer can be used to set the overall balance of the voices and instruments that make up a piece of music, short term changes such as the occasional loud guitar note or exuberant vocal scream are less easy to deal with manually. When I first started recording, compressors were too expensive for home use, so we had no alternative but to 'ride' the faders. Once you've used a compressor to control your levels, however, you come to appreciate that there are certain things it can do that the human engineer is just too slow to manage. For example, unless you've played the track through and memorised exactly where the loud and quiet spots are, you'll always respond too late, because you can't start to move the fader until you hear that something is wrong. A compressor, on the other hand, will be aware of a level problem virtually as soon as it happens. Fortunately, good compressors are now relatively inexpensive, and next to reverb, a compressor is probably the most important studio processor to own-at least for those who work with vocals or a lot of acoustic instruments. For the benefit of those who are still a little unsure as to what a compressor does, it simply reduces the difference between the loudest and quietest parts of a piece of music by automatically turning down the gain when the signal 19519e412t gets past a predetermined level. In this respect, it does a similar job to the human hand on the fader-but it reacts much faster and with greater precision, allowing it to bring excessive level deviations under control almost instantaneously. Unlike the human operator though, the compressor has no feel or intuition; it simply does what you set it up to do, which makes it very important that you understand what all the variable parameters do and how they affect the final sound. In order to react quickly enough, the compressor dispenses with the human ear and instead monitors the signal level by electronic means. A part of the circuit known as the 'side chain' follows the envelope of the signal, usually at the compressor's output, and, uses this to generate a control signal which is fed into the gain control circuit. When the output signal rises past an acceptable level, a control signal is generated and the gain is turned down. Figure 1 shows a simplified block diagram of a typical compressor circuit.

Threshold: With manual gain riding, the level above which the signal becomes unacceptably loud is determined by the engineer's discretion: if it sounds too loud to him, he turns it down. In the case of a compressor, we have to 'tell' it when to intervene, and this level is known as the Threshold. In a conventional compressor, the Threshold is varied via a knob calibrated in dBs, and a gain reduction meter is usually included so we can see how much the gain is being modified. If the signal level falls short of the threshold, no processing takes place and the gain reduction meter reads OdB. Signals exceeding the Threshold are reduced in level, and the amount of reduction is shown on the meter. This means the signal peaks are no longer as loud as they were, so in order to compensate, a further stage of 'make-up' gain is added after compression, to restore or 'make up' any lost gain.

Ratio: When the input signal exceeds the Threshold set by the operator, gain reduction is applied, but the actual amount of gain reduction depends on the 'Ratio' setting. You will see the Ratio expressed in the form 4:1 or similar, and the range of a typical Ratio control is variable from 1:1 (no gain reduction all) to infinity:1, which means that the output level is never allowed to rise above the Threshold setting. This latter condition is known as limiting, because the Threshold, in effect, sets a limit which the signal is not allowed to exceed. Ratio is based on dBs, so if a compression ratio of 3:1 is set, an input signal exceeding the Threshold by 3dB will cause only a 1 dB increase in level at the output. In practice, most compressors have sufficient Ratio range to allow them to function as both compressors and limiters, which is why they are sometimes known by both names. The relationship between Threshold and Ratio is shown in Figure 2, but if you're not comfortable with dBs or graphs, all you need to remember is that the larger the Ratio, the more gain reduction is applied to any signal exceeding the Threshold.

Hardknee: This is not a control or parameter, but rather a characteristic of certain designs of compressor. With a conventional compressor, nothing happens until the signal reaches the Threshold, but as soon as it does, the full quota of gain reduction is thrown at it, as determined by the Ratio control setting. This is known as hard knee compression, because a graph of input gain against output gain will show a clear change in slope (a sharp angle) at the Threshold level, as is evident from Figure 2. Other types of compressor utilise a soft knee characteristic, where the gain reduction is brought in progressively over a range of 1OdB or so. What happens is that when the signal comes within 1OdB or so of the Threshold set by the user, the compressor starts to apply gain reduction, but with a very low Ratio setting, so there's very little effect. As the input level increases, the compression Ratio is automatically increased until at the Threshold level, the Ratio has increased to the amount set by the user on the Ratio control. This results in a gentler degree of control for signals that are hovering around the Threshold point, and the practical outcome is that the signal sounds less obviously processed. This attribute makes soft-knee models popular for processing complete mixes or other sounds that need subtle control. Hard knee compression can sometimes be heard working, and if a lot of gain reduction is being applied, they can sound quite heavy-handed. In some situations, it can make for an interesting sound-take Phil Collins' or Kate Bush's vocal sounds, for example. The dotted curve on the graph in Figure 2 shows a typical soft-knee characteristic.

Attack: The attack time is how long a compressor takes to pull the gain down, once the input signal has reached or exceeded the Threshold level. With a fast attack setting, the signal is controlled almost immediately, whereas a slower attack time will allow the start of a transient or percussive sound to pass through unchanged, before the compressor gets its act together and does something about it. Creating a deliberate overshoot by setting an attack time of several milliseconds is a much-used way of enhancing the percussive characteristics of instruments such as guitars or drums. For most musical uses, an initial attack setting of between 1 and 20 mS is typical. However, when treating sound such as vocals, a fast attack time generally gives the best results, because it brings the level under control very quickly, producing a more natural sound. Release: The Release sets how long it takes for the compressor's gain to come back up to normal once the input signal has fallen back below the Threshold. If the release time is too fast, the signal level may 'pump'-in other words, you can hear the level of the signal going up and down. This is usually a bad thing, but again, it has its creative uses, especially in rock music. If the release time is too long, the gain may not have recovered by the time the next 'above Threshold' sound occurs. A good starting point for the release time is between 0.2 and 0.6 seconds.

Auto Attack/Release: Some models of compressor have an Auto mode, which adjusts the attack and release characteristics during operation to suit the dynamics of the music being processed. In the case of complex mixes or vocals where the dynamics are constantly changing, the Auto mode may do a better job than fixed manual settings. Peak/RMS operation: Every compressor uses a circuit known as a side chain, and the side chain's job in life is to measure how big the signal is, so that it knows when it needs compressing. This information is then used to control the gain circuit, which may be based around a Voltage-controlled Amplifier (VCA), a Field Effect Transistor (FET) or even a valve. The compressor will behave differently, depending on whether the side chain responds to average signal levels or to absolute signal peaks. An RMS level detector works rather like the human ear, which pays less attention to short duration, loud sounds than to longer sounds of the same level. Though RMS offers the closest approximation to the way in which our ears respond to sound, many American engineers prefer to work with Peak, possibly because it provides a greater degree of control. And though RMS provides a very natural-sounding dynamic control, short signal peaks will get through unnoticed, even if a fast attack time is set, which means the engineer has less control over the absolute peak signal levels. This can be a problem when making digital recordings, as clipping is to be avoided at all costs. The difference between Peak and RMS sensing tends to show up most on music that contains percussive sounds, where the Peak type of compressor will more accurately track the peak levels of the individual drum beats. Another way to look at it is to say that the greater the difference between a signal's peak and average level, the more apparent the difference between RMS and peak compression/limiting will be. On a sustained pad sound with no peaks, there should be no appreciable difference. Peak sensing can sometimes sound over-controlled, unless the amount of compression used is slight. It's really down to personal choice, and all judgements should be based on listening tests.

Holdtime: A compressor's side chain follows the envelope of the signal being fed into it, but if the attack and release times are set to their fastest positions, it is likely that the compressor will attempt to respond not to the envelope of the input signal but to individual cycles of the input waveform. This is particularly significant when the input signal is from a bass instrument, as the individual cycles are relatively long, compared to higher frequencies. If compression of the individual waveform cycles is allowed to occur, very bad distortion is audible, as the waveform itself gets reshaped by the compression process. We could simply increase the release time of the compressor so that it becomes too slow to react to individual cycles, but sometimes it's useful to be able to set a very fast release time. A better option is to use the Hold time control, if you have one. Hold introduces a slight delay before the release phase is initiated, which prevents the envelope shaper from going into release mode until the Hold time has elapsed. If the Hold time is set longer than the duration of a single cycle of the lowest audible frequency, the compressor will be forced to wait long enough for the next cycle to come along, thus avoiding distortion. A Hold time of 50ms will prevent this distortion mechanism causing problems down to 20Hz. If your compressor doesn't have a separate Hold time control, it may still have a built-in, preset amount of Hold time. A 50ms hold time isn't going to adversely affect any other aspect of the compressor's operation, and leaves the user with one less control to worry about.

Stereo Link: When processing stereo signals, it is important that both channels are treated equally, for the stereo image will wander if one channel receives more compression than the other. For example, if a loud sound occurs only in the left channel, then the left channel gain will be reduced, and everything else present in the left channel will also be turned down in the mix. This will result in an apparent movement towards the right channel, which is not undergoing so much gain reduction. The Stereo Link switch of a dual-channel compressor simply forces both channels to work together, based either on an average of the two input signals, or whichever is the highest in level at any one time. Of course, both channels must be set up exactly the same for this to work properly, but that's taken care of by the compressor. When the two channels are switched to stereo, one set of controls usually becomes the master for both channels-though some manufacturers opt for averaging the two channel's control settings, or for reacting to whichever channel's controls are set to the highest value.

All in the ear: You may have noticed, or at least read about, the fact that different makes of compressor sound different. But if all they're really doing is changing level, shouldn't they all sound exactly the same? As we've already learned, part of the reason is related to the shape of the attack and release curves of the compressor, and of course peak sensing will produce different results to RMS, but at least as important is the way in which a compressor distorts the signal. Technically perhaps, the best compressor is one that doesn't add any distortion, but most engineers seem to like the 'warm' sound of the older valve designs which, on paper, are blighted by high distortion levels. The truth is that low levels of distortion have a profound effect on the way in which we perceive sound, which is the principle on which aural exciters work. A very small amount of even-harmonic distortion can tighten up bass sounds, while making the top end seem brighter and cleaner. The best-sounding contemporary compressor designs include valve models with a degree of distortion built in, while others use FETs, which mimic the behaviour of valve circuits. As digital recorders and mixers are introduced into the signal chain, more people are becoming interested in equipment that can put the warmth back into what they perceive as an over-clinical sound.

Using compressors: One problem newcomers to recording seem to have is deciding where in their system to patch the compressor. A compressor is a processor rather than an effect, so it should be used via an insert point or be patched in-line with a line-level signal. If you have a system without insert points and you want to compress a mic input, you may be able to use your foldback (pre-fade send) in an unconventional way to get around the problem, as shown in Figure 3. Here's how to do it: Plug the mic into a mixer channel, set the mic gain level as normal, but turn the channel fader completely down. Turn the pre-fade aux send control to around three-quarters up, and do the same with the pre-fade master control, if there is one. Turn the pre-fade send fully down on all the other channels. Now you can take your mic signal (now boosted to line level), from the pre-fade send output, feed it into the compressor and bring it back into another channel of the mixer-this time into the line input. And there you have it: your compressed mic signal. Most engineers will normally add some compression to vocals while recording, and then add more if necessary while mixing. Working this way makes good use of the tape's dynamic range, while helping to prevent signal peaks from overloading the tape machine. It is best to use rather less compression than might ultimately be needed while recording, so that a little more can be added at the mixing stage if required. If too much compression is added at the beginning, there's little you can do to get rid of it afterwards. Similarly, if you have a compressor with a gate built-in, it might be better to leave this off when recording, and only use it while mixing. This will prevent a good take from being wrecked by an inappropriate gate setting. A further benefit of gating during the mix is that the gate will remove any tape hiss, along with the original recorded noise. If a gate is allowed to close too rapidly, it can chop off the ends of wanted sounds that have long decays, especially those with long reverb tails, so most gates (and expanders) fitted to compressors have either a switchable long/short release time, or a proper variable-release time control.

Stereo Link: When processing stereo signals, it is important that both channels are treated equally, for the stereo image will wander if one channel receives more compression than the other. For example, if a loud sound occurs only in the left channel, then the left channel gain will be reduced, and everything else present in the left channel will also be turned down in the mix. This will result in an apparent movement towards the right channel, which is not undergoing so much gain reduction. The Stereo Link switch of a dual-channel compressor simply forces both channels to work together, based either on an average of the two input signals, or whichever is the highest in level at any one time. Of course, both channels must be set up exactly the same for this to work properly, but that's taken care of by the compressor. When the two channels are switched to stereo, one set of controls usually becomes the master for both channels-though some manufacturers opt for averaging the two channel's control settings, or for reacting to whichever channel's controls are set to the highest value.

Side Effects: Most of the sound energy in a typical piece of music occupies the low end of the audio spectrum, which is why your VU meters always seem to respond to the bass drum and bass guitar. High frequency sounds tend to be much lower in level and so rarely need compressing, but even so, high-frequency sounds in the mix are still brought down in level whenever the compressor reacts to loud bass sounds. For example, a quiet hi-hat occurring at the same time as a loud bass drum beat will be reduced in level. One technique to reduce the severity of this effect is to set a slightly longer attack time on the compressor, to allow the attack of the hi-hat to get through before the gain reduction occurs. This is only a partial solution, and if heavy compression is applied to a full mix, the overall sound can become dull, as the high-frequency detail is reduced in level. Going back to the subjective effect of subtle harmonic distortion for a moment, some compressor designs make use of harmonic distortion or dynamic equalisation to provide an increase in high-frequency level whenever heavy compression is taking place. This helps offset the dulling of high-frequency detail, and can make a great subjective difference, but it isn't a perfect solution. More elaborate compressors have been designed which split the signal into two or more frequency bands and compress these separately. This neatly avoids the bass end causing the high end to be needlessly compressed, but it can introduce other problems related to phase, unless the design is extremely well thought-out.

De-Essing: Another side chain-related process is the de-essing of sibilant vocal sounds. Sibilance is sometimes evident when people pronounce the letters 's' or 't', and is really a high-pitched whistling caused by air passing around the teeth. If a parametric equaliser is inserted into the side-chain signal path of a compressor and tuned to boost the offending frequency, the compressor will apply more gain reduction when sibilance is present than at other times. Most sibilance occurs in the 5 to 1OkHz region of the audio spectrum, so if the equaliser is tuned to this frequency range and set to give around lOdB of boost, then in the selected frequency range, compression will occur 1OdB before it does in the rest of the audio spectrum. The equaliser should be set up by listening to the equaliser output, and then tuning the frequency control until the sibilant part of the input signal is strongest. Figure 4 shows how a compressor and equaliser may be used as a de-esser. Some compressors have a built-in sweep equaliser, to allow them to double as de-essers without the need for an external parametric equaliser.

I should stress that these are just to get you started-the ideal settings vary from compressor to compressor, which is why I come up with slightly different figures every time I write on the subject. The more gain reduction is used, the higher the level of background noise, so never use more gain reduction than is necessary. Virtually all recorded pop music has a deliberately restricted dynamic range, to make it sound loud and powerful when played over the radio. The more a signal is compressed, the higher its average energy level. In addition to compressing the individual tracks during recording or mixing, the engineer may well have applied further compression to the overall mix. This can be very effective, but don't choke the life out of a mix by over-compressing it either. When it comes to individual tracks, it is pretty much routine to compress vocals, bass guitars, acoustic guitars and occasionally electric guitars, though overdriven guitar sounds tend to be self compressing anyway! The most important of these to get right is the lead vocal, because even modest dips in level can make the Iyrics difficult to hear over the backing. Sequenced instruments are less likely to need compression, because you can control the dynamics by manipulating the MIDI data in the sequencer. My own rule is to avoid compression (or any other form of treatment) unless it's absolutely necessary. Even with vocals, if somebody gives me a perfectly controlled vocal take, I wouldn't want to compress it just because compressing vocals is the done thing. Compression is a very valuable studio tool, but like all tools, it is just a means to an end-not an end in itself

20 TIPS ON... MIXING PAUL WHITE delivers a crash course in instant mixing. The vocals sound great, the drums are really kicking and the guitars are exceptional, but put it all together and what have you got? A mess! Sound familiar? Until you've gained plenty of experience in mixing music, the process can seem very frustrating. There are probably as many correct ways to tackle a mix as there are successful engineers and producers. Even so, I've taken 20 tips that I've found to be helpful over the years and presented them below in the form of a checklist. These are not immutable rules, just general guidelines that can be broken any time you feel you can get away with it. Have fun! Put the mixer into neutral (EQ flat, aux sends down, routing to Left/Right only and so on), before you start work and pull down the faders on any channels not in use. Make sure all unused aux sends are set to zero and that unused mixer channels are unrouted as well as muted, as this will further reduce the level of background noise. If you don't do this, you may find effects on tracks that don't need effects, or unwanted tracks creeping into a bounce due to a routing button being left down. You should also have a track sheet for your recording from which you can label the mixer channels. The time-honoured way to do this is to use masking tape and felt pen, so that you can peel the whole lot off when the job is finished. Optimise the gain settings not only for the multitrack returns, but also for all effects sends and returns and for your external effect units. Also ensure that your master recorder is being driven as hard as possible, without overloading on signal peaks. These simple measures can significantly improve the clarity of your mix. If your recording is going to be digitally edited, leave any fade-outs until the edit stage, and don't try to chop off the noise that precedes or follows the mix -- you may need this when setting up a digital denoiser that requires a bare noise 'fingerprint' for calibration purposes. Subgroup logical sections of your mix, such as the drum kit or the backing vocals, so that you can control the overall level of the subgrouped elements from a single fader or stereo pair of faders. This allows you to control the mix using fewer faders, and fewer fingers! Be aware that any channels subgrouped this way must also have their effects routed to the same groups(s), otherwise the effects level won't change as you adjust the group fader. Where level adjustments need to be made, mark the fader settings with a chinagraph wax pencil and, if necessary, take note of the tape counter or timecode locations at which the level changes occur. This way you can solicit help from other musicians in the studio if the mix gets too busy. If you're lucky and are using mix automation, listen to the whole mix through without watching the levels, so that you can concentrate on the balance of the instruments. Don't assume that your ears always tell you the truth. Rest them before mixing and constantly refer to commercial recordings played over your monitor system, so that you have some form of reference to aim for. This is particularly important if you use harmonic enhancers, as your ears can grow used to the effects of over-enhancement very quickly. Don't overdo the effects, especially reverb, as this can clutter your recording and take away the contrast that is needed to give your mix punch. As a rule, the drier the sound, the more up-front it will sound, while heavily reverbed sounds tend to move into the background. If you need strong reverb on lead vocals, try to add some pre-delay to the reverb effect and adjust both the vocal level and reverb level so that the vocal sits comfortably over the backing. Don't pan bass sounds such as kick drums or bass instruments to the sides of the stereo soundstage, as these high energy sounds need to be shared equally between the two stereo speakers for best results. As a rule, very bassy sounds contain little or no directional information anyway, although bass sounds that also contain a lot of harmonics can sound more directional. Leave any final EQ and effect adjustments until the full mix is playing. If you work on any single instrument in isolation, it's likely to sound different when everything else is added. If you can avoid using any heavy EQ, the result is more likely to sound more natural. Try not to have too many instruments competing for the same part of the audio spectrum. The mid-range is particularly vulnerable, so try to choose the best sounds at source. You can improve the separation when mixing by using EQ to narrow the spectrum of the sound you're working with. Try rolling off some low end and occasionally taking out any excessive top end. This is sometimes known as spectral mixing, where each sound or instrument is given its own space in the audio spectrum. A good example of this is the acoustic guitar which, in a rock mix, can muddle the low mid. If you roll off the low end, you still get plenty of definition, but the mix will seem far cleaner. Sidechain filters on noise gates (set to Key Listen mode) are often very good tools for trimming the high and low ends of sounds without unduly changing the section you want to keep. Don't over EQ sounds as they're likely to sound unnatural, especially when boosting. As a rule, good external equalisers will sound better than your console channel EQ when you're trying to make significant tonal changes. If you can confine your EQ to gentle shelving cut or boost rather than using heavy sweep mid, you're less likely to end up with nasal, harsh or phasey sounds. If possible, fix problems by using EQ cut rather than boost. The human hearing system is less sensitive to EQ cut than it is to boost. This is especially true if you are using a low-cost equaliser or the EQ in your desk. Compress the vocals to make them sit nicely in the mix. Few vocalists can sing at a sufficiently even level to be mixed successfully without compression. Soft-knee compressors tend to be the least obtrusive, but if you want the compression to add warmth and excitement to your sound, try an opto-compressor or a hard-knee model with a higher ratio setting than you'd normally use. Be aware that compression raises the background noise (for every 1dB of gain reduction, the background noise in quiet passages will come up by 1dB), and heavy compression can also exaggerate vocal sibilance. From time to time, check your mix balance by listening from outside the studio/bedroom door. This tends to show up level imbalances more clearly than when listening from directly in front of the monitors. Nobody is quite sure why, but it works. Don't monitor too loudly. It may make the music seem more exciting (initially), but the end user is unlikely to listen at the same high level. High monitoring levels also tend temporarily to shift your hearing perspective and can lead to permanent hearing damage. It's fine to check the mix loudly for short periods, but most of the time, it's useful to try and mix at the level you think the music will eventually be played. (Forget I said this if you're mixing dance music for nightclubs!) Check your mixes on headphones as well as speakers. Headphones show up small distortions and clicks that you may never hear over loudspeakers. However, don't rely solely on headphones for mixing, for they represent the stereo image differently to loudspeakers and are notoriously unpredictable at low frequencies. Don't vary the level of the drums and bass unnecessarily during a mix, as the rhythm section is traditionally the constant backdrop against which other sounds move. Natural dynamics within rhythm instrument parts is OK, but don't keep moving the faders on these sounds. In a busy mix, try 'ducking' mid-range instruments such as overdrive guitars and synth pads under the control of the vocals, so that whenever the vocals are present, the conflicting sounds fall in level by two or three dBs. Just a little ducking can significantly improve the clarity of a mix. Use a fairly fast attack time for the ducker (which may be either a compressor or a noise gate that has ducking facilities), and set the release time by ear. Shorter release times will cause more obvious gain-pumping, but in rock mixes, this can add welcome energy and excitement. If you are recording a primarily MIDI-based track, try not to look at your sequencer display while mixing; the visual stimulus interferes with your ability to make subjective judgements based only on the sound. If necessary, close your eyes. Watching your sequencer progress through the arrange page can also give you a false impression of how well the arrangement is working, which is why some composers prefer hardware sequencers. If a close-miked sound seems unnaturally lifeless, but you don't want to add any obvious reverb, try an ambience or early reflection setting to induce a sense of space. The shorter the reverb time, the easier it is to move the treated sound to the front of your mix. Listen to your finished mix again the day after you've finished it, as your perception is likely to change after resting your ears overnight. Also check the master recording on as many different sound systems as you can, to ensure it sounds fine on all of them. Even then, save all your mix information and track sheets, including effects settings, as you never know when you might want to try to improve on the 'final mix'!

EQ 101 There are very few absolute "Rights and Wrongs" when it comes to EQ. Basically, if it sounds good to you, it's right. There are some generally accepted thoughts on the matter though, so we'll go over some of them as starting points. One generally accepted thought is that most vocal mics are very midrange heavy. Typically a cut in the midrange along with a slight boost of the bass and treble frequencies can compensate for this. Now remember, every voice is different, so don't just set every vocal mic in your system to one setting and go. You have to listen to the individual characteristics of each voice. If someone has a deep, booming voice you may find yourself cutting the bass and boosting the mids and highs. A female vocalist may have a very light, "airy" voice and may need some help (boost) in the low and mid areas. "Sweep" type or Parametric midrange controls are great because they let you "dial in" the particular problem frequency and then boost or cut it. For example, to find a problem frequency, you can turn the "level" control of the mid-sweep to full cut and then sweep the "frequency" knob until you find the exact frequency that you want to cut. Then re-adjust the "level" knob to the actual amount of cut you want. Fully parametric EQ's let you adjust the band-width as well. This is generally called a "Q" adjustment and it determines how big of a chunk (in octaves) will be cut or boosted. Typically these can be adjusted anywhere from 0.1 to a full octave. Most mixers don't have fully parametric EQ, while semi-parametric EQ's (no Q adjust) are quite common.
Another generally accepted thought is that there really isn't much below 40Hz that anyone wants to hear live. On a recording it may be a different story, but live you pretty much want to cut anything below 40Hz. This will do several things: it will reduce stage rumble, reduce that "flabby, booming" kick/bass sound, will increase headroom (which is the reserve power capability) in your power amplifiers (because now they won't have to reproduce those power robbing low frequencies), and generally clean up the whole mix. If your amp, crossover or mixer has sub-sonic filters... use them! Those filters are the quickest way to cut down on those unwanted low frequencies below 40 Hz. Also, on midrange and treble instruments (vocals, horns, guitars, keys, etc.) use the channel low cut (if available). These vary from 75Hz to 100Hz and give you all of the above mentioned benefits without adversely affecting the sound. Now I know that some 5 & 6 string bass players and keyboard players will insist that there is desirable musical content below 40Hz. However, there are harmonics and overtones that still let you hear the low "B" being played on a 5 string bass, you just won't hear the fundamental (approx. 30Hz). I think the trade-off (a clean, punchy mix) is worth it. You can decide for yourself.Part of getting the sound you want is knowing where an instrument lies in the frequency spectrum and part of it is just plain experimentation.
Most people know that a kick drum is a bass instrument right? Well, yes and no. Most of what you hear from a kick drum is in the bass region, true, but try boosting the kick at 1K. Hear that extra "snap" that you just added? Or try boosting the snare around 250Hz. That midrange/treble drum suddenly sounds huge and punchy. Bass guitar is often "mis EQ'd". Instead of pumping up the low end until the windows shake loose, try cutting around 400Hz to get rid of some "mud" and boosting around 1.5K to add some "twang". The bass will cut through the mix with great definition and still have plenty of low end. Some instruments (like a piano) cover a very wide range of the spectrum and can be very difficult to EQ. I've seen sound people use six EQs on a grand piano (4 channel mixer EQ, 2 outboard parametric). Of course this probably means it wasn't mic'ed properly to begin with. Proper mic selection and placement are necessary to get as close to the right sound as possible so that major EQ work is not needed (but that's another article). Electric or sampled pianos are pre-EQ'd and typically don't require as much work. Maybe cut the bass a bit and boost the treble so it fits in the mix better (keep in mind that a solo instrument should be treated differently and may not require as much EQ, if any, as an instrument that you want to fit into a mix). When trying to fit a lot of instruments into a mix, try what I call "contrary" EQ. If the instrument is in the bass range, try boosting the high-mid or treble frequencies, add some low end to a female vocal, or add some "edge" to a male vocalist with a treble boost.
Graphic EQ's are usually used on the overall mix and in the monitor mix. For the overall mix you would want to use a graphic EQ to fine tune your mix to a particular room. If it's a "dead" room (acoustic tile ceiling, thick carpet and full of people), you may want to boost the high end and/or cut some low frequencies, if it's a "live" (hard floors, walls, ceiling, etc.) room you may need to cut the high/mid and treble a bit. Typically, a 10 to 15 band graphic (2/3 to 1 octave) is sufficient for mains. For monitors you may need a 30 band (1/3 octave) graphic EQ for each monitor mix. This type of narrow-band fine tuning lets you precisely locate and cut frequencies that cause "feedback", rumble, hum, etc. I could write fifty more pages and not cover the half of it. Please remember that these are suggestions for starting points and they are my personal opinions. Experiment and find out what works best for you. Also remember there is no substitute for quality equipment. If you use a poor sounding mic, mixer, amp, instrument, etc., no amount of EQ will totally fix it.
Until next time, adios! - Doc S.

GIVING YOUR RECORDINGS A 'PRODUCED' SOUND Why is it that some perfectly well-recorded songs sound like demos, while others sound like top commercial tracks? Paul White investigates the mystery of the 'produced' sound. One of the questions we hear most from Sound On Sound readers is "Why doesn't my music sound as 'produced' as the music I hear on commercial CDs?" I'm sure you won't be too surprised when I tell you that there isn't a single, simple answer. Some people assume that the superior equipment used in pro studios is the key, but although competent gear is required to do the job properly, you don't actually need anything esoteric. Even when it comes to recording vocals you don't have to use expensive high-end tube capacitor mics -- artists such as Phil Collins and Mick Jagger often use relatively inexpensive dynamic models because that's what works best for them. A few years ago, the drum sound was what gave away most demos, but now we have good drum machines, drum samples and sample loops, as well as real drums, to choose from. The secret of a produced sound starts with the source material. It doesn't matter what you do to your recording afterwards if this isn't up to scratch. It almost goes without saying that good timing and good tuning are essential, but the choice of sounds and the way in which acoustic instruments and voices are recorded has a huge bearing on the perceived quality of the end result.

Vox Clever If you record vocals in a small, untreated room, the chances are that the resulting sound will be boxy, so place your mic somewhere near the centre (but not exactly in the centre) of a larger room and put up improvised screens (sleeping bags, duvets, blankets and so on) where necessary to kill the reflections. Used in this way, virtually any respectable mic will give you good results providing you use a pop shield. You can also record acoustic guitars in the same environment. Vocals invariably need compression, but what kind and how much? Listen to what you've recorded and try to establish how much variation there is in the vocal level. If you hear a lot of fluctuation it might be better to use a model of compressor that can pin down the level without changing the sound too much. The compressors that come as standard in Yamaha digital mixers are good for this, as you can really pile on the gain reduction without changing the sound too radically; there are also analogue models that can do the same. On the other hand, you may feel the vocals need thickening as well as levelling, in which case a compressor with a character of its own might be better suited to the job. Tube and 'opto' compressors generally produce the fattest sounds, and of course there are software plug-ins that emulate just about anything you can buy in a rackmount box. The goal is to get the vocal sitting nicely with the backing track so that you don't feel the urge to turn it up or down in different parts of the song. Professional engineers may also spend some time fine-tuning vocal levels with their mixer automation systems, and if you use either a digital mixer or a computer-based recording system you can do the same.

Key Facts Synth sounds must be chosen with care, because a lot of factory patches are designed to sound big and impressive for the benefit of those who choose their new instruments on the strength of 'preset cruising'! What sounds wonderful on its own might take up too much space in a mix so, if you don't want to edit the patch, try using EQ to trim off excess bass or high end. The EQ'd patch might sound odd in isolation, but it may well fit the track better. Another tip for those reluctant to get into heavy editing is to layer patches to get the desired result. For example, a deep bass sound mixed with a more percussive patch might help you produce a bass that you can hear as well as feel. It's important not to over-orchestrate your arrangements, especially when you have fat synth pads and overdriven guitars occurring at the same time. The same is true of some treated drum loops, which can actually take up a lot of space. If in doubt, listen to some commercial mixes in a similar style to the track you're working with. You may be surprised at how little there is going on at any one time."One of the questions we hear most from Sound On Sound readers is 'Why doesn't my music sound as 'produced' as the music I hear on commercial CDs?'" It may help if you get your sounds as close as possible to correct at source so you don't need to use a lot of EQ. Few budget mixers have the kind of EQ that works well when called upon to make major tonal changes, and often you'll find that the more you EQ, the harsher, boomier or less focused your mix becomes.

Reduced Reverb Once you've created space in your mix, don't give it all away by filling every available gap with heavy reverb. As it happens, reverb is one area where a decent-quality unit really helps, especially if you use a lot of small-room or ambient reverbs. You don't have to spend a fortune: the excellent Lexicon MPX100 costs around 200, yet still offers the general feel of Lexicon's more expensive studio processors. Bear in mind that heavy reverb tends to push a sound to the back of a mix, so if you want a vocal to appear up-front you should use a fairly bright reverb, with 80mS or so of pre-delay. Don't overdo the decay time, either, especially with up-tempo songs. Other effects should also be used carefully -- use an effect because the track needs it, not because you happen to have it! Dramatic effects can be made even more dramatic if you use them for short sections of a song rather than having them full-on all the way through, and delay effects often work best when the delay time is related to the tempo of the song.

Master The Situation What many people don't realise is just how great a difference is made to commercial records at the mastering stage. Prior to mastering, you might be surprised at just how ordinary some mixes sound. Mastering often involves nothing more than compression, limiting and equalisation, but it has a dispro ----- Favourite Strings Guitars and basses can be a dead giveaway that a recording is not a commercial one if they are poorly recorded. Sticking a mic in front of an amp is probably still the best way to get a live-sounding recording of a performance, but if this is not feasible there are so many good recording preamps around now that there's little excuse for getting a thin or buzzy guitar sound. However, go easy on the overdrive, and consider using less overdrive but combining it with compression if you need sustain. Use a gate to keep your guitar tracks clear of unwanted noise, and also try to reduce clutter in the arrangement: where two guitars are playing essentially the same chords, for example, first decide whether both guitars are actually necessary. If they are, consider using different chord inversions for one of the parts, or even a capo. Incidentally, acoustic guitars almost always sound better miked than DI'd. Basses can actually be more difficult to record than guitars, because although they may sound great in isolation when DI'd via an active DI box and a compressor, they can still lack punch in the context of the overall mix. Again, consider miking the amp or using a guitar DI preamp so you can add just a little overdrive to warm up the sound. Compression will help keep the sound even and punchy. A good tip here is to make any necessary EQ adjustments when the rest of the track is playing, because then you'll be able to make the sound match the track. If you EQ the sound first it might sound great on its own, but could get completely lost when the other faders are brought up. ---portionate effect because of the quality of the equipment being used and the expertise of the person using it. Yes, this is one area where the equipment does make a huge difference, though with all-in-one mastering processors now available at prices project studio owners can afford, it is possible to get a professional sound at home providing you have good ears and accurate monitors. A good equaliser doesn't just change the spectral balance of a sound: it also seems to lift information out of a mix. One popular mastering technique is to apply an overall boost of just one or two dBs at around 15kHz with a wide bandwidth setting. This is what people mean when they talk about 'air EQ', 'sheen' or 'gloss'. With a nice equaliser this boost will lift out high-end detail while at the same time pulling the vocals forward, but it shouldn't make the sound harsh or toppy. Similarly, adding a gentle dip at around 180-250Hz may help clarify a muddy lower mid-range, while a boost at 70-90Hz will firm up a weak bass end. It is vital to use a classy equaliser for this job, though -- a cheap one just won't deliver the necessary fairy dust! (And a good mastering equaliser probably costs more than many people's entire computer-based recording system.) I use an SPL Vitalizer on some of my mixes, as it replicates many of the EQ functions of a mastering processor, and if you don't have the money to buy a high-end equaliser I'd recommend one of the lower-cost versions of the Vitalizer as an easy-to-use alternative. A very gentle overall compression of around 1.1:1 with a threshold of -30 to -40dB will make a mix sound more even and more powerful. However, multi-band mastering processors add a lot of flexibility in the area of compression, because they give you the opportunity to perform operations such as applying more compression to the bass end than to the rest of the mix. This helps firm up the bass end only, and any spectral imbalance caused by the different compression ratios can be restored by adjusting the levels of the various frequency bands at the compressor's output. Mastering also tends to involve limiting, a process similar to compression (but with an infinitely high ratio) that controls just the tips of loud peaks. Applying a little limiting will often make it possible to increase the avera"The secret of a produced sound starts with the source material. It doesn't matter what you do to your recording afterwards if this isn't up to scratch." ge level of a mix by several dBs without any side effects becoming audible. If you're starting from a 20- or 24-bit master and you reduce to 16-bit right at the end of the process, this has the benefit of using the whole of the bit resolution of the CD format, which means less noise, less distortion and better low-level resolution. It also makes your CD sound as loud as the 'produced' commercial CDs in your collection. Use a limiter specifically designed for mastering (such as the Waves L1 plug-in or the limiter in your mastering processor) and don't over-limit, or you will start to hear the difference. Usually 4-5dB of limiting is all that's needed. A note on limiting: Any decision taken to limit or not to limit is a musical one. Some musical styles apply heavy limiting as part of the musical style's "sound", others don't. Production requirements may suggest limiting is needed, for example preparing your music for broadcast might necessitate limiting in order to compensate for the radio's smaller dynamic range. In our example we exaggerated in our limiting setting - The student should understand that limiting to produce a 5.2dB attenuation is a bit heavy. Normally we should watch out for a maximum of 4dB attenuation. Processing via tube or simulated tube circuitry can also warm up a mix (which is why tube EQs and compressors are popular for mastering), but again you get even more flexibility if this tube processing comes as part of a multi-band package. For example, adding a little gentle tube saturation only to the low band will noticeably thicken the bass and kick drum without spilling over into the midrange and high end. Similarly, adding high-end saturation has an effect similar to an enhancer, enhancing detail and and lending gloss. The secret with all these treatments is to use them sparingly and always compare the processed sound with the unprocessed to make sure you have not gone too far. A good processor will transform a recording with just a dB or two of adjustment where needed. If you find you're using a lot of processing, suspect your basic mix of being too wide of the mark.

Summing Up As you can see, the magic of musical production isn't something you 'paint' on at some point in the recording process, but is rather the result of attention to detail at all points throughout the recording, starting with the musical arrangement and choice of sounds. Nevertheless, processing at the mastering stage (ie. after your mix) can make a huge difference. Professional mastering is expensive for a reason: pro mastering engineers have great equipment and a lot of experience in using it. If you're not confident you have the necessary equipment and expertise to do your mix justice, think about getting your work professionally mastered, especially if it's destined for commercial release. If you're going to do this, don't do any processing at all on your final mixes -- leave each track just as it is. On the other hand, if your mix is 95 percent there and you don't have the budget for pro mastering, don't be deterred from doing the job yourself, as there are now several hardware mastering processors (as well as innumerable software plug-ins) within the reach of serious project studio owners, and these can really help to get the job done.

MIXING IT by Paul White mixing methods & approaches
Although there are no hard and fast rules in mixing, PAUL WHITE provides some handy guidelines and ways for you to approach your own mix. It is fascinating to see how music mixing has changed over the past two or three decades. In the Sixties, arguably the heyday of pop, the sound of a record came almost entirely from the performance of the musicians -- the mixing engineer's role was largely concerned with setting up an acceptable musical balance and adding a touch of plate reverb where needed. Today, music production is all too often less about musicians performing together and more about assembling a composition in pieces, rather like a jigsaw puzzle, where those involved are not entirely sure of what the picture is supposed to be until the puzzle is finished. Then, of course, there's the use of pre-recorded material to consider, whether it be snatches from a previous recording, samples of live musicians playing rhythm patterns or riffs, or 'found' sounds from TV and radio to add atmosphere and effects. Due to the creative nature of contemporary music production, today's mix engineer must be every bit as much an artiste as the musicians on the other side of the control room glass. So, is there any common ground with the mix engineer of the Sixties and Seventies? Regardless of the style of music, or whether the sounds are samples or recorded performances, the mix engineer still has to balance the various parts, handle the stereo positioning of sounds within the mix, equalise and apply effects where necessary. In professional circles there's invariably a producer looking over the engineer's shoulder who calls the shots, but most SOS readers double up as engineer and producer, and quite often as the artiste too -- which means knowing something about music production as well as engineering. So how do you set about turning a good recording session into a good master tape? Here are a few mixing guidelines for you to follow...

APPROACHING THE MIX Once the recording stops, and ideally after a suitable break, the mixing session starts. At this point you should have track sheets describing what's on the various tape tracks, any notes taken during the recording (MIDI instrument settings), and all the mixer EQ, level and routing controls set to 'neutral' ready for a clean start. The only exception to this latter condition is if you've been setting up your mix as you were recording, in which case it's simply a matter of checking that nothing is routed that shouldn't be. It helps to separate logical groups of sounds into subgroups, so that the mix can be handled with fewer faders. This is particularly helpful if you don't have the benefit of mix automation. For example, if the recording includes real drums, these are likely to occupy several tracks so it makes sense to assign them to a single, stereo subgroup. Other candidates for subgrouping are backing vocals and multi-layered keyboard parts. Unless the quality of the original recording leaves something to be desired, it should be possible to set up a workable balance fairly quickly, without resorting to EQ. Effects can be added later, but it helps to have the necessary effects units patched in and ready, especially reverb which will probably need to be added first. In order to keep the sound quality as high as possible, de-route any mixer channels that aren't being used, turn down their aux sends, and mute any monitors that aren't being used during the mix. Also check the gain setting of any effects you have patched into the mix, so that their input level meters read a healthy signal level on signal peaks. The loudest channel aux sends should be set to between three-quarters and full up, and the input gain control of the effects unit adjusted accordingly. If it is possible to route unused sends to an aux bus that isn't being used, this can reduce mix noise considerably, and any effect needed only on a single channel will be quietest if connected via the channel insert point rather than via the aux send system. If mixer noise is a problem, it can sometimes help to patch a gate between the console's effects send outputs and the effects unit inputs.

GETTING THE BALANCE A good mix starts with a solid foundation, so it pays to sort out the rhythm section first, but don't spend too much time on things like the type and level of reverb on these instruments, because this will sound very different once all the other instruments are in the mix. Once the rhythm section is working, then add in the lead vocal followed by the other parts of the mix, always being aware that you must leave space for the vocal. Up to this point, it can help if all your sounds are panned to the centre of the mix -- if you can get the mix sounding good in mono, it'll invariably sound even better in stereo. It's only when I've reached this stage that I start to worry about EQ, but I know other engineers who simply push all the faders up and try to sort everything out at once. There's no right or wrong way as long as it works for you, but if you don't have a lot of mixing experience, I think you'll find my approach less stressful. Try not to monitor too loudly, as this will affect your judgement and may eventually damage your hearing. The most logical monitoring level to use would be at the same level as the end user is likely to listen at -- in other words, a sensible domestic listening volume.

STEREO IMAGE Once the balance is working in mono, and maybe you've added a little vocal and drum reverb, you can concentrate on refining the effects, the EQ settings, and the stereo pan positions. Traditionally, all the 'heavy guns' go in the middle of the stereo soundstage, by which I mean kick drums, bass guitars and bass synths. Aside from the fact that very low frequencies don't really benefit from panning, it helps if you distribute high energy bass and percussion sounds equally between the two speakers. Lead vocals also tend to be panned to the middle, not for any technical reason but purely because we expect a singer to be centre-stage. I invariably add some compression to vocals while mixing, simply to even out the level, and if noise is in any way a problem, then I'll also gate the vocals before the compressor. A useful compressor setting is to choose a fast attack combined with a release time of 0.5s or so and a ratio of between 4:1 and 12:1, depending on whether you want to hear the compressor working or not. Backing vocals, on the other hand, can go wherever you want to place them, and you might want to compress the overall backing vocal mix. If this is in stereo, don't forget to use the compressor set to its stereo link mode. I like to hear different backing vocals coming in from different sides, but it's your song -- so put them where you like! If you're experiencing sibilance problems on your vocals, try a less bright reverb setting or try adding a little EQ cut at around 6kHz. If the problem persists (which it shouldn't do if you were paying attention at the recording stage!), you may need to bring in a de-esser. Having said that, I've never yet used one on a serious recording, as I feel they compromise the vocal sound to too great an extent. When the mix finally starts to happen, it helps to take a break, have a cup of tea, listen to a few records, and then come back to it. I find it invaluable to listen to the mix from the next room, with the adjoining door left open, as even the slightest balance problems become very obvious. I mention this technique at regular intervals, because of all the tricks I've learned over the years, this is one of the most helpful.

GAIN RIDING On most mixes you'll need to do a little gain riding to sort out awkward vocal levels that the compressor can't handle, or to bring solos in and out, but again, listening from next door can help you identify the areas that need manual attention and those that can be left alone. One general rule is not to mess with the rhythm section level once it's set up, as this would run the risk of upsetting both the overall balance and the continuity of the song. If there are several level changes to handle during a mix and you think you might run out of hands, then rope in the musicians to help, but always put wax pencil marks on the desk for them to follow, otherwise you might find the balance changing with every pass!

"A good mix starts with a solid foundation, so it pays to sort out the rhythm section first."

If a track requires a fade-out ending, make sure you start to fade at least 20 seconds before the recorded material runs out, and don't rush the tail end of the fade or it will sound unnatural. If the album is going to be compiled on a hard disk editing system, such as Sound Tools, don't bother with the fade when mixing but do it as part of the editing process; this will be smoother and will fade into true silence.

SALVAGE TECHNIQUES In a perfect world, every tape track would contain a perfect performance at exactly the right level with no noise or unwanted sound to be heard -- but life is rarely like that. Apart from some degree of tape and circuit hiss, and maybe the odd dB of hum, there are always extraneous sounds such as breath noise or digital synth grunge to consider. Gates are very effective in cleaning up noisy tracks, but care must be taken to match the release time of the gate to the natural decay envelope of the sound being treated. However, gates can only keep the noise down during pauses, they can do nothing when a signal is present. It stands to reason, therefore, that if you decide to gate a whole mix, the only real benefit will be a clean start and a clean end. If your mixer has MIDI muting, this can be set up to kill any channels when they are not in use, thus reducing the level of cumulative noise build-up in the mix. It is necessary to go through each tape track and set up the mute points individually, and if you can arrange muting and unmuting to occur on a beat, it will help to disguise any sudden change in background noise level. While gates can only clean up pauses, dynamic noise filters can actually remove noise in the presence of signal, though you have to take care that they don't introduce audible side-effects. Dynamic filter units simply filter out the higher frequencies when the signal level is low, and though they have no audible effects when the treated signal is strong, they do tend to affect the tail end of long reverbs. For this reason, it helps to route the reverb via one subgroup and the channels to be de-noised via another, so that the reverb escapes treatment.

FIXING THE MIX Occasionally you'll end up with a mix which still needs that extra something, especially if you're working on a tape recorded by someone with different ideas to yourself when it comes to what things should sound like. Compressing a complete mix will reduce the dynamic range and increase the average energy of a mix, but as contrast is a necessary part of music, you might find the mix gains in one area and loses in another. The attack time of the compressor may be increased to 20ms or so to allow transient sounds to cut through, though the type of compressor used can make a huge difference to the subjective outcome. Soft-knee compressors produce the most unobtrusive results, but the other side of the coin is that an obviously compressed mix can also sound quite exciting and vibrant, which is why certain vintage valve compressors are so popular. If your mix is correct in the first place, why should it need any further EQ? I can't provide the complete answer, but I do know that some equalisers are capable of flattering even the very best mixes. Music can be made to sound 'louder' by gently cutting the mid-range slightly, and it's quite common to treat a whole mix with an exciter or a dynamic equaliser to add sparkle and detail. Since buying my SPL Vitalizer, I invariably use it when mixing and there's simply no way to simulate the effects using conventional EQ.

LISTEN WITHOUT PREJUDICE Before finally approving your mix, make sure you listen to it on as many different stereo systems as possible, including the car, otherwise you run the risk of creating a mix which sounds good only in your control room. And if you have to ignore all my suggestions in order to get your mix sounding the way you want it, that's fine too -- there are no hard and fast rules and the end always justifies the means! Have fun.
MIXING TIPS Occasionally you get a mix that just won't sound right, often because the song hasn't been arranged well enough to leave space for all the important parts. If you come up against one of these, here are a few tips you can try. By working through the following points, you should at least end up with something usable.

Set up a rough mix, in mono, without using EQ or effects and then work from there. Also check that the mix sounds OK in mono.

If the mix seems too busy, ask yourself if all the recorded parts are really necessary or can you lose something (try muting each part and see what impact that has). What matters most in the majority of pop songs is the rhythm and the vocals, the rest is decoration. If you can't lose something completely, try mixing it so low that you only notice it if you turn it off.

If the mid-range sounds are fighting with the bass sounds, try using EQ to 'thin out' some of the sounds. Take some bottom end out of the pad synth, backing vocals or acoustic guitar parts.

Still no joy? Then go back to the basic rhythm section plus vocals and see if that is working. If not, is it too late to try a different drum or bass sound? Similarly, if you're working with a sequencer, you could try picking thinner pad keyboard sounds or brighter bass sounds.

Don't overdo effects -- reverb creates the illusion of distance and space in a mix, both of which are the opposite of 'up front' and 'in yer face'. As the eskimo said when burning his canoe to keep warm, "You can't have your kayak and heat it!"

If things are looking up, try panning the instruments and effects to their desired positions -- this will help improve the separation between individual sounds and enhance overall clarity.

Though exciters shouldn't be thought of as a means to salvage poor recordings, the extra separation they create can make the difference between a so-so mix and a good one. Use as a last resort only when you've got everything as good as it can be.

Perhaps the mix sounds fine but just lacks cohesion or punch. In that case, try a little overall compression. A soft-knee compressor will usually provide the most transparent results, but try whatever you have and let your ears be the judge.

USING REVERB Digital reverbs create the illusion of stereo by synthesizing different sets of delay taps for the left and right channels, which makes the reverb patterns slightly different between the left and right outputs. This makes it possible for us to take a mono tape track and give it both a stereo identity and a sense of being somewhere, rather than existing in a void. Even if no obvious reverb is needed, a sound can still be given substance and width by adding a very short reverb, ambience or early reflections pattern to it. For drums and vocals, where a longer reverb time is often chosen for artistic reasons, try to pick a setting that doesn't fill up all the space and stifle the mix; it may help to add a pre-delay of around 50ms or so. If the reverb makes the mix sound muddy, feed the reverb back through a channel that has EQ and roll off some of the bottom end. Alternatively, if the reverb is diluting the stereo image of a sound too much, try panning the instrument sound and its associated reverb to exactly the same point in the mix. This will kill the stereo width effect, but can be effective where a sound needs to emanate from a precise location. Avoid putting more than the barest hint of reverb on bass drums or bass instruments (unless for deliberate effect) unless the mix has loads of empty space to allow the reverb to breath, without clouding the overall picture.

USING DELAY Try panning an instrument (eg. guitar) to one side of the mix with a delayed version (from 5 to 50ms) panned to the other side. The sound will appear to be coming from the speaker that's carrying the unprocessed (dry) sound, even if the delay is as loud as the original signal. The psychoacoustic reasons why this is so are rather too complex to go into here, but this does provide another way to add space to a sound. If the delay is then modulated to produce a chorus sound, the result is to create the illusion of movement, and when listening in stereo you really can't tell that one channel is carrying a dry sound and the other a processed version -- the movement seems to occupy the whole of the space between the speakers. Delay can be used to create more conventional echo and doubling effects, of course, and it has become fashionable to set up synchronised delay times that are a multiple of the tempo of the song. For example, if a song is running at 120bpm, each beat is 60 divided by two seconds long -- which is half a second. Therefore, a delay of 500ms (half a second), 250ms, or 125ms will always create echoes that are in sync with the music. You can also divide the beat time into threes to create echoes that occur in triplet time. Clever use of delays can help add drive and push to a song (check out The Edge's guitar playing on most U2 tracks).

CREATIVE EQ EQ is complex enough to warrant a complete article in its own right, though I subscribe to the school of thought that recommends leaving it alone unless desperately needed, and even then using as little as possible. Using EQ to cut rather than boost, where possible, invariably results in a more natural sound. For general brightening of a track, try either a subtle amount of boost at 6kHz or a hint of high shelving boost (usually 10-12kHz on most desks). EQ can be used to create separation in a crowded mix by using it to narrow the area of the spectrum occupied by a particular instrument or voice. Most sounds have the bulk of their energy in one section of the audio spectrum, but there will also be small amounts of high and low frequency energy outside this band. By using high and low EQ cut to 'trim' away these extremes, it may be possible to make a sound sit more comfortably in the mix. Even though such EQ'd tracks may sound a touch unnatural in isolation, they may still work well once in context. Electric guitars often benefit from this kind of 'spectral trimming' as do acoustic guitars (to take out some bass end), some drum sounds, and backing vocals. Acoustic instruments are best treated gently with maybe just a little LF cut. Lead vocals, or vocals that are very exposed in the mix, should be treated most cautiously of all. It's invariably better to get the right vocal sound at the outset, by choosing a sympathetic mic, rather than by using EQ later.

The perfect mix There are many ways to get your songs to final form. Lets assume, for this article, final form means a beautifully polished piece of music in 16 bit 44.1 khz digital audio (i.e., the "red book" cd audio standard) or a standard wave file. You need to start, of course, with a fully or almost finished song. This is the point where the writing ends and the TweakMeistering begins. I'm going to give you some hard earned tips on Mixing and Mastering. Mixdown and Mastering, traditionally speaking, are two very separate processes. Mixdown is the art of leveling, equalizing and effecting all the various sources from many tracks down to a stereo Mix. Mastering is the process of taking the stereo mix and putting it in the final album-ready form. Recent software and hardware developments make these processes easier and less expensive than they ever have been in the history of making music. Given that much of the time we can stay in the digital domain we can add processing to our heart's content and maintain a high signal to noise ratio and achieve optimum dynamics for the piece at hand. TweakHeadz "Overall" Power Mix Parameters Please consider these parameters not as rules but a starting point for you mixes for the standard pop song or ballad. Of course the instruments change if you are doing techno or symphonies, or ambient stuff, but the reference may still be helpful. Match the following instruments when soloed in place to the db markers on your mixing desk or your mixdown deck or software. Set the trims:
Solo each instrument in succession and set the trim so the signal peaks a 0db. Kick drum 0db +3 eq at 50 Hz +1 db at 3khz -3db 275 hz No FX except maybe subtle ambience. You will tweak the kick again, this is just to get you going. Snare -2 db eq to taste in the frequencies above 4khz. Add reverb if the song calls for it. Do the best you can to keep it out of the way of the vocal, even if you have to pan it a few degrees. Lead Vocal 0db use a low cut filter to eliminate rumble and plosive pops around 100-200 hz. Carefully enhance the delicate high end around 15khz to add air and sheen and don't overdo it! This is the trickiest adjustment and may often spell hit or dud. Perfectly center the vocal and pan it not with pan controls, but with very subtle left/right hi freq eq's. Put on the cans (headphones) and make sure its in the absolute center of your forehead.. Every word must be intelligible. Add reverb and delays but don't let it get smeared. Cymbals -25 db Avoid letting these get in the way of the vocals. Pan them to 2 o'clock and remember their main function is to add the glue to a track to hold the music together--they do not have to be loud or present Synth pads -20 db Do these in stereo and hard pan left and right with generous effects if needed. However, keep them in the back. Pads indeed are beautiful additions to a song but don't let them overshadow any of the main elements of the song. Bass -10 db Always front and center. If you use FX restrict yourself to chorusing or a light flange--no reverb. Rhythm guitar -15 db pan off center eq: use a low cut filter to get rid of any bass and add a mid range eq for a slight narrow boost, but make sure it is not competing with the vocalist's sweet spot. Percussion -20db- put these elements off center unless they are essential to to basic beat. EQ in a tasteful way if necessary. Watch the meters when you play the whole mix through the board. You should have peaks at +3db. If what you have is more notch down every fader in 1 db increments until you get there.

Mono Check:
Always check you mix in Mono and look for sudden drop outs or instruments that disappear. That's phase cancellation at work, and it happens with stereo tracks and effects. No faders above 0db rule:
When getting a mix started follow this religiously. If you find your vocal doesn't sound good unless its at +5db then move everything down 5 db. Conserve headroom. You don't want your mix compromised by that awful crackle at the peak of your song. Now you fine tune to taste. Listen for the quality to "lock". A great mix of a great song will fill you with absolute elation. You'll be blown away and in awe. You will feel in love with it. No kidding. Might sound corny to the less mature among us, but I assure you its true. A great artist friend of mine puts it this way. Greatness in art depends solely on how much love you put in to a work. You put it in, it pays you back, your friends back, and everyone who listens. Moral of this lesson. Never take mixing and mastering lightly. The tiniest fader movements make a difference. Be exacting!

The Mix is a Dynamic, Moving Process Don't just sit there while your mix goes to tape, or disc, or DAT. If you are using a board, assign the faders to subgroups. For example, if you have 4 subgroups you might want to send your vocal tracks to groups 1 and 2 and everything else to 3 and 4. This way you can slightly alter the balance between the vocalists and the band as the piece goes to tape. This technique, while tricky, can yield outstanding results. You can give the vocalist a touch more edge just when they need that ooomph and when the vocalist takes a break you can subtly boost the band a bit. If you have 8 busses you might dedicate 5 and 6 just to drums and 7 and 8 just to effects, nudging each as is appropriate.

The Role of Compression at Mixdown On it's way to the recording device, you can patch a compressor/ limiter/gate. The Gate simply cuts out any audio below a certain threshold so that any hiss or noise coming from your synths or mixer is eliminated before the music starts. The limiter keeps your peaks under a certain fixed level and will not let them go higher. A Compressor is a volume slope applied to the audio material goin through it. It can amplify the "valleys" and attenuate the "peaks". Essentially compression reduces the dynamic range we have just struggle to achieve in our mix. You might wonder why you would want that. In many circumstances, you don't want it. However, in the majority of cases you will find it useful, especially if you want your music to be "hot", "have punch" "be as loud as possible", or have the consistency of a radio mix. The stereo compressor also helps balance the song and give it a uniform character we are so used to hearing in commercial music. It essentially gives you the strongest and smoothest mix and calms down some of the 'jaggged edges' that might disturb the casual listener. However, it is also very easy to make a mix totally lifeless with a compressor and reduce its dynamic power. What started as a powerful orchestral arrangement can end up a wimpy piece of Mall Muzak so be careful and bypass it frequently to make sure you like what you are tweaking up. I think compression works best to attenuate that occasional peak that rips through the roof of a digital audio recorder and ruins the track.

The Role of the Mastering processor Mastering processors are becoming more popular these days. The TweakMeister likes them. I have noted over and over how the effective use of a mastering processor can transform a good mix into a great master recording. If you have one, you might consider using that in lieu of a compressor at mixdown as mastering processors usually have all the functions and additional functions such as mastering eq, multi-band compression (that is adjustable compression for the bass, mids and highs) as well as limiters and gates. These mastering tools can go a long way to giving your music a unique sonic imprint. There are many uses. In addition to adding the refining touch to your mix as it goes to the recorder, it can be used to give all your songs on an album a consistent uniform character and balance the volume between widely different songs giving your project a professional touch. Using narrow band mid range eqs can give you a very contemporary sounding presence and make your dance tracks come alive with freshness. Pumping the compressor a little at 50-60hz can give you the "kick in the chest" kik drum without wrecking the delicate dynamics of the high end vocals. There are many more applications such as using them to send midi tracks to your digital audio mixer compressed optimally, ducking for voice overs, de-essing, warming through "tape saturation" parameters and Hard Gate effects on individual tracks. Remember Tweakheadz rule of thumb: Any piece of gear can be used in any way as long as it enhances the quality of the final product.

Software Mastering and Post-Production A good digital audio sequencer will let you master in the digital domain of your computer. Some softwares that I think are of particular merit for mastering are Logic, Cubase, Sound Forge and Vegas. I'm just going to look at Vegas here, because I am enamored with it right now. The main thing is to be able to draw a volume envelope over the whole waveform. Rather than botch a fade 20 times on an analog mixer, simply draw in the perfect fade with the mouse. Where the piece loses intensity, notch it up a tad, to restore your intended dynamism to your mix. Say you have the perfect mix except for one horrible "sp-p-p-lat" where your sequencer choked at bar 72. No prob. Just remix the offending bar again, cut out that piece in Vegas and drop in the new one and let the automatic crossfading give you the absolutely perfect, digitally calculated crossfaded splice. Works! Need to touch up the EQ and do your compression in software? Tweak it in. It's all undoable, so your not going to ruin anything. Decided the mix you did last year really sux? You need to cut out a chorus or fade 5 seconds earlier? Say you did a trance piece but the kick is so wimp that it makes you cringe? Just drag in a looped 808 kik and paint it on the next track, setting the volume and compression to make the whole song whupass. :) Vegas gives you the tools. In fact, I like it better for post pro than as a multi track.

Summing Up: Whether you are writing industrial hardcore or the darkest ambient, a 100 piece orchestra or a stark minimalist a capella mix, always keep your ears tuned to making an artistic statement, a work of unforgettable beauty. This is the bottom line. The more control your Mixer gives you, the better you can paint the overall image. Working with compressors and mastering processors gives you a shot a polishing that image much like we polish a stone to bring out its colors. Hope this article helped you get a handle on the concepts of the perfect Mix, mastering and post-production All the Best! Rich the TweakMeister

by Nigel Lord
Even so, the general principles of mixing hold good. Before we look at these principles, a word about the basic requirements. Firstly, your ears. Keep them fresh (and clean, of course). Never ever attempt to mix a piece of music at the end of a long listening session. Take a break of at least an hour and preferably overnight. The human ear is incredibly good at identifying problems with certain sounds, but not if it's had time to get used to them. Secondly, your monitoring system. It goes without saying that you should buy the best equipment you can afford. Without a reasonable system you'll have no idea how accurate an image of the music you're getting. But even if you do splash out on an amp and speakers, how do know you're getting a true picture? The answer lies in listening to your mixes on as many other systems as possible, so that you know, for example, if you're tending to mix a little bass-heavy or aren't adding sufficient top end. Finally, don't think about mixing through headphones. Irrespective of what it may say on the box, headphones do not reproduce music in stereo. They reproduce it 'binaurally', which is quite different, and makes it all but impossible to set up an accurate stereo mix.

FEEL YOUR WAY You can take any approach to mixing you feel is appropriate to your music, from the 'wall of sound' (favoured by people as disparate as Phil Spector and hardcore guitar bands), to a cleaner, more considered approach where space is created around each instrument in terms of both frequency and time. The latter approach is undoubtedly the more time consuming. You need a good ear to determine the area of the frequency spectrum in which each sound predominates and to prevent too much overlap. But that's what professional studio engineers and producers are able to do, and the results usually speak for themselves. The most basic function of mixing - the balancing of levels between individual instruments (or tracks) - is not something anyone can advise you about. You know how you want your music to sound and the level controls are in your hands. But do bear in mind the likely destination for a particular mix. There's no mystery here. The primary requisite for the dance floor is a rhythm track which to hit the punters in the solar plexus. But apply the same bottom end to a song destined for someone's car stereo, and it'll cause major problems. Bass needs to be tailored quite specifically to the needs of a particular track. Using EQ, it's possible to strip away low frequencies to quite a high level before the ear will tell you anything is missing (though this is where having an accurate monitoring system is so important). Very low frequencies are often not audible but will soak up a high proportion of a speaker's available energy. Filtering them out can actually increase the perceived volume of the audible bass and will certainly reduce distortion at high sound pressure levels. As effective as EQ is in such applications, it can be something of a mixed blessing in the wrong hands. Use it to correct minor problems with individual sounds and to create space round certain instruments by filtering out unwanted frequencies, but don't rely on it as a universal panacea. Obviously, much will depend on the versatility of the controls; sweep and para-metric EQ is much more effective at homing in on problem areas of the frequency spectrum. But they can just as easily be responsible for raising the profile of certain sounds till they just don't fit in any more. There's no clear dividing line between the two, except to say that the ear is much more forgiving of frequencies which aren't there than those that are. So wherever possible, try cutting the frequencies you don't want, rather than boosting those you do.

WET, WET, WHAT? One of the areas of controversy which has divided musicians and producers for years is whether to record tracks 'dry' or 'wet'. No, it's nothing to do with towelling yourself off after you get out of the bath, it's down to whether you add effects such as reverb and delay before you record them or whether you leave them dry and add your effects during the mixing process. There are pros and cons to either approach which need to be carefully considered. Record your track with effects and they're impossible to remove subsequently. If at the mixing stage, you decide you have too much reverb on the vocals, you'll have to live with it, or re-record the performance. On the other hand, you may only have a single effects processor and want to use this for another effect on mixdown. So unless you do without the vocal reverb, you have no choice but to record with it. Vocals need reverb like England needs Michael Owen but overdo it and it's dead easy to lose the voice in a sea of mush. Reverb often has the effect of pushing vocals back in a mix. Great for preventing them sounding like they're sitting on top of it (as they often can when recorded dry) but not so good if it's masking an otherwise excellent performance. You can get round this by introducing a pre-delay to the reverb. This can be set up on most effects processors and can be applied to many instruments, but is particularly useful for creating space around a vocal or bringing it forward while giving it an 'aura' of reverb. You'll need to experiment with the pre-delay setting, but around 30-50ms should do. The tendency of reverb to clutter up a mix is something you need to listen for very carefully. And it's vitally important that you choose a program with the right reverb time for each track. 'Hall' programs sound great in isolation but can clog up the music quicker than the mud at Glastonbury. Short reverbs are great for creating interesting room ambiences and don't take up as much space in the mix, but can sound unnatural. This is one argument for not adding reverb until mixdown. When all your instruments are 'in place' you can properly assess the type and quantity of reverb you'll need. If this isn't feasible (perhaps you only have one effects processor) try to keep reverb to the minimum needed to achieve the desired effect and limit reverb times. Long reverbs often don't have time to subside before being retriggered and can accumulate in your mix like Glastonbury mud (yes I know I've said it already, but you should have seen it). Use pre-delays if they're available and don't reject the use of gated programs. The overuse of gating effects on drum sounds in the late 80s may have contributed to their current unpopularity, but they can be extremely useful in chopping of unnecessary reverb tails and creating space. Another trick is to limit the frequency response of reverb using either your mixer's controls, or your processor's built-in EQ (if it has it). This is best done by monitoring return signals from your reverb unit and cutting any unwanted frequencies or limiting those which appear to be obscuring the sound.

PANNING FOR GOLD The art of panning instruments and sounds to create a convincing stereo image is one of the most important in mixing, yet is frequently misunderstood. So often, you hear demo tapes where the instrument placing appears to have been carried out quite arbitrarily. It's like sharing sweets: one for this side, one for that side, and one in the middle for luck. Panning is an essential part of mixing; a means of achieving balance in your music as well as creating the transparency of a stereo image that we all take for granted in commercial recordings, but which can be difficult to reproduce. Though I'm loathe to talk about what usually happens in a mix (if we all did what 'usually happens', we'd still be playing whistles and banging hollow logs), there are a few basic ground rules which you really can't get away from. The first is that the dominant, low-frequency instruments invariably sound better placed at or around the centre of the mix. I'm talking here about the bass drum, the bass guitar or synth and any deep percussive instruments you may be using. Pan them too far left or right and your music will sound off-centre. Fine, if that's what you're aiming at, but there are much better ways of getting creative with your pan controls. One of the best is to set up some interesting rhythmic interplay using your different percussion sounds. Obviously, if you're using a sample loop for the drum track this may not be possible, but you could always augment it with additional percussion (such as cabasa or claves) and pan these to the left and right. Alternatively, try setting up a delay on one of your instruments and panning the dry and delayed signals to opposite sides of the mix. Lead vocals are also placed at the centre of mix in most recordings, though this has much to do with where you'd find the singer at a live performance. There's is certainly nothing to prevent you experimenting with the positioning of the vocals, particularly where you also have backing vocals as well which can be placed in a similar position on the opposite side to the lead vocals, to balance things out But again, hard panning left or right of any vocal parts can be difficult to live with. I should also remind you that pan controls are not static, and there's nothing to prevent you from panning instruments left and right during a recording. It's easily overdone, but in moderation it can provide a real sense of movement (quite literally) within a mix. A more subtle alternative would be to use a stereo chorus program on a effects unit which features auto-panning. This leaves the dry signal in place, but shifts the chorusing between the left and right speakers. And talking of effects brings us back to reverb which can be used to create a convincing stereo image from any mono source. By panning outputs left and right, you can use reverb to produce a much broader, more expansive sound, even at short reverb times. On the other hand, reverb may be upsetting your stereo imaging by changing the apparent location of a specific instrument. If this does occur, try panning the reverb to exactly the same point in the stereo field as the dry signal, preferably sticking to a mono effect.

INSTANT MIX FIXES To round things off, how about a couple of ways to provide an instant fix for your mix? If you've already mixed down to stereo and found the result disappointing, try sticking the entire mix through an aural enhancer. Though not always successful in treating a complete mix, they can alter the overall sound in subtle and distinctive ways, particularly processors which affect the stereo imaging. Alternatively, give the track to someone else to mix. The results may not be to your liking (at first), but I guarantee they'll reveal a side to your music that wouldn't have emerged had you been sat behind the mixing desk. What have you got to lose?

TIPS ON... Recording Vocals

If you've got a storming vocal on tape you're halfway towards a great production. PAUL WHITE offers some tips on perfecting this most important of recording skills. Even if all the music you make is created via MIDI, the chances are that at some time or other you'll have to record vocals using the traditional tools of a singer and a microphone. The vocal line is invariably the focal point of a song, so it has to be good, and because the human voice is the natural sound with which we are most familiar, any flaws in a vocal recording are immediately evident. Fortunately, providing you have a vocalist who can sing in tune, getting a good vocal sound isn't rocket science -- you just need to follow a few basic guidelines, and perhaps take advantage of a few tricks of the trade to help you get a professionally produced vocal sound.

Make sure the singer is well rehearsed, physically comfortable, and under no psychological pressure. Most singers perform best standing up in a room that has a comfortable but not over-warm temperature. If they are distracted by other members of the band or by hangers-on, send everyone but the engineer (and producer, if you have one) out of the studio.

Take time to get the vocalist's headphone mix right, and give them a little reverb to help them sing more confidently. If you can rig up a system which allows vocalists to adjust their own monitor level, it will make life a lot easier. A good headphone mix really helps to encourage a good performance.

Always use a pop shield between the singer and the microphone. Failure to do so will almost certainly result in unnatural 'pops' on plosive 'b' and 'p' sounds that can't be fixed afterwards. The pop shield may be a commercial model or a DIY job comprising stocking material over a wire coathanger frame (one such design was explained in the Cheap Tricks article in SOS February '95), or even a fine metal or plastic sieve or chip-pan splash guard. Any of these will do the job without affecting the tone of the mic. Foam wind shields are virtually useless in combating pops.

Use a good microphone: it doesn't have to be anything too special, but you should avoid low-cost 'bargain' models or those designed for use with home stereos or portable cassette recorders. Professional studios generally use capacitor microphones, but in the project studio a good back-electret mic or even a good dynamic vocal mic can produce excellent results. For more on these different types of mic, see April's SOS.

Pick a mic to suit the singer. Singers with thin or excessively bright voices may actually sound better with a dynamic mic, such as the ubiquitous Shure SM58, while those needing more of an open sound would benefit from a capacitor or back-electret mic. If you have several mic models to choose from, try a test recording with each and see which is most flattering to the vocalist.

Use the right mic pickup pattern: most project studio vocal recordings are made using a cardioid or unidirectional mic, as these pick up less sound from the sides and rear. However, an omni mic of a similar quality generally imparts a more natural, open sound and that can be useful if you're working with a singer who tends to sound nasal or boxy. If you work a couple of inches closer to an omni mic, you'll get close to the same 'direct sound to room sound' ratio you'd achieve with a cardioid.

Put the mic at the right distance, because if you get too close to it you'll increase the risk of popping and the level will change noticeably every time the singer moves slightly. Cardioid mics also exhibit a bass-boost 'proximity effect' that varies as the singer's mic distance varies. On the other hand, if the singer is too far away from the mic the room reflections will colour the sound, making it seem remote and boxy. As a rule, a mic distance of around six to nine inches (15-24 centimeters) is ideal.

Minimize the room's influence on your sound. The mic picks up both direct sound from the singer and reflected sound from the room. Reduce the room's contribution by keeping away from the walls and by improvising screens using sleeping bags or duvets behind and to the sides of the singer.

Use mic technique to help control level: if the singer can be persuaded to pull back from the mic slightly when singing louder notes, there's less risk of overloading the recorder or mic preamp, and you won't need to use so much compression to even things up. An experienced singer may also lean into the mic on quieter, more intimate passages to exploit the proximity effect. However, to prevent an inexperienced singer getting too close to the mic, position the pop shield about three inches (7.5 centimeters) from the mic.

Where possible, mount the microphone on a stand. Only let the singer hold the mic if to do otherwise would compromise their musical performance. When the singer is hand-holding a mic, particularly if it's a cardioid model, make sure they keep their hand clear of the rear of the basket, as obstructing this area can change both the directional and tonal characteristics of the mic.

Don't settle for anything less than the best vocal performance you can get, and don't expect to get it all perfect in one take. More often than not you'll have to punch in and out around phrases that need re-doing, but if you have enough tracks, get the singer to do the whole song several times and then compile a track from the best parts of each take. You can do this on tape by bouncing the required parts to a spare track, but hard disk editing is much more flexible in this respect.

Use suitable compression -- even well-disciplined vocalists tend to sound uneven against the very controlled dynamics of a pop mix, so it helps to apply a little compression while recording. Err on the side of using less compression than you think you will finally need, and use a compressor that has a reasonably neutral characteristic. Aim to achieve 5-8dB of gain reduction on the loudest signal peaks, and if the compressor has an auto mode, use it.

Don't be afraid to use more compression on the vocal track once it has been recorded. When the performance is in the bag you can try both subtle and heavy compression to see which works best with the track, though if you're using a lot of compression you may need to gate the vocal track first. This will prevent noise build-up in the pauses between phrases. It's at the mixing stage that a compressor with an obvious character can be used to make a vocal seem larger than life.

Don't gate the vocal while recording. A badly set-up gate can ruin an otherwise perfect take, so save gating until the mixing stage. Use the gate before any further compression, but don't gate so hard that you remove all the breath noises preceding words, as these are part of the character of a vocal performance, and the recording will sound unnatural without them.

Don't run amok with the EQ: on most budget desks the EQ only sounds decent when used sparingly or to cut unwanted frequencies. Mid-range boosting usually results in a nasal or phasey sound, so use as little EQ as you can. If you've picked the right mic, and taken the time to fine-tune its position during recording, you shouldn't need much corrective EQ anyway. Of course, there are times when EQ is used for creative purposes, and at such times it's best to use a good-quality outboard equalizer, because the difference between a budget EQ and a really good one is immense. Resist the temptation to pile on too much high-end boost, as this will enhance sibilance, bring up background noise and may make the end result fatiguing to listen to.

Use reverb sparingly: vocals recorded in a dry acoustic environment need reverb to give them a sense of space and reality, but don't use more than the song really needs. As a general rule, busy songs need less reverb and slower ballads with lots of space in the arrangement can afford to use more. Listen to some commercial records in a similar style to your own and see what reverb techniques the producer has used.

If the vocals are very brightly recorded, they may cause any added reverb to sound sibilant. Instead of de-essing the vocals (which often sounds unnatural), try instead de-essing just the feed to the reverb unit. You can also experiment with the reverb type and tonality to minimize sibilance and spitting.

If you do have to de-ess the vocals, try to use a split-band de-esser rather than the simpler compressor with an equalizer in the side-chain, as the split-band approach produces fewer undesirable side effects. It's always best to try to avoid sibilance by moving the mic slightly or by using a different mic, rather than trying to fix it afterwards. Pointing the mic slightly above or below the singer's mouth sometimes helps.

When you're using prominent echo or delay effects on a vocal, try to get them in time with the song, either by calculating the delay needed to match the tempo or by using the tap-tempo facility if one is provided. For a less obviously rhythmic echo, try a multi-tap delay with irregular tap spacings.

To ensure that the vocal is mixed at the right level in the song, listen to the mix from outside the room and see if the song has the same balance as something you might hear on the radio. The vocals are the most important part of the song and so must be well forward, but not so far forward that they sound 'stuck on' to the backing.

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