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Freakin' the Faders
By Jason Scott Alexander
Apr 1, 2006
More musicians than ever take a jack-of-all-trades approach to producing their work, writing, arranging and recording entire projects themselves. Wearing the mixer hat, however, can seem far less tangible because for many, mixing is like a mysterious science that's completely separate from the other processes. Additional unique challenges involved with mixing electronic music often send amateurs running for guidance. Luckily for them, an elite group of expert knob twiddlers — Manny Marroquin, Tony Maserati, Ken Lewis, Charles Dye and Alvin Speights — has shared some of the secrets behind mixing urban electro, pop, hip-hop and R&B. With countless Gold, multi-Platinum and Grammy Award — winning albums between them, you won't find five better minds to tap for tips from the trenches.
THE LO DOWN
One of the hardest things in mixing urban music is learning how to treat the unique blend of low-end frequencies and dynamics generated by electronic beats and bass-heavy arrangements. Often, mixers begin removing competing bass elements from the get-go, muting or severely EQing them out, effectively changing the arrangement via subtractive mixing.
Marroquin prefers to first look for a focal point in the layers of bass and then build around that with secondary elements. As opposed to a club, where you feel bass as much as you hear it, on a record, bass frequencies must be extremely focused and prioritized for the listener. “If a song has an 808, a kick and bass, my philosophy is that the song or style will let you know which one is to be the focal point,” says Marroquin. “If it's East Coast hip-hop, it might be the kick; if it's Southern, it's the sub. Let the song tell you which is the most important, but you always have to have a focal point. From there, I move on to the secondary element — the kick, for instance. I do a lot of subgroup bus EQing, like placing a Motown EQ on a fader, so you EQ all the high or low mids out of the sub.”
To separate 808 and kick elements from each other, Speights uses an additive approach, applying plug-ins that emphasize the intended job of each. “On booms, I use the Waves C4 to control the main punch so that it really hits in the mix and throw on a Waves Renaissance EQ to add a high mid hit and low mid punch,” says Speights. “On the kick, I use the C4 again to be sure that the frequencies don't mess with the boom, but they have to keep their power going in the mix overall.”
Maserati likes to carve out specific niches in the low end between the kick and bass. “The low-mid freqs tend to be the most bothersome, and I do some notching out in the 190Hz to 600Hz range, depending on the instruments,” says Maserati. “If it's a song where the kick is carrying the low, low stuff (60 Hz), then I make room in the bass for that or vice versa. Same thing goes for the keys [piano, Rhodes, Wurlitzer and so on] — I sculpt out room for the low mid of the vocal to sit comfortably. I do a lot of notching out of things that I don't want or need and push hard the things I like.”
With rhythm sections in urban and electro-pop, changing the shape and balance by even a single dB between the kick, snare and hi-hat can drastically alter a track's vibe. For that reason, Marroquin likes to perform even more selective and scalpel-like subtractive EQing around the frequencies he wishes to emphasize.
“There are usually only two reasons I EQ,” notes Marroquin. “One is for sonic purpose, and the other is for feel. You start to listen to things and say, ‘This is a sonic change, but how is it going to change the feel?’ If the kick and bass are fighting each other, or if I need more pluck on the bass, for example, I think the opposite: What other area could I treat that would make it sound like it's got more pluck? If I take mids around 3 kHz out around that area, the bass will naturally sound like it's got more pluck. So you make up the gain by bringing their faders up to make up for the volume decrease, but the sonic balance stays intact.”
ALL ABOUT THE VOCALS
Carrying the song's message (and often its melody), the vocals are the most important instrument in your mix, and the singer has to sound like a star. Dye's vocal inserts chain starts with the Waves C4 plug-in. Waves calls it a Multi-band Parametric Processor, others call it a dynamic equalizer, and legendary mixer Bob Clearmountain says it's “like cheating.” Splitting the vocal into four bands and compressing each separately, it allows you to control excessive frequencies such as high mid harshness, low mid woofiness and over-aggressive proximity effect. But because a vocal performance may swing from soft to hard and from low notes to high notes, so will those frequencies.
“In response, the C4 changes its EQ curve over time, doing automatically what no mixer can do” says Dye. “I start with the Pop Vocal preset and adjust my thresholds from — 30 to — 40 dB, depending on the vocal's frequency response. The end result is a vocal with a consistent sound throughout the song. Since the C4 doesn't really sound like compression, I usually compress the vocal as well.” For that, he turns to another Waves plug-in, Renaissance Vox. That is a compressor similar to Renaissance Compressor, but with settings optimized for vocals. “I use it to bring out the attacks of each syllable adding to the vocal's intelligibility and to even out the dynamics of the delivery, so every word can be heard. This is especially important in up-tempo tracks,” notes Dye.
In Renaissance Vox, there is mainly one setting — the threshold — and you adjust it to get the amount of compression that you want. Dye will normally compress a vocal anywhere from 2 to 10 dB, depending on how compressed it is already and how dense of a production is going on behind it. Faster-tempo songs often require more compression to keep the vocal up front, and slower songs require less. Regardless of tempo, vocals need more compression to compete with denser arrangements and less with more open tracks. The key is to keep the vocal just on top of the mix, without overpowering it.
Along with compression, bringing out the vocal's air and its upper mid emotional content often requires a generous amount of top-end EQ later in the signal chain, which will make the Ss sound painfully bright. To combat that, a de-esser cuts down on the Ss and other bright consonants while leaving the brightness of the vowels.
“Whether you're in a megabucks or a budget studio, the most important task is controlling sibilance,” says Marroquin. “If your vocals are harsh, the listener's attention goes to the poor-sounding mix and away from the song. But you gotta be careful with de-esser plug-ins. What I do is sidechain the signal, so every time 7 kHz comes out of the vocal, it will attenuate that signal. But you have to watch out for the presence of the vocals, too. You dip too much, and you lose all the energy, because the Ss add life. And be careful of the presets, because they are misleading sometimes. A female pop-vocal preset may be set for 7 kHz, and you're really after 4 kHz. You gotta go based on what you hear,” suggests Marroquin.
Dye also uses the Waves DeEsser with the sidechain set to highpass filter (HPF), so it reacts only to the bright consonants (Ss, Ts, Ks, and so on), but not to other parts of the vocal. He prefers to de-ess after compression (because he finds that it sounds more even) and before EQ (because it gives him more top-end headroom with the EQ). For that, he often employs his Sony Oxford EQ with filters.
“This is a fantastic EQ,” says Dye. “Amazingly pristine, incredibly flexible with a gorgeous top-end sound. I start with the Type-2 EQ. I'll normally use the HPF at 60 to 80 Hz to roll off any unwanted low end or boominess, and I'll first cut any problem frequencies. Then there are a few ranges where I may boost to bring out certain qualities in the vocal — obviously all situation-dependent. The ranges are 100 Hz for men and 200 Hz for women to bring out the vocal's fundamental, 220 to 280 Hz to add warmth, 2.2 kHz for midrange cut and intelligibility, 5.5 kHz for presence, and 16 kHz for vocal air. I generally prefer a narrower Q of around 1.3.”
To give vocals larger-than-life qualities and put the singer in an ambience that fits the mood of the track, Dye likes to fill his aux sends with a combination of time and chorusing effects. But he's always careful not to overdo it because too much can actually hide the singer's emotions.
A nice plate reverb with a decay of 1.5 to 1.7 seconds and set to a very low send level, a pre-delay of 30 to 60 ms and an HPF post-reverb of 80 Hz to prevent muddiness makes the artist not feel so naked in the mix. Another trick many mixers use to make lead vocals sound larger is to barely add a quarter-note delay to give the illusion that the singer is in a large space and that the voice is projecting all the way to the back wall and echoing off of it. With a feedback of 17 to 25 percent and a lowpass filter (LPF) at about 6 kHz, this sounds great on choruses. On verses, Dye suggests using a shorter eighth-note delay because verses are usually sung in a smaller voice than choruses.
Many newcomers to mixing find background vocals challenging — especially those lush female backgrounds popular in hip-hop and R&B.
“What I try to do with the backgrounds is make them sizzle and warm at the same time,” says Speights. “I start with Waves DeEsser, hitting hard around 5.5 kHz, then I add [Urei] 1176 compressor to color and control the levels. At that point, I use the [Waves] Renaissance 6-band EQ with a 5dB boost at 15.5 kHz and a 2 to 4dB boost at 3.5 kHz, then boost the warmth between 200 to 400 Hz until you feel it. Put that up in the mix until it fits, spreading them with a stereo delay [34 ms on the left channel and 44 ms on the right], and that oughta take you to heaven!”
Maserati primarily draws on Oxford, Waves and McDSP EQs for background vocals, using them to notch out “honky” and “nasally” frequencies, and turns to outboard Neve, Chandler, GML, Manley or API EQs for boosting top and upper mids. For Maserati, the internal blends of backgrounds are usually set by the artist/producer, but he reworks the panning so that nothing is lost in mono.
“I do quite a lot of leveling in mono,” says Maserati. “I find that really allows me to hear what it will sound like in almost any situation and from anywhere in the listening environment. I sometimes add a bit of doubling with Waves Doubler, which has a slight up and down pitch shift on either side, as well as delay. That's an old, standard trick, but it works nicely if you send the opposite side of the stereo blend to stereo doubler. A bit of short room or inverse room [reverb] will make your backgrounds sound bigger and more cohesive.”
Marroquin has mixed a lot of pop piano, most notably for Alicia Keys' biggest hits. Many new mixers find that piano falls directly in the sweet spot for most female vocals.
“I always call 7 kHz the Piano Freq,” says Marroquin. “If you add a bit of 7 kHz to any piano, it will magically separate from the vocals and really pop with presence. It just keeps the two from competing, and makes everything fall into place without ever touching the faders.”
A REAL KICK
When working with fully acoustic drum-kit tracks, the kick is one of the most difficult instruments in urban styles. Dye has a winning formula. “First, I call up DUY's DaD Valve,” he says. “It's an amazing plug that emulates tube saturation. I actually use the Snare setting on the kick as it adds a nice punch to the lows and has good high mid definition. Not every kick requires Valve, but when they can benefit from an added chunkiness, I'll use it with the input set for the right amount of saturation, sometimes backing it off to — 2 or — 3 dB.”
Using Waves C1 Gate, Dye then contours the length of the kick and cleans up the sound to make room for the top-end EQ that is applied later. His settings are as follows: Attack to 0.07 ms; Hold to 125 to 200 ms (the faster the tempo, the shorter the time); Release to 30 ms; and the Floor (dB of gating) at — 15 to — 20 dB to clean up the leakage, leaving some behind to maintain the live ambience and realism.
“I trigger my kick with a copy of the kick-drum track that is advanced 3 ms,” says Dye. “This creates a look-ahead gate and prevents the annoying click when a gate opens if it is triggered by the original track.”
From there, it goes into Waves' Renaissance Compressor, where the goal is to bring out the attack of the kick to create a longer, more solid and even sustain and to even out the dynamics of the performance. Dye uses the Opto setting with ARC (Auto Release Control) on, Ratio at 4:1, Attack at 4, Release at 199, Saturation at Smooth, and the threshold at 1 to 2 dB of compression.
Tape saturation, such as DUY DaD Tape, is a great final touch for a kick, giving it punch and thickness with a nice element of distortion on the attack. Similarly, if space needs filling around the kick, Dye throws in a little Princeton Digital Reverb 2016 Stereo Room, with a decay of about 0.7 seconds. “In a slower song with a sparser arrangement, I may use a longer reverb, like Trillium Lane Labs TL|Space with an EMT 140 Plate impulse response and a decay of 1.2 to 1.7 seconds. I may also automate the reverb by adding it to more open verses of up-tempo songs and muting it in busier choruses.”
Ken Lewis loves the digital benefits of plug-ins that characterize his hard-hitting, aggressive sound. “There are very few analog compressors that have the capability of incredibly fast attack and release times. This is easy with digital, and you can shape sounds differently because of it. Sometimes I take the Waves L1 limiter and just murder a sound with it. Because of the zero attack time and the insanely fast release times, you'll occasionally get cool compression effects. It rarely works with percussion, but often with vocals, samples or bass lines, you'll get sounds that you can't get any other way.”
Lewis also encourages new mixers not to be timid with mixing techniques but to push their gear past its limits. “I think the Joe Meek Compressor plug-in sounds most analog when it's driven to the edge of distortion. Sometimes the Waves L1 sounds amazing when the threshold is all the way down. I've often distorted SSL channels or outboard mic pres for a certain effect, and often half the sound of mixing hip-hop on an SSL is overloading the channels. Conservative mixing should be saved for Kenny G records.”
To read more expert advice on avoiding pitfalls common to newbie mixers, go to http://www.remixmag.com/.
NOT LETTING THE SONG GUIDE YOU
“The vocal should be the feature, which doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be really loud, but the mix needs to leave space for the vocal to shine. When I hear a song and I can’t understand the vocal, I’m rarely drawn to it, even if the beat is hot. Having said that, I also hear a lot of mixes that sound like Karaoke—the vocal sounds as though it was added on top of the beat instead of mixed as a song. Everything must work together.” — Ken Lewis ”If I’m mixing a piano driven artist— Alicia Keys for example—the piano is going to drive you. Vocals may need to be under the piano in that case. Always follow the song,” — Manny Marroquin
“If each instrument has a full-range sound you are guaranteed a mushy, indistinct mess with absolutely no clarity or definition. But by making instruments sound “bad” in solo, with a narrow bandwidth, they will work extremely well in the final mix. Cutting unnecessary frequencies and centering each instrument’s energy in the area where they musically contribute most to the mix will focus the listener’s attention on each part—without distracting them from the others.”
— Charles Dye
“I often hear inexperienced mixers rave about 6-band or 10-band parametric EQs. Most of the time I don’t use more than two bands to EQ a sound, and I’ve never used a 10-band parametric. Let your ears guide your equalization and not your eyes. The first time I saw a Pultec I said, ‘Why would anybody use that? Its only got low and high!’ I was young.” — Ken Lewis
“[Newbies] don’t have the discipline to say, ‘Shit, I don’t need EQ.’ I’d rather you not EQ than add tons of bands of EQ, only to have it change the next moment ’cause you changed another track. Personal studios have the luxury of sitting with a project for a day, so use that luxury and live with a track totally un-EQ’d for a day and see what it’s like."
— Manny Marroquin
NOT KNOWING HOW TO BEGIN
“I mix fairly quickly, and within a half hour the music is usually starting to take shape. Once it begins feeling like a song, I back the volume off to normal and sometimes randomly change it up from really quiet to really loud. At some point late in the mix I’ll listen very loud again, this time not for the adrenaline, but because I want to make sure there aren’t any piercing or painful frequencies in the mix that I missed. I never want my mix to be pumping in a club and people are covering their ears.” — Ken Lewis
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