We all want to create music with emotional impact, but translating the vision in our head can be a challenge. In mixing and manipulating sound we must present a convincing illusion – it’s all about perception. Without this, mixes are flat, dull, and lacking in power. In blockbuster movies sound designers must sweeten sounds and layer them with “fake” elements to achieve perceived realism, because the actual sound of a prop gun or an eagle in the wild are unusable and sound nothing like your expectations.
Music is no different, and it’s full of strange contradictions. Adding distortion can increase clarity, and reducing bass can add power and volume. Understanding the difference between the voltage moving the meters, and the emotional impact of the sound is crucial to translating the vision in your head. This voltage takes up bandwidth, and the DAW is indifferent to your artistic vision – it only sees data. This is largely because your ears are sensitive to a specific frequency curve designed by evolution (Fletcher-Munsen curve) for survival and communication, and are focused on the human voice and higher frequencies. Tailoring your music so it’s harmonically balanced depends on understanding this curve. You have to make the tools work for you and optimize the audio to please your ears, but understand the limits of your DAW and what will hold you back.
Think of this bandwidth like a large square block of clay – you can carve it any way you want, layering elements and sculpting elaborate sidechains so everything glues together, but full scale is the limit. You can’t go above zero dB full scale, so you have to make compromises. Let’s look at several techniques to manage bandwidth, optimize audio, and increase the emotional impact.
1) Break up musical elements: chop up legato leads for space, trim overly long tails on soft synths (after bouncing down), gate effects to keep them in control, and spread out chords by transforming them into arpeggios. Allow musical elements to take turns with “call and response” phrasing. You don’t need every musical element firing all at once! Find ways to employ the “rule of three” – which states that the brain can only focus on a maximum of three simultaneous phrases. Try and “perform” your mix by muting different combinations of tracks and groups and see what this inspires. Don’t forget to let each element breathe and solo themselves, like a sub bass drop in a breakdown, or a snare hit before a drop. When only one element is playing, make it full spectrum! Let your snare be huge and add a big reverb. Your song arrangement will help dictate these creative choices.
2) Reduce the dynamic range: apply enough compression so that the levels are controlled, but aren’t destroying the body or transients of a sound. Use parallel compression blends to get the best of both worlds. Try getting loudness out of your busses rather than saving it for the master channel strip. You’ll have much more control over the process, and be better prepared for exporting stems and future-proofing your sessions. You can keep tons of dynamic range in your mix with trim automation on the busses and master – take advantage of it!
3) Chop the peaks: soft clip individual tracks and busses transparently (just enough so they remove any peaks) before they hit the master and make the limiter work too hard, sacrificing loudness and impact. Print audio extra-hot through analog gear and high end converters, then blend it in parallel according to taste (try 20%). Plugins to try: Sausage Fattener, K-Clip, Invisible Limiter, UAD Precision Maximizer, BX Saturator, and Sonnox Inflator.
4) Polish the atoms: find and remove ticks, automation jumps, pops, breathes, DC offset, and poorly cropped or mismatching zero thresholds on waveforms. Bounce your virtual instruments and trim those tails. These all add up and steal bandwidth!
5) Use all available space: white noise provides random frequencies at random intervals and is a great tool for filling up space in a way that pleases the ear. Use wideners to take advantage of the entire stereo field, while narrowing the bass (try Brainworx Control V2). Nudge tracks early and late to see how it affects the phase. Rush the highs, grid the mids, and delay the bass. Even a one msec change can make an enormous difference in a kick drum. Keep pushing and experimenting until something clicks.
6) Add harmonics: use plugins like Waves RBass or MaxxBass to add upper harmonics to bass sounds to increase perceived size and loudness. Use distortion to add texture and clarity (less is more). These harmonics will help your music translate to smaller speakers. Just make sure to hi-pass sounds after distortion as it will often add low-end buildup.
7) Balance the harmonics: check for dissonance, reduce unwanted resonant humps (try Fabfilter Pro-Q 2 “spectrum grab”), lock your EQ emphasis points to harmonic points in the key of the song (octaves, third, and fifths), and use EQ matching to balance the relative harmonics of a signal. Try Izotope’s Ozone matching EQ w/ a pink noise curve on your master, Logic’s match EQ, or Zynaptic’s Unfilter to balance the harmonic series.
8) Cut the mud: Hi-pass all your non-bass elements at 100Hz or higher, and don’t forget to EQ and optimize your effects returns. It’s worth exploring dynamic EQ plugins like SurferEQ that track the pitch and follow your leads and bass lines.
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