How To Squeeze More Emotion From Your Tracks
Years ago Neil Young unveiled a hi-res music player called Pono that promised a huge improvement in sound quality, touting 192k 24bit files that would reveal songs in all their detailed glory after being transferred from their original tape multitrack masters. One year later the Toblerone shaped product was discontinued, citing a variety of industry factors for its demise: bad timing, data costs, label politics, and celebrity delusions of grandeur. It was a noble vision – of course we should be championing higher sound quality and raising our standards – I even bought one. I also wanted to believe that hi-res files would equate to huge leaps in sound quality, but it’s simply not true after a certain point of diminishing returns. High resolution can make a difference for extremely detailed sources like orchestras, but for most popular music it is overkill. Great to capture at hi-res, but playback is another beast entirely – 320 mp3s are fine. However with satellite radio, the bandwidth limits become very real and audio quality suffers so they can offer a broader array of channels.
The biggest factors in sound quality will always be the composition, the performance, the recording of sources, the mixdown, the mastering, and the playback device chain (software, converter, cables, amp, speaker). A bigger file played on $10,000 monitors will not inject more emotion into a performance. If you dig into what makes vinyl, tape, and early drum machines and samplers so desirable, it’s not so much the “unlimited depth” of analog or possibilities of early digital, it’s the flaws of the medium that define the character: Pleasing distortion, natural compression, randomness and flux, and bit and resolution crushing due to sample size data limits. It’s more about achieving emotional character rather than fidelity or clarity. The limits of the medium added more harmonics and texture to the mix allowing instruments to cut through the mix and translate better to speakers. It wasn’t about having more data and sampling time, it was how you curated the voltage and managed the bandwidth of the medium to achieve the sonic vision in your head. Even HD TVs have hit the capacity for what our eyes can discern as quality, so they are focusing more on HDR – better pixels, rather than just more pixels (resolution size).
Mixing and mastering records is all about curating that emotional data, and finding a balance to achieve an emotional impact for the song. Every song is a different puzzle to unlock, determined by the raw materials (tracks, samples), genre, tempo, and key. Which sounds should have priority? How should they be treated? What can be taken away? A well-mixed and mastered song should translate to any speaker. For a mixing engineer, the real “canvas” isn’t just the spectrum and the stereo field, it’s the meters and the electrical information they display. Your VUs can be pinned from excessive bass information you might not need The computer doesn’t know which information is important, and what is OK to throw away. Peaks don’t always equate to emotion. It’s up to you to massage the data and use the available headroom to serve the song.
How do you achieve maximum emotion with minimal bandwidth? Assuming you’ve got great singers, players, samples and the composition is great, let’s explore eight different ways to manage those volts and get the most out of your recordings.
Isolate the emotion:
What provides the emotional quality in your song? Is it the chord voicings, the pitch, timbre and vibrato of the singer or instruments, the swing/quantization of your beat, the grace notes, the pump of the side chain, the background ambient drones? Every song is different. Determine the highlight in each section of your arrangement, and then push it harder! Distortion will change how chord voicings interact, auto-tune can enhance or destroy the quality of the vibrato, and the intensity of side chain compression can entirely change the groove of a song.
Bring down the peaks, bring up the RMS
Use plugins like Standard Clip to chop off the very tops, while bringing up the average level. This is usually done by boosting the input and bringing down the output. Usually your peaks will be coming from quick transients like snares and claps. The track will become louder, while taking up less space in the mix. Carefully A/B the two and look at the meters: make sure the RMS is louder, and that peaks aren’t going into the red.
Aim for texture, then blend:
Clipping analog converters and applying amp modeling, distortion and bit crushing are excellent ways to the reduce the dynamic range. Some plugins like UrsaDSP Boost allow for loudness without coloration. Blend your clipping, distortion, and crushing effects in parallel for a more controlled mix. Start at 50% wet and find your desired balance, making sure to A/B so you’re not just raising the overall level, but the perceived loudness. Make sure to filter out any unwanted subharmonics and higher harmonics introduced by distortion.
Simplify to amplify:
Solo combinations of tracks and see which ones can be muted for certain sections or removed entirely. Push the remaining important tracks harder. The arrangement is the mixdown!
Group to glue:
Gang similar sonic elements together and compress them so they are working together rather than against each other, and reduce the dynamic range.
Cut the deadwood:
Remove the information you don’t need – bass from the sides of a track or master, clicks and peaks that don’t add anything to the mix, and subsonic information that your ear can’t hear. This depends entirely on the vision and the genre.
Consider bussing your tracks out to analog gear that has more headroom and “randomness.” Even a $60 Alesis 3630 (the Daft Punk compressor) will make the sound fatter and more 3D, when used in parallel.
Avoid fear stacking: If you find yourself overlayering, try finding a better instrument preset or sample and use a better processing chain. It’ll work better than trying to carve the EQ and shoehorn in a bunch of different layers for each part of the spectrum
Read my earlier post about Maximum Emotion Minimal Bandwidth:
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