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Once recording and editing are finished, audio engineers can take advantage of the training in Mixing and Mastering with Pro Tools to punch up the final output. Digidesign Certified Expert Brian Lee White covers all the basic mixing tools that every producer and engineer should know, from using EQ to add clarity and focus to using compression and limiting to maximize track levels within a mix. Brian stresses the importance of setting up a solid mixing plan prior to any work in Pro Tools, and gives advice on the best plug-ins for each stage of the process. Exercise files accompany the course.
EQ is an extremely powerful tool for shaping the frequency balance of elements in a mix. It can bring things forward or push them back, allowing you to create or take away focus, highlight important elements while keeping others from being distracting. EQ can help repair poor recordings and make samples and loops play nice with each other. Here are some tips that I have learned over the years while mixing with EQ. First off, one of the most important things you want to do when making EQ decisions is to not make them in isolation, or at least not make them in isolation as much as you can.
It's tempting to solo a track or solo a set of tracks and listen to them, like say the drums here, and then adjust their EQ or any plug-in that they're using. However, you are not going to be hearing the context of the Mix. So, generally what I like to do is if I need to solo something to listen to it, I'll solo it, listen to it, adjust the plug-in that I'm using and then I'll make sure to listen to it in context, and then I'll make more adjustments as I listen to that track in context. Now, sometimes engineers like to use this trick, which is kind of like solo in context, and that would mean not soloing the track but just pushing its volume up in the mix, so that it's much higher than everything else.
That way at least you have a sense of where everything else might be sitting in context to that one track. So another thing I would like to do is use EQ to create perspective in my Mix. Since Mix is largely about directing the listener to a specific focal point, it's not weird to think that one might purposefully make one element sound dull or in the back to make another one stand out. So a lot of times what I'll do is I'll cut from the high-end to make other things stand out.
And we looked at the Delay track here, where I'm actually cutting a lot of the high-end out from that Delay track and what that's going to do is reinforce the fact that the lead vocal is sort of standing out, in any delay tab, so it's going to sort of distance themselves back in time, and I'll do this with other elements in the mix, maybe I might have a loop or maybe I have a set of guitar tracks or a single guitar track which might be too bright in overpowering the vocal. What I'll do is I'll cut some of the high-end off to kind of force it into the background of the Mix.
So, sometimes your Mute button on a track is the most effective EQ you can use. And again, this comes back to the concept of thinking about the arranging process and how it relates to mixing. I have received mixes from clients and they will have elements in them that no matter what I do, no matter how much EQ, that element is just not fitting. And so what I'll do is I'll try to mute elements, as I'm playing back the track. So for example, if I listen here, and Mute out some elements as we are listening, we can kind of hear what that does.
(Music playing) (Male singing: We hit the town.) (Male singing: And I'll never forget that sound.) (Male singing: Tonight I fell asleep at the wheel.) So fortunately this song was well arranged and the decisions for putting in the different guitar parts and the different pieces, all set really well together, once EQed and fit into their specific place.
But I find that a lot of the times when I get a track, even tracks that I make myself, there are elements that are just not necessary, they are masking other elements and they are really not contributing to this song. So, think about the Mute button or even just mute automation, pulling things out and bringing them back in again, as an effective way or EQing or fitting things into the Mix. So when I think about EQ, I generally prefer cutting over boosting.
And the reason for this is that there is really two reasons. You have the sound of the EQ as much prominent when you boost. So any sort of sonic qualities that the EQ might be adding to the sound, with its amplifiers are going to be more pronounced. Since you might want this of using a really colored EQ that has some saturation effect added to it. Now, generally the other reason I tend to cut things is that when you boost too much, you eat up all the headroom in that equalizer, and so remember we talked about a mixer and a mix bus, and the concept of putting too many hot tracks together and eating up all the headroom on that device and clipping or distorting that device.
Well, that can happen in sort of what we are calling our little frequency mixer, the EQ, and this can actually happen in any effect. If we push the effect too hard, anything that can add gain to a signal can clip that processor. So if I was to take and push this, you would hear distortion. Solo this up. (Music playing.) So what's happening there is as I pushed the input and the output and I start pushing all these frequencies up, I'm actually clipping the output of the plug-in and this is not a good thing.
You got to remember when you boost stuff you are actually increasing the gain of those frequencies. So if you have a track that's sitting close to 0 dBFS in the computer, that means sort of the end of the line. dB Full Scale, and we measure it from zero down into negative DBs. And if you have a track that's sitting right around, let's say -5 dBFS, -4 dBFS and you boost 10K by 12 dB, you are totally going to chew up all your headroom in that specific plug-in and you are in danger of clipping, not only in the Mix, but also that processor.
So, you definitely want to use, if you are going to do radical boosting, use the Input and Output knobs in that processor. Most EQs have some sort of input or output attenuation that you can use to bring down the level before you do extreme boosting. It's going to reset my kick here. So, another thing that you want to do when you are thinking about EQ is to mind your low-end. And really pay attention to tracks that have a lot of low frequency content. Low frequencies are basically much bigger than high frequencies.
They take a longer time to develop or propagate in a space and so if you think of your Mix in terms of like packing a suitcase, you are going to be able to fit much fewer larger items into that suitcase, than smaller items like tooth brushes and tweezers and clippers and things like that. But if you want to take five pairs of huge boots that's probably not going to work out so well for you. So, when you are thinking about your low -end elements and when you are thinking about tracks, things tend to have too much low-end in them, especially things like virtual instruments and loops.
So what I like to do, I like to use a lot of filters, high-pass filters on things to pull out low- end from different elements. So if we look here, specifically at the B3 Organ, this is a really B3 Organ, and it's going to have some low-end. It was recorded off the Leslie Cabinet that it played through and in the context of this Mix worth seeing. It's kind of adding a little extra spice to things and if we've taken put too much of the low-end from the recording end, it's just going to cause mud.
And so what I have done here is just cut out using a high-pass filter everything below around 100 hertz and this is just going to keep things from getting too muddy in the mix. What I'll do is on all the instruments where I know there is really not a lot of low-end stuff going on, or I don't want it to go on, I'll use those high-pass filters to cut out that low-end. This is actually a really powerful mixing trick. I remember when I first learned this my mix is instantly cleaned up, because I got rid of the lot of the mud.
Now, you do want to be careful. I find that when most mixers learn this trick, they are like, oh, great. There is clarity. I can just remove all that mud that's causing all the problems. What ends up happening is they taken a filter too aggressively and they cut out all the warmth and the low mids from their instruments. So, while you might get a mix that has clarity, it's kind of thin in the middle, you get sort of a smiley face, where you are kicking your bass down at one end, and the rest of your instruments are at the other end, and there is nothing warm that's filling it in the center.
So be mindful of your high-pass filters, but it is a very powerful technique to achieve clarity in your mix. If you go through this mix, you will see me using a lot of high-pass filters on the elements that I don't think need to have low-end and even on the elements that do have low-end, I'll tend to cut much lower, let's say around 40 hertz or 30 hertz, because most speaker systems just can't produce that and I just kind of want to help that process out and in fact when something goes to vinyl, it can't have much lower than 50 hertz. The grooves in the nature of the medium just won't allow for that.
So, you want to make sure that you work within an instrument's frequency range and there are a lot of graphs out here that can show you where that instrument is going to live, but remember you generally want to understand that frequencies of specific instruments relate to the pitch of that instrument, and that's what relate to the key of the song and sort of the melody that the instrument is playing. So if I think about a Vocal and I think about where that vocal is sitting in the mix, what I'm going to do is kind of identify what's the lowest note that singer is singing and can I get away with putting a high-pass filter down there to kind of remove any low frequency rumble, and might be getting into the mike without jeopardizing that lowest note that he or she is going to sing and this is different depending on the key of the song and the range of the vocalist.
So you got to think about the instrument, and where those pitches live and how those pitches relate to frequencies. Some people kind of call this spectral mixing where they will sort of identify frequencies and kind of decide okay, is this contributing to the melody of my tune and the key of my tune? And in fact a specific example of that would be on your kick drum. Now, your kick drum isn't generally pitched in pop music and hip hop or more urban genres, we'll hear pitched kick drums like 808 and things like that.
But if I solo up my kick here, if I'm boosting too much with a very narrow band, I can actually give the kick a pitch and this might not be a good thing. So, let's listen. (Music playing) So you hear how the kick is sort of taking on a note or a pitch of its own.
This can really be a problem when you are trying to get it to sit in a song. Especially if the pitch that that kick is taking on is in direct opposition with the key of the song, and the notes in the song. So you really want to be very careful with how you are doing extreme boosts on the kick and in fact, what I'll do is I'll actually use these concepts and maybe what I'll do is I'll cut certain frequencies that I know that bass fundamentals going to want to sit with. And you don't have to get too mathematical about it, I have tried looking at the chart for every instrument that I have done and making sure that what's the key of the song, what I'm doing here? And in theory it would make sense that all that stuff would end up working out.
But generally that my ears guide me, and I just a mindful of how the frequency and pitch relate. Now, what you can do a real cool exercise is take a Spectrum Analyzer and see where specific instrument is going to live in your mix, so if I go to the guitar bus here, and I'll bring up a plug-in called Inspector Free. This is a free plug-in you can download from Roger Nichols Digital. You just type it in Google and you can find the download there and what this is going to do, it's going to allow me to analyze the frequency content of a track or a set of tracks. =Let's listen.
(Music playing) (Male singing: We hit the town.) (Male singing: And I'll never forget that sound.) So, I could really see how those tracks were kind of focused right around 100 and 200 and that's kind of where the fundamental or the meat of those guitars are just going to live. And so, what I don't want to do is I probably don't want to take a filter and go in and filter them at let's say like 200, probably not going to sound so good.
(Music playing) (Male singing: We hit the town. And I'll...) What I did I just robbed all of the body or meat out of those instruments and so remember when you go back to using those high-pass filters, you want to be aware of where things live. Now, the Spectrum Analyzers aren't a replacement for your ears, but you can use them to help you understand how something sounds versus where its frequencies or its predominant resonant frequencies exist when you are looking at how they relate in context to other elements.
So, you might find lists out on the Internet or in books that will tell you specific frequencies to treat on specific instruments. You will hear someone say, well the thump on a Kick is exactly at X hertz or the snap on a Snare is at Y hertz. And this is great. These give you a good example of where those instruments live and where some of the places that you can think about boosting or cutting are. However, you want to listen to your own instrument before you just go blindly follow these and I know that makes sense, right.
That sounds like it makes sense, but so many people I see just take a book with the list of frequencies and say well this book said to cut at 200 Hertz in my vocal, I didn't really understand why and maybe I didn't even listened to my vocal track but the book is published so they must be right. And they probably are right in the broader context of different instruments and where things generally live. But until you listen to your specific instrument, until you take an EQ and you sweep it around and you listen to where that stuff lives.
(Music playing) (Male singing: We hit the town.) You're never really going to know what's going on there. So you want to use your ears. Be careful with using presets. If I just go and select a preset here, it might work, it might not. I might need to adjust it. But just be mindful that every instrument, every recording is unique especially when it comes to EQ. You definitely want to pay attention and listen to what's actually going on, rather than just sort of blindly following some recipe or list.
So, one of the more sorts of advanced things I like to consider when I'm working with equalization is sort of the stylistic concerns of the music and how it relates to approaching the EQ. The tempo and the key and a lot of these things can play into how I'm using EQ. We talked about how pitch and frequencies relate and so how that would relate to key, but there is also tempo. So when you think about like a heavy metal tune, it's so fast that the Kick Drum, which is generally playing 16th notes or blast beats, it can't have a lot of low frequency information.
So maybe even the bass is playing 16th notes. The lowest elements in those mixes could be detuned guitars. And so, again this is an example. We are just following frequency maps of where things live. It's just going to fall apart. In general, faster songs tend to have less room for low-end and you kind of got to mix them a little bit tighter as far as EQ is concerned, and really be mindful of that low-end. So think about breaking your mix up into different frequency zones. Like low, low-mid, mid, high-mid and highs.
And kind of manage these zones like you are managing departments in a business and ultimately I want to make sure I'm running an efficient business, an efficient mix. A lot of times you don't really need five things doing the same things, sometimes you do but ask yourself these tough questions and go back to the arrangement stage, and see if you can make adjustments or optimizations that are going to help you in the mix, because ultimately mixing is about the bigger picture of the song and the arrangement. So again, take some time to go through the demo session. Look at some of the EQ choices.
See if you can identify some of the thought processes that went into making these decisions. Ask yourself, would you have made different decisions, would you have placed the instruments differently around the vocal, and why would you have done that? Remember that there is no right or wrong answer here. The goal is to learn how to think critically as opposed to working from a recipe or sort of copy/paste approach.
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