Mixing Music with Creative FX
Mixing Music with Creative FX | Mixing Desk
by Mr Steve Powell
The signal chain is something always at work whether you’re in the studio, playing around with beats on the computer at home or playing a synthesiser live at a gig. If you are purely a performer, your worry with the signal chain ends when your voice seeps melodically into the microphone, or perhaps at the point your electric guitar strings leave their mark in the magnetic field of the pickup. However, if you have anything to do with the recording or production of sound, the signal chain can mean an awful lot.
If you’re mixing music with creative FX on a mixing desk or in your DAW, it’s always good to know about how and why the electrical signals that represent your sound work the way they do around whatever equipment you use. Connectors, sampling rates, tubes, data formats, bit-rate, compressor circuits, noise ratios and many other considerations can be crucial in protecting the quality of the sound. Equally, in the case of analogue equipment especially they can subjectively improve the sound, adding richness, colour and depth. Equally again, especially easily in the digital domain, sound can be degraded, it’s quality to be lost forever. Forgot to change the sampling rate back up for that awesome guitar solo you just recorded? Unlucky… just changing the sampling rate of the recording won’t bring the quality back. Thankfully it’s not all doom and gloom because a) the guitarist just may pull an even better one out the bag, and b) if you make sure it’s all set right, digital audio can be pretty good. One of the best things about it is the ways in which you can route audio around your DAW, manipulating sound and creating new ones.
Having a different compressor for every track even in a reasonably modest (for modern times anyway!) sixteen track project is a fairly lofty dream for most of us in outboard terms. Add to that an EQ for each track, a pre-amp for each of the microphones recording a band, a smattering of FX units and whatever else and we’re far beyond the size of the space most of us have to work in, let alone the reach of our budget. Therefore, working ‘in the box’ is an attractive idea, not only for the money and space but for what it offers us musically. Taking Logic Pro as the environment to play around and experiment in, it’s easy to add an effect, move it, copy it, save the settings, put it on a bus, route to it from a bus, side-chain it with other audio and the list goes on. This gives the opportunity of being able to do pretty much what we want, how we want it, to the limits of our computer (which is by no means a small consideration).
So, for our first classic routing trick, we present… The vocal chop! Fantastic for building up to chorus with lead vocals, or for adding to backing vocals for adding rhythmic presence. To get this effect, place a noise gate on the vocal track, or create a gated copy of the vocal track just for the chopped vocals. Then route all the sound sources you wish to activate the gate (i.e. chop into the sound) to their own bus. On the gate plug-in, select that bus as the side-chain, press play and there you have chopped vocals. You can then set the envelope of the ‘chop’ with the gate, set how low the gate holds the volume with ‘reduction’, and set how sensitive to audio you want the gate with the ‘threshold’. If you want to set the gate to be triggered with something else apart from already existing audio, simply place any sample where you want on the timeline and route to the bus that sets off the gate. Samplers on midi tracks can also be used. Just make sure that if you don’t want the audio triggering the gate to be heard, simply change the bus to ‘pre-fader’, lower the volume slider and all will be well.
Whilst this example is making a very obvious addition to the arrangement of the track, signal routing is often used in far more subtle ways. Consider this: you want add delay and reverb to a guitar part. Which way round do you put them? If you were to place the delay first, you would get the sound of the original guitar part reverberated, plus the delays reverberated the same way. Around the other way and you get the reverberation of the guitar part being delayed rather than the other way round. This subtle difference may not be something that is immediately noticeable when buried in the mix, but it can make a big difference to how the guitar sits in the mix, or how it sounds when the solo is on. In a similar way, if an instrumental part has some of it’s low end EQ’d off and then sent to a reverb, the reverb may sound a little tinny or lacking in depth because it has no low end to fill it out. The solution: to send the signal to the reverb before the EQ cut. Just as easily the extra low end could be making a mix muddy with reverb, so sending it after the EQ cut would be better.
Going back to some more extreme signal routing, the sky is pretty much the limit to what you think up to do with all the tools at your disposal, but here are a few ideas. Create a separate track with a delay for drums and place a phasor or flanger after the delay for fuzzy delay taps. Try giving a sound a really long reverb tail then using the same gate triggering technique as mentioned earlier to chop into it. Don’t be scared of the Logic 9 environment, it’s much easier than it looks and has got some treasures packed away in there. The arpeggiator can be linked up to samplers for crazy melodic patterns and random sample triggering; great for IDM. Try copying a drum beat onto a different track, offsetting it by a beat or two and using it to side-chain the compressor on the bass track. With that you get an extra, wonky sounding rhythmical element to the bass track as it’s volume jumps about off-set to the beat. You can try pretty much anything you want; gates and compressors are great for creating rhythmic variation especially, reverbs and delays for texture.
In all these situations it’s always best to think about what’s happening to the sound all the way through the signal chain and try out different combinations in different orders to see what happens. Even more importantly though, don’t worry about which order to do them in or that some producer uses them in a certain order. Take inspiration from everywhere you can of course but let your ears and your intuition be your greatest guide.