Sonic Real Estate:
Don’t get crushed in the game!
Welcome back! This edition we look at a subject that goes to dance music and beyond to all audio, all music, all genres in the mixing world. Using this very simple 2 step technique will keep your mix from getting crushed, and give your listeners some natural sonic space to stretch out and relax in.
First, let’s start from the end- The Loudness Wars that are happening today. In the loudness wars, producers, mixers, engineers strive to make the final product as loud as possible, without compromising quality, in efforts to sound louder and better than everybody else. This process most commonly uses a limiter, in other words a compressor set greater than a 20:1 ratio along with other options found on compressors. And this is what turns every dynamic precious work of transient-filled beauty into a “stick-of-butter” as far as the waveform’s visible shape. The reason for the stick of butter is that “0dB” is the absolute loudest output possible. When you put a limiter on a mix, it attempts to bring up the level of everything else to match the loudest transients of the entire mix, rather than squashing down the loudest transients, all the way to “0dB” (or more commonly used -.03dB).
Now the space between, and including, silence thru full volume is measured in two dimensions respectively; decibels and bit depth. Both are related and inseparable. While decibels are what you hear in terms of volume, bit depth is what you hear in terms of digital clipping. Unlike analogue clipping which can be very desirable in the recording or mixing process, digital clipping is always unpleasant to the listener’s ear and quite different.
When you are ready to put the final limiter on your mix, you may want to think of the task ahead of you as an empty box with an empty balloon sealed inside. The box is your digital bit depth, and the empty balloon is your mix. You want to blow up that “mix-balloon” until it fills up the box completely without doing any damage to it. BUT your balloon is more complex than the average balloon! YOUR balloon is made up of different frequencies that act like pieces to help your balloon fill up its box as best as possible.
Now, with your frequency “pieces” of the balloon, here are some rules: 1) the low frequencies will immediately hog up as much of the box as possible and 2) are very stubborn to work with making finer tweaks impossible from just this range alone, yet 3) they ARE the most predictable! Lows will almost always be the 1st or 2nd culprit when it comes to your mix sounding crushed, distorted, and or clipping. So, now that you know a couple fundamentals of how to get it WRONG, here’s 2 basic tips to help you to get it RIGHT! 1) Use your lo-cut / hi-pass on every single track! Seriously, even on hi hats and cymbals- EVERYTHING! One common default lo-cut roll off frequency I use lies around 187Hz. If you pay close attention to every instrument an use an eq to watch, you’ll see that even hats and cymbals can register down below 100Hz a tiny bit. BUT, all these frequencies do build up and end up running into each other between all the different instruments- and again, they’re all lows so they’re all taking up sizable chunks of sonic real estate. Go 1 track at a time, start with 187hz and find just the right sweet spot to roll off the lows for each individual track. This one simple trick and greatly improve the clarity, presence, and openness to you mix. 2) Regarding the low roll off frequency for your overall master, all different folks have different opinions so here is mine as well.
While I’ve learned from a reliable source that 41Hz was low enough to maintain all your lows and guarantee safe performance universally on audio equipment, I have since abandoned that old rule and just use my instincts these days resulting in almost no adjustments ever being made to the low roll off of the final stereo master. And there are tons of other ways to open up your mix using panning, delay times, times for your compressors, side chaining, and notch filtering of frequencies, etc. This was just a very simple introduction to the box that have to work within in terms of audio and to deliver the sad news that there is no “Easy Button” when it comes to mixing. You’re going to have to put in the work if you want the glorious sounding tracks!
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