Live by the ethos: source is king
I only began getting great results when I realised that the source sound is the most important thing in achieving a professional mix. It’s a simple tip but nonetheless very important and often overlooked by people, especially when starting out. In a nutshell, it’s all about getting the best possible result you can before reaching for effects and processing.
Why is good source sound so important?
Post processing can only help you so much in making a sound really shine. Or finding a place for it in the mix.
Even if you plan to destroy something with distortion you will be better served by destroying a nicely recorded sound.
How to improve your source sound
Below we’ll look at some of the key areas your source sound could easily be letting you down, and what to do about it.
Pick the right mic
Bruce Swedien, the legendary engineer of Michael Jackson, rarely used EQ and compression. Instead he relied on the different characteristics of his many mics and spent a lot of time on positioning them.
Singers – before buying a mic, get yourself down to a professional studio and try a few different mics out to see what suits your voice best.
Try different mic positions
We don’t all have the luxury of having many microphones, but we can all experiment with positioning. Try different positions in the recording room and changing the placement in front of your singer. For example, a darker sound may be achieved by positioning the mic off-axis. Brighter sounds may be captured by singing directly at the capsule. And more bass will be picked up by utilising the proximity effect and singing very close to the microphone.
Spending some time with this before recording may negate the use of extensive EQ later on. And the result will always be more natural.
For synths it always means going back to the synthesiser controls. I can’t stress how important this tip is, in particular for electronic dance music/EDM. Even if you’re mainly using presets in your productions, learning basic synthesis will give you the ability to fit those sounds in to your track before reaching for creative effects or EQ and compression.
Manipulate envelopes to get the right shape
The most important section in shaping the sound is going to be the amplifier envelope. Here we can make a sound softer or more aggressive in it’s attack, louder or quieter in it’s body and tighter or more flowing in it’s release. We can also change the timing and the groove by adjusting the envelope which is extremely difficult to do with post processing.
– If the sound is too thin or too fat then try adjusting the filter section or changing the waveform’s over in the oscillator section.
– For a sound that cut’s through the mix aggressively, a saw tooth wave with a high pass filter is a good example.
– A square wave with a low pass filter will give the sound more bass and body.
If the synth sound is too big and washed out in the mix, check if the synth has built in effects. You may want to dial back the reverb/delay or bypass them completely.
Quite simply with drums or other samples you need to spend some initial time searching for the right sample. Some more tips:
– An organised sample library will save you a lot of time here.
– Before adding some high end to a snare because it’s not quite bright enough, try to find a snare that already has that frequency and then layer it with your snare in the mix or replace your current sound entirely. The same goes for sub bass on a kick drum or the body of a tom.
– Utilising the amp envelope of your drum sampler will also help you enormously in dialling in the length or snappiness of your drum sounds so they fit straight into the mix.
This may all seem very obvious but it’s the most important tip I can share with you to stepping up the quality of your productions.
We will always need to use some EQ and compression among other processes to achieve the final mix but the results will be infinitely better if you spend some ‘quality time’ with the source sound first.
Feel free to post up any questions or thoughts you have in the comments below.