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Hi there, gang! We’ve been talking a lot lately about how to be prepared for a mixing session, how to back up or, more importantly, archive your work, and other topics that are fundamental to being a professional in music. Today, we’re going to go back to basics, because, well, you asked.
Understanding why and how to use effects in a mix is both complex and personal. I’m going to give you an overview of the way I think about them that will help you develop how you’ll think about them. To break it down, I think of effects in two categories: sculptors and additives.
Before we get into how to use these, we should review the way audio get routed. Most DAW programs mimic a mixing console. They have Inserts [see Fig 1] on each audio channel that apply the effect to that audio; think of the audio passing into the plug-in and then back to the channel.
The DAW also has Sends [see Fig 2] which split the audio and send a copy somewhere else (that you choose).
Most often the Send is used to send audio from a few channels to a shared effect like reverb, so the send level control [see Fig 3] allows you to decide how much of each channel is sent.
Sculptors are generally applied in-line, meaning on an Insert. This is important because with EQ or compression you would generally like all the signal to be processed the same way. [see Fig 4] Within this category of sculptors I generally break it down further into Positives and Negatives. What I mean is that negatives are effects you use to fix problems, like an EQ with a small cut around 400 Hz to decrease recorded proximity effect, or a small cut around 3K to decrease an overly nasal tone. Others call these Surgical effects. On the Positives side, EQ can be used creatively to enhance chest warmth in a voice by gently boosting 400 Hz, or pick strike on an acoustic guitar at 5K. Compression can be used to tame playing that’s at times too loud and soft (too large a dynamic range) (Negative) or to change the timbre of a snare drum by shaping the ratio of initial transient to decaying shell resonance (Positive).
Occasionally, we might like a Sculptor to be applied to a group of tracks, not just one. In this case we send the outputs of the channels we’re sub-grouping to an Aux [see Fig 5] channel (or whatever your DAW calls them) and then apply the Sculptor effect there.
Similarly, we might, on occasion, want to apply an Additive effect to a single track [see Fig 6], so we can put a plug-in that normally wouldn’t be used on an insert, on an insert. For example, a Vocoder might be a great effect directly on a track. Similarly, I often use a short delay directly on the snare track, in addition to everything else I might do to the snare as part of the whole kit. In these cases, if the effect has a wet-to -dry knob, it makes finding the right amount of the effect easier.
Of course, if the effect has no “mix” knob (another word for wet-to-dry balance), you can simply treat it like an Additive effect for only one track. See below.
Additives effects are usually applied to groups of tracks, or even, in varying degrees, to all the tracks. Examples would include reverbs and delays, or pitch shifters. In these cases, we’d want the effect to run in parallel with the unaffected tracks, so we’re “adding” to the mix a new element (not just tweaking an existing element). We’re putting all the players in a room, so to speak, even if the room isn’t something that could actually exist. To do this, we use the Sends, as mentioned above, to send a copy of the signal to an Aux [see Fig 7] on which we then place the Additive effect we’d like. Again, by adjusting the level of the Send, we can control how much relative effect is applied to each audio signal.
Now that we have the routing down, let’s talk about choices. Or taste. “But taste is so subjective,” you say. And indeed it is. However, we all know a bad mix when we hear it, even if we dicker about what makes a mix good. Generally, I find that inexperienced mixers (myself included once upon a time) use too much of a good thing, and also use only one idea of that good thing. While reverb is intended to create the illusion of space, it itself eats up a lot of space in the mix. Delay can fill things out nicely without taking up so much room. Neither should be heard, just felt, in most cases. Try this: add two delays and two reverbs to your session. Make one delay short (and rhythmically appropriate) and the other medium length. Choose two reverbs that are not only different sizes but also different tones. Now gently add them to your tracks, balancing them so they put each instrument into its proper place, and then abruptly turn all those reverbs and delays off. You should hear the mix collapse. When you turn those elements back on you shouldn’t hear them, but now it should feel “like a record.”
Of course, there are times when you do want a big honking delay in your face, like during a pause in the vocals. These are special cases, and deserve their own delay and Aux routing. Use automation or a ducker (compressor keyed from the vocal track, in this case) to hold the delay in check until you want it to bloom.
The short of this is that there are many many ways to do all of this and the only wrong way is the way that sounds bad. Or more positively, as I say to my interns, “If it sounds good, it is good!” Hopefully this gets your head around some of the basics and will let you experiment to see what your style is. Please feel free to email with questions and I’ll answer as many as I can. Have fun!
Award winning mix engineer and producer Jordan Tishler runs Digital Bear Entertainment in Boston MA. Currently in the process of designing and building a new facility with renowned designer Fran Manzella, DBE will, once again, be the pre-eminent mix/overdub room. The SSL console and racks upon racks of analogue outboard gear, tape machine, and gazillions of instruments helps Tishler meet the expectations of artists including B Spears, JLo, Iggy A, MOTi, Justin Prime, SIA, and London Grammar.