Parts one and two of this series explained the different types of microphones and recording techniques for each one. But after using this knowledge to record tracks, it''s now time to mix. This final installment deals with setting up the ideal microphone signal path in a track-by-track look at which plug-ins work best at “cleaning up” the raw captured material, along with what settings to use. This microphone-channel theme is not a mixing tutorial per se, so it doesn''t discuss levels or send effects such as reverbs or choruses. Also, every scenario is unique, so these tips are only meant to be general starting points in creating your own custom-mix templates. As a bonus, I asked multiplatinum selling, Grammy award–winning mix engineer/producer and Remix Hotel panelist Ken Lewis to chime in with tips and suggestions along the way.
KICK IN THE HEAD
Your direct kick sound will typically come from an inside mic as well as an outside mic. Therefore, you''ll want to have two channels in your mix template, as well as a third “sub master” channel to combine and balance the two signals while processing with the same dynamics.
On the inside-kick mic channel, first place a 4-band EQ to bring out the punch, remove some of the mids and emphasize the attack. That can be done by boosting a few decibels on the low frequencies (LF) around 70 Hz, cutting by roughly the same amount on the low-mid frequencies (LMF) around 200 Hz with a 1.5 Q, adding a sizable 10 dB gain around 2.5 kHz in the high-mid frequencies (HMF) of the same Q factor and a gentler 5 to 7 dB of high-frequency (HF) shelving boost at 5.5 kHz. Naturally, microphone choices, positioning and drum models/age will influence those frequency choices, but they''re great for starters.
“If the sub bottom is too woofy or too resonant, I''ll sometimes first filter below 40 Hz or so, which allows the impact frequencies from around 60 to 120 Hz to be more effective,” Lewis says, suggesting that if your EQ plug-in doesn''t have an integrated filter, you should instantiate one first in your kick chain and be able to flip it on or off as needed, session to session.
Copy this EQ to your outside mic track, but focus the LF mostly on the sub lows in this case, and take out the top end to reduce some of the noise and kit bleed.
Then on the separate kick-drum sub master, start off with any “coloring” plug-ins such as DUY Valve or McDSP Analog Channel for a sense of warm, analog punch. Next in line should be a gate, ideally using a copy of the kick track advanced by 70 to 80 samples in time to trigger it without chopping off any attack. Gating times and thresholds will obviously depend greatly upon your individual signal material and what the song needs, but generally attack settings of 0.1 and release of 150 ms will do the trick in isolating the kick and getting rid of kit leakage without sounding artificial or abrupt once in the mix. Following this is your choice of fast-attack limiting or compression. If you have a choice, try using an “opto” setting for maximum impact. In case you feel the need to tie the inside mic and outside mic frequencies together a bit more, it''s wise to have another multiband parametric or graphic EQ like the URS A-10 inserted into the sub master template right here.
DOUBLE DOG SNARE
Similar to the kick, you may want to set up channels for both the top and bottom snare mic tracks so that you can blend and EQ the tracks individually before sending them to a third channel, acting as snare sub master. Here''s where you place a triggered-gate with very fast attack (0.1 ms) and slow release (around 140 to 150 ms), but always adjust to taste for what the song needs. Because snare is often played with far more dynamics than the kick, it''s best to add some multiband parametric EQ before compression to notch out what doesn''t belong and broadly emphasize what works with the song.
EQ settings for a typical pop/rock snare might consist of a 2 to 3 dB boost at 200 Hz, 7 dB at 2.5 kHz with 1.2 Q, 10 dB at 6 kHz with 1.2 Q, 12 dB of HF shelving boost at 16 kHz and a highpass filter set to cut below 60 Hz to help remove any kick bleed from the snare. That will yield a warm yet bright-, snappy- and punchy-sounding snare with lots of air remaining for reverb processing.
Next, compress or limit as needed by the song. Settings are hard to nail down now because threshold, ratio and gain are subject to signal material, but typically you want a slower attack and mid-to-fast release. “The EMI Limiter plug-in works really well with a fast release,” says Lewis. “It lets a little of the transient spike through, which I like.” Finally, saddling something like DUY DaD Tape or McDSP Analog Channel at the end of your snare chain can help to absorb some of the top end through warm saturation.
TIP O' THE HATS
Processing hi-hats is fairly simple and is best kept that way. No matter how well your isolation techniques (discussed in “My Mic Sounds Nice, Check 2,” March 2007) worked during tracking, you''ll likely want to start off your plug-in chain with some highpass filters to clear everything out up to around 250 Hz. Following that, gently boost around the 1.5 to 3 kHz region, zeroing in on the timbral color of the hat used, and boost again in the 10 kHz region to bring out the sizzle and air.
THE KIT, NOT THE KABOODLE
Because of their naturally boomy, long decays, both rack and floor toms can benefit from some careful trimming. By clearing the roar between fills, it allows for easier mixing control and a more defined, in-the-pocket spread when panned and processed with reverb.
Many mix engineers today don''t gate toms; rather, they edit out silence around them in the DAW. If you choose to go with a gate, use forgiving thresholds so as to be careful not to chop off the full sustain. Compress with a high ratio (6 to 1 is common), superfast attack and around 70 to 200 ms of release, adjusted to taste. Cut below 70 Hz, and any equalizing to make the toms fit the song should be done at the end of their individual chains.
On overhead mics, the first step is to filter out some of the lows that bleed in from the rest of the drum kit. Also, gently pull down a few dB around 200 Hz if there''s excessive “gong” and boost a few decibels around 10 kHz for hardness—perhaps more around 15 kHz for brightness. Compress post-EQ to add sustain and bring out the rest of the kit from the overheads. That also helps present the big picture of the drum kit and glues it well to the direct mic tracks of the other kit elements. No gates are used on the overheads.
Here''s a twist: “If there''s a ton of harsh cymbal bleed in the room mics, I''ll actually use a de-esser to pull the cymbal crashes back, which usually leaves the rest of the room tracks sounding more natural,” Lewis says. “After the de-esser, if needed, I''ll use a fast attack and moderately fast-release compressor or limiter, like an 1176, to knock down the transient and increase the sustain of the snare and kick hits in the room tracks.”
Adding a multiband EQ to notch out the resonant or boxy low mids provides a warmer overall drum kit sound that you can blend in with the punchier and more tightly gated direct-miked tracks. “Sometimes I''ll add a filter to remove the superhighs around 12K and up, as those frequencies often just add white noise to a mix on room tracks,” Lewis hints.
If you''re working from a clean DI bass track, you''re likely going to need some plug-ins to juice it up a bit and make the bass cut through. Start by filtering out the muddy sub frequencies (50 Hz and below). That will increase overtones and the recognition of bass line in the mix. Then, if one wasn''t used during recording, install a noise gate. Next, use a compressor with attitude—Joemeek and the 1176 are perennial favorites—set for slower attack and a mid-to-fast release, and don''t be afraid to pour on the compression ratio. If needed, work in some fairly tight EQ prior to compression, boosting at 100 Hz for a harder sound, 400 Hz for more clarity, 800 Hz for punch, 1.5 kHz for pluck and 5 to 7 kHz for more finger sound. Then, really crank the compression again to make it fat and punchy.
Think of this electric-guitar chain much as you would your stage setup, with a 70 to 80z filter to take out the lows and another to cut the highs above 8 kHz. Next, place any compression (usually just a touch), or in place of a compressor, use tape or valve saturation such as McDSP Analog Channel. Following that, most guitars need some really broad EQ (Pultec or Neve are Ken''s favorites) around 3 kHz and 12 kHz to boost attack and bring about more sharpness. Last, use more forensic-style EQs to notch out any ringing or resonant frequencies that aren''t helping your cause.
For acoustic guitar, you typically place EQ after the compressor because you want to take the compressed sound and highlight it with EQ. But in the case of a more jangly pop acoustic guitar—where you generally need to remove many of the highs and lows so that the mids cut through a thick mix—you need to EQ first so that the compressor doesn''t react to all the frequencies that you won''t be using.
Start off with a meaty EQ—a Neve 1073 is nice if you have the means—to bring out the high mids and take out a bit of the lows. Low cut at 70 Hz and boost a few decibels around 3 kHz and 10 kHz for more attack and presence. Follow that up with something like an 1176 compressor to make sure that no notes go by unnoticed even in the densest parts of the song.
CUT A HOLE IN THE VOX
The order of a vocal chain is about as personal as the engineer himself. While almost all start off with a low-cut filter around 80 to 120 Hz to eliminate mic bump and unwanted noise, whether to follow up with the de-esser or multiband compressor next is seen interchangeably. Quite often, a second compressor will follow a multiband to make a vocal really aggressive and in your face, followed by a gate to remove any excessive headphone bleed and other unwanted noise, making the vocal sound immediate. Regardless, any EQ that''s necessary to make the vocals fit into the song should come at the end, so that the other processes act on the raw emotion and dynamic of the vocal only.
KEN LEWIS'' MIX CHANNEL SETS FOR URBAN/DANCE MUSIC
”Basically I just use EQ followed by compressor as needed. Typically slow attack on the compressor, like 40 or 50 ms. Much faster and you take away too much bottom with the compressor. If the kick doesn''t have much bottom but needs it, sometimes I''ll use Waves MaxxBass to give it a little sub boost. A little goes a long way.
“If you''re dealing with a beat that has a heavy bassline, find different center frequencies for your kick and bass. Trying to boost the same frequencies on both tracks usually sounds terrible. Sometimes using small amounts of notching EQ on the kick and bassline helps carve a space for each. If the kick hits best at 80 Hz, boost a bit of 80 Hz on the kick and notch out a bit of 80 Hz on the bassline. If the bassline sits best around 110 Hz, boost a bit there, and notch out 110 Hz on your kick, carefully. Use really tight Q's on the EQ notching. I like Waves Q1 EQ for this, plus Sony Oxford and MDWII EQ's are good as well.”
Generally, sampled snares from drum machines or loops won''t need much work to get them ready for mixing. But, if the snare lacks impact and needs it, Ken compresses it first with a slow attack and mid-to-fast release.
“Often I''ll do this with a 1176 or Joe Meek SC2,” says Lewis. “Conversely, if its a short tight snare you can elongate it a bit with a very fast attack/fast release compressor, careful not to crush the transient too much. Then I EQ to taste with a Pultec for shaping, and/or a parametric for more pointed work. Sometimes I''ll end the chain with an instance of Cranesong''s Phoenix plug-in. Phoenix is one of those voodoo boxes that makes certain sounds much more solid.
“For urban mixes, all I'll often do is dirty up hats by boosting midrange notches with the Joe Meek EQ or the Pultec MEQ5. Often around 2 to 3 kHz. If a hat is too pointed, I''ll sometimes use a limiter like Waves L1 to crunch it a bit and give it some length.”
“If a synth bass is too subby with no midrange, I'll sometime slam it with a Waves L1 with a very fast release. This makes the bass buzz a little bit which will put audible frequencies into the midrange that you cant get with EQ, and this will help it sit in small speakers. The L1 will definitely also take away some low end, so I''ll add an EQ after the L1 and put some low end back.”
Ken always starts his vocal chain with a filter to remove everything below the singer''s range.
“Usually I just filter out below 80 Hz, and often up as high as 150 Hz with a female voice. If there's nothing there helping the voice, get rid of it!”
If the voice is really sibilant, he''ll insert some mild de-essing followed by compression.
“But, if it''s not too essy, I''ll go straight to a compressor like Waves RVox, or McDSP''s MC2000 multiband compressor bank. Sometimes McDSP''s G Channel is all you need with a vocal because you can filter, compress and EQ all at once — eliminating the need for multiple plugs in your vocal chain. It''s not rocket science. Just scroll thru the presets until something sounds like a noticeable improvement, then tailor your setting from there,” Lewis suggests. “As always, use your ears to guide you.”
Ken Lewis is one of hip-hop and pop''s most in-demand mix engineers, having worked with superstar talents including Kanye West, Usher, John Legend, Common, Mariah Carey, Jay Z, Mary J. Blige and countless others. He has also been a technology panelist at Remix Hotel NYC.