Category Archives: Mixing Advice

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How to Comp Vocals in Ableton Live

I’m long overdue for a music promotion post, but even more overdue for a new Color Theory release! Once I wrap up my next EP, I’ll turn my focus back to promotion, and of course share my efforts and results.

In the meantime, I’d like to address a common concern for Ableton Live users: how do I comp vocals?

Ableton Live

As a mastering engineer, I talk with lots of musicians about which DAWs they use for what. Everybody who uses Live loves it, but they usually record and assemble (“comp”) vocals in Logic or Cubase, export the comped vocals as .wav or AIFF files, and import those files into Live.

While I also prefer to work on vocals in a separate project, I do it all in Live. Here’s how:

1. Create a new project. Set the BPM and drag your cue mix (what you’ll sing over) into the arrangement window at bar 1. Because I record vocals with closed headphones, which overemphasize low frequencies, I insert a low cut on the cue mix. Not only does it protect my hearing, but it focuses my pitch. An improperly tuned kick drum can throw off your tonal center.

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Make Space for Tight Bass

The bass and kick are the foundation of your mix, and we want them to utterly dominate the lowest frequencies. I’m going to show you how to use a frequency analyzer to cut excess lows from every track in your mix, leaving clear, tight, punchy bass.

Configure SPAN

My favorite frequency analyzer is Voxengo SPAN. It’s free on both Mac and Windows, so grab it! Once it’s installed, load it on the master bus. Place the GUI where it won’t get covered up, or set it to “always on top.”

There are three settings we need to adjust, by clicking the “edit” button in the upper right corner:

SPAN Configuration

Block Size – The higher the number, the more accuracy in the lowest frequencies, but the slower the refresh rate. 8192 is the best compromise on my system.

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A Mastering Engineer’s Guide to Final Mixdown

“Garbage in, garbage out” is a common saying among mastering engineers. The quality of the source material limits the quality of the final product. Most of my clients have no problem following my simple preparation instructions, but they stop there. They figure once each mix sounds as good as they can get it, they’re done. In fact, there’s a higher level of refinement that pays huge dividends. I’ll break it down in this mastering engineer’s guide to final mixdown.

1. Choose a reference. Find a major label track with the tonal balance you’re looking for – ideally something that hasn’t been totally decimated in mastering, since you’ll be comparing it to your unmastered tracks. If you followed my earlier advice on using a reference during the mixing process, you’ll want to use the same track here.

2. Load in your tracks. I’m assuming that you’ve already rendered all the tracks for your release as stereo 24-bit or higher .wav or AIFF files, with no processing on the master bus, and that they peak under 0 dB. If they hit 0 dB, that means they’re clipped. Lower the gain on the master bus by 6 dB and try again. Once you’ve got clean mixdowns, fire up your DAW and put each of them and your reference on separate channels, like so:

Final Mixdown: Load-In

My reference track and six mixdowns

3. Trim each track down to a representative clip. We’re going to use the loudest section of each track as a stand-in for the entire mix. In most cases, this means trimming all but 15 seconds or so of the chorus. Be sure to solo each channel before you hit play so you don’t blow your ears out! In fact, turn down your reference track by 12 dB right off the bat, since it’s already mastered. You’ll end up with something like this:

Final Mixdown: Trimmed

A representative 15 seconds of each track (note the timeline at the bottom)

4. Match volumes. Bounce between the reference and your mixdowns, adjusting volume levels until everything matches. Be sure to make the gain adjustment at the clip level, not on the channel, so you won’t lose your settings when we…

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Spectral Management

A few months ago, I announced I was cutting back on blogging to record a new Color Theory album. Instead, I was hired to mix three others (Exhibition by Die Brücke, The Deadliest Fairy Tales by Rain Rain, and a yet-to-be-named album for 907Britt). Since I’ve been living and breathing mixing since June, I thought I’d give my ears a rest and share my thoughts on spectral management.

Spectral management sounds like something you’d hire a firm to do, but it simply means finding a place for each instrument in the frequency spectrum. In my last mixing article, I described how to tighten the low end of the mix using a frequency analyzer. When the competing rumble and mud is removed, you’re left with tight and punchy bass. The same philosophy applies to the rest of the mix.

Taking the concept to its logical extreme, you could carve out a discrete frequency range for each instrument using sharp low and high cut filters, like so:

spectrum

While it looks good on paper, it’s a bit heavy handed in practice. It might sound okay when all the instruments are in, but removing any piece of the puzzle leaves a noticeable hole. Forget about soloing anything, because every track sounds terrible in isolation. That’s because most instruments have energy spread across the entire spectrum. Focusing on a narrow band removes the fundamental frequencies below it and the overtones above it, altering the timbre of the instrument to the point where it becomes hard to tell a violin from a trumpet.

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Tighten the Low End of Your Mix with a Frequency Analyzer

For an updated version of this article and video demonstration, see: Make Space for Tight Bass

Most mix engineers don’t hear the bottom octave (20-40 Hz) because their monitors can’t produce it. Unless your room is 300 square feet or larger, and professionally tuned, adding a subwoofer will probably do more harm than good. Whether or not you can hear it, it’s important to balance the sub bass with the rest of the mix. You want deep full tone from the bass and a healthy “chest thump” from the kick without blowing out any speakers.

A common DIY solution is to simply roll off the whole mix with a highpass filter (HPF, also known as a low cut or LC), but that’s ugly and imprecise. Even if the frequency and slope of the filter leave an appropriate amount of sub, the EQ will color the mix, usually in an undesirable way. Instead, we want to sculpt the low end on a track-by-track basis, balancing out the sub bass and shaping competing elements to produce a clear and powerful foundation for your mix.

We can’t always hear what’s down there, but with the right tools, we can see it.

Voxengo SPAN

TIP 2: Use a frequency analysis plug-in to cut unnecessary bass

My personal favorite is Voxengo SPAN, which you can download for free. A newer version than what you see here is available for both Mac and Windows.

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Keep Your Mixes Consistent by Using a Reference

When I started this blog, I thought my readership would consist of Color Theory fans. Now it’s clear that most of you are fellow musicians with your own material to promote. With that in mind, I’ve decided to take a short detour into my true area of expertise: music production. God knows I’m better at making music than I am at selling it!

Like most of you, I work a “day job” to pay the bills. I run my own CD mastering business by the name of Resonance Mastering. Unlike other mastering houses, I don’t believe in “corrective mastering.” If I hear a problem with a mix, I’ll ask the client to go back and fix it! Many clients routinely hire me for mix consultation, in which I offer detailed suggestions on each track in order to fine-tune their release before mastering. I run into the same problems again and again, so I find myself offering up the same solutions, which I’ll present here over the course of a few articles.

Refer to a reference mix

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