The vocals are undoubtedly the most important element of your mix. You may have captured the greatest guitar tone known to man but if the vocal sucks then no one is even going to notice.
In broad terms vocal eq or any eq for that matter falls into two categories, creative and corrective. The creative side is where you ensure the vocal fits with the tone and vibe of your song while corrective issues may involve high passing the vocal, notching out any annoying frequencies or dealing with sibilance.
The image below shows some typical areas of interest when eqing a vocal. I usually start out by high passing the vocal in the 80 – 100Hz region a free plugin like Brainworx’s bx_cleansweep makes for a great dedicated high/low pass filter.
The first question you should ask yourself before reaching for a compressor is, does this track really need to be compressed at all and if so how do i want it to affect the sound. If you find yourself constantly adjusting the vocal level on different sections and vocal lines then that would be a strong indication that compression is going to be necessary.
Setting the compressor is done on a case by case basis no two tracks are the same but common problems do surface so these can be addressed with common solutions.
Threshold: For example ( Starting with a mild 2:1 ratio) if I am only interested in taming the peaks of my vocal and feel the majority of the track is sitting well in the mix then I will set the compressors threshold to only catch the loudest parts leaving the rest of the vocal untouched. If I was interested in a more in your face sound then I would set the threshold lower so the compressor is always acting on the signal and not just the peaks.
Ratio: Once I have the threshold set I now turn to the ratio. I may be happy with what part of the signal the compressor is acting on but I might want more compression, in that case I will increase the ratio while listening to the effect it is having on the track. It is important to recognize how the threshold and ratio settings affect each, experiment with different ratios while watching the gain reduction meter.
Attack: When I am dialing in the attack time on my vocal I like to think about it in a musical way rather than just numbers on a dial. For example a fast attack time on the vocal may “blunt” or soften the impact of the words and remove some of the presence. This may be perfect if I want to sit the vocal back in the mix but in in other situations I might prefer a slower attack so my vocal transients are not getting squashed by the compressor and are popping out a little more.
Release: With respect to the vocal, different release times can either keep you vocal steady and upfront or it may undo any settings you have made to the other parameters. For example, you set the threshold and ratio to keep the vocal sitting just right, all the lyrics are perfectly clear and no words are too loud or too quiet. But then you dial in a really fast release time, what then starts to happen is the compressor effectively starts engaging on and off too fast or unmusically resulting in the vocal dynamic becoming unsteady again.
What’s important to understand is how the different controls interact with each other and how that are not independent of one another.
There are few audio processing techniques that mange to confuse the home studio owner more than compression. So let us try and take the mystery out of it and shed some light on its basic applications.
Simply put, compression is the process of decreasing the difference in level between the loudest and quietest parts (the dynamic range) of an audio signal. So why might we need to do this? Lets consider the example of a vocal recording where the vocalist sings some of the words noticeably quieter than others. If you where to set the vocal level where the majority of the words sit nicely in your mix, the quieter words are going to disappear behind the music. Conversely if you fade the vocal up to where the quieter words can be heard, then the rest of the vocal is going to blow your ears off.
Compressors were invented to provide a solution to this problem. By reducing the dynamic range between the loudest and quietest words in our vocal example it becomes easier to set a vocal level that works for the vocal as a whole.
Lets take a look at some common compressor controls.
Threshold – sets what level the signal must be before the compressor starts working (kicks in).
Ratio – sets how much compression is applied. E.g. if the compression ratio is set for 2:1, the input signal will have to cross the threshold by 2 dB for the output level to increase by 1dB.
Attack – how quickly the compressor kicks in after the signal exceeds the threshold.
Release – how fast after the signal dips below the threshold the compressor resets.
Knee – sets how the compressor reacts to signals once the threshold is passed. Hard Knee settings mean it acts on the signal the moment it exceeds the the compression threshold, and Soft Knee means the compression kicks in more gently as the signal reaches the threshold. Soft knee settings are typically more musical although hard knee settings can be desirable for certain applications.
Make-Up Gain –lets you Boosts the resultant audio after compression, as compression can reduce the signal significantly.
Output – allows you to boost or cut the level of the signal output from the compressor.
How To Set Up a Compressor
1. Whether you are using a hardware or software compressor the settings are going to remain the same. So grab your compressor of choice and insert on the channel you want to compress.
2. Set the threshold until the signal is pushing over the threshold and triggering the compressor. Look for something like 6 dbs of gain reduction so we can really hear whats going on .
3. Set the Ratio according to the material. Bass guitars sound good at 4:1, drums at 2:1, vocals also at 2:1 and electric guitars anywhere from 2:1 to 6:1.
4. The Ratio and Threshold work in unison. Adjust them together and see how they affect the output.
5. The attack and release controls decide how the compressor will react. E.g. slow attack, slow release would be useful for a snare drum by allowing some of the drums transient past before the compressor starts to act on the signal.
6. If available, choose between Hard and Soft Knee. Hard Knee can work well on drums where as Soft Knee can be better suited for vocals or more melodic instruments.
7. Adjust the Make up gain to compensate for the decrease in signal level.
All suggested settings should be taken with a pinch of salt, no two audio signals are the same so some experimentation is necessary.
Compression Audio Sample
Lets take a snare sample a loop and apply different attack times so we can hear what it sounds like in practice.
Snare Uncompressed: In the following samples I have set the threshold to -13db, ratio at 6:1 and release at 200ms.
Snare 1ms: With an attack time of 1ms the compressor is reacting very fast and blunting or softening the initial attack transient.
Snare 10ms: With 10ms attack the compressor is allowing the initial attack through uncompressed which accentuates this portion of the sound (it sounds more clicky!).
Snare 50ms: A greater portion of the attack is now passing through the compressor before it reacts which results in gain reduction that mostly affects the decay.
Snare 100ms: At 100ms the majority of the signal has passed through the compressor before it reacts, resulting in just a subtle reduction in level on the signals decay.
Parallel or New York compression has long been a favorite of studio engineers. Usually deployed to “fatten” up tracks it can sound great on drums or vocals.
Parallel compression is achieved by mixing an unprocessed dry signal with compressed (usually heavily compressed) version of the same signal.The advantage of parallel compression is the dynamics of the dry signal are left intact while your free to add as much or as little body, character and all that other good stuff heavy compression can bring to the party.
Setting this up in your DAW typically involves either duplication of tracks or the creation of an effect send or buss, which can be a bit of a hassle. Fortunately there are a few compressor plugins out there that incorporate a mix or wet/dry knob. A mix function more commonly seen on a reverb or delay makes it a cinch to set up parallel compression. Two such plugins that are up to the job are Waves H-Comp and Fab Filter Pro-C
Setting The Compressor
When it comes to setting a compressor for parallel compression you can afford to really hammer the signal, high ratio and threshold settings are the order of the day. Next you want to set the mix knob to 100% dry and slowly turn the dial to introduce the compressed signal, somewhere around 20-30% sounds good but adjust to taste.
In this tutorial we are going to cover side-chaining and ducking in Cubase 5. In this example I am going to demonstrate a technique that is commonly used in techno or dance music to tighten up the low end and increase the impact of the kick drum, or even to create cool pumping effects.
When mixing your kick and bass sounds together you may find that some frequencies are overlapping and conflicting with each other causing a muddy low end. A great way to solve this problem and build a solid low end is to “duck” the bass in response to the kick drum with side chain compression. Essentially what this does is decrease the volume or amplitude of the bass on every kick drum hit.
Insert the Steinberg compressor on the bass channel and activate the side-chain input by clicking the button to the left of the preset pane.
Next open up the kick drum channel settings and click on send slot one. You should now see the side-chain bass compressor as a send option. Select this and turn the send level up.
Return to the compressor on the bass channel and adjust the threshold so you are getting gain reduction on each kick drum hit. Set the ratio to about 3:1 with a fast attack setting and adjust the release so gain reduction returns to zero before the next kick drum hit arrives.
In most situations you just need a couple of db’s of gain reduction to get your kick drum punching through better. But experimenting with different compressors settings can produce some really cool pumping effects. Check out the samples below to hear it in action.
In sample 2 I have switched the Kicks drums send to pre-fader, that way I could reduce the volume of the kick and still hear the pumping effect on the bass sample, a sound that I’m sure you are familiar with.
For years now the ubiquitous Auto-Tune has been coming to the rescue of many a dodgy vocal track saving an engineer’s ass and making Joe Schmo sound like a star (well almost). For good or for bad we all know how much Auto-Tune is used these days and people often question the merits of any vocal tuning but lets leave that argument for another day.
Yet Auto-Tune can be used for more creative purposes too. Everyone remembers “Believe” by Cher or more recently the T-Pain robotic vocal effect. Creating that effect is a breeze in with Auto-Tune.
Insert Antares Auto-tune on your vocal track and set the input type (in my case I choose soprano).
Set the tracking to relaxed and the retune speed to fast.
Set the scale from the default chromatic to either major or minor. This reduces the number of notes the software tries to re-tune the vocal to which in turn emphasizes the effect.
Experiment with different scales and tracking parameters to produce different effects.
With an huge number of models on the market these days trying to find the best microphone for your needs is no easy task. This guide will provide you with a solid foundation for making an informed choice when choosing the right microphone for the job.
The most common type of microphone are dynamic mics, they are hard wearing and resist distortion which makes them ideal for use in a live setting. Look at any lead vocalist performing live and you can be sure they are using a dynamic microphone. Since they can handle high SPL (Sound Pressure Level) dynamic mics are great for close miking loud instruments like drums and guitar amps. Stick them up to the amp grill crank the volume and they’ll easily go to levels where most condensers cant compete.
Condenser Microphones are the mainstay of the recording studio, although many newer condensers are now being used in a live situation. They typically have a greater frequency and transient response then dynamic microphones. Condensers uses a capacitor to convert acoustical energy into electrical energy. Condenser microphones require power to operate this usually comes in the form of a battery or 48v phantom power delivered through an XLR mic cable from an mixing desk or audio interface. The resulting audio signal is stronger signal than that from a dynamic. Condensers also tend to be more sensitive and responsive than dynamics, making them perfect for capturing the subtleties of a performance.
Ribbon mics have long been sought after for their warm smooth sound. In the past they where prohibitively expensive, putting them out of reach of the project studio owner but nowadays they are more affordable then ever. Ribbon mics were the industry standard for recording and broadcast in the early part of the 20th century and most of those cool looking vintage mics you see in footage from the era are RCA ribbon microphones. A ribbon mic uses a thin sheet of metal (the ribbon) placed between the poles of a magnet to generate voltages by electromagnetic induction. Most ribbons utilize a figure of 8 polar pattern.
Microphone Polar Patterns
Every microphone is designed with its own polar pattern some are fixed and some or switchable and knowing your cardioid from your omni can really help improve your recordings.
Types Of Polar Patterns
Cardioid:These have a heart shaped directional pattern meaning they pick up sound from the front and reject most sound from the rear. This pattern can be used to your advantage, for example when recording a drum kit you could position a cardioid mic so its null point or rear points towards the high hats and its front at the snare. This will significantly reduce the high hat spill into that mic.
Omnidirectional Microphone Pattern: As the name suggests this type a polar pattern is sensitive to sound from all directions. These microphones are good for capturing an ambient natural sound. Because omni mics don’t exhibit proximity-effect, you can position them right up to a sound source without picking up an unnatural boost of the low-mid frequencies but obviously they are not good where separation between sound sources is needed.
Figure of 8 (bi-directional): Figure of 8 microphones are sensitive to sound from the front and rear and have null points on opposite sides.
Hyper-cardioid: These Microphones have a similar polar pattern to the cardioid mics but are more focused and pick up less from the side. This tightly focused directional attribute makes them good for isolating sound sources although you should be aware they have a narrow hyper-cardioid tail which will pick up sound directly behind.
These graphs are great for illustration but in practice a microphone picks up sound in a 3 dimensional array around the microphones diaphragm. It would be better to think of these diagrams as a slice through the center of this array. This illustrations from the Shure website show exactly what I mean.
Which Is The Best Microphone For Me
When it comes to capturing a great vocal there are no rules as to which mic to use. Some professional singers record using relatively inexpensive dynamic mics like an SM58, rather than a condenser mic, because the dynamic mic gives them a warmer, more punchy sound. While other more delicate breathy vocals can benefit from the detailed highs of a condenser microphone. Also, be sure to use a Pop Filter when recording vocals.
Popular Vocal Mics
A common setup for drum recording is individually close miking each drum with dynamic microphones, then augmenting these with condenser mics for an overhead pair and a hi-hat mic. Using mics with a forward firing polar pattern on toms can help isolate them from other drums. For snares, a dynamic mic such as the Shure SM57 is a popular choice, at just $99 it could the best microphone purchase you make. Small diaphragm condenser mics are have long been popular as drum overheads, a great choice on a budget are Rode NT5 Condenser Microphones. The kick drum needs a mic that can handle high SPL and has a good low end response. While experimenting with different mics types is a good idea, the kick drum usually benefits from a dedicated kick drum mic like the AKG D112.
Popular Drum Mics
Just about every mic you can think of has been used to record guitars but in most cases a dynamic mic like the SM57 on guitar cab will sound great. Dynamics cope well with high SPL which is another reason that they sound so good in front of an amp cabinet. A condenser mic used on it’s own or in conjunction with a dynamic mic can reveal the high end detail of the guitar. Although, once you have a half decent microphone the positioning of the mic is probably the most important element of the sound, even the best microphone ever wont sound much good if it’s not positioned well.
Popular Electric Guitar Mics
Small diaphragm condenser mics are usually the first port of call when recording acoustic guitars and cardioid polar pattern models are helpful for reducing unwanted room reverberation. Of course, in the right recording environment a large diaphragm condenser with an onmi pattern can produce great natural results.
When bass amp is cranked it’s going to produce plenty of volume, and a good large-diaphragm dynamic mic can work well for capturing the range of tones a bass can produce without overloading. Often, a dedicated kick drum mic can can also sound great on a bass amp cabinet. The
AKG D112 provides excellent low-end support with plenty of punch and could be one of the best microphone in your arsenal.
Cardioid dynamic mics with a smooth, flat response and the ability to handle high SPL, are good choices for horns. The Audix i5 Instrument Microphone is a good budget choice for brass that can also turn its hand to guitars and other instruments.
So What’s The Best Microphone Then?
People often ask questions like what’s the best microphone for recording vocals or what’s the best microphone on snares (it’s the Shure SM57 !!!) but the truth is it’s all a matter of opinion and taste. So it’s probably become clear that there is no such thing as the best microphone, because it all rather depends on the application and how some microphones excel in some situations versus others, plus of course we are talking about music after all and what sounds good to me might sound pretty awful to you.
The snare drum is the star of your drum mix and deserves some special attention. Engineers and producers have for years obsessed over the perfect snare sound so today we going to look at some common snare drum eq and compression settings for getting you there.
Snare Drum Eq
I typically high pass filter the snare at around 100hz, this tightens up the low end and removes any low level rumble or mic bleed that’s not really helpful when mixing.
Body: The body of the snare is usually found in the 150- 400Hz range. A little boost here can help a underweight snare. If you find the snare is overly resonant or conflicting with the kick or bass cutting this area can increase clarity. I typically used a standard peaking band with a Q setting of about 1.
Crack: The majority of the snares smack or crack can be found around 1-2k range. A boost here can help to get your snare cutting through the mix.
Stick Impact: If your looking for a little more stick in the snare sound or for that matter if your looking to cut some it can usually be found in the 5k range.
Wire Rattle: The wires or snares on the underside of a snare drum are what gives it it’s distinctive sound. I usually start my search for snare rattle around 8k.
Snare Drum Compression
Too many new engineers as a matter of course slap a compressor on the snare drum without even thinking but as with eq you should have a clear idea in your mind what you are trying to achieve instead of just searching in the dark. That being said in modern rock or pop consistent dynamics is desirable on the snare drum and a little bit of compression can keep the snare sitting just where you want it. Over do the compression or get the attack and release settings wrong and you can stifle or flatten the sound.
Often we want to emphasize the attack of the snare and give it a little extra punch. Longer/slower attack times around 10ms allow the initial snare attack transient to sneak through the compressor without being squashed, the compressor then wakes up and starts to act on the rest signal squashing the decay. The overall volume will probably have to be increased with the make-up gain or output control.
If you are having difficulties hearing the subtleties of compression try setting the ratio for about 6:1 and bringing the threshold way down till your getting massive gain reduction. You will have to increase the make up gain or output to”make up” for the drop in volume. Set the attack to the fastest it will go and the release to a medium setting. Now slowly start decreasing the attack control, sure enough the attack transient will start to pop through right at it’s sweet spot. Unfortunately the snare will now sound awful so start returning the threshold to a more sensible setting.
A typical setting for some light Snare compression may be as follows, bear in mind this is just a guideline and it’s more important to understand how and when to compress then to be just randomly applying recommended settings.
The bass guitar can often pose the biggest problem when mixing audio. Along with the drums it provides the bedrock of a song and can make or break a mix. Today I’m going to take a look at a few key elements that can get your bass sounding great.
We’ve all heard them old Beatles tracks with the vocals on one side and the music on the other but they were different times and they were doing the best with what they had. In modern pop, rock or any other style of music 99% of the time the bass is panned dead center and thats what we are going to stick to.
Bass Guitar EQ
In most situations you can probably add a high pass filter at around 35hz to the bass guitar, too much sub-bass can eat up the head room on your track and there usually isn’t very much happening down there anyway.
Bottom: Bass guitars get the majority of their low energy weight in the 80-100 Hz region. Too much boost here could result in a muddy mix. Pay attention to how the bass interacts with other low end elements of the track, for example if both the bass guitar and the kick drum are peaking at 80Hz it may be wise to cut one by a few db in that area to better compliment each other. A warmer bass tone may be found in the 100-300Hz area.
Attack/Character: The 500Hz-1.5k region typically defines the overall sound of the bass, a boost here can provide more attack but overdoing it doing could introduce a boxy sound to the track.
Notes/Snap: A more snappy string sound typical of the Red Hot Chili Peppers can be found in the 2.5-5k region.
An important point that a lot of home studio owners overlook is that the bass guitar isn’t all about low end and you would be surprised by how much top you may have to dial in to get the bass sounding right. Remember, it might not sound too hot when it’s soloed but when it’s mixed into your track it can be just the ticket.
Bass Guitar Compression
In modern rock and pop music, compression is used on the bass guitar to lock in the low end by limiting it’s dynamic range. It’s important that the bass is solid from note to note otherwise some notes will blow your ears off and others will disappear altogether, unfortunately even good players can be a little uneven at times.
Setting the compressor on bass guitar is all about experimentation, particularly with regards to the attack and release settings. Firstly dial in a ratio of about 4:1 and then adjust the threshold till the meter is showing about 7-8Db of gain reduction at the loudest parts. Set the attack time so the initial transient of the bass passes through without getting compressed (around 50ms), then set the release as fast as it will go with out the compressor pumping too much, this will give a punchy sound to the track.
Experiment with the attack and release times, this is where you can really shape your sound, if your after a smoother bass dynamic try setting the attack time faster and the release time slower. You have to judge this on a case by case basis and ask yourself what each song calls for.