Mixing for Modular 2: This Time it’s Digital
In our last post, we did some mixing using only Eurorack modules in our system. This time we’re going to do the opposite of that: all mixing will be done inside of Pro Tools with no hardware. I’m using Pro Tools because it’s my favorite DAW, but any DAW should be able to do the things I talk about here. Let’s get started!
Why not both?
In the previous post, we exclusively used hardware. In this post, we’re exclusively using software. Obviously, this is very cut and dry and not necessarily realistic. In general, I prefer using a hybrid technique: I know how my hardware compressors, EQs, mixers, reverbs, and delays sound, and I know what they do well. Alternatively, I know my software well too. If I’m listening to an element in a patch or a mix, I’ll generally have an idea of what piece of hardware or software will do what I want to do to a particular sound best. Hybrid mixing is pretty common practice, and there’s a reason for that: it gives you the best of everything, and it’s fun! This series is more an exercise and demonstration, but remember to take whatever information you want from both posts and use them to your advantage.
I have a couple hundred plugins installed on my computer so I won’t bore you going through every single one. There are probably a lot of plugins that came with your DAW, so try them all out and see what you like best. However, whatever I’m doing, I always feel the need for some basic utilities. I find it useful to have a nice single-band compressor, a multiband compressor, an active EQ (more on that later), a saturator, a gate, a limiter, and a reverb. I’ve gone through and found my favorites over the years, so you’ll see most of these later on.
Let’s do it alllll again
Time to multitrack it and mix it in the box! I’ve removed all the hardware mixing we did in the last post so we’ll be starting completely from scratch. Here’s how it sounds now, before mixing:
Let’s do some actual mixing! As you can hear, things are sitting at very different levels, so the first thing I’m going to do is adjust the volume faders so everything sounds how I want it to in terms of volume. I’m also going to create three aux channels: one for the drum bus, one for the synths, and a reverb aux. I’ve routed the reverb aux to the synth bus as well, you’ll see why later on. Next up, I’m going to focus on the drums. I’ll mute the synths so I can focus on those.
I’ll start with the kick. I’m going to do most of my compression and dynamics on the master bus and I like how this kick sounds already, so all I’m going to do is add some active EQ. An active EQ is a bit like a multiband compressor, but instead of compressing bands, it dynamically adjusts the level of the EQ nodes based on thresholds you set at the frequency of each node. I find dynamic EQ’s to be much more musical than standard EQ’s for a lot of tasks. I took out a little bit of the sub, as it sounded a little bit overwhelming. There was a little bit of resonance around 1k, so I dynamically lowered that with active EQ, and then added a gentle lowpass filter to take out the high end. It’s a kick, and in this context the high end wasn’t doing anything for me.
Next was the snare. Again, this one just needed some EQ. There was a lot of low end in this sample, so I just filtered it out, and it opened up a lot of room for the rest of the drums. There was also a stray resonance in the snare that i didn’t like so again I used dynamic EQ to remove it. I worked on the clap next, as claps often occupy a similar frequency range as snares. It was sounding good already, but it was a little bit dull, so I saturated it quite a bit to bring out the high end. Lastly, the hats just needed some EQ too. Low end in a hat is a no for me, and I cut off a bit of the actual hat just to shape the tone a little more. Nothing too crazy!
All of these went into a bus, where I did a bit more:
First, I ran them all through a little bit of saturation. The drive amount is very high, but it’s only around 30% wet so it’s not crazy noticeable. Next, I ran it through a multiband compressor to glue things together a bit. You have to be careful with multiband compression as it’s very very easy to overdo, so the settings I have here mostly just glue things together and help set the frequency bands where I want them. Last, I ran it through a compressor. Notice that I’m using wet/dry with pretty heavy compression on the wet signal. I’m also highpassing the sidechain like we talked about before; I told you it was a handy mixing strategy!
Here’s how it sounds now. Much better!
For the main lead, I had to do quite a bit. It was a very “messy” sound so I wanted to flatten it out, smooth out some of the dynamic inconsistencies, bring out a bit of high end, and bring down any low end (that’s being filled up by the kick anyway).
First, I added a bunch of saturation. I like saturation! In this case, it’s helping fill in any gaps in the sound. It’s a very phasey synth pad and it’s a great sounding tone but it’s a bit difficult to mix and this helps with that. Next, I’m using a multiband compressor again to smooth out the different frequencies. This helps with that same issue, and lowers the dynamic range of the different frequency ranges separately, which makes it sound more natural in this case. Lastly, I’m running it through an active EQ and high passing any low-end rumble out, cutting out a couple of resonant frequencies, and bringing down the aggressive high end a tiny bit.
For the arp, it’s a completely high-frequency sound so I just high passed it to make sure there wasn’t any low end I wasn’t hearing. It may seem strange, but you can get low-end buildup from weird places and this is an easy precaution that makes mixing overall much easier and saves you headroom when you’re mastering. Easy enough!
I also set up another aux track with a chorus on it and ran these two tracks through it just enough to add some movement and width. Both of these synth sounds are mono, and I wanted to bring them into the stereo field just a little bit and add a tiny bit of interesting modulation. Remember, you can put anything on an aux, and this is a great example of that!
Here’s how things sound now:
It’s coming together nicely now! But we’re not quite done.
First, I want to add some reverb. Both the synths could use some, and I think I’ll add some to my clap and hats and a tiny bit to my snare as well. I ended up using a relatively long (for me, at least) reverb, with a two second decay. Be careful not to go overboard with reverb! It’s very easy to drown a mix in it and lose all of the punch and impact. Nobody wants a mix with no punch, right?
Lastly, I’m going to configure my sidechain ducking.
The way this is done depends on the DAW you’re working in, but a couple of concepts tend to hold true. First, I’m using what’s called a “ghost track” here: I’ve duplicated my kick drum track and am using it as the input to my compressor’s sidechain. This allows me more control over the kick; if I need sharper ducking I can modify this kick and not have it affect the sound of the audible percussion. It also means that if you want to create ducking when there’s no kick you can just extend out the ghost track -- next time you’re listening to some modern house or techno, keep an ear out, you’ll probably hear this technique pop up.
I’m using very aggressive ducking here. I’m also highpassing the sidechain input again so only the transient at the very beginning of the kick are causing ducking; if the low end overwhelms everything the ducking loses its impact.
Oh, and one last thing I did: I like adding a very gentle compressor to the master bus at the end of everything. It just sounds cool.
Again, very gentle. Notice the very low compression ratio and relatively long attack and release times. Just adds a little “glue” or whatever buzzword you’d like to put there. Of course, master bus processing tends to fall under mastering, but who’s gonna tell?
And that’s about it! Here’s how it sounds:
In conclusion: go mix some stuff
Obviously, there’s a lot to learn about mixing, and this is just a basic introduction to my workflow on a simple mix. You may notice that, compared to the previous post in this series, I did a lot more on the in-the-box mix: that’s simply a budget issue. We’d all love to have infinite racks full of gear, but I could load up a hundred compressors in Pro Tools if I really wanted to, and that’s not really an option in hardware. Both of them ended up sounding pretty cool to my ears though.
It’s also pretty easy to do most of this on a budget as well. There are a ton of free plugins available that I really like, and if you’ve bought a DAW you probably already have a bunch at your fingertips. Again, taking some time to mix a track makes you stand out from the crowd, and learning some basic engineering can help you think about music in a new and different way. More knowledge and skills is always a good thing!
Now, of course, it doesn’t end at mixing. What about mastering? Check out this post!