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Thinking Outside the Box, Part 2: A Sticky Palette

In this second instalment, we canvass a palette of options for adding colour and control to your mix bus.

By

9 September 2013

Tutorial: Dax Liniere

Here’s the series’ philosophy: to get the most from in-the-box mixing, we must think outside it. 

A large part of the analogue sound we have grown to love comes from the multiple subtle saturations and colourations imparted by analogue circuitry. It can come from many sources: tape, tubes, transformers, line drivers and summing buses, each with their own unique characteristics.

Last time, I suggested you try Klanghelm’s IVGI plug-in on some of your own mixes to hear the subtle thickening and ‘gluing’ effect a quality saturator can offer. But there is no one-stop-shop; no single magic bullet plug-in for your mix — like a studio full of analogue consoles, compressors, limiters and EQ units, that colour is achieved through layers and variation.

Think of it like peanut butter. While it might spectacularly compliment celery or chocolate, it doesn’t go with every meal. Likewise, if you have a favourite effect, resist the temptation to apply it to every track. The key is contrast and you should apply this principal to everything you do. Without quiet, there is no loud. And without clean, there is no saturated. 

SIMPLY, IT’S ABOUT COMPLEXITY

I use multiple types of saturators on my master bus to create the complexity that only comes from layering. The exact combination depends heavily on the music I’m mixing and I regularly use just one. Saying that, make sure you don’t leave those decisions too late in the mixing process. All colouration plug-ins will affect the tonality (frequency response) and dynamic response of a mix. Sometimes throwing one on at the end of a mix can improve it, but more often than not, it can significantly shift the balance of the mix, requiring a total rebalance. You need to know how the combination of saturation and compression will affect your tonal balance. Dynamics can come later when you get to volume balance and automation, but establishing your colour palette early is important. 

Broaden Your Palette

Master Bus Saturators

Klanghelm IVGI

(free)

IVGI contains one of the four modules found inside their commercial product SDRR. I find IVGI lends a nice thickness to the upper midrange plus a very subtle boost to the low frequencies. The Asym Mix knob controls the transparency of the plug-in; maximum position is cleanest, minimum position is most saturated. And the Response control can ‘tilt’ your mix’s tone.

FabFilter Saturn

(€129)

Saturn’s 16 algorithms do everything from gentle warming and saturation to utter annihilation, and the apocalypse comes in a variety of flavours. Saturn is also a multiband processor, meaning you can choose to saturate only part of your frequency spectrum, or even roll your own saturator by combining different types for different frequency ranges. Remember to enable the HQ button for oversampling (quality is increased, but latency increases along with it, so switch it off before attempting tracking).

Slate Digital VTM

(US$199)

Virtual Tape Machine (VTM) is Slate Digital’s tape emulator offering two tape types (GP9 and 456), two machine types (two-track ½-inch, and 16-track 2-inch), plus the typical bias and drive controls. VTM adds body to the sound, though I find Bass Alignment is best set to -1.3dB to achieve a more balanced result.

Klanghelm SDRR

(coming soon)

IVGI’s big brother contains not only a beefed-up algorithm, but also three other unique modes, all of which contain two algorithms which can be seamlessly blended to achieve the desired balance. If you want to add punch to a sound, this is your plug-in, but it is capable of far more than just that. With Tube, Fuzz, Digital and Desk modes, SDRR covers a lot of sonic ground.

U-he Satin

(US$129)

Already famous for some of the most flexible and ‘analogue-sounding’ virtual instruments, German developer U-he returns with the best-sounding tape emulator I’ve had the pleasure of beta testing. Satin will be available soon and features not only a very convincing tape machine capable of multiple sounds, but also a four-tap tape delay and a through-zero tape flanger. It’s a mix engineer’s dream for tape sounds.

RIGHT SAUCE FOR THE SOURCE

Not sure what the right reason is, or the right time to add the delicious sonic condiments of saturation and compression to your mixes? Then ask yourself this simple question: “Does it serve the song?” It’s a phrase I use quite regularly in the studio and I consider it to be one of the most important tenets of music production. It’s not about showing off a ‘cool trick’ you just learned and it’s definitely not about following the same steps for every song. Your job as an engineer or producer is to serve the best interests of each and every song, treating it as the unique experience that it is.

LEAVING THE RIGHT COMPRESSION

Once you’ve decided on your colour, it’s time to look at dynamics. Most modern music makes extensive use of compression, both on the track level and the master bus. The SSL 4000 series consoles are rare pieces of gear we can label as truly iconic. Countless records have been mixed on this series and it’s helped define a modern sonic template for rock, pop and other punchy genres. All of which has a lot to do with the sound of its famous bus compressor.

When using a compressor on your master bus, start with a gentle ratio of 2:1. If you find you’re getting too much overshoot, this is probably a good sign that the tracks feeding the compressor are too dynamic and you don’t have quite enough compression at the track level. An attack of 10ms is a good starting place and should allow enough transients through while still controlling the dynamics.

When I mix, my bus compressor’s needle usually sits around 2dBGR (decibels of gain reduction), sometimes hitting 4dBGR for short periods.

Bear in mind there is never one setting for all songs. Every song is different and should be treated that way. And how you set your processors defines your sound so don’t be afraid to experiment.

I wouldn’t recommend new mix engineers use a bus compressor until they’ve mastered the art of mixing without. It’s very easy to get into a tail-chasing loop; turn up one track to get it above the rest, then turn up another track, and another… soon enough your gain reduction meter could be sitting at -20dB.

It’s not necessary to have a master bus compressor engaged if you’re shaping sounds during the early stages of a mix. But you should enable it whenever in the process you’re ready to start balancing your mix. This is especially important when you’re working on the loudest parts of a song since this is where the compressor will be pushed the hardest and you need to know how it will handle that; will the crescendo of the song be crushed at the master bus?

Engaging your master bus compressor too early can be detrimental. Say you’re adjusting the compression on a particular track. If your master bus compressor is also compressing, then you’ll be unable to judge the true effect of the track’s compressor.

Speaking of things to avoid, I strongly advise against using limiters on the master bus during mixing. For the inexperienced, they have too much potential to do damage and the tail-chasing I mentioned above usually results in more severe sonic mangling than with a compressor. If you do use them for ‘safety reasons’, it is imperative that you ensure the levels entering the limiter stay below its threshold.

Broaden Your Palette

Master Bus Compressors

Universal Audio SSL G Series Bus Compressor

(US$249 for UAD-2 users)

This is one of my favourite bus compressor plug-ins. Modelled on the iconic SSL 4000 G Series bus compressor (and authenticated by none other than SSL themselves), it definitely has a sound of its own. Not the most transparent compressor around and not suitable for all music, but it can certainly help you achieve some fantastic punch and focus in your mixes. 300ms release is a good place to start. Faster will produce a louder mix, but can very easily become too dense and fatiguing. Slow it down to 600ms for a less compressed, more open sound.

Slate Digital VBC

(US$249)

Virtual Buss Compressors (VBC) is a collection of three compressors that can be used individually or together in the ‘FG-Rack’ version of the plug-in. FG-Grey models an SSL 4000 G Series, but the addition of continuously-variable release and ratio controls gives access to in-between values not found on the original. FG-Red models a Focusrite Red 3 compressor, capturing the output stage transformers omitted on the currently manufactured incarnation of the Red 3. These transformers can be pushed harder with the Drive control to elicit more character. FG-MU is based on a Fairchild 670 tube compressor and it imparts quite sizeable ‘tubey’ warmth.

PSPaudioware MixPressor2

(US$249 for MixPack2 bundle)

Highly under-rated, this plug-in comes as part of the MixPack2 collection. With its six knee modes and sidechain filtering, MixPressor2 is capable of a range of different sounds from hard edged to very soft compression. Make sure to set the output mode to Thru to avoid further limiting which is best left for mastering.

Cytomic The Glue

(US$99)

Heralded as the second coming of SSL’s classic bus compressor, The Glue is a more flexible beast offering an adjustable sidechain filter to avoid pumping effects caused by low frequency signals, plus wet/dry mix and gain reduction range controls not available on the original SSL unit.

Tokyo Dawn Labs Feedback Compressor II

(free)

One of the most transparent compressors I’ve ever heard, this plug-in is particularly suited to acoustic or orchestral music due to its extremely low aliasing artefacts. One interesting design feature is that only the compressed portion of the signal is oversampled. This leaves the original signal completely untouched and contributes to the plug-in’s transparency.

PLUGGED IN:

FabFilter’s Floris Klinkert & Frederik Slijkerman

Dax Liniere: When did you start making audio processors and why?

Floris Klinkert: We met in our first year of university. Near the end of our studies we did a subject on digital signal processing and started creating a virtual synthesiser, which became FabFilter One. We liked it so much and it got really good reviews, although we couldn’t make a living from it. But we went on creating new products and here we are today. Why? I was using Logic a lot and was just not happy with the plug-ins of the day (10 years ago), especially the synthesisers. We decided to try make some filters that would sound really good and not ‘digital’ — that’s the roots of One.

DL: What is your approach to making an audio processor. Any rules or goals?

FK: Well, the only rule is that we must finish a product in every detail. Sound-wise, reliability-wise, user interface-wise — everything has to be 100% right. We don’t release something we’re not happy with. If we know there are five features we would still like to add, we don’t release the product yet. If we know there is a fault, we will fix it. We only release something when it’s really finished. 

Frederik Slijkerman: Everything has to be what we think is perfect.

DL: What are you trying to achieve with your plug-ins?

FK: For most people, plug-ins are just tools. They have a toolbox and they have to use those tools every day. You put your nice-sounding EQ on, say, 50 channels and you use them all day, so it has to be a joy to use the plug-in as well. We would like to have people open Pro-Q every day and smile because they like how it sounds, it’s fast to work with and it’s nice to look at, too. 

FS: We want to make the lives of our users a little bit nicer in some ways, when we can. 

FK: We really concentrate on usability and interface. It’s not just ‘that part you do at the end,’ it’s an integral part of making a plug-in. I think many developers create something that sounds great, but then at the end think, “Oh, it needs an interface,” and quickly whip something up. That’s not how we work. Everything is important, it really is, and you’ll notice that when you work with the plug-ins.

DL: What are your thoughts on console emulation plug-ins?

FK: It’s a product we would never make — the perfect example of mimicking something from the analogue world. Instead, we would try to find out why people think an analogue console sounds much nicer and use that knowledge to make a product that doesn’t have to be used only as a console emulator. Mimicry is just not our thing. And we don’t want you to act as if you’re not mixing in the box. You’re mixing in the box! [laughs] You have to know what that means, how to handle it and how to get good mixes out of it. It doesn’t mean you have to act like you’re mixing on an analogue console.

DL: What did you set out to achieve with your plugin Saturn?

FK: Our first goal was to make a really creative distortion. Initially, we were really focussed on combining our powerful modulation system with good distortion algorithms. We were thinking in terms of crazy presets, weird and massively distorted effects, but as we were working on it we found out that, actually, Saturn was capable of subtle effects and that worked very well for subtle sounds. It covers the whole range from gentle saturation and nice harmonics to very weird and heavy distortion effects and that’s… good. [smiles]

DL: Outside of audio, what are some of your interests and how do they influence your work?

FK: Well of course, for both of us, music is a big interest. I’m a producer and engineer as well, I’ve produced albums here in The Netherlands, I’ve done my own albums as an artist and that really influences my work. For example, I was mixing an album two years ago and I just couldn’t get the de-essing right, so you might guess what that led to… [Pro-DS, if you’re wondering – Ed]

FS: I’m really interested in user-interface and design and that inspires me to think of new things and try to go to another level with my work. The creation process is usually quite organic. I’ll work on an idea, take it a little further in some direction and then strike a certain balance with colours and shapes.

FK: And then I say I don’t like it and everything has to be done again!

FS: Usually it’s a continuous iteration and we have the freedom to do everything we want, which is great. I could also say I’m inspired by ’60s futurism. There is a scene in a space station at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the furniture looks so futuristic, but it’s still vintage ’60s and still looks cool today. That’s the sort of aesthetic value I’m inspired by. Also modern-day Apple products — everything has a sense of quality.

IS THIS MASTERING?

So is all this master bus processing the same as sending your tracks off to a mastering house? In short, no. There are unique roles a good mastering engineer plays in the production of your projects, things you probably can’t do yourself. Here are some reasons:

  1. It’s generally accepted that you shouldn’t master in the same room you mix. The reason is any flaws in frequency or transient response in your listening environment (the combination of your speakers and room) will only be compounded if you attempt to master there. You can’t fix what you can’t hear, and mastering in a different space may allow you to hear problems that need correcting.
  2. Mastering engineers spend much time and money establishing a superior monitoring system and listening environment. It’s not just big, expensive speakers, but also carefully planned acoustic treatments to create an accurate, full bandwidth listening room, and the ear-training that comes with years of acute listening and experience with multiple musical genres. Having on your team an experienced listener who is also an experienced communicator can help you derive the best possible outcome.
  3. The over-arching role the mastering engineer plays is that of quality control. It’s their responsibility to ensure the final product is free from technical flaws. Mastering is the final chance to catch anything that may have been missed earlier in the process and, as such, it is an exercise in risk management and quality assurance.
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READ ONLINE NOW
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Issue 93

REVIEWED

Ableton Live 12
What’s in. What’s out. What to expect.