Last year I decided to try making some dance-oriented electronic music. One of the major issues I had was getting things to sound loud and upfront. I sent my first attempt away for professional mastering, but it still sounded incredibly weak when compared side to side with, say, a Zedd track.
This was more than an little demoralising. I’d been happy with the way my nu-jazz EP had sounded, and thought I knew enough to create solid mixes; but this dance music thing was a whole different challenge. And so began a few months of figuring out what I could do to increase the sonic impact of my tracks, both in terms of loudness as well as general sweetness.
This post describes what I learned. I thought it’d be worth sharing. Oh, and before I get started, a caveat: I in no way consider myself a seasoned producer of dance music. This is just a reflection on my experiences which resulted in a couple of nu-disco tracks I’m pretty happy with. Also, the techniques I mention can be applied when producing any type of electronic music.
No magic bullet
One thing I did eventually realise was that there really is no magic bullet; no one plugin that I could insert into the stereo buss to make everything sound great. There are a few bits of software that do amazing things to make a track sound wider and more in your face, but they won’t save a problematic mix. That might sound obvious, but when you’re trying everything you can think of to solve the problem that is your feeble mix, it’s tempting to think it’s because you don’t have access to all the high-end gear that the “professionals” have. But that’s just not the case. Software these days is pretty advanced, and can give all that expensive analogue equipment a run for its money.
It seems to me that a great mix is the result of making good artistic and technical decisions from the composition stage through to mastering. No detail is too small to focus on and get right. It can be tortuous, but the music will benefit.
Start with the best sounds
Firstly, use the highest quality synths and samples you can get your hands on. The instruments that come with, say, Logic, are good, but if you can afford it, you won’t regret expanding your sonic palette by way of third-party synths and sample libraries. If you’re going to spend time and energy getting a track sounding loud and upfront, you want to start with the best sounds. Also, I work entirely in the box, but if you’re recording live instruments, use the best mics you can, or hire a good studio.
Consider also buying a few third-party processing plugins. Two I recommend later in this post are bx_digital and Oxford Inflator. It’s totally worth it.
Be mindful of the sonic space
When choosing sounds and while mixing, I try to be aware of the space I have to work in: from left to right across the stereo field; and vertically up and down the frequency spectrum. I find it useful to think about where I’m placing the sounds within that space, to avoid ending up with competing elements of the mix cancelling each other out and becoming a hideous audio mush.
One place where problems can occur in this regard, especially in dance music, is between the kick drum and bass. Getting a decent kick sound is a whole topic in itself, and not one I can speak about with much authority, but in the nu-disco tracks I created, I used the kick to side-chain the volume of the bass a bit, and also had the sub-bass play in between the kicks. This latter technique lent some energy to the low end (I believe it’s called the “giddy-up” bass). I also played about endlessly EQing the kick in particular, as well as experimenting with various compressors. Ultimately I was able to keep the kick fairly punchy, and the bass under control, throughout.
When it comes to synths, be cautious of ones that are densely textured. I found that they can sound impressive on their own (check out some of the amazing out-of-the-box patches in Massive, for example), but — especially if there is more than one in the mix — they need to be tamed with some careful EQing.
I found that trying to achieve volume by using the fattest and widest synth patch I could come up with was counterproductive in terms of creating a loud mix. Certain synths took up so much of the frequency spectrum that they would drown out everything else. I had more success when I started from scratch and carefully built up individual parts, being aware of their position in the frequency spectrum and stereo field, and applying EQ.
I’ve not yet mastered the art of using huge synth pads in a dance track. The disco tracks I ended up with were slightly more texturally minimalist than what I’d been trying previously. I’ll report back if I have a go at creating a totally cheese-tastic EDM track again. In any case, it turns out that the nu-disco vibe seems to be more up my street than banging trance.
Equalisation is a huge topic, but here are a few basic techniques which are easy to deploy.
I tend to gently roll off the low end on most sounds in a project. They may contain inaudible low frequencies which, if present in multiple tracks across the piece, risk combining to muddy the mix. You can see if they’re there by putting the sound through a spectrum analyser (e.g. the one that comes with Logic’s Channel EQ). I got into the habit of adding a high-pass filter to every track in the mix, just to err on the safe side. It’s even worth applying a bit of low cut to bass parts to get rid of ultra low-end dirt that might take away from the track’s energy.
I also roll off the audible lower end of certain sounds which take away clarity from the bass part. I use electric pianos quite a bit and they in particular usually need their lower frequencies tamed with a high-pass EQ.
If two sounds occupy a similar frequency range and are clashing, it’s worth attenuating select frequencies in one sound while boosting the same frequencies in the other.
I found myself EQing both with a particular part soloed, as well as in the context of the full mix. The proof of whether you’ve been successful is that the part sounds good in context, but I found it useful to focus in isolation on certain elements, the kick in particular.
One technique I picked up during my nu-disco adventure was Parallel compression, where you have a mix of two versions of a part: a highly compressed one, and the original, much-less-compressed one. The latter maintains the dynamic variation while you also get the benefits of a fat and compressed sound.
I used the kick to side-chain a lot of the sounds in both nu-disco tracks, with the exception of the melodies. The subtle pumping effect added a bit of extra energy to proceedings, as well as helping the melody to stand out.
My third-party compressor of choice became Slate’s three-in-one Virtual Buss Compressors. I employed the FG-Red as the stereo buss compressor, but I still like and use Logic’s bundled Compressor on individual tracks throughout a project.
As well as using standard EQ and compression techniques on the drums, I experimented with Logic’s Enveloper plugin. It’s a transient designer which affords you fine-grained control of the attack and sustain phases of a sound’s ADSR envelope. I found it helped to add a bit of punch to the drum buss.
I also inserted an instance of the Oxford Inflator, which I’ve described in the Master buss section, on the drum buss. It really helped.
Making the sound wider
Increasing the wideness of certain sounds can help the mix sound loud and upfront.
I made the bass in An Evening at the Discothéque pretty wide. It’s made up of two instances of the Massive synth, one at a higher pitch than the other. Both have the Massive Chorus effect applied to them, and you can hear the Delay Synced effect on the higher part. (Download the audio file from the SoundCloud embed above for the high quality version.)
Another technique is to take a sound, duplicate it, and pan one copy to the left, the other to the right, and attenuate certain frequencies in one while boosting the same frequencies in the other.
You could also try a sample delay plugin. The one in Logic pans the sound hard, and allows for adjustments to the delay to be made in terms of samples, resulting in a nice wide effect.
I think the key with more extreme panning effects is to reserve them for certain sounds, and not overdo it, lest the impact be lost.
For applying stereo width enhancement to the whole mix, see the next section on the master buss…
There are a few things you can do at the mastering stage to increase the impact of a mix. Even if someone else is mastering your tracks, giving it a go yourself will let you know whether your mix works and likely to end up sounding like you want it to.
As I mentioned earier, I sent my first EDM effort away for professional mastering, thinking that it’d arrive back sounding nice and loud. But the underlying mix was problematic, so the results were underwhelming. And I would have known this if I’d done a proper mastering pass myself. Pro mastering will likely always get you better results than by doing it yourself, but I felt pretty happy with having mastered Penelope Macintosh and Discothèque.
One plugin I can’t recommend enough is bx_digital from Brainworx. It’s a mastering tool that allows you to process the mix’s stereo and mono information separately (commonly known as mid/side processing). I used it as the master buss EQ. But there are a couple of controls that are particular killer features.
The first is the Stereo Width knob, which increases the stereo width of the mix most impressively, and without ruining the mix. The second is Mono-Maker, which monos the lower frequencies and gives you peace of mind knowing that your low end is protected against unwanted stereo information.
The effect of the Stereo Width knob is pretty magical. It really does give the whole mix a lift. I’ve made an A/B test of Penelope Macintosh, where I’ve automated bypassing bx_digital, to demonstrate the effect (in combination with the Mono-Maker and mid/side EQ).
Sonnox’s Oxford Inflator uses clever algorithms to increase the perception of volume without destroying the dynamic range. Pretty neat. Inflator, along with bx_digital, are the two mastering plugins I’ve have been most impressed with.
Finally, when I was mixing the nu-disco tracks, I liked to compare the sonic quality of my efforts against commercially released tracks that I liked, and tried to be honest with myself about whether mine sounded as loud and upfront. I found it useful to have such a reference point as far as the mixing went.
I hope this post has been useful to at least someone out there. Feedback is welcomed. Feel free to hit me up on Twitter.