How To Make A Song Sound Full
The one thing you will notice after a time when recording tracks in the digital domain is that the clarity and transparency of your tracks is amazing.
If you have ever recorded to tape you will immediately notice the lack of background noise and hiss in a digital track. Tape has many redeemable qualities that many recording engineers seek out still to this day. Because digital is so clean and crisp, some want to recapture the beauty of tape.
But the whole point of digital recording and mixing is the accessibility that it brings to the masses. A decent Studer tape machine is still way out of most people’s price range even on the used market.
So what is so wrong with the clean signal that digital produces?
Well…….it is a little too clean. Or so many people, after working with digital, will begin to realize.
The listening experience seems to be one which is based to a large degree on our auditory “perception”.What we think we hear is often not exactly what we actually hear when it comes to combined tracks in an audio mix.
What sounds good in an individual recorded instrument is usually radically different compared to what sounds good regarding that instrument in a full mix.
The more tracks you have competing for the attention of the ear the more you have to manipulate each individual track to make space for each of them to be heard in the context of the total song.
So what does this have to do with making a mix sound fuller?
It’s a strange thing. You have all this wonderful clarity that digital brings but there is a devil in the details. Digital tracks seem to suffer from a lack of fullness. Everything seems to be present and available to the ear, but the mix always seems to lack the cohesiveness that professional mixes have. It’s actually a very difficult phenomenon to describe in words but you can definitely hear it when you listen.
In fact, I found the whole experience very stressful. My brain knew there was something wrong with what I was hearing but it was impossible to describe and even harder to rectify with tweaks to the mix.
I would add more of something to one instrument to compensate and something else would suffer. I would hit the track with more “brick wall” limiting and suddenly all the ounce of the track was gone and my drums were nonexistent.
So I would Google for solutions and wind up in some community forum where there seemed to be somewhat of a consensus of opinion as to the elusiveness of fullness and cohesiveness in the digital recording realm.
And this is where the fun begins. You start “ tumbling down the rabbit hole” so to speak. Everyone has a track, plugin,or piece of hardware they are selling or promoting as a fixed for what is ailing in a digital mix. The inevitable end game for this is G.A.S. Gear Acquisition Syndrome.
Someone tells you that you will never get the “glue” you need in a mix without a hardware bus compressor. So you go shopping for the top hardware comps to find out that even a passing grade level comp ( according to the experts ) is going to run you $2000. Really! Just to get “ that glue”
Actually, I fell victim to this one and ended up buying a hardware compressor for $1700. There was one compressor that a lot of people seemed to agree was a great deal for its ability to act as a stereo buss comp. The Elysia Expressor. I must admit if there is one thing that software has a really hard time doing as well as hardware its buss compression.
And yes, it does make a world of difference to a final track if you properly implement buss compression. It is just one of those elements that we are so used to hearing when we listen to a professional track that when it is not there it leaves an unmistakable “impression” on the ear of the listener.
Why Do My Mixes Sound Bad
Part of the reason for that has to do with the history of recording. Tape imparts a compression effect on each track that is recorded to it and to the final mix in general since historically that is the way many of the songs we are hearing when we turn on the radio were originally recorded and mixed.
Many recording engineers were also heavy handed with buss compression back in the day when they discovered through trial and error that it had this magic effect of gelling the tracks together.
What I have noticed when applying buss compression is mot noticeable when you remove it after you get it set the way you like it to sound. Even 1 decibel of buss comp produces an effect that is remarkable when you remove it from the mix. The whole mix just seems to “ come unglued “. The instruments seem to go off on there now path and stop interacting as a unit. very hard to describe but easily perceivable when you hear it.
Thus lies one of the problems with trying to educate people on mixing solutions. The inability to describe these phenomena in words, There is no proper language, in my opinion, to adequately impart these auditory quirks to others. You simply have to experience them and muddle around experimenting until you stumble onto solutions. This can be a long process even if you are as stubborn as I am when it comes to attaining the sounds you want.
Another thing that can help when trying to add fullness to a mix is to compress the individual tracks either at the recording phase or after they are recorded. I prefer to record them after the fact since we don’t have to worry anymore about having enough compressors to get the job done. Part of the origins of recording compression at the input phase was because there was a limited number of pieces of Hardware equipment in the studio so you head to commit to recording with compression at the input stage.
In the digital world where there are virtually unlimited amounts of compressors available for each track, you can simply do it after the fact. That way you retain all of the punch and the transients that occur when a track is laid down and have total control over how much of that you want to be left after the compression phase. This brings me to another issue with digital recording. And that is the issue of transients. Transients are the initial peak of the input of the signal when recorded. They can be quite sharp and spiky not only when looked at visually on a graph representing the sound wave but to the ear itself.
This is something I began to notice early on with digital recording as well. This spikiness so to speak, or the feeling that all of the instruments were sort of jumping out and poking me in the ear instead of massaging my ear with a warmth that I’m used to from professional tracks. And so I began to analyze what I knew from my days of recording to tape and what people had told me regarding the effects that tape implies to attract. That is, the compression effect of tape. It occurred to me that if tape applied a certain amount of compression, and we really don’t know how much compression as a matter of fact, then we must assume that a little bit applied to each track may get us closer to reducing that spikiness that was occurring each time we listen back.
However, it’s really easy to go overboard with compression on individual tracks so in my mind, a little goes a long way. The effect of the compression, when applied to all tracks, will compound in the end and take away the punch that you need for each individual track 2 jump out and get the attention of the ear. This was a complaint that traditional recordists had when recording to tape. Everything was pushed down by the compression effect and so they were dealing with the opposite problem. The problem of getting things to actually jump out of the mix and have punch. So it’s a fine line. Just the right amount of compression effect can do wonders for keeping instruments under control and giving them a little more substance and body and totally killing any of their dynamics by going too far overboard.
So experiment with different compression levels on individual tracks and see what happens. Only you can decide through trial and error what is the right amount. It’s just one of those things you have to learn on your own now that you know it’s “ a thing”.
How To Get Big Sounding Mixes
Another thing that seems to make a big difference in the perception of fullness in a recording is adding a certain amount of distortion. Harmonic distortion is a phenomenon that is traditionally associated with the recording process. Again, this is a historical Factor. We are just so used to hearing the Distortion effect that was added to tracks when signals were passed through all of these various different pieces of Hardware equipment that we have become perceptually bound to wanting to hear things in this manner. This may be an overstatement, no one can really know for sure because it is so hard to measure these things. But, when applied in the digital domain you will immediately notice a subtle increase in the fullness and thickness of individual tracks. You can go overboard with this effect too. So start out small and build on that.
This is the one area where many stock digital recording software’s seem to fall down. They lack really good distortion effects. You may have to wander into the third-party applications such as waves plugins to find something adequate to get the job done. There are a couple of free options out there that do a pretty good job so look around and try out some of the free options as well. You may find something that is really pleasing to your ear personally in the process. And, after all, they’re free so it is really just your time that you’re wasting if you find a dead too or to. There are some really good console emulation effects available as well. These can be applied to the stereo bus and really help with the fullness of a final recording. I am totally addicted to the waves console emulation plugin and use it on every mix now. It has three settings that emulate three different classic consoles and each one of them has its own sort of magic that it imparts to the mix. It also has a setting that is useful on individual tracks and I do implement that as well.
Another winner in the distortion effects domain is from Soundtoys. This one is called Decapitator. From reading articles produced by various top mixers I have come to realize this is a very common tool in a lot of their professional mixes. Decapitator seems to be a go-to of many professionals on drums in particular and a number of instruments as well. I find it particularly good on bass guitar, guitar, and just about anything that you want to make sound a little bit thicker, heavier, and fuller.
Remove some High-end
I know I keep coming back to tape and its effect on a recording. But I have a good reason. Since I was originally trained on tape and console cell recording I am painfully aware of how much difference there is in the basic tracks that I recorded to tape in the basic or tracks that I recorded in digital. Therefore, I am qualified do make some judgments about how we can marry some of these phenomenon and get the best of both worlds. Another thing that tape does to a recorded track is it removes a great deal of bottom and top end frequencies. There occurs a natural roll off of these frequencies and this is also Amplified by the fact that during the mastering process when mastering Engineers were preparing a track to be recorded to an actual vital record, there was a further roll off of high-end and low-end frequencies due to the fact that the cutting lathe which made the grooves in the vinyl simply couldn’t deal with these extremes of frequency so they were often simply removed to make the process more functional.
Again, we are used to hearing things this way and find it pleasing to the ear. Which brings me to the next way to make your tracks Fuller. Try recording or mixing with a lot less high-end frequency in your tracks. High frequency can have a masking effect that seems to blur the recording and create this veil that you simply cannot hear through to hear the actual tone of the individual instruments. The majority of the tone of each individual instrument comes from its mid-range frequencies. Every instrument has some mid-range content and its frequency spectrum, but not all have high-end and low-end content. So figuring out how to manage the mid-range elements of each recorded track seems to be where the magic lies in creating clarity and fullness. One of the tricks that I employ in sorting this out is by going to the extreme enrolling off the high end of a mix when I’m trying to sort out the individual tracks.
It seems that when you pull back a lot of the high end you get to hear through into the mid-range better and are more able to make judgments a boat which instrument should have which amount of mid-range frequency and what frequency to actually apply to each to get them to stand out. Of course this is going to take a great deal of time for you to figure out that certain frequencies just don’t play well with certain types of instruments. For example, 800 Hertz seems to really make guitars sound cheap and cheesy and so you will often find yourself removing some of that frequency from guitar. But this is not a hard-and-fast rule. You may want to add some 800 to some guitars. You just have to try it and see. Lower mid-range can be removed from a lot of drum tracks as well. This opens up space for, let’s say, bass guitar to fill in the gap, we will talk more about mix Clarity in another segment. These are just a few ideas to kind of get you in the ballpark of manipulating frequencies for fullness in a mix. The main point here is fullness. Fullness is often a lack of high-end on individual instruments. For example, I noticed that mutt Lange is a master of getting just the right amount of high frequency on an individual track.
Where I really noticed this is in his guitar tracks. His guitar tracks seem to be really chopped off at a certain frequency in the upper mid-range Spectrum. I just never noticed it immediately. One day I was listening to a Nickelback track and I wasn’t really paying a great deal of attention until suddenly it occurred to me how little high-end the guitars head. I started experimenting with this myself and also listening to other people in Forum talk about guitar and there seem to be a number of them that agreed that cutting off guitar at somewhere in the 425 kilohertz range was a very common practice. I also noticed that what seemed to be the parents of high-end in a guitar track was actually just the buzz of the distortion of the guitar.
This buzzy, fizzy sort of type of distortion that guitars are famous for sort of Tricks the ear into thinking that there’s more top-end frequency than there really is and makes the guitar stand out in the track more so then it’s clean recorded counterpart would. Naturally, guitars are a distortion element in a mix. Even what is perceived as a clean guitar is often quite distorted but in its own unique way that each guitar and each amplifier combination produces. Pay attention to this for a while and you’ll see what I mean. I often thought that the guitar sounds that I was trying to achieve, particularly ones that were clean and tangy were extremely clean. Like, Roland Jazz chorus clean. But now that I’m more attuned to what I’m listening to I realized that that sort of guitar sound is very Hollow and hard to find in a mix. It just gets lost somehow.
The distortion that I was hearing as a part of clean-ish type guitar tracks was one of the things that made it stand out in the mix and make it available to the year amongst the other tracks without being overbearing an overpowering to the entirety of the mix. This is something that guitar 10 to do in a mix. Because of this distortion effect, they tend to have a very wide, overarching frequency spectrum, that takes up a lot of space in the mix. So we have to manage them in their own unique way if we are going to ever achieve fullness in the track. Like I said, pay attention to this for a while and make it a study.
The final solution in my opinion for adding fullness to tracks is to add some Reverb two specific instruments. I have often said that this is one of the areas that really defines professional mixes from amateur mixes. And that is the ability to know how to use Ambien effects such as Reverb and delay. When amateurs use reverb the reverb often sounds like it was “tacked on” to the sound and not part of the sound. Reverb can often be used in very subtle ways to create a fullness in a sound that would otherwise be very dull and very flat. One of the areas to really pay attention to this is with the snare drum. Almost all of what we hear of a snare drum that gives it its tonality and its sound is actually the sound of the room as part of the decay after the initial hit of the drum.
This is extremely dominant with the snare drum, and that’s why I say to pay attention to it specifically. A snare drum seems to excite the sound of the room more than any other instrument because of its very high transient and its mid-range tonality. If you take away the room mics from a drum kit and listen to the snare soloed on its solo mic it off and sounds bulky and pathetic. What we perceive as the sound of the snare is actually mostly made up of the overhead mics and the splashy effect of the snare in the way it excites a room. I won’t elaborate on how to use reverb and delay at this juncture because it is far too large of a subject matter and deserves its own article to really do it justice. However, it is one of the tools that you should use in your arsenal to make a mix sound fuller, particularly if there are only a few instruments in the mix.
Double, Triple, and even Quadruple track some instrument.
And in some cases you can track instruments 20, 30 50, 100, or even 200 times. Sound unreasonable? Tell Mutt Lange that! He has often been known to track background vocals 200 times. Have a listen to some of the backing vocal track on his Def Leppard recordings. Pretty heavy amount of tracks. He had to pull off this trick using sub reductions on a tape machine. Today, with a DAW any bozo can do a 200 track backing vocal as long as their voice will hold out that long. You will notice if you listen closely to the use of multi-tracking if you pay attention. Try using this technique at the recording stage and you will notice a big difference in the fullness of the sound produced. You have to be able to replicate the performance pretty much exactly the same way on each take of it can get pretty wierd real fast.
As a recap.
- Used a bit of compression on individual tracks
- Try a hardware ( or software) compressor on the stereo buss.
- Remove top end from instruments that do not absolutely need it.
- Add some distortion to tracks
- Add distortion to the stereo mix.
- Really pay attention to what you ” think” you are hearing on an individual track.
- Use reverb and delay cleverly and sparingly. ( And sometimes use it aggressively)
- Double, triple and multiple your recorded tracks.
This should improve your mixes drastically