There’s nothing worse than an overly bright mix. Sibilant vocals, splashy drums, resonant synths, fizzy guitars—too much top and your mix will burn ears, too little and it will sound lifeless.
Taming those high-end and high-mid frequencies can be a tricky endeavor. Even for those with significant experience, it’s a region in the frequency spectrum that can get out of control quickly.
Here are six actionable ways to avoid blinding yourself with a bright mix.
1. See the brightness you’re hearing
Before diving into your plug-in arsenal, it’s important to understand if you have a problem in the first place. It’s easy for your room or your monitors to hide the reality of your mix. One way to verify high-end hype is through Tonal Balance Control.
Tonal Balance Control displays spectrum metering information relative to a target curve—a curve developed after analyzing thousands of beautifully balanced mixes. Throw it on your track’s master bus, choose a target relevant for your project, play some audio during a particularly energetic section, and take a look at the meters—particularly in the high-mid and high sections.
Your mix might be overly bright if you notice your lines running north of the typical bounds of energy for the high-mid and high areas of your target, which is where you might want your mix to be. To identify exactly which instruments might be contributing to this brightness, solo the track to investigate.
For example, if your percussion track is adding brightness, use inter-plugin communication—a way for iZotope products to talk to each other—to call up your Ozone or Neutron EQ on the track and remove brightness.
2. De-ess grouped vocals to tame brightness
An essy vocal needs de-essing to tame sibilance introduced by a naturally sibilant singer, or an ess turned sour from a bright microphone. But sometimes, grouped vocals need an extra dose of de-essing on the bus they’re passing through, even if you’ve de-essed the individual tracks.
3. EQ your reverb to tame brightness
Reverb has a tendency to brighten an already bright song element. In both Nectar 3 and Exponential Audio reverbs, use the filter to determine which part of the signal gets a serving of reverb. If you’re using Nectar, use the low pass post filter to make sure high frequencies aren’t accentuated with reverb.
If you’re using an Exponential Audio reverb plugin like R4, do the same by adjusting the frequency input EQ. It’s also a good idea to use filters on reverb aux tracks, not just on track inserts, where whole groups of vocals or instruments are being processed with reverb.
4. Separate low-end and high-end elements to soften percussion with time-based effects
A great way to soften overly fizzy and bright mix elements is to hit them with time-based effects like delay and reverb. To do this, let’s try an advanced technique—separate the low-end elements from high-end elements to tame the treble. Let’s try it with this track—in solo or in the context of the mix, its high-mids and highs are especially grating on the ear.
To do this, duplicate the track in question, label one low percussion and the other high percussion. Place an instance of Neutron’s EQ on both, and with Neutron’s Masking Meter, divide the track’s frequencies. Use a high-pass filter on the high percussion track, and a low-pass filter on the low percussion track—effectively dividing the energy between the two tracks.
Here are our two tracks after high and low pass filters were applied.
With the energy properly divided, we can apply time-based effects only to the high-end material. For this track, I added in some plate reverb from R4, dialed in a decay time of about 1 second, and brought the dry-to-wet ratio to 60% or so. Give it a listen.
5. Remove resonance in the high-mids with Neutron’s Sculptor
What we perceive as high-end trebly harshness often technically occupies the high-midrange—anything between, say, 2 kHz–8 kHz. Sibilance can sometimes occupy this space, as can nasty resonances in crash cymbals, clangy aspects of a guitar, or the needley nonsense of a synth. Taming the high-mids can be problematic for EQ, as a static cut at these frequencies could result in a lifeless timbre overall. Lots of non-vocal instruments can stack up brightly in this range, especially electric guitars.
To tackle this resonance, try a tool like Sculptor, which uses a 32 band EQ with low ratio dynamics processing to spectrally flatten harshness so it conforms to a “darker” or “brighter” noise profile. In fact, we have presets to automatically search for harshness, like the “taming harshness” preset.
In this pad clip, there’s a lot of sourness in the often problematic high-mid territory we spoke about. Engage the preset and you’ll see bands fixed to that part of the spectrum, suppressing resonance and adapting to incoming audio. Move those to suppress content in the high-mid range, around 2–6.2kHz. Here’s a before and after.
6. Targeted attenuation across the mix with spectral shaper
Finally, in Ozone 8 we have the super-sized version of Neutron’s Sculptor module called Spectral Shaper. While Neutron’s Sculptor uses a 32 EQ band with low-ratio dynamics processing, Ozone’s Spectral Shaper uses a 72 mel-spaced band EQ with the same dynamics processing to spectrally flatten harshness.
Ozone’s Spectral Shaper is designed to attack harshness across an entire mix, so it’s especially useful to instantiate it on the master bus and dial settings to taste.
In tip number one, where we used Tonal Balance Control to visualize energy, we noted harshness appearing in the high-mids. Let’s tackle this with Spectral Shaper. Play with the threshold to begin smoothing out harshness, or try one of the three ratios to taste (light, medium, or heavy).
After watching the video above and reading through these tips, you should have a well-stocked toolkit of solutions to tame brightness in a mix. Next time you’re faced with an overly bright mix, don’t despair! You’re well-equipped to deal with the issue.