What Separates a Demo from a Polished Mix: Part 2

What Separates a Demo from a Polished Mix Part 2

What separates a demo from a polished mix? We asked the question last year, and detailed how things like balanced vocals and well-executed edits could make the difference.

But here’s the truth: thanks to the prevalence of great, inexpensive gear, the shrinking budgets of labels, the ease of self-releasing music, and many other factors, these days, the answer may be “nothing.”

That’s why it’s helpful to identify aspects of a mix that sound like a demo—so that you learn how to avoid them. With that in mind, here are four more identifiers to keep in mind.

1. Crispy high end that isn’t harsh

Assuming your mix could go live at any time is an opportunity in disguise: it gives you the motivation to distinguish your craft, and this includes achieving excellence throughout the frequency spectrum. We covered the low-end and the midrange in this series’ previous article. But what about the highs? Does treatment of treble distinguish a demo from a mix?

Absolutely! Many are the demos that sound harshly bright when they come my way, tearing off my ears when a crash cymbal hits, causing me misery when a vocalist drops a sibilant word. Distinguish yourself here: achieve a high end commensurate with the genre of your music, doing so in ways that are not at-once harsh or ear-fatiguing over time.

Game plan: identify the stand-out, high-end all-stars of your mix. Maybe it’s the vocals, maybe it’s a horn part. It could even be the drum kit, depending on the song. Ensure that these elements come through, and do so in a subtractive manner; a bright song doesn’t sound bright because of the amount of treble employed—it sounds bright because its trebliest elements are given room to shine.

Say you have a vocal and a synth competing for the high end. Do you automatically boost the vocal’s high end? Maybe, but doing so could have hazardous side effects, especially in those dreaded sibilated syllables. It’s far better to notch out some highs from the synth first. Maybe you want the synth to shine on the sides of the mix. In this case, notch out the mid-channel with an M/S EQ, such as the one found in Ozone 8.

While we’re on the subject of sibilance, do make sure you nip it in the bud. De-ess your singer (Nectar 3’s De-esser is quite transparent and easy to use).

Nectar 3 de-esser
Nectar 3 De-esser

Don’t let those crash cymbals tear your head off either. Perhaps a dynamic or automated EQ in the 4 kHz region would do the trick.

However, you can go too far afield with this. In being overly careful, you can cook the zest right out of your mix, and wind up with something that sounds like a dull demo. That’s why I reference as much as possible, pulling in similar tracks from similar genres, and make sure I’m in the ballpark. Heck, they don’t have to be genre-specific. I’ll often pull in two tunes—one in the genre, and another whose high-end is simply gorgeous, regardless of its classification. That can be inspiriting.

2. A competitive level without the sacrifice

As we’ve established, there really is no such thing as a demo anymore. Assume that any mix, any song, any recording, should be ready to go live if it ever leaves the (relative) safety of your own hard drive. To that end, a mix leaving your stables should sport both a competitive level and an intrinsic loudness without any obvious sacrifice.

If the tune will find its way to a professional mixer, it should sport enough intrinsic loudness to inspire that person to do their best work to beat it. Intrinsic loudness is different from competitive level—we’re talking about impact here: transient heft, balanced frequency content, and other aspects that make a mix feel loud at all settings of the listener’s volume control.

If you distribute the tune internally around a record label, it shouldn’t sound out of place within the context of a playlist. The people judging its merits will do so against other music they’ve heard. Furthermore, keep in mind the tune could be publicly teased, previewed, or leaked; all of this is somewhat outside of your control.

This is where competitive level comes in. Your mix doesn’t have to be stupid loud. Many streaming sites normalize to well below the hot masters of yesteryear’s CDs. But you can’t be overly conservative either when it comes to the level of your mix.

If the mix doesn’t stand up to the levels of what civilians expect, they may not be able to judge the mix as professional based on their own relative experience. Conversely, if the mix sounds too squashed and too undynamic, the results might also read as unduly unprofessional.

Game plan: You don’t need to mix into a limiter. No one is advocating that as a catchall. However, it’s good practice to have master chain on hand simply for referencing purposes. Even if it’s one plug-in, like Ozone 8’s Maximizer, having it on bypass can be a huge boon. Periodically switch it on, tweak with the chain till you’re seeing a short-term loudness reading of, say, around -13 LUFS (just a bit higher than the commonly accepted -14 LUFS streaming standard), and monitor the chorus of your song.

How do the transients sound? Despite all the fiddling of your limiter, are the transients shaved off in an unhelpful, unnatural way? If so, you may have to return to the original tracks and process them further with some light, per-channel dynamics-taming or EQ. Does the chorus give you ear-fatigue after two passes? You may need to pull back on some stereo-buss processing; often the drums are a culprit. You may also find that you’ll need to play with bass information, as it could be swallowing your dynamics.

And most importantly, with the chain on, reference mastered material of a similar genre. Ozone 8 makes this easy with its dedicated referencing section, complete with level adjustments (some masters may be shooting for -8 or -6 LUFS, while for your purposes, the streaming loudness standard could be considered liberal enough).

Lastly, a word on Ozone 8’s Master Assistant: The algorithm is quite good, and I say this as a user rather than a writer for the blog. In a podcast with Ian Shepherd, Jonathan Wyner discussed using the assistant in his own chain as a starting place for some of his own mastering work, and I’ve used it similarly to great effect, particularly on EDM projects for artists like Andrew Morphous. You could do a lot worse than getting a good static mix of the material up, running the Master Assistant in Streaming mode, and then tweaking from there as you mix your material.

3. A sense of dynamics, even when everything is loud

This is part and parcel with the last tip, and it speaks to an inherent puzzle-piece of good mixes: How do you trick a listener into believing that a mix is louder for the chorus than the verse when the usual, commercial dynamic range is quite small?

Well, many demo recordings fail in this respect. If they are loud, they can sound nearly undifferentiated in terms of impact between sections of the song. Great mixes, however, achieve this effect even when faced with the limitations of the delivery medium.

It must be reiterated that practically speaking, no such thing as a demo exists anymore. Your mix should be treated as a listenable product as soon as it leaves your hand. Thus, it behooves you to achieve a sense of dynamic range, even if it’s only an illusion.

Game plan: Use psychoacoustic means to acquire this effect, including frequency manipulation and stereo-field placement. In this article, Julian King referred to the technique of frequency manipulation as illusory dynamics, and there are a few ways to implement this process.

Consider your bass information: Perhaps the mix should be thinner during the verse, and then beefier in the chorus for a feeling of completed impact. The reverse could be true as well. The verse could rely on 808s and a spare arrangement, while the chorus could wind up busier with four-on-the-floor percussion introduced. Here it might make sense to curtail the deep bass in the chorus, as it can often trigger compression faster than other material, and swallow LU in the process. You can create the feeling of a dynamic increase by magnifying the impact of kick drums to knock in the 80 to 100 Hz range, sculpting out the 808 and other low-end percussion, and letting the bass handle the subharmonics.

Stereo field placement also should be considered: a narrow, hard-hitting verse followed by a wide, equally hard-hitting chorus might read the same on the LUFS meters, but the feel of it—the weight of it—would surely sound larger.

But one must be careful with stereo elements. Indeed, this leads us nicely into our next point of comparison.

4. A sense of solidity, even in stereo elements

We covered this a bit here, but this point demands space in the context of distinguishing demos from fully-fledged mixes: a great mix has a feeling of both stereo spread and solidity, and if a mix is lacking in these things, it can sound like a demo.

What do we mean here by introducing the twin concepts of stereo-spread and solidity? Why, exciting use of the stereo field without sacrificing mono compatibility, of course! Many a demo have come my way where the drums sounded wide—a little too wide in fact; the overheads were out of phase. Conversely, the opposite is often true, a rough mix where everything but, say, two double-tracked guitars are going right up the middle can also sound fishy.

Game plan: first and foremost, we must make sure that nothing related in stereo will sound horrible when folded into mono. Even these days, where stereo playback devices are a foregone conclusion, you must adhere to this rule, because you cannot account for a listener’s position in any given environment. No one is standing in the middle of an equilateral mixing triangle when they’re subjected to Taylor Swift at the supermarket (why is that the only place I hear Taylor Swift these days)?

This doesn’t mean you need to avoid panning. Panning a mono element shouldn’t necessarily affect the integrity of a mono-fold down; the element would just appear quieter, depending on your pan laws. Conversely, it could appear louder in a concert setting with a stereo system, where the listener was closer to that speaker. This too is marginally fine.

We’re talking about stereo-instrument treatment, like a widened synth, an EDM bass, or a multi-mic’d drum kit. These things must sound stellar in stereo and great in mono. Consider the widened bass often employed in EDM: go too far with time-based widening effect, and you’ll experience phase cancellation that sounds unflattering in mono—it may even suck out that low end. Use frequency-specific widening effects and you’ll have something that folds a little better in a monaural setting.

problematic bass
Problematic bass in Insight 2

On the drum set—or any multi-mic’d instrument—you need to make sure the drum kit is in phase. If not, that will sound horrible, and quite demo like! If you’ve multi-mic’d an electric guitar cab and you’re playing with phase for a specific effect, that’s fine, so long as it works in mono. It doesn’t necessarily need to sound the same in mono; it only needs to sound good both ways.

Leaving the problematic and entering the creative, always make sure that there is an intentionality to your panning. For more on how to go about this, I invite you to check out this series on panning with intentionality.

Conclusion

If there’s one thing above all that separates a polished mix from a demo-quality recording, it’s a coherent vision for the song. Every little aspect we talked about in these articles is not possible without such a vision. Take crisp highs as an example: how do we know the kind of high-end we’re looking for if we don’t have a vision for the song? Likewise, consider the solidity of the stereo field. How can we lend intentionality to our panning without an intentional vision?

So here’s your final game plan: ask yourself basic questions about the tune, everything from “what are you trying to accomplish emotionally” to  “what’s the genre?” If you can give yourself a game plan that’s well thought-out, you, my friend, are on your way out of demo-town and into mixing land.

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