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We spend a lot of time showing folks how to use plug-ins across their mix. But with every video tutorial and list of tips we publish, there is a caveat: be careful not to get carried away.
Space it up with reverb, but stop shy of muddying the soundstage. By all means saturate that vocal, but be sure not to make it grating. Compress your drums, but not until they are choked.
In a world of boundless plug-ins, it's easy to overdo it. But how do you know when you’ve gone too far? This is the question I will focus on today. Here are five signs of over-processing in a mix:
If your mix lacks a certain definition, particularly in the low frequencies, it might be suffering from over-compression.
An over-compressed sound starts with improper gain reduction—as you move beyond 10 dB, the pumping and breathing artifacts become more noticeable and your mix won’t feel natural. Fast attacks times are at fault too. Though you may need a fast attack to cool the crack of a snare or bring out the room on overheads, if the transients on multiple tracks are squashed, the overall impact of the mix will be dulled.
For those of you who aren’t sure what over-compression sounds like, use your eyes instead. Bounce your track and look at its waveform—do you see peaks and valleys? Or is it a single block of sound? While it’s not an exact science, if your track looks squashed, this is a clue you may have over-compressed it.
As you listen to the audio file below look at the screenshot too, which is the same file represented as a waveform in Studio One. The first part is compressed and the second part is over-compressed. Notice the pumping on the over-compressed version? And the resulting change to the waveform?
It takes time to be able to hear the effects of compression. Those engineers you admire; they’ve over-compressed mixes at some point. But they also kept working at it and learned how to listen for the tell-tale signs, which we touch on in the video below.
Here are some pointers for your own mixes in the meantime:
If the song you’re mixing doesn’t make you tap your foot, rock your head, or shake your booty (at moderate playback levels) you may have overworked your EQ. There are two possibilities here.
Possibility #1: brutal subtractive EQ. Sometimes you need to cut a band of frequencies by 6 dB to curtail a nasty resonance, but the more of these extreme cuts you dial in, the less natural your music sounds. It’ll feel thin (especially in the mids) and lacking in the richness the songs you admire are full of. Once we dive into subtractive EQ, we become sensitive to any frequencies that feel slightly out of place and cut recklessly. Not all resonances are bad and a little masking can be what your mix needs to feel cohesive, as opposed to clinical.
Possibility #2: excessive boosting. The instant “loudness” gratification additive EQ provides leads many new engineers to overcook their mixes with dollops of gain. In the low-mid range, too much gain makes things muddy and sluggish; the kick and bass merge into a single blob of low-end that is all thump and no punch. In the upper mids and presence range, too many boosts wash away the contours of individual instruments and leave us with harmonic mush. Remember: you only need one or two bright elements for the whole mix to sound bright.
Learn how to unmask competing elements with minimal amounts of EQ using the Masking Meter in Neutron:
The new harmonics we get from saturation make drums, synths, and vocals sound livelier and glue together various elements in the mix. This is why many mixers turn to analog-modeled saturation plug-ins to warm up their digital tracks. But it's also easy to go overboard.
As you crank up the saturation dial, the mix will begin to feel crowded and fatiguing. To test whether you’ve gone too far, play the mix from start to finish. If an annoying, hard-edged buzz prevents you from making it all the way though, you’ve gone too far.
To illustrate this point further—ever put an Instagram filter on an image and find the intensity of colors offends your eyes? Well, photographers have a term for that: over-saturation!
Here’s another tell of over-processing: a soundstage where you can’t pinpoint individual instruments because reverb tails are washing over them. Using too much reverb is a common mistake most people figure out quickly, but a muddy mix isn’t always fixed by turning down a send. For example:
In fast songs and during busy musical patterns, a long decay might carry over multiple notes and splatter. A slower guitar part might sound great with the reverb setting you picked out, but get messy when the performance features a speedy fill.
There are a few ways to prevent this kind of chaos. Most reverbs have a built-in filter; use this to control the amount of low and high frequencies going through the plug-in. If you have redundant reverbs scattered across your mix, remove them and use a single return channel where you send multiple tracks at once. Finally, use automation to get a tighter control over reverb. You might want to tuck in tails that hang around too long or lower reverb levels during fades. These little decisions add up by the end of the mix and make a big difference.
Learn what reverb is and how to use in the video below:
As a final tip, if every time you hear something wrong you need to bypass nine different effects to find the problematic plug-in, you’re probably guilty of over-processing! Some mixes need more effects than others, but it's never a bad idea to try a “less is more” approach.
If all those plugins aren’t giving you the sound you want, there’s no need to add another—it probably won’t help. Instead, try bypassing the effects one-by-one until you get something better. Or go for a clean slate and remove all the effects and start over.
Learning how the effects in your plug-in arsenal work and what to listen for takes practice. Just as a musician practices when they’re not writing songs, use the time between mixing sessions to get a better understanding of individual effect parameters and plug-in combinations that sound good.