This blog will cover Neutron Element’s Learn Mode and how it streamlines mixing within Studio One.
What is “Learn?” Why should I use it?
As we bring balance to the various tracks in a session, we’re often left with a few frequencies that stick out in an unflattering way. A poorly recorded snare that rings every time its played, bassy build-up on a vocal, and sharp resonance on a mid-range synths all come to mind.
In search of these offending frequencies, you could boost the gain on an EQ and sweep through the mix until the problem jumps at you, then pull back to correct it. This approach has been recommended for a long time, with good reason, but there’s an easier, faster way of honing in on these areas with the Learn feature in Neutron Elements.
By simply clicking “Learn” on the EQ, the plug-in will analyze your audio and place nodes at areas of interest that may be causing issues in your mix. It will find what you’re looking for, as well as make suggestions for EQ ideas you hadn’t yet considered.
Truthfully, this is helpful for just about every element in a mix. But with only so space here, we’ll focus on five frustrating mix scenarios and how Learns helps you sidestep them using Studio One as the DAW.
1. Getting a vocal starting point
If you're both the producer and mix engineer, which is often the case, by the time you get to the mix phase, you’ve already spent hours cleaning, comping, and tuning the vocal. This is all repetitive, clerical work—separating the good regions from the bad, color-coding, jotting down notes—and your enthusiasm for the tasks that lie ahead may not be where it was earlier in the day. Chances are, you’re experiencing some ear fatigue too.
The Learn feature is the jumper cable that gets you running again, immediately drawing your attention to areas in the vocal that need it, and giving you tools to correct them. There are many moments in mixing where you can waste time, and getting started is the big one.
By placing nodes on vocal hot spots like the fundamental, build-ups, and sibilance, you skip the legwork and get to focus on solutions, reigniting that creative spark. Once nodes are settled, move the Gain up or down on each one to determine whether the vocal sounds better with that particular band boosted or cut. I recommend either making gain changes from the bottom panel, or in the top panel while holding Shift to preserve the frequency placement.
2. Soften pesky resonances
Due to poor gain staging, recording, or design, it's not uncommon for instruments of all varieties to contain uncontrolled resonances that awkwardly poke out of the mix. Buried behind main elements, you can usually get away with a broad cut around the troublesome frequencies to hide them. But once you pull said elements forward, this same cuts leaves them sounding thin.
Since playing style, tone, and dynamics vary from take to take, I can’t honestly prescribe a single move for you to tame all resonances. They exist across the entire spectrum and not all of them need to be removed. This is what makes Learn all the more handy to have around. In a matter of seconds, these resonances can be located, leaving you to simply pick and choose what should stay and what needs to go.
It's very possible to suck all the life out of a recording with too many notches, so if your EQ curve starts to look suspiciously wavelike, it's a sign to take a break, and re-listen with fresh ears. Read more about EQ mistakes.
3. Shape instruments with enormous frequency bandwidth
The more there is in a mix, the more difficult our job becomes. Not only does each new part require a share of the frequency spectrum, but we also have to consider how it will interact with other elements.
This is complicated even further when a song has multiple instruments that span a wide frequency range, like guitars, pianos, and vocals. Without careful handling of these sounds, our mix can quickly begin to sound muddy, tiring, and just plain bad.
You can start to get a handle on this by writing out a list that ranks song instruments from most to least important and adjust levels to match. Just doing this should provide you with some relief. Next, go one by one with Neutron Elements and use Learn to help you find sweet spots to boost and sour spots to cut. As you get to the second or third track, your mix will start to breathe again from the cleanup. It may even be enough to stop there.
Simple as it sounds, this troubleshooting approach is a great way to train your ears to identify and resolve sonic issues. After doing this many times, you will (ahem) learn where to place nodes just by listening and trusting your decisions.
Pro tip: you’ll need to solo tracks here and there to confirm what Learn is telling you, but make sure to bring in the rest of mix quickly afterward. When we correct signals without a reference, we tend to overprocess them and wind up with a new set of problems once the solo’d material is placed in context of the rest of the music.
4. Shape poorly recorded material
Mixing music that is well-recorded makes for a stellar session. Small moves make major improvements, the balance seems to come organically, and you finish the job in half the time. Unfortunately, for the budding mixing engineer, we take any project that comes our way, and this means there is just as much fixing as anything else.
Though “fixing it in the mix” is a rocky mantra to subscribe to, mistakes do get made in the recording process. Improper tuning, mic placement, gainstaging, sloppy playing, and the studio space itself are all variables. And without the option to re-record we have no choice but to find the remedy.
Again, Learn Mode lends a major help by drawing our attention to the out-of-whack tones in a signal. You can sit at your console for hours tweaking that boxy snare, but if time is of the essence, a more convenient option awaits.
It might be that EQ is not what’s needed to get the job done, or its only part of the solution. To get that snare to sit right, you need to adjust the attack with Neutron’s Transient Shaper or bring up the tail with compression. At least, with the direction from Learn, you know where to focus your efforts.
5. Saving yourself when all perspective is lost
Learn Mode is really a second set of ears. When you can’t hear something, either because your ears are still in training or they’ve passed their prime, it will guide you toward the light.
The examples mentioned so far should demonstrate how Learn can improve individual tracks, but nothing is stopping you from putting it on the master output or a submix as a reference tool.
At either of these points, this allows check in on mix health from a wider view. Is there too much low end in the drums? Are the backing vocal stacks muddy? Do I need more high end overall? With the same boost and cut routine, you can figure out where your attention is needed, then head over to the instruments in the associated frequency range to adjust. You can try EQing at the macro-level too.
Above, you’ll see a screenshot of my mix after running Learn with Neutron Elements on the master. The nodes have appropriately shifted to the areas where there is an imbalance of frequency energy. For nodes 1 and 2, I might head over to my 808 to turn things down or shorten the decay. Node 3 tells me I went overboard with midrange cuts, and node 4 has the warning signs of sibilance.
As you reference, keep in mind that what your mix looks and sounds like changes from section to section. To get the most accurate results, loop sections with similar frequency activity.
The suggestions you get from Learn are really just that. It's still up to you to determine whether a boost or cut sounds better and whether EQ is even the fix.
As always, the style of music you make and feelings you want to provoke in the listener need to be taken into account when making mix decisions. A slightly noisy guitar or lopsided drum may provide a particular charm in some songs, but detract from others.
With repeated practice one's ability to pinpoint frequencies and determine what a signal needs to sound good becomes second nature. But when you’re not just there yet and need a way to check your intuition, Learn provides a great way to do so quickly and easily.