I’ve been very fortunate to have mixing work in my studio to keep me busy during our current virus epidemic, and I’ve noticed it’s pushing a lot of churches online for this season as well. I can tell there’s a bit of a mixing gap for a lot of guys out there trying to get up to speed on making a broadcast mix work so here are three things that can probably be a big help. Some of you might even need to consider these necessities.
I often find live engineers have little concept of how much compression actually gets employed in the world of music production. It’s not always done in heavy amounts, but it gets a good amount of use.
On top of that there’s also a lot of misinformation going around about how much compression is “safe” to use, and there’s a reason for this. Compression can kill a mix if you’re not careful, but you know what? So can reverb, EQ, and pretty much any type of processing available today. You can misuse anything, and a lot of times the only way to learn how to utilize these types of processing is to overdo it and misuse them. So if you’re gun shy on compression, now’s the time to take a deep breath and start trying some things.
The main things I hear in webstreams that often needs a lot more compression than is being used are vocals and acoustic guitars. If you’re not sure why vocals need compression, I actually did a video on this last fall you can check out HERE.
Vocals, in particular, can usually take a lot more compression than engineers realize. Some of the console compressors don’t always do the best when you start hitting between 6-10 dB of gain reduction which is why stacking multiple compressors can be helpful. And, yeah, you read that right. 6-10 dB can do wonders on a vocal with some compressors, but, again, not all digital compressors do that much gain reduction well, so you’ve got to experiment.
Acoustic guitars are a little more difficult to compress in my book, and I have a short list of compressors I find bearable on acoustics. Part of my problem is I’ve been a guitarist for over 20 years, and from all that time playing I’m really sensitive to what compression does to acoustics, at least when I’m turning the knobs.
When you’re using compression on acoustics–and really anything–you want to pay attention to the attack and picking of the instrument. Faster attack settings will dull it while slowing the attack can emphasize this. The other thing to watch is the release as a long release can choke the instrument while too fast can pump in weird ways. There’s usually a sweet spot somewhere in the middle, though, that will smooth it all out.
One last compression tip. If you’re wondering how much gain reduction you should do, that’s a good question but it’s also the wrong question. Don’t worry about the number. If you want to start employing compression well, you need to hear the dynamics of things first, and one of the best ways to do this is to turn your listening level way down.
At a low listening level, do the instruments stay together or fall apart from each other in level making sections of what’s being played difficult to hear? Identify the stuff that stays together or that stays consistent in level first. This stuff shouldn’t need much if any compression. Overdriven electric guitars are usually a good example. Pre-recorded tracks are another.
Now start adding small amounts of compression to the stuff that doesn’t hold up with everything else. These are typically acoustic instruments. The important stuff in the mix should be able to stand up and a little in front of everything else, but the supporting instrumentation should also hold steady behind it.
2. Spacial Effects
Reverbs and/or delays are essential to giving things some sort of a space. A lot of the streaming stuff I see right now in this epidemic is leaning towards more acoustic oriented sets, and in these stripped down settings the big, long reverbs I know a lot of guys have been loving on big worship tunes can sound out of place. Chambers, short plates, slap delays(~166ms), and Haas delays(less than 45-50ms) can be helpful for making something sound like it’s in a little more natural of a space.
You know what else can help put something in a space? Room mics.
Room mics are a staple in the studio especially when recording drums. Grab a pair of mics and set them up away from your sources. Experiment with placement a bit and see what you get. Sometimes I like to turn room mics toward the walls….
3. Pitch Refinement
Some people view using auto-tuning as an ethical dilemma, and I get that because I’ve had plenty of discussions in favor of not using it over the years. Let’s save that for another discussion and be practical for a moment because the reality in our modern age is we are very used to hearing vocals with polished pitch. I can even think of an a capella singing competition show a few years back that was tuning things for the broadcast. Live rooms and reverberant spaces often render minor pitch issues moot, but the dry environment of a broadcast is much more revealing and can make some singers sound worse than they actually are. When you couple that with a lack of some good spatial effects, it’s not usually the best way to represent our artists.
I think part of the problem and stigma in using auto-tune type processing is we’ve improperly labeled it as “pitch correction”, but that’s not really what it does well. Automated software doesn’t know what the singer was supposed to sing so it’s not about correcting things. What I think it is about is refining things and a plug-in like Waves Tune Real Time is great at this.
While I’m not a stickler for perfection and have a higher tolerance for some pitch stuff than others, a lot the streams I hear feature vocalists with pitch that is shy of what I think is acceptable today. So don’t be afraid to help your vocals AND listeners out with modern technology. If our job is to help people sound their best, and we have tools to help with that, I’m going to use those tools.
So how is streaming going for you? Are you happy with your mixes? Is there something you’re struggling with? I’d love to hear from you. Drop a comment on this article and let me know.