Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Quest for Dynamics: part 2

Let's think about the audible frequency range as two separate (and partly overlapping) ranges: high and low frequencies. Everything below 250Hz or so could be thrown into the "lower frequencies" category (no hard and fast rules here). Rest of them are higher frequencies for the purpose of this example. No "middle frequencies category" on my list here today.

Here's how the listener perceives these frequencies:
  1. Higher frequencies = loudness & presence
  2. Lower frequencies = power
If you feel that your track isn't kicking your chest, you need to concentrate on the dynamics of the lower frequencies. If you feel that your mix sounds stuffed with sounds and/or doesn't have depth to it, you need to concentrate on the higher frequencies. In this post I'm going to concentrate on the higher ones.

There is no substitute to keeping the frequency spectrum as clear as possible by designing the sounds in your song so that they don't overlap much in the first place. However, the mixes still tend to swallow certain instruments, like drums in this example. Let's hear the two example audio clips.

A cheeky tune called March of the Underpant Gnomes, with a proper drum mix:
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...and here are the same gnomes marching without extra dynamics on their drum bus:
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The only difference between the two audio clips are the extra dynamic processing on the drums. The drums in the second clip sound like they're further away in the mix due to the reverb on them. Your first instinct might be to turn up the drums or take away most of the reverb AND then again turning up the drums a little bit. Then you'd be left with a track that's surely "in your face" sounding but would sound much more dull due to lack of dynamics.

I achieved the cutting and present sound of those drums by running the whole drum bus through Logic's Enveloper plugin, which is a dynamic enhancer plugin, kinda like Transient Designer I guess (haven't used it so I can't be 100% sure). See the attached image for reference on the parameters I used. All I did was set the initial transient boost to 64% and left rest of the parameters alone.

Ultimately what I'm doing here is making the transient relatively bigger to the rest of the drum sound. You can achieve this same effect by different methods:
  1. Enveloper / Transient Designer type of processors.
  2. The standard compressor trick on the drums:
    • used either separately on each drum or on the drum bus, which ever works for the track
    • you can use side chaining here to achieve different effects, for example compress reverberated drums with dry drums on the side chain bus
  3. Tweak the drum synth's/sampler's AMP envelope:
    • attack = 0
    • decay = 10-30ms
    • sustain = somewhere around minus 4-8dB. The lower you go, the bigger the transient is, of course
All these methods give you different sound flavors. Also different compressors can sound very different indeed so it's worth trying all the gear you can get your hands on. It would be interesting to try slamming my drums on some high end compressor like a pair of Distressors or API 2500. Maybe some day...

The final thing I want to say is that the more you have dynamics in your song, the more you have choices where to put your sounds in the mix. If for example the drums have a huge dynamic range, you can choose if you want to mix the bass or guitar up loud or put them more in the background and still sound good. Just some food for thought.

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