Toronto Music Producer and Engineer 5PiECE demonstrates a simple and effective mixing trick that will make your mixes sound cleaner and create more space for the low-end elements in your song.
Talk about a good question.
I myself mulled over this one for awhile back in 2012 before I ultimately decided to pursue the college route. Years later – after graduating and navigating the music industry as an entrepreneur – I’ve formulated an opinion on this question which I will share with you in this article.
I will specifically discuss my personal experiences in the music industry, and why formal education may or may not be the best choice for aspiring producers and engineers today.
I made the decision to pursue a formal education in Audio Engineering and Production at the Metalworks Institute (think of it as a Canadian SAE or Full Sail). I made this decision after working crappy jobs and realizing that nothing matched my lifelong passion for music, which I had been actively doing as a hobbyist for 10+ years. Up until that point, I had been a self-taught producer and got a lot of value out of free tutorials online. But eventually, I knew more than tutorials could show and I needed to step it up. I also wanted to pursue an actual career in music with the ultimate goal of making money doing what I love.
I weighed out my options and, with a little encouragement, decided to make the leap and pursue the college route.
The Audio Production and Engineering program at Metalworks spans a full-year from January to December with no breaks. It covered a lot of topics and subjects – from using Pro Tools to music theory to Recording Engineering in-studio and more.
The instructors (for the most part) were great – active in the industry and offered a lot of insight and guidance into the next step of our lives and careers. Metalworks also happens to be a very active multi-room recording facility – one of Canada’s biggest – which was great because I was able to learn and work in an actual professional recording studio.
Fun fact: Drake was recording his Nothing Was The Same album while I was attending class next door all through my third semester.
5PiECE at Metalworks Studios during his college education – learning on an actual SSL Console.
The Power of Numbers
I took my education seriously. First of all – I paid for it out of pocket with no help from family. This was not cheap. We’re talking about $20,000 in tuition for a one-year program that guarantees absolutely zero employment upon graduation. This is a steep price of admission if you ask me (albeit in retrospect).
Second – not everyone is cut out for this. I was a very active and engaged student. I made it a point to network and talk to my instructors – about real life human being stuff, not just engineering mumbo jumbo – with the goal of building an authentic relationship.
However, not all of my classmates shared this strategy. Some were over-excited high school kids who had just graduated and wanted to impress everyone. Others were people lost and had no idea what they actually wanted to do in life and apathetically ended up there. Some were pursuing a second-career program after being laid off. Some extroverts, some introverts, and a few in between. I was 22 years old at this point, had attended post-secondary once and dropped out. I knew exactly what I was after and was committed to making it happen.
I recall the first day of class – we had upwards of 60 people in the room. This would be the group that I would have every class with and ultimately graduate with if all goes well.
By the end of third semester, only 17 people remained of the 60.
At graduation, only 7 people from that group of 17 actually graduated.
Out of the 7 that graduated, only 2 are employed in music full-time. I am one of them. Let that sink in.
After I graduated with 7 of my classmates, I remember looking forward to everything that was in front of me. But when I got settled– a couple of weeks went by and nothing. No job. No prospects from my applications. Nothing. I had just paid $20,000 for a piece of paper. Fantastic.
Then out of seemingly nowhere I received an email from the academic coordinator at Metalworks. He mentioned Noah “40” Shebib, Drake’s producer/engineer and co-founder of OVO Sound, was looking for interns and I came highly recommended from my instructors. For a brief moment there was a glimmer –and I realized that building relationships and being a good human being in general was beginning to bare fruits. I accepted the offer immediately and graciously.
Did Metalworks make that offer to every person in my graduating class? No. They offered it to one other person and myself – simply because they knew we were qualified and both came highly recommended from our instructors.
You know how the story goes from here if you’ve read my bio. I went to intern for 40 for a while at SOTA Studios and learned a lot. It was a great experience – and then one day, it was over. And suddenly I was back to the drawing board.
Turns out – not many studios were hiring. In fact – most of them were closing down at the time. Welp.
Through friends, I ended up getting another internship at a different studio more focused on rock and metal. During this time, I got to see a very different side of the music industry. Finally – after multiple internships, I was offered a low-paying position and started assisting and engineering at a third studio. This didn’t last unfortunately – making $50 a day for a 10-hour day was just not a livable wage. The studio owner couldn’t blame me for leaving either – even he understood how little I was being paid and wished me well.
Despite this, I leveraged my experience and eventually formed a partnership with another studio to transition over and become their head engineer.
5PiECE mixing at Vespa Music Group on an SSL Console.
The Move to Entrepreneurship
Some say they chose the entrepreneur life – I say it chose me.
After grinding in the trenches- working for other people and slowly building up my name, catalogue, skills and equipment – I was put into an interesting position. The studio I had partnered with was forced to abruptly move locations and had to close for a few months. Overnight and out of my control – my income had dried up and I had to figure out how to replace it because my student debts from Metalworks were still accruing interest.
Lucky for me – all of that studio’s clientele were displaced as a result of their sudden closure. A few had other places to go – but many were already accustomed to working with me. I had all their sessions and they liked working with me – so it made sense to continue doing so. The question became: where would I continue to provide my services to them?
I made a few calls – found a few alternate studio locations, negotiated an hourly flat-rate that I could incorporate into my own fee – and in a matter of days I was back in business as my own man. I offered my services out of other studios for about 8 months as a freelance engineer until finally getting my own location that allowed me to serve my clients better and cutout unnecessary third parties.
So What Did You Learn In Audio Engineering School?
The benefit of college programs is that they’re usually structured and cover a broader range of knowledge. For example, outside of the expected Audio Engineering and Production-based courses, we also had to take other courses focused on subjects like Sound & Acoustics, Music Theory, Pop Culture, Business and more. In one course I even learned how to build my own headphone splitter (which I actually still use to this day in my studio). The benefit of this was that I learned a wide range of things that all tie into music and not just how to use Pro Tools and maneuver around an SSL console.
My instructors also provided a lot of insight into situations that may happen in recording and mixing scenarios. I was able to get an idea of how actual engineers and producers went about structuring their workflow and tackling problems. It helped me improve my own approach and develop better systems when recording, mixing and mastering at the time. I’ve expanded on that since then – but it certainly made me grow into who I am now as an individual and audio engineer.
When I graduated, I had more confidence in my abilities and myself as an audio engineer because I made it through that program (53 other people didn’t based on the above numbers). Even though I may not have fully learned how to mix, or how to make money from my musical efforts at that time, I know that I had invested a lot into the experience and ultimately got a lot out of it. I also went out of my way to get the most value from it because I was driven.
The final consideration is that graduating from a college program like that adds immense credibility. It shouldn’t be the over-emphasized, but it does show that you are willing to invest in your passion and is proof that you’ve put in a lot of hours already. Real world experience is still absolutely necessary in order to bridge the gaps in knowledge, but a diploma and studio experience doesn’t hurt to start.
This graphic borrowed from Buffer perfectly summarizes the importance of experience.
Did College Really Teach Me What I Needed To Know About Production & Audio Engineering?
To be completely honest – no. I would say much of what I learned in this industry both in business and engineering was a result of real-world experience. Nothing beats that. School simply can’t prepare you for everything and this career path is one you have to work towards.
Now that’s not to say education doesn’t have a place. My education at Metalworks gave me the structure I needed to understand all main aspects of the industry from engineering, to music theory, to production, to using the actual software everyday. I got a lot of value out of those things and still utilize that knowledge to this day.
Metalworks connected me to fellow artists, engineers, and producers – some of whom I’m still friends with and work with today. They also connected me to opportunities – such as working with 40 at SOTA Studios. Stuff like that is indispensable. I can’t say I would’ve received those opportunities if not for attending college and playing my part.
What they didn’t teach me (and honestly probably couldn’t teach me) is how to maneuver around artists, how to have a productive and successful recording session, how to fully monetize and market your music, how to run a company as an entrepreneur and much, much more. While those may be more business and marketing focused, I think they are extremely important to every person in music today and should be incorporated into every curriculum. In the end- if I’m spending THAT much money on my education, I should at least be taught about how to recoup that investment.
Even mixing and mastering. Sure – I learned about how EQ and compression work– but they didn’t show me how to actually mix a song. That was learned over years of trial and error, getting my hands dirty by mixing directly, seeking out knowledge and mentors, and learning from legends like 40 and others in-studio as mixes were happening right in front of me.
If You Didn’t Go To College – What Would You Have Done?
Author Tim Ferriss talks about the Real World MBA in his book “The 4-Hour Work Week” and on his podcast. This is something that I whole-heartedly agree with and would probably pursue if my situation were different all those years ago.
A Real World MBA is taking the money you would invest into a college education, such as $20,000 for the Metalworks Institute, and instead spend that money on real-world experiences that will teach you what you hope to learn in that program.
For example, you could take that $20,000 and invest it into learning directly from active engineers and producers in the music industry. Compensate them for their time and sit with them to get them to teach you all the aspects about what they do and how they do it locally and abroad in other locations.
Some other things you can do to create your own audio engineering MBA without college:
- Invest into studio time to record and produce records with artists locally
- Travel to different locations and work with producers, artists and engineers in other places
- Attend music conferences, trade shows, festivals and other events centered on music production and audio engineering
- Buy books and online courses on the subject
Spend that money acquiring as much knowledge and as many experiences as possible to create your own MBA. This is important because most of the knowledge I acquired that I use regularly came from outside of my college education- mostly in the form of additional courses, books, free tutorials and more. I’m still learning outside of college every day. Imagine what you could learn on your own too.
People actually unknowingly create their own MBA with me in my private lessons all the time. My students are smart because they are paying a much smaller fee compared to a college tuition and still accessing knowledge and education that I spent well over $20,000 to acquire (just for the education alone!). The information I provide can save them a lot of time, energy and frustration on their journey as I can help direct them, cut out the unimportant and shed light on how to use this knowledge in real-world scenarios for their own benefit.
The best part of this strategy is that you don’t have to commit the full $20,000 – you can slowly chip away at it over time in smaller increments until the full amount is spent. You may spend $500 of it and decide the music industry isn’t for you. At least you can walk away with the rest of your money unscathed.
There is nothing wrong with education. As you can tell – it helped me greatly and put me into a position to succeed after graduating. However – the music industry itself doesn’t require a degree or diploma in order for you to succeed in it – especially as a producer or engineer. You simply need the right skills, experiences, and social behavior to make something happen.
If you are thinking about pursuing your passion for music more seriously – I strongly encourage you to look at the Real World MBA approach first. After acquiring enough experiences – you will know whether attending college for music production and audio engineering is the right choice for you.
In the end- no institution can teach hustle, ambition, creativity or any of the necessary components to be a success in music. These traits are internal and usually requires something more to inspire them. To quote one of my instructors: “anyone can learn Pro Tools – but not everyone can be a good person.”
I wish you the best of luck on your journey.
If you’re interested in creating your own real world MBA focused on mixing as a producer – I am hosting a Mixing and Mastering Workshop in Toronto for Producers that want to learn how to mix and master their beats like a pro.
Every music producer loves making music. So much so that it is the easy part. The challenging part is taking that passion and turning it into money so you can pay your bills and continue making more music.
The music industry offers some of the most diverse income streams imaginable for those who are savvy enough to take advantage. In this post – I aim to provide some insight on how you can take your music and turn it into an income source so you can turn your passion into a full-time career.
This is the most obvious and common way for producers and songwriters get paid from their work.
There are a number of different types of royalties, but the main ones are PERFORMANCE royalties and MECHANICAL royalties.
Performance royalties are royalties paid out every time your song is played and/or performed in public. In other words – any time your song is played and broadcasted to the general public – whether it’s performed live at a concert, or played on TV in a commercial or during a radio program – money is being generated for the songwriters. This money is collected on your behalf by your performance rights organization, or PRO.
In Canada, where I’m from, we only have one PRO: SOCAN. In the United States, there are three: ASCAP, SESAC and BMI. Depending on where you are from – there may be one or many. These are not-for-profit organizations that you sign up with who will collect your royalties on your behalf.
Therefore – every songwriter should sign up with a PRO as you are passing up on potential income if you aren’t currently with one. Furthermore – it doesn’t cost you any money to sign up with one.
Mechanical royalties are a bit different. These are royalties generated and paid to the songwriters for an actual physical or digital sale of their music. For example, if you purchase a song by Drake on iTunes, or stream his music on any popular streaming service, a mechanical royalty is generated and paid out to the creators of the song including the producer.
Mechanical royalties are paid out by whoever obtains a mechanical license to reproduce and distribute the music, such as record labels. Unlike performance royalties, your PRO won’t collect and pay out mechanical royalties. Instead – most countries have a collection society that specifically deals with mechanical royalties such as the Harry Fox Agency in the United States. There are other ways to collect money from mechanical royalties as well and it’s important to understand how you will collect them when distributing music through a label.
Just because you have music out doesn’t mean you will be generating royalties. It’s important that the music is heard and consumed in order to generate income. A song that gets three plays won’t be yielding a large cheque from your PRO – so make sure the artist and team you are working with does everything they can to exploit the record so you can reap the financial rewards too.
- Sync Licensing for Film & TV
Another wildly lucrative way to make money with your music is to license it for use on TV shows, commercials, movies, promotional campaigns and more. This is known as synchronization or sync licensing.
TV shows, movies and other forms of visual content often need instrumental music. Watch anything ever and you will notice that music is almost always tied to the visuals, even if it’s just subtly tucked into the background.
How do you get your music used in film and TV?
Through the show/film/production’s Music Supervisor- that is the key decision maker who decides what music will get used in that production. If you’re good at researching and networking, you can find music supervisor information online with tools such as IMDB and submit music for consideration.
In this industry, you often have to go after what you want. However, sometimes it’s better to let it come to you. Instead of going out of your way to approach music supervisors individually with your music, you can upload your tracks onto online libraries that specialize in licensing to visual content providers. Music supervisors will often rely on these libraries already when searching for the music they need. If your track’s fit the criteria and are tagged accordingly, they have a high likelihood of being licensed. Best of all – these sites usually have existing clientele that span film, television, commercials, corporate companies and more.
- Teach Music Production
Education is a trillion dollar industry. Trillion. People want to learn how to do things that interest them. Our current education system doesn’t accommodate every subject- making beats often being one of them- leading to a big demand of people who want to learn music production.
Chances are if you’ve been producing for a long time, you are fairly seasoned in your craft. You’ve probably made a lot of beats and maybe even worked with some artists, big or small. I would even go as far as betting you’ve learned a lot along the way – valuable information that could save someone else years of trial and error and help them become successful faster. There are people out there who would love to know what you know about music production and navigating the music industry.
It’s even better when you have some specific knowledge outside of music production that can provide an advantage over other competitors. For example, my students benefit from my audio engineering background as I often incorporate engineering and mixing techniques into my music production lessons.
Perhaps you know how to use a specific DAW better than anyone else, or maybe you are a musician and can break down theory easily, or you’ve gotten a publishing deal and can shine some light onto that process. Whatever your specific niche in music production is, you can identify it and sell it to someone who wants to further their craft.
The lesson delivery method can be handled in a few ways. If you like real human interaction and have a place to teach lessons in, you can offer in-person lessons to students for an hourly rate. Lessons can also be offered online via Skype or Google Hangouts if preferred, allowing you to tap into clients outside of your city. The beauty of the Internet.
The problem with personally teaching on an hourly basis though is that it is not scalable, and still requires your time to be invested into showing up and delivering the lesson. The alternative to that is to create an online video tutorial course, market it and sell it as a digital download online. This will require more up-front work to start, but ultimately can be an asset into generating steady revenue if you deliver a lot of value and knowledge in the course.
2018 is an interesting time for music producer income streams. Not only are artists going on tour and performing – but producers are too. The past few years has seen the likes of popular producers such as Just Blaze, Metro Boomin, Murda Beatz, and Boi 1da getting a lot of work as live performers while building their name in other locations worldwide.
They may be a bit more established in their careers than the average producer, but who says you have to have placements to perform live? If you know how to DJ, or if your music has organic live elements such as keyboards or guitar, find a way to put on or be a part of a live show.
Start locally – network and find out who’s putting on shows and see how you can get involved. You can also reach out to venues and bars directly play them some music, tell them why you want to play live and ask politely if they could host you. If the music is good and you’re able to really engage audiences, you may start building a buzz locally and that will help get you more performing gigs and expand into outer regions later.
Filming these performances and creating content around it can also help build credibility when starting to go outside of your city. Again – this may require more upfront work and investment – but will pay dividends later if executed correctly.
- Selling Sounds, Samples and Drum Kits
As a producer, we’re always collecting new sounds and eventually start creating our own. This is an important asset as it helps us create a unique sound that cannot be duplicated.
Having skills in sound design can pay off in other ways. Producers that know how to layer, shape, synthesize and engineer sounds in order to create new textures can sell and license their creations to other producers to use in their work. This can be in the form of VST presets, audio loops, individual drum kit hits and more. There is a large market for this as technology has made it easier than every for regular people to produce music. These people still need sounds and palettes to choose from when creating.
Once you have your sounds, its important to organize them accordingly and figure out a sales and marketing strategy. You can go directly to your consumer by creating a website with an online store that provides a digital download to producers who purchase your kit. It will require a bit of extra effort upfront – but it will ultimately allow you to control variables such as price, content and promotion while keeping 100% of the profits.
You can also approach established sound kit companies online that accept submissions for sample packs. You will have to split the profits with them – ranging from a 70/30 to a 50/50 split – if your sample kits are accepted. The benefit of this is they will handle all the distribution and marketing on your behalf while keeping their stake in the work. These sites will often also have established traffic and clientele, increasing the likelihood of them purchasing your kit.
- Selling Beats Online
I saved one of the more obvious revenue streams for the end. If you’ve got a large catalogue of beats in the stash, you can start selling them online fast and easily with platforms such as Beat Stars and Airbit. Whether you want to sell leases, exclusives, or both – the choice is yours. All you need to do is upload high-quality material, set your pricing and licensing terms then market it to artists who want to buy beats online.
I also wrote an article about how to get artists on your beats if you want to check that out.
As you can tell, there are many ways to make a living as a music producer. Most successful producers today have a diversified income stream that consists of several of the methods discussed above. Ultimately though, this is all contingent on having a high-quality product that fits the bill and can be transacted for monetary gain. If your beats are trash – none of these avenues may lead to dollar signs.
Additional Reading To Learn About Making A Living In Music
If you want to learn more about monetizing your music and making a living passively online, I recommend you also read the following books that partly inspired this post:
Getting a song mixed can be an exciting and daunting experience at the same time. You’ve spent so much time making sure that you’ve created your best art – now its time to put it together and add the polish it needs to leave a mark on the world when its finally released.
Making sure a mix goes smoothly requires some preparation on your end as the artist. As a mix engineer to many – I’m here to help you make sure you get the mix you want by offering some advice on preparing stems for mixing.
- Ensure all the production and vocal takes are edited and finalized before sending anything in to be mixed.
When sending stems for mixing, the mix engineer should only be provided with high-quality audio of the final takes to be used in the final mix. The mix engineer’s job is to take what you give him/her and make it sound the best it possibly can. Their job is not to act as a producer and pick and edit the best takes for you. That should’ve been done already.
Therefore, you should not be including alternate takes, or variations to be considered for use – only the absolute necessary and final takes should be provided for mixing.
- Ensure that all the files are cleanly recorded and are not clipping.
While a mix engineer can work all kinds of magic to a song – they can’t do much if they aren’t given the proper raw materials. This includes making sure all files are recorded properly with an adequate amount of headroom (usually -6db) for each track and are not clipping (track volume going into the red).
A mix engineer cannot fix something that is broken at the recording level – they can only enhance what’s already there so be sure to record your tracks properly. If you can’t do that for whatever reason, then prepare to receive back a mix that may be flawed due to factors outside of your mix engineer’s control.
- Ensure all files are consolidated so they start and end at the same time.
Consolidating an audio file means taking multiple separate audio clips that live on a single track and joining them into one file, filling the gaps in between the clips with silence. As you may be sending your song to someone who uses a different DAW and set-up to mix, it’s crucial that the files you send are consolidated.
Make sure all of these consolidated audio clips start at 0:00 and end when the song ends. This will ensure that the mix engineer can load the files into their set-up, and have every instrument/vocal line-up and play exactly when they should on the grid.
An example of consolidated audio files inside of a Pro Tools session.
- Ensure all the files you are sending are organized and correctly labeled.
Never send files with generic names such as Audio 1, Audio 2, etc. Not only is it not helpful – it ends up requiring a great deal of time on the engineer’s part to make sense of as they have to go through each individual file, carefully listen, and rename them just to get the session set-up.
This is counter productive – the mix engineer should be focused on mixing and making creative decision to help your song sound better – not spending an hour trying to figure out what’s what, labeling and getting organized.
Be diligent – make sure files are organized and labeled correctly so your mix engineer can focus their energy on creating the best mix they can for you.
- Make sure your vocals are tuned before sending in to mix.
In my opinion, vocal tuning is in the same category as compiling and editing. It’s something that should be done before mixing and not during the mixing process itself.
Not every mix engineer tunes vocals, or if they do, it’s an additional expense separate from the mix. Make sure you have this conversation with your mixing engineer and don’t assume that they will be tuning your vocals just because they are mixing your song.
- Send WET and DRY versions of files.
By WET and DRY – I am referring to files that have effects printed on (WET) and files that do not have any effects printed on (DRY). Effects can include reverb, delay, distortion, EQ, compression, etc.
When getting tracks ready for mixing, its best to provide both in separate folders that are clearly labeled so the mix engineer has the option to use either version when mixing your record.
Perhaps they can’t get the same reverb you had on a snare – by providing them with WET and DRY files, they can use your WET version in the mix without having to ask you for it. This saves time later and helps get you closer to the mix you want.
An example of how to organize and label WET and DRY files for your mixing engineer.
- Include a PDF document with important session information such as BPM, song key, lyrics and any notes that are important to consider when completing the mix.
While many engineers use special programs such as Mixed In Key to determine some of this information – it’s better to take the extra step and include it in a PDF to reduce the margin for error. Remove all of the guesswork for the engineer and make sure they have all the information they need to in order to do a good job. Even something as simple as having the incorrect tempo can throw a lot of things off during the mix.
If you have specific requests or ideas for the mix, be sure to include a note of them in the document as well. For example, you may request little to no reverb on a specific vocal, or want a specific instrument to be treated and conveyed in a particular way. Don’t assume the engineer knows your vision – tell them upfront and clearly in order to help get you there faster and more effortlessly.
- Send a reference mix of the song you’re getting mixed – even in its rough demo-state.
The first thing I do when I receive a new song to mix is listen to the artists’ reference mix. Sure – it may not sound the best it can – but there is usually a vibe there that I need to focus on preserving, or it at least helps point me in the right direction.
Therefore, It is crucial that you send a reference mix of the song you’re having mixed as a high-quality WAV if possible. This is typically the latest version of the mix, usually from a recording session that has rough balances and some FX applied.
You may be asking- why would I send a reference of my song that is still rough?
The mix engineer may or may not know you – and may or may not be familiar with your music and taste- especially towards this song they’re about to mix. Sending them the most recent version will give them a good reference point. They’ll notice specific things, like how loud your vocal is relative to the instrumental, and they’ll be aware of specific delay throws or effects you have on the reference and replicate them within their mix.
Ultimately, the reference helps the mix engineer know what you’re used to hearing the song sound like – and they may use this information to recreate the vibe – except bigger, fuller and more badass in the end.
- Send files through a service such as WeTransfer, DropBox, Google Drive, etc.
Once you have all the files, you need to figure out how to get them to your mix engineer so they can do their job.
Most of my clients rely on WeTransfer, which is free to use up for a transfer up to 2GB. They also have a paid service for larger files.
Other services, such as Dropbox and Google Drive can also be free up to a point. When using these services, ensure the sharing settings allow for the other party to edit and download the files so they can mix your song immediately without requesting for permission online.
Alternatively – if your mix engineer is in the same city- you can arrange to meet in person and swap files using a hard-drive.
We tend to glamorize some parts of the music-making process and neglect others. Mix preparation is a process that is often ignored and arguably takes up a lot of time. I’ve had some mixes take me several hours just to set up due to the client ignoring some of these above points.
Save yourself and your mix engineer time, energy and avoid any miscommunications by following my advice above- and share this post with your artist friends to help them on their next mix.
At the beginning of everyone’s journey, most music creators ask themselves: should I build my own home-studio or should I pay to use a professional studio to record?
Before we delve into how to answer this big question – we first need to evaluate your preferences, abilities, expectations and future ambitions. Look at the following questions below and answer them honestly to get started:
Important Questions To Answer First
What’s your role in creating music? (Producer, engineer, artist, songwriter, etc.)
Answering this will help determine how much equipment you need, whether going to a pro studio is beneficial to your career, and how quickly you can get a return on your investments.
For example, if you’re trying to focus on engineering, you can work with clients and eventually charge them to mix their songs, which can help recoup money invested into a home-studio. However, if you’re an artist, you may find it beneficial to use a pro studio or both in order to reach more people, achieve better quality recordings, and make new connections.
How serious are you taking music right now? Are you a hobbyist doing it for fun, or are you trying to be a professional and make a full-time living from it?
Answering this will help determine how much should really be invested into building a studio, and if you should focus on using a professional recording studio at all. For example, if you’re a hobbyist, it will likely be more beneficial that you build your own studio and keep costs down since you probably wont be trying to get a return on your investment like a touring artist would.
Are you comfortable with engineering and learning the technological aspects of making music? Or are you purely looking to perform in order to create art and let someone else handle the technicalities?
If you’re not as good with technology, you may want to consider going to a professional studio as buying a bunch of gear that you will struggle to use wont get you very far. Paying for a studio with a professional audio engineer in a situation like that would be more beneficial so you can focus solely on creating and performing the parts that you want, while letting them handle putting it together properly.
Are you creating something for a specific project? Or are you loosely writing music with no specific aim at this time?
Most creatives work towards a specific end goal or project – such as creating an LP or EP of their best songs. Focusing on a specific project can help get rid of the cluttered thinking and confusion and allow you to think solely about what’s best to complete this specific project.
For example – if you’re an artist looking to create an EP, you may want to write and record demos at your home studio, then take the best songs to a single professional studio to re-record, mix and master to get a cohesive sound for that project. The next project, you can do the same but do it at a different studio to potentially achieve a different result.
Depending on your answers – you may lean towards building a home studio, going to a pro studio, or both. Lets now take a look at the pros and cons of having a home studio, versus using a professional studio to record.
Pros & Cons of A Home Studio
- CONVENIENCE– Walk in and create whenever you want to.
- AFFORDABLITY – One-time expenses to purchase all of the equipment. Ongoing expenses required for maintaining gear and paying for electricity to run it.
- ACCESSIBILITY – Always able to access studio without having to go through third parties to book (because it’s yours)
- MEETING PLACE – Private studio can help facilitate meetings and collabs with fellow creators, and allows you to control the setting without having to rely on others.
- LEVERAGE – Provides a competitive advantage as its something you can use to provide value to others in order to cultivate better connections (if set up as its own room and not a part of a bedroom or other living space)
- NO NETWORKING – Will not facilitate in-person networking opportunities as it’s in your private home which likely doesn’t see varying clients every day
- TAKES TIME TO BUILD – Music is an expensive hobby and it may take time to acquire all of the gear and proper treatment needed for it to be an ideal working environment
- DISTRACTIONS – Other people in your home can be distractions and pull you away from your creative work, which is the opposite of what you want the studio for. Sometimes having somewhere to physically go helps with creativity, as you know you are going to the studio with the specific intention to create. Not being able to go in there whenever you want helps make the time spent creating more impactful.
Pros & Cons of A Professional Studio
- SETTING – Professional studio settings with highly musical aesthetics can help inspire and enhance creative moments
- NETWORKING – Being at a studio can help facilitate more professional networking opportunities amongst engineers, producers, songwriters, artists and even labels that you cross paths with while attending sessions. This usually leads to connections being made which doesn’t happen in someone’s bedroom studio.
- QUALITY – You’re paying a studio for a service – partly for the space to rent, but also for the time of a qualified engineer to make your music sound the best it can. That – coupled with high-end equipment is usually a recipe for better quality music than what you could achieve at home. (Results may vary based on engineer, studio and artist)
- COST – Long term higher cost as you are usually billed per hour of studio time, starting at $50+ per hour.
- SCHEDULING – Booking studio time will always depend on studio availability. Busy studios may not have any time for your sessions, or you may have to book well in advance to secure a slot. This may be challenging for certain types of music makers who are less organized and more sporadic with their creating.
- BUILDING CHEMISTRY – As you are booking a studio, you will likely be working with an engineer from that studio. While they are there to service you, you must also be mindful that you two need to build chemistry and become familiarized with each other’s sound and taste. This generally takes a few sessions and can be challenging depending on how personalities connect.
Should I build my own home studio?
The short answer – yes. It’s never a bad idea to have a professional or project studio in your home so you can always work on music when it’s convenient for you. You never know when inspiration may hit.
Depending on your role, this may require more or less equipment and be more feasible to set up. For example, a music producer can get a lot of use out of a basic set up consisting of a sufficient computer, software, 2 speakers and an audio interface. An artist, however, would need those same things plus a microphone and potentially an external microphone preamp depending on the quality of their interface in order to record.
Should I go to a professional studio to record?
The other short answer – yes – especially if you’re trying to pursue music professionally.
It’s good to diversify where you record and write music. Not because you can’t record at home in your home studio – but because you can expand, reach new people, make connections and become inspired by creating in a new environment. Not to mention having another person (the engineer) work on your music can add a whole new dimension and enhance your overall sound.
If you’re a hobbyist – you likely already know the answer – focus on building your own home studio and have fun. Unless it’s important for you to invest in a professional studio just for the experience, I encourage you keep your on-going costs down.
If you’re trying to pursue music professionally, however, I highly recommend you do both. You will always need a place to create, which is why it’s important to have your own home studio. Simultaneously, you should make an effort to go to professional studios in your city to show face, build more rapport with the community, and enhance your sound by having other people work on your music.
A best of both worlds approach is ideal as you can write and record music and demos at your home studio to save on recording and build a catalogue of songs in your arsenal. Once you have created some material that you are very happy with, you can go to a professional studio to invest in re-recording, mixing and/or mastering these songs. This will still provide an advantage and connection that would be missed if you did everything alone at home.
After all – music is better made together. You just never know how much farther someone can take your idea until you try it.
As a mentor to many young and upcoming producers, I often get asked the same question: “I’ve made a lot beats, but how do I get someone to rap/sing on them?”
It’s not such a simple answer. At least not as simple as opening up your favorite DAW and banging out a beat. Connecting with people to make music can seem like a very daunting task- yet extremely important in order to help get your name out there as an upcoming producer.
Where I Started
I started off in my journey not too far from where you might be now. I had made a lot of music over the years, and was able to connect with many other producers to collaborate with along the way– but finding artists proved to be the most challenging. I had a hard drive full of beats ready to record on, but I didn’t know how to actually find artists to write and record songs with. I didn’t even care about monetizing my production yet; I just wanted to start making and releasing music in order to get recognized for my work.
I ultimately developed a few key strategies that I used to connect with many artists, many of which I continue to work with today as a full-time music producer and audio engineer.
In this article, I will shed some light on these strategies I uncovered and how you can implement them yourself.
- Go To Shows & Performances
Attending local shows was one of the first things I implemented and saw an immediate return on my investment. By local show, I am referring to independent shows put on by local artists or organizations, as opposed to huge headlining shows for major label artists like Drake and Jay Z. These performances are held at venues with smaller capacities, and the artists that perform usually hang out in the crowd after, which makes it easier to connect directly and build a relationship.
The best part about this is you can screen talent before you even approach them. Watch and enjoy the performances, and when a performer you want to meet gets off stage, introduce yourself, compliment their music and performance and, if it feels right, offer to send them instrumentals and/or work together to produce a song for them to release in the future. Focus on offering them something first with the goal of building a relationship – don’t think about what you can get out of it until then.
As you attend more shows, you will most likely run into some of the same people, performers, promoters and fans, which will help lead to recognition within the community, and increase the potential for more introductions through these common connections. This is positive as the more people you meet, the more likely you are to connect with an artist you want to work with.
- Music Networking Events
This is a blanket description for a number of different events focused on music, including but not limited to:
- Conferences (ie A3C, SXSW, etc)
- Trade shows (ie NAMM, IMSTA Fest)
- Festivals (ie Coachella, VELD)
- Award Ceremonies (ie Junos, Grammys)
- Beat Battles (ie Battle of the Beatmakers, iStandard)
- Competitions (ie Singing and Dance Contests)
- Showcases (ie Pass The Aux, The S1 Assembly)
- Social Mixers
- Industry Nights at Clubs
These events can be locally in your city or internationally in other climates. Similar to going to shows, attending music networking events is a surefire way to cross paths with fellow music creators and music business people. When attending these events, make sure you participate, be confident, introduce yourself, know what you can offer and tell people what you’re looking for to see if you can both help each other out along your journey.
Every year I attend at least one local music conference/festival such as NXNE or Canadian Music Week (as I am based in Toronto) and one international conference/festival such as SXSW and A3C. In the past, attending these events has introduced me to new musical collaborators in my city and other places such as Atlanta.
- Through Friends & Acquaintances
A few months ago I realized I needed to connect with more keyboard players for writing sessions. My direct circle had given me all it could, but I needed to reach a little further so I tried something different. I posted on my Facebook page: “can anyone connect me to a dope keyboard player that wants to make hip hop and R&B music?” The comment section filled up with friends and acquaintances I barely knew with recommendations to their musician friends. In the process, my college friend Dom recommended his childhood friend Sandy Schwisberg who I met with and have been working closely with ever since. I would’ve never met him if I didn’t ask my friends to help me.
It’s always worth asking. You never really know how far away you are from someone of value. Perhaps your direct circle doesn’t consist of artists- but there is a chance that someone you know is friends with an artist. And what better way to connect with someone than through a mutual friend?
Talk to your friends – put a call out to them in person or on social media and ask them to put you in touch with their recording artist friends so you can make music together and get your name out there.
A few years ago, I planned my first trip to Atlanta with some friends and collaborators to attend A3C. Before arriving, we decided to try and find some local artists to connect with online. I had no idea what the local Atlanta music scene was like, so we scoured the web focusing on SoundCloud and Google to find artists that we could connect with. Our search led us to a bunch of artists that we reached out to, but only one responded in time: Jonah Cruzz. Although he was a complete stranger to me at the time, our mutual passion for music bridged the gap from Toronto to Atlanta, and we ended up crafting his songs “Bill Cosby” and “Sometimes” that appeared on his Just To Get By album in 2017.
While I stress the importance of networking in real life, sometimes it’s not possible due to proximity and/or timing. By leveraging the Internet, you can connect with people that are otherwise out of reach. In my experience, the most effective places to connect with artists online are social media such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and on community based platforms such as online forums (Reddit, etc.)
Additional Reading For Effective Networking
If you want to read more about personal development and networking more effectively, I recommend you read the following books:
How To Mix 808s and Kick Drums
Getting sounds to compliment each other in a mix can sometimes be a challenge- especially if you aren’t familiar with mixing audio yet. A common question most producers ask when it comes to mixing is how to get their 808s and kick drums to sit better together in a mix without clashing or drowning each other out. While there isn’t only one answer, here are a few strategies you can use to make them co-operate within your beats.
Choose the Right Sounds to Begin With
This is obvious, but still deserves a mention. Choose the right raw materials from the beginning. My general rule in mixing is this: if it doesn’t sound good before mixing, it likely won’t sound that much better after.
How do you know if you have the right sounds? Easy. They hit and punch automatically with minimal manipulation of each sound.
This means once you have a kick and 808 programmed in your beat, all you have to do is balance each one’s volume to get them to punch. All you would need to do after that is enhance what’s already there. Key word: enhance, not fix.
Correct Phase Issues Before Mixing
Up until I went to audio engineering school, I had no idea what phase was or how big of a factor it played in mixing beats. Turns out- it’s an important one, especially when low end is concerned as phase cancellation can destroy your mix while you hope an EQ will make the problem go away (spoiler: it won’t).
Phase cancellation occurs when two sounds consisting of the same or similar frequencies are out of phase (moving in opposite directions), leading to an overall reduction in perceived volume.
2 signals that are 180 degrees out-of-phase
For example, say you have a kick and 808 that both hit perfectly when they are isolated on their own, but when you put them together in your mix- suddenly the low-end disappears – each sound no longer hits clearly, and the overall track sounds hollow and flat due to the phase cancellation that’s occurring within the bass frequencies of the track.
This is a common problem, and there are several ways to correct phase issues like this.
First- you can flip (or invert) the phase button ø on one of the offending sounds using a Trim, Utility or any plugin that has phase-invert functionality built into it. Upon engaging the phase flip, listen to see if the low end hits clearer or harder. If it doesn’t, undo and re-evaluate your approach.
Second- you can change the sounds you’re using to find 2 that are in phase with one another. This ties into the first point of this article. The best way to know if something is in phase is to use your ears. Audition your kick samples alongside your bass sounds and select one that cuts through and feels good within your low end.
If the previous 2 options don’t work- you can try nudging the kick or the 808 (only one of them) forward or backward in the arrangement to help line up the phase between the two. Usually, this would involve nudging the kick up (so the attack happens sooner) or the 808 back (so the sustain happens after the kick). Don’t do this drastically – just a few ticks over will be more than enough to create a phase difference.
Pick One of Them to Dominate the “Bassment” – and Set Volume to Match
While our goal is to always make a track sound as big as possible, it’s important to determine which elements will dominate a mix.
This is specifically true for the low end, which will usually share frequencies among the kick and the 808. The challenge of mixing 808s and kick drums is that we may naturally want to keep both of these sounds dominant in a mix. That being said- it’s important to choose one to “be the king of the bassment” as I call it. This is because, scientifically speaking, low frequencies take up a lot of space, as they need room to travel and develop, hence why you may not “feel” a bass when you’re sitting close to a speaker but it hits you in the chest when you stand at the back of the room.
Once you’ve decided which sound you want to take priority in the low end, set all your volumes to infinite (no volume) and bring up the volume of the prioritized sound FIRST. For example, if your kick is the most important, start with that and blend everything else after.
Mixing this way will help create more space and room for each element to breathe, and give your mix a “cleaner” aesthetic overall. Furthermore, you’ll create headroom in the whole mix, which will allow you to increase the overall volume and presence of every element in the song during the mastering stage.
EQ the Kick and 808 so They Play Nice Together
Lets talk EQ strategy now. After deciding on which sounds you are going to use in your track, choose the frequency range that you want each sound to occupy based on the quality and fundamental of that sound.
An 808 mostly consists of sub frequencies, therefore you may decide to have its energy focused on 75hz and below. In comparison, you may notice your kick’s fundamental (where most of its amplitude is located) is somewhere around 125hz. Now that you know this information, you can strategically cut frequencies to make room for the other sound.
Continuing with the example, you may decide to notch out 1-3db of 125hz using an EQ on the 808 in order to create space for the kick. Conversely, you may use a shelf EQ to reduce all frequencies below 75hz on the kick in order to make room for the 808, as pictured below.
808 and Kick Drum EQ cut examples
A good practice when mixing 808s with kick drums is to focus on cutting frequencies rather than boosting, since cutting will create space and not create congestion or additional phase issues within a mix.
Sometimes, you don’t want to actually reduce the low end of the kick at all and may opt for other strategies such as the next point- side-chain compression.
Use Side-Chain Compression to Make Room for the Kick Every Time It Hits
While EQ is a great tool to create separation and clarity amongst instruments, sometimes it is not the ideal choice. This is because whatever you do with an EQ will affect that sound’s frequency range consistently throughout the song. This may prove to be unhelpful when key changes occur within your song and the fundamental of the song changes position, resulting in a loss of unnecessary frequencies at times when you actually need them most.
In situations like this, I reach for a compressor, put it on the 808 and engage it’s side-chain to be triggered by the kick. By doing this, I allow the frequencies of a sound (ie, the 808) to pass through and only get compressed (reduced in volume) when the key (the kick) is played. In this example, if done correctly, the kick would come through clearer and on top of the 808 in the mix. You usually want this to happen fairly quickly and transparently, so the settings of this compressor will usually have a fast-mid attack and a fast release in order to let the kick drum punch through without squashing the dynamics or sustain of the 808.
FabFilter Pro-MB on an 808 with Kick Drum keyed sidechain to make room for it in the low-mids
For more control, I will use a multiband compressor such as the FabFilter Pro MB and set it up to only side-chain compress a part of the 808’s frequency range, such as the low-mids in order to allow the kick to pass through when it needs to over top the specific frequency it dominates.
Work on the Transient Shape of Each Sound
Lets think about each sound logically for a moment. A kick drum has a clearly defined transient, with the loudest part of the hit or attack of the sound happening immediately then fading out with minimal sustain. An 808 is similar but has much more sustain than a standard kick drum hit as it “rings” out.
808s have a lot of sustain while kick drums are mostly attack.
We can use transient designers, such as the SPL Transient Designer or Native Instruments Transient Master, to manipulate the transient shape of each sound to make them fit better together.
This may consist of reducing the sustain of the kick so the initial attack punches through, while reducing the attack on the 808 so the kick punches through (sidechain compression will help with this as well).
Similar to my EQ practices, I am usually trying to use a transient designer in a subtractive fashion- removing what I don’t want in order to make room for what I do want from the other elements.
Use Parallel Processing for Punch
In every mix that I do, I have a few pre-set channels with processing that I may call upon during a mix including:
1) Parallel Distortion Channel (“808 FAT” pictured below)
2) Parallel Extreme Compression Channel (“808 LOUD” pictured below)
Parallel processing channels featuring distortion, compression and EQ.
These channels are busses/sends that would be used simultaneously alongside the original “dry” track. Both parallel channels may also feature a following EQ to clean up muddiness or low-end problems since we want both to bring out the mid and high frequencies of each sound (the punch/clarity of the sound).
I would send some volume from each track until I feel like it’s enhancing what’s there without creating phase issues or changing the sounds too drastically, and massage the volume faders for each parallel bus to taste from there. The goal is to enhance the 808 and kick sounds so they blend together and have some higher harmonic content to help each cut on smaller speakers, leading to a “fatter” sound overall.
Process Them Through the Same Subgroup Before Hitting The Master
Every DAW handles this differently – what I’m specifically referring to is sending the output of the 808 and the Kick to the same subgroup bus channel where they get processed together before going out to the final master.
Most mixers will traditionally have all of their drums going to a Drum subgroup, and the 808 (and other bass elements) going to a Bass subgroup, before each subgroup goes to the final Master bus track for bouncing.
This approach is different as it has your kick and 808 going to the same subgroup bus before being summed with all other sounds at the Master bus level.
The processing on this subgroup could involve a number of tools- including EQ, compression, distortion and tape saturation (that’s what I usually do with mine).
What’s important is to not to overdo the processing. These sounds are meant to be dynamic, therefore some mild compression could help them glue together and adding some harmonics via distortion or tape saturation may help enhance their combined presence and synergy.
The 808 and Kick (top 2) output go to the BASS subgroup (bottom) where they are processed together with effects
Conclusion + More Learning
While these are only a few ideas, I hope these strategies offer some additional insight on how you could make your kicks and 808s work better together in your mix.
Want to get a more in-depth look at mixing 808s and Kick drums?
Learn how to use professional techniques and tools such as EQ and compression by watching the FREE Mixing 808s and Kick Drums online course from 5PiECE.
How To Fix Harsh Vocals In The Mix
Mixing vocals can be a piece of cake when the artist and recording engineer played their parts correctly. But sometimes it can be a head-scratching nightmare if you are dealing with tracks that pierce the ears. Harsh vocals are never good for the end-listener– they aren’t pleasant (borderline painful really) and usually translate or appear worse on certain playback devices.
While harsh vocals are not ideal – in mixing, sometimes this is the reality you are given and when dealing with a tight budget and time constraints, you are forced to work with what you got. In this article, I hope to show you some techniques you can use to correct harsh vocals and get them to sit better in your mix when re-recording is not an option.
Understanding The Problem
The true problem with harsh vocals is that they are caused by specific frequency resonances within the high frequencies of the vocal track. These resonances often don’t happen all the time but rather only when certain consonants, phrases and notes occur within the vocal performance.
Therefore, when approaching harsh vocals, we must be aware of how we can correct this problem without affecting the parts that aren’t problematic. Some, none or all of these strategies may apply – use your best judgement to rationalize which approach to use, and how to organize your session in order to achieve the best results.
Use a De-Esser to Tame Harsh Frequencies
A common quick fix for this issue – or at least a good starting point – is to use a de-esser to tame harsh frequencies on your vocal. This can be applied to individual vocal tracks or directly on a vocal master that controls a group of vocals.
Waves Renaissance DeEsser – a popular de-essing plugin
A de-esser is essentially a form of multi-band compression that focuses solely on compressing the frequency range that typically contains “S”, “CH” and “T” sounds, often between 2-10khz but potentially higher or lower depending on how you set it up.
We can use a de-esser to reduce the volume of these harsh moments only when they occur. This would leave the vocal primarily unaffected when there aren’t any harsh moments, and only have it engage and reduce when we really need it to.
You may also use several de-essers in series to tame the harsh material more moderately and in stages, as opposed to using one de-esser aggressively to treat the issue. By distributing the de-essing work amongst two or more de-essers in series, you’ll split the workload and can tame the harshness in your vocals more transparently.
Often – I will de-ess directly on an individual vocal track and also on the overall vocal master that affects all vocal tracks if I see fit. This helps as sometimes I may tame the harshness on one individual vocal track, but when combined with backgrounds and the other tracks the harsh frequencies build-up again at the master level and continue causing problems. De-essing the vocal master will help correct this issue if and when it presents itself.
Another helpful read for more information on de-essing: “What Is A De-Esser and How Does It Work?”
Use a Narrow EQ to Cut Harsh Frequencies
EQ can be a great tool for reducing specific harsh frequencies overall. I liken EQ to having a volume fader on every frequency that makes up a sound. Therefore, it can be used to reduce unwanted frequencies and increase desired ones as well.
Using a narrow Q, sweep across and find harsh resonances in the high-end (usually between 2-10khz) and reduce them as you see fit using your ears’ judgement. Keep in mind that doing this will affect that frequency’s presence throughout the entire song. For example, I may notch out 3db of 4.5khz and find that it corrects my problems during harsh moments in the verse, however, when a key change occurs during a chorus, losing 4.5 khz could negatively affect the overall presence of the vocal during those moments. Because of negative side-effects like this, I resort to EQ after I’ve explored my other corrective options.
It may be also good idea to use automation to bypass the EQ when it is not needed, that way you effectively reduce the harsh frequencies only when you need to.
Use a Focused Dynamic EQ
Dynamic EQ is my second favorite method for taming harsh vocals. As I previously mentioned, using regular EQ can negatively impact the source material as it affects the sound consistently throughout a song, even at times when you may need the frequencies you are cutting. Automating the EQ can remedy this problem but that is also more work to set up properly. I propose another solution: dynamic EQ.
Brainworx Dynamic EQ – a popular dynamic EQ plugin
Dynamic EQ works the same as traditional EQ with one added twist: it only works when the frequency you are trying to adjust exceeds a pre-determined volume threshold. This is great, as it will only attenuate a frequency when it becomes too loud in the track as determined by you.
I will often set a dynamic EQ on individual vocals and have it reduce harsh resonant frequencies only when they become too overpowering on specific phrases or words. This leaves the other moments of the track unaffected and doesn’t cause problems when key changes occur.
Use Clip Gain and Volume Automation to Manually Reduce Volume
In my experience, I use this approach the most when dealing with harsh frequencies as it often yields the very transparent results when executed correctly.
If you’re using a DAW like Pro Tools which allows you to adjust an audio track’s clip gain – you may crop out harsh moments on a clip, and manually reduce the volume using clip gain to reduce harshness yet maintain the track’s presence in the mix.
When doing this, keep in mind that clip gain adjustments will occur at the pre-FX level and will affect your track’s input into existing processing such as compression, leading to your compressor (and other FX) now reacting differently to the source material.
The other approach involves incorporating volume automation. Using this strategy won’t affect your compression or any processing on the channel as it occurs post FX, and instead allows you to control the overall volume of that track after processing. This can be helpful when using multiple tools to tame harshness such as EQ, compression and de-essing in order to help the vocal cut through the mix.
Use a Multi-Band Compressor to Squash Harsh Frequencies
If you do not have a de-esser, or if you aren’t able to get the results you want from the de-esser, you may use a multi-band compressor to achieve similar results.
FabFilter Pro MB – a popular multiband compression plugin
Enable a multi-band compressor on your source material and create a frequency band within it that focuses on the harsh frequencies. Once you’ve got your band focused on the harsh vocal frequency content, set your threshold to attenuate the band whenever the volume of the harsh parts exceeds your threshold. This will allow the frequencies to travel through and only be reduced in volume when they become too overpowering.
Use a Compressor with a High-Pass Filter Enabled
If you don’t have access to a de-esser or a multi-band compressor, (or just want to switch things up) you can still make use of a regular compressor with a high-pass filter. Since harsh frequencies are often found within the high-end of a track, you can set up the high-pass filter of the compressor to a specific frequency just below where the harsh frequencies reside. From there, the compressor will focus solely on compressing all frequencies above that filter point, which should include the track’s harshness.
This will yield similar results to a de-esser and multi-band compressor, albeit with a bit less control as you will be compressing and affecting all frequencies above the high-pass filter setting, as opposed to a specific frequency range as determined by you.
Tweak The Chain, Use Good Vocal Technique & Record Them Properly
This could really be step one. As much as we look to mixing as a place to correct problems – the real culprit of harsh vocals tends to be a few factors. For your artist, things like their natural tonality; vocal delivery technique and recording position on the microphone will affect sibilance. For the engineer, the vocal recording chain may be causing a build up of high frequencies leading to additional sibilance issues too.
While it’s challenging to be aware of each of these and correct them before recording, it’s essential to do so in order to reduce the amount of work you will have to do afterwards while mixing, and lead to a cleaner song overall.
You may find using one or two of these strategies will help you fix harsh vocals in your mix. In my case – some deliberate clip gain and volume automation paired with de-essing and dynamic EQ often solves my harsh vocal issues when they come up.
Understanding each of these processes and knowing when to apply them properly in your mix will make all the difference in solving your harsh vocal issues.
What Is A De-Esser and How Does It Work?
In this article, I aim to demystify the de-esser and help explain how to use one in your mixes.
Example of a de-esser plugin. Waves Renaissance DeEsser displayed.
What is de-essing?
De-essing is a technique intended to reduce or eliminate excessive sibilance around consonants such as “s”, “z”, “ch”, “j” “ts” and “sh” within recordings of the human voice.
What is a de-esser?
A de-esser is a specific tool that audio engineers use to reduce sibilance within a recording. Specifically, a de-esser is a form of multiband compression, where a sibilant frequency range (usually between 2-10khz) of a source is isolated and compressed every time it becomes too overpowering in a mix.
What parameters are commonly found on a de-esser?
Most de-essers commonly have a few parameters, as defined below:
Threshold – Correlates to the volume of the material and is the point at which the de-esser begins to work. Once your signal exceeds the threshold, the de-esser kicks in to reduce the volume
Range – Limits the amount of gain reduction that can take place on the sibilant parts. If a de-esser is set to reduce the sibilance by 10db, but the range is set to 3db, the most gain reduction that will take place on the track is 3db as that is the maximum range of the de-esser.
Release –Determines how soon the compressor stops working once the signal dips below the threshold. In other words, how soon the de-esser plugin will “let go” of the signal after compressing it.
Frequency – This usually spans over a range of frequencies and helps control exactly what ones will be reduced during the sibilant moments of the track.
FabFilter Pro DS – another example of a popular deessing plugin
Should I De-Ess Before or After Compression?
There is no definitive answer to this question as mixing, like creating music itself, is subjective. From my vantage point, it is situational and depends on 3 main factors:
1) The state of the source material – how does it sound naturally?
2) What processing is being applied to it? (EQ, Compression, etc)
3) How does the processing affect the source material and it’s sibilance?
Based on your answer to the above in sequence, you can effectively prioritize where to place your de-esser.
It can be very effective to de-ess early in the chain before compression as compression can often bring out sibilance in a track. By reducing it beforehand, when applying compression and other processing, the sibilance should not stand out as much or create problems.
However, sometimes that is not the case and de-essing can suck the life out of a recording by taming the high-end too much. In such a situation, de-essing after compression may work best. Compress the source material first to even out the dynamics, including the sibilance, and if it still stands out too much, apply a de-esser afterwards to reduce those specific harsh frequencies.
Another strategy is to use multiple de-essers in series (back-to-back) in order to reduce the sibilant frequencies more moderately and in stages, which will lead to a cleaner and more transparent sound.
Should I De-Ess Before or After EQ?
Similar to the last question, the answer is situational.
Often I will de-ess at the start of my mixing process if sibilance is an immediate issue and dress the vocal from there. I frequently incorporate a shelf EQ to boost the high-end later in my vocal chain. With problematic vocals, boosting the high-end often increases the presence of sibilance, and can lead to harsh resonances that are painful to hear.
In such a situation, de-essing after EQ may prove to be more helpful in preserving the high-shelf EQ boost, while reducing specific problematic frequencies within the sibilant frequency range when they occur as a result of the EQ.
The Best Form of De-Essing
In my opinion, de-essing is best done manually with strategic volume and clip gain automation first since using an actual de-esser can come off as aggressive and noticeably change the sound of the source material. Focusing on manually adjusting the sibilance within a mix will put you in a position to transparently tame the harshness in your mix, and contribute to a better end product overall.
Once you’ve implemented manual de-essing into your mix, you can explore additional treatment options such as using a de-esser if it is still needed.
Alternative Use Cases
While a de-esser is a great tool for treating sibilance in vocals, they are incredibly effective at processing specific frequency ranges for in other sources. A common alternative way that I use a de-esser, is I will put it on metallic hihats and cymbals to tame brightness, or on a guitar-style sound to tame specific harsh frequencies. I’ve heard of people also using a de-esser to compress the boxy frequency of a kick drum in order to help it sit better in the mix. Just because its called a de-esser doesn’t mean it has to be used specifically for treating sibilance. Its an all-around useful tool when applied correctly.
Get a better understanding of how to use a de-esser in your mix by booking a Mixing & Mastering Lesson with 5PiECE.