What I Hear in Beginner Tracks
When I meet new producers and hear their stuff for the first time, I'm often floored by the musical and instrumental creativity they bring to the table. How come I didn't think of using that instrument in that way?? I love the creative differences new people, advanced and beginner alike, bring to the table.
But one thing that often sticks out to me with a lot of tracks I hear is that they sound pretty raw and unprocessed.
Now, mixing is its own art form, and Youtubers around the web are already covering that in depth. I won't shed any groundbreaking truths on this, but I view mixing as finding the balance between all instruments, giving space for each to speak; controlling each instrument to sound clean and consistent with EQ and compression; and adding interest and sparkle where appropriate, with delay and reverb and other effects. Really, less can be more.
But even a good mix can sound pretty raw when the instruments have a very vanilla, unused sound to them. And this is where the dirt comes in.
When I first started out, I frowned upon intentionally adding distortion to things: why would someone deliberately want to make something sound worse? But the more music I hear and the more music I make, I'm finding that I love the vibe of adding grunge and distortions to otherwise clean sounds. I no longer view it as a pursuit of showcasing instruments in their purest form, but mangling them a bit to make the entire song have more texture and grit to it. And in the world of software instruments that are generally recorded perfectly, even too perfectly, we can accomplish this by destroying the purity of the sounds through dirty effects.
How to Switch Things Up
At the risk of giving away too many secrets, I'll share a few things I do to get instruments fitting neatly with the vibe of a song:
- If an instrument is sounding too clean, reaching for straight-up distortion can really add some grit to it. I like funky, vintage, analog-style distortion for this. A couple of my favorites are Decapitator and Devil-Loc, though there are many contenders by many brands. Sometimes it sounds best to lay this straight on an instrument, sometimes with the highs rolled off, and sometimes in parallel with the original instead of replacing the original.
For example, I might have a keyboard in a track that is sounding a little too clean. If I create a send from that keyboard to a bus, I can crush the vitality out of the sound of the keyboard with distortion, and then significantly roll off the highs so it sounds warm and funky instead of sizzly and harsh. Mix a little of this bus in to taste with the original keyboard sound and it takes on a new character.
- You can get even crazier with multi-band distortion and freaky presets, like with Trash by iZotope. If you ever see this plugin on sale, buy it! I use it all the time on synths and basses to get thickness and grit that elaborate on synth patches in a way they just can't achieve on their own.
- This is a super basic tip, but just rolling off the highs and lows of a track with EQ can give a really different vibe to an instrument. Lo-fi is a versatile effect, and band-limiting the frequencies with an EQ is one of the most powerful tools to get there. With each instrument you apply this to, you have to play around with where you want the low-pass and high-pass to be set, and how aggressive of a slope sounds best to your ears. But experimentation is the fun part, right?
- I love throwing delays on instruments too, particularly geared towards width or ping-pong. It can add space to a synth patch, thickness to a keyboard, or complexity to drums. I especially like when a delay chain is even more band-limited by EQ than the original instrument, and also if it has some heavy saturation to it. Some delay plugins have this built in, but you can always accomplish this with other plugins in the chain.
- Super aggressive compression can play a role too. If you compress something hard enough, particularly with compressors emulated after vintage hardware gear, it can begin to take on a life of its own. You know you're getting there when compression brings out something like reverb that you don't recall hearing in the original track. Of course, this is often too much on its own, so try bringing it gradually into the mix in parallel to the original sound.
- Vintage has its sound, and there is so much you can do other than band-limiting your signal with an EQ. Tape-wow and flutter effects, aggressive tape saturation, and vinyl crackles are just a few examples. One of my new favorite plugins is XLN Audio's RC-20 Retro Color, a plugin that combines many different flavors of vintage emulation, each of which can be uniquely tailored. And it's great to flip through presets to find some wacky sort of sonic degradation combination I would never have come up with on my own.
Make Your Own Rules
These are just a few examples. But I highly recommend experimenting. Try running non-guitars through guitar amp simulators and pedalboard-style processing. Try splitting a synth or bass or drum track into two or three layers and using different distortions or vintage processing on each. Try processing the highs and lows of the same instrument or drum bus with different types of distortions or vintage processing. And here's what I love about this: you could be making future bass or EDM or PBRNB or alt rock, and these tips will still be relevant in helping you find a unique character for your tracks.
There is so much you can do to help break away from the clean, boring, stock sounds that instruments give you. This definitely applies to synths, but even more-so with sampled instruments that sound too clean to be usable. So get creative!
Thanks for reading. I really love building this connection with you. And if you have any processing tips to get instruments sounding dirty and alive that I didn't mention, please post in the comments below. I'd love to hear what you guys have come up with.