Achieving Clarity Using Dynamic Contrast

Someone asked on a Facebook Group about techniques to achieve mix clarity. There were a lot of great responses. Here’s mine:

I’ll chime in with a couple “tips” … the flip side of this question is “what makes a mix muddy or reduces clarity?” I’ve found that long tails / releases / reverb / sustains etc. need to be handled in order to allow “clarity” to emerge.

While they’re great for atmospheres, the items above don’t usually help me when I’m trying to get a good clear impact or a part / buss to shine and stand out in the mix.

So in order to shine the spotlight on one part, I might need to gate some other parts — so much so that they sound very unnatural when solo’d.

If it’s not a gate (which can be tricky to set up), it might be automating a release envelope, changing note durations, automating track volumes or whatever is needed to get the job done.

What helped me learn this personally was designing kick drums for house music… I got to learn how long the “hold” and the release “tail” of a kick drum might last in milliseconds at various tempos, so that it was almost entirely gone by the next beat, in some cases — because house usually has that four on the floor kick drum, you know? The groove is just as much about the space in between the beats; the gaps. Dynamic contrast on every beat is what can make the whole club “pulse” on a huge system, and everyone starts feeling that huge pulse together and moving as one together because of it. Then the backbeat bass and hats (even cheesy backbeat bass and 8th note hats) fills that gap of the missing kick drum and doubles the time so you start bobbing your head.

On the flip side, when people talk about “punchy” drums or “punch through the mix” etc., they are sometimes (not always) referencing a quick transient that is just long enough to “poke” through the mix. These transients might be a handful or a couple dozen milliseconds, but the keys for me are that I’m not “compressing” the transient; I’m dynamically compressing what follows the transient (and possibly making up gain by boosting the transient). So the attack & threshold settings on the compressor have to be slow enough and close enough to unity (respectively) to allow the transient through before compression begins attenuating the rest of that drum “hit”. (Obv we also have a lot of transient designers nowadays to help with this as well, just boost the attack portion, and/or decrease the sustains/tails.)

And the danger of making drums or synths (etc.) too “pokey” or transient-y can be handled with intelligent clipping. There are a lot of great clippers out there nowadays. I prefer JST Clip because it’s basically a one knobber that “just works”. So I get a part I want to feature nice and transient-y, then clip it right there in the track. Then feed it to a group buss with another limiter (which might not be getting hit most of the piece), following possibly another multi-band compressor compressing lows (more below), then into a master buss with more compressors and gates / expanders and limiters, mwhahaha!

So two more quick things.

Waves C4 has a few Ross Hogarth drums presets. I’ve found them to be very helpful when my “trailer drums” get too boomy. Don’t get me wrong, I love tone and I love boom. But …..! I usually adjust the amount of gain reduction, thresholds, etc. but the idea is those C4 presets are fairly responsive to quick dynamics changes in the lower frequencies (the vibrating heads of a large “epic” drum head/skin) and can help clear out the “mud” that might be accumulating in your thunder if you’re actually trying to feature something that is not … erm … thunder. So, in short, that one is “multiband compress just the sub and low mids, when necessary”.

Expanders can do a lot of what is mentioned above too, but essentially all these tips boil down to; several ways to dynamically expand sound at the “transient” level. From beat to beat and sub beat to sub beat, I look for ways to carve out *less sound* so there’s overall more dynamic contrast in my mixes (and arrangements). This is one approach that can help with “clarity” imho.


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