The internet is great in many ways. We can keep connected with people and communities even when we can’t be there in person. Unfortunately, there are distinct negative aspects to mass communities in constant communication.
One, in particular, is cyclical knowledge. One piece of catchy information can start to circulate around communities. The more people talk about it, the more important it seems, and then even more people talk about it. This feedback circuit of information can make one little bit of nothing seem like a mountain of importance.
In this list, I will be naming concepts or processes that people have embraced as magic bullets for immediately making a mix great if implemented correctly (or, at all). Spoiler — they won’t. In fact, some of these things aren’t necessary at all and some can easily make your mix worse. In addition, to explain what these things are, and how they can help or harm, I’m going to examine why I believe they became popular “magic bullet mix fixers.”
I’ll be going in reverse order from most legitimately useful to absolute utter nonsense.
5. Multiband Compression
You’re probably thinking “why is multiband compression on this list? Haven’t you done articles and videos touting this technique?”
First of all — thanks for keeping up with my content! Second — I have this as number five because multiband compression is actually extremely useful and there are many techniques employing this process that can really improve a mix. However, there’s sometimes a sense that it is a necessaryprocess and that it’s what the pros do and what the amateurs don’t do.
Multiband compression is an important part of my mix approach, but it’s also not the biggest part. It’s great for knocking boxiness or edginess out of a vocal while retaining body and presence. It’s great for bringing out the sustain of a kick or buzz of an 808 without making things too punchy. But it’s really just one component, no more valuable than EQ, reverb, delay, distortion, or regular ol’ compression. Also, it can genuinely sound horrible when done wrong.
4. Parallel Compression
Similar to multiband compression, parallel compression absolutely has its place. Parallel compression can be great for getting something to really sound bold, or as a creative effect to get things pumping or moving in a unique way.
I’ve put parallel compression on this list for two reasons. The first is that conventional compression is actually way more important and useful. Parallel compression is simply an augmentation of basic compression principles. The second is that while I certainly use parallel compression, I just don’t use it that much these days. The better I get at normal ol’ compression the less I feel parallel compression is truly necessary. It still ends up as part of my approach, it’s just not deserving of the magic greatness-pedestal it seems to have been placed upon.
I think the reasons that multiband and parallel compression have been touted as “the secret sauce” is two-fold. The first is obvious: we see big-name engineers use these techniques. The second is that these techniques are more in-depth than typical EQ or compression. Both multiband and parallel compression requires a bit more experience to really get down correctly, which creates a sense of inaccessibility. This is a key concept that’s going to come up a lot.
3. Gain Staging
I’ve done some content on gain staging because this seems to be the popular fad right now for instant mix fixes. In the digital world, gain staging is very simple: you’re clipping or you’re not.
Getting gain staging wrong will definitely screw up your mix. But getting it right doesn’t really *fix* anything. Not clipping isn’t a magic secret, it’s a starting point. In a sense, if you have been getting this wrong and clipping all the livelong day, gain staging will be a pretty miraculous remedy — but it’s kinda like saying that color coding your tracks is a mix fix. It isn’t — it’s just part of the session setup. Turn your source signals down. Congrats, you digitally staged some gain.
Now, in the analog world, particularly if we are landing on tape instead of a computer, gain staging has a bit more to it. There is a bit of effort that goes into getting a signal to tape well above the noise floor but without running out of headroom; especially if that tape machine has a little soul to it, so to speak. In this regard, getting the gain staging right is a bit more involved and how it’s done will have a bit more influence on the overall mix.
This brings us to why gain staging is in its popularity phase. It’s a holdover from analog mixes. Large format consoles, racks of outboard gear, re-recording to tape, these are all concepts associated with expensive records. In fully analog mixdowns, being wary of gain staging really is tied to the outcome. It’s something that older engineers are more cognizant of — and older engineers tend to be more experienced.
Meanwhile, it’s something that is effectively nonexistent in the digital world. So we have more experienced engineers who understand a practice that’s applicable with very high-end mixdowns, and in contrast, something that’s almost never discussed in the much less expensive digital world. In this way, it looks like something that “the big-timers” do that the newbies don’t. Even though, it’s only because the concept doesn’t really apply to the newer digital format.
2. Linear-Phase EQ for Mastering
People are selling us equipment all the time. We, as musicians, producers, engineers, are a market. And where there is a market, there is marketing. How many times have you seen the words “Class A, all discreet signal path, preamplifier.” The “Class A” part makes it look fancy if you aren’t aware that it just means how the amp operates and has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the design.
The same is true of linear-phase equalizers. In short, linear-phase EQ means that the micro-timing offset between pass and reject bands is corrected. This means no phase distortion from the group-time delay. What it doesn’t mean is that the EQ actually sounds any good.
Linear-phase EQs are good because they mitigate frequency ripple, that is, inconsistencies in frequency response that result in bumps and dips across the passband. They also have the added bonus of keeping the overall phase shift of zero, meaning anything EQ’d this way will maintain the same phase relationship with other sources, making linear-phase useful in parallel processing applications.
However, linear-phase EQs have been largely touted as “mastering EQs.” I’ve largely found this not to be the case. There’s nothing inherent to what a linear-phase EQ does that makes this design any better than minimal phase EQ. And to my own personal taste, there’s something very dimensionless about the linear-phase EQs I’ve heard that just doesn’t sit right with me.
I imagine this gained a bit of popularity as a result of marketing tactics. However, I can’t help but think that there’s an element of inaccessibility that was at play. Before software linear-phase EQs came on the market, there really were only a few digital outboard ones in existence — specifically the Weiss Digital (no relation). This is an extremely expensive piece that was pretty much exclusively found in high-end mastering rooms.
Mind you, the Weiss EQ also had two minimal phase modes, and all the other analog EQs in those rooms were minimal phase — but from a distant point of view it looked like linear-phase EQ was something that only the top mastering engineers had, and that’s why their masters sounded so good.
1. Analog Summing
My number one choice for the most overhyped “mix savior” is analog summing.
An analog summing mixer is a very simple device. It’s a bunch of resistors, which on the expensive end of things cost about forty cents each, and a make-up gain stage. So maybe a couple of op-amps. Even a very high-end analog summing mixer is pretty inexpensive to build.
Initially, a summing mixer was used to bring all the channels of a console into the master L-R channel. Measures were taken to minimize the harmonic distortion and cross-talk that could result from this. Basically — the highest end summing mixers were as transparent as possible.
Digital audio has removed this necessity. In the digital world, we get the most transparent summing achievable. Now, old regurgitated marketing hype might have you believe that digital summing is in some way flawed. It’s not. But convincing people that it is allows companies to make an inexpensive piece of gear and sell it for a premium price to fix a problem that was never really there.
On the flip side, a little mojo on a mix can be a great thing.
The very subtle distortion that we get from a summing mixer will have a notable difference when it’s cast over an entire mix. Ironically, the less ideal the summing mixer for it’s intended purposes — meaning the more harmonic distortion — the more mojo we get. This is why I prefer something like the Unit Audio mixer tied to a couple of mic preamps. It’s way more colored than a typical summing mixer, in a good way, and costs about 1/10th the price or less — or, if we really want to flex a little color, the Handsome Audio Zulu, which makes harmonic distortion the whole point of the operation.
Mind you, neither of these devices will magically make your mix sound amazing. They’ll just give you more of what’s making analog summing sound good to your ear. But in terms of what analog summing mixers actually give you, it’s hard to find something else so disproportionate between the net effect and the corresponding price tag.
Why is analog summing such a popularly hyped mix-fixer? I think there are a few reasons. The first is that they were marketed that way. Plain and simple. The second is that analog summing is rooted in the world of console mixing, which is associated with very expensive studios (while ignoring all the many crappy boards that also have summing mixers in them). The third, and I think most legitimate reason, is that they give you something that is difficult to get in the digital world: subtle but pleasing distortion.
The trend in all of these is that there is some sort of mysticism in something that’s either inaccessible financially, or misunderstood intellectually. It’s easy to imagine that the people behind huge hit records are doing one singular process that makes all the difference, but in reality, that’s not the case.
The reality is a tough pill to swallow: it’s really just people being very good at the job. Lots of important small decisions add up along the way — and no one singular thing is the be-all-end-all, but the outcome is something special.