A name that has been on everyone’s lips lately is Nej!las. The Detroit-based Techno artist is known for her dark, evocative sound with evolving progressive melodies and is celebrated for her crisp productions that entirely immerse the listener. Below she shares her advice when it comes to mixing and mastering.
5 Plugins for Mixing / Mastering
No track can really be high quality without proper mixing and mastering techniques. Melodies could be written like Beethoven originals but if the track is too “muddy” or isn’t high quality (think of the quality of the tracks major labels release) no one will give it the time of day.
A clean, crisp, production really comes down to:
- Overhead room
- Proper EQ
- Multiband compression.
I’m sure everyone has heard, overhead room saves the day when it comes down to proper mixing and mastering. You can’t use multiband compression correctly if you don’t have the room to manipulate the track. The old timeless rule is to have your loudest channel (usually the kick) set to -6db, and to mix accordingly around that. I set it to -7db just to have that extra wiggle-room in the end just in case.
If your kick is set to -6db, but your multiple basses, synths or melodies are coming in too loud and you feel the urge to increase the DB of the kick – don’t – you’ll be down a path that could be a downward spiral when it comes to the final stages of mixing and mastering.
Instead, I recommend using a plugin like LFO Tool (Xfer). The LFO tool works so much better than sideways compression, and has a lot more factors you can manipulate to get the “pumping” sound you need without compromising the melodies. I personally have an “empty” ghost track of just ¼ midi data whenever the kick is playing (but no actual instrument) sent to the LFO tool so it “dips” down the volume of anything you place it in right when the kick hits, but quickly “rebounds”, or doesn’t “dip” if the kick isn’t present (the retrig function). This saves transients and melodies.
There are lots of tutorials available for this widely used plugin.
The key to a clean production is to select sounds for your tracks so you don’t have to mix, and mix your tracks so you don’t have to master.
If “muddiness” is your problem – you aren’t EQ’ing your tracks right. A lot of producers have EQ on almost every track, or “groups” of tracks for Highs, Mids and Lows. One of my favorite EQs is FabFilter Pro -Q 2 (Fabfilter). With this plugin you can actually adjust the slope of the eq – this can completely get rid of certain frequencies if you choose a steep slope, or have a gradual fade for smaller slopes. FabFilter also gives you greater control over adjusting multiple EQs and different ranges all in one plugin.
Muddiness is a problem of overlying low/mid frequencies. If you are using certain melodies, instruments, or percussion for their higher frequencies – EQ out the lower frequencies. Most of the time you can’t even hear these in the song, but they are there and are contributing and muddying the kick and basses.
Multiband compression is the single thing that makes the biggest difference in clarity of productions.
I’ll even share a “hack” of my own that you can recreate with audio effects that come standard in most DAWS. Create a Custom Audio Effect Rack (Ableton) with three different Multiband Dynamics “MBD” (Ableton).
One MBD will be for the highs, one for the mids, and one for the lows. Use one MBD and “solo” the high, adjust the frequencies accordingly, use a second to solo the mids, adjust the frequencies accordingly, and a third for the lows.
What I do, personally, is solo the highs and the mid for one MBD. I then solo the mid and the low for a second, and then the third MBD will solo just the sub – frequencies of 30 or below. The melody will tend to lie in the high/mid MBD and you would want to compress this up. The kick will tend to lie in the mid/low MBD and you can compress this accordingly – keep in mind most of the “muddiness” comes from this mid/low MBD so you would want to use downward compression to resolve the muddiness and tweak the output accordingly. Compress downward as much of the sub as possible without jeopardizing sound or anything you could actually hear.
If that seems like too much work – you can use FabFilter Pro -MB to similarly hand-craft the crisp production you need. I actually tend to use both the custom rack and FabFilter’s MB – the custom rack will place the overall compression on the track, with FabFilter being used to make precise adjustments.
In the end, after you have followed the rules for overhead room, EQ and MB, your track should be sounding pretty clean… but quiet (yay overhead and quality control). Use a limiter to your liking – but make sure you aren’t jeopardizing transients and dynamics for “loudness.” Limiters, if used incorrectly, could completely undo all of the work you’ve put into mixing and mastering and end up making the track sound muddier! I recommend the Weiss Mastering Maximizer (Softube). It can be a little pricey but is widely used and tried and tested (there is a reason it’s a cult favorite!) It allows you to control, essentially, a “dry/wet” percentage, allowing you to maximize the transients and dynamics in your track without jeopardizing volume.
5 Plugins for Creation
Each to their own when it comes to designing sounds. Especially with the thousands of plugins available for synths, and the hundreds of different types of genres of music (even Film Composers like Hans Zimmer use DAWs!) the type of sound everyone wants to create is subjective. So in this section I’ll talk about what I like to use to create the melodic, and the harsh-sounding Saw-waves of techno, as well as a drum sampler.
Deadmau5 is known for infusing darker, melodic vibes into progressive music. A track of his some may know is “Let Go” – listen to the ending – that brooding, long, brass-like synth comes from Omnisphere
(Spectrum). Omnisphere is great for “orchestral” instruments. The brass, the organs, the strings, vocals, anything you want to add to a track to add atmosphere Omnisphere will help you create that.
If you need help creating more melodic arpeggios, I recommend Cthulhu (Xfer). Most, maybe all, arps other than Cthulhu only let you pick the direction of the arpeggiator (like “pinkyupdown”.) Cthulhu allows you to chose the exact note up to 8. If you want a scale but want to hit the lows more often, you can customize that! You can literally pick and chose and “design” your own arpeggio – no more being only able to choose a direction when you could choose the actual note order.
Techno = saw wavs, filter envelopes, and modulation. Serum (Xfer) does this really well. I have never seen a plugin where you can literally draw any type of wavelength you want, and then go on and design the actual wavetable (how the synth filters through different wavelengths). Serum is the maximization of customization, which makes any production original. They also allow for multiple (and I mean multiple) envelopes and lfos for modulation! Want to modulate your filter by two different envelopes? An LFO and by velocity – Serum allows you to do that!
Serum also comes with a separate plugin Serum FX that lets you add the audio effects Serum has separately to different midi instruments. I tend to use the Hyperloop and Dimension from Serum FX, as it’s a pretty unique effect. The distortion also allows you to add an actual filter to the distorter itself – which is useful too.
Drums and percussion can come from so many different audio samples the number of plugins is ridiculous. I use many different ones, but one of my favorites is VPS Metrum. VPS Metrum lets you stack different audio samples while editing the samples and customizing different effects (like reverb and attack). Being able to choose up to four different samples, layer them, and add effects selectively to certain samples makes this plug-in all-in-one and a complete time saver.