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Panning, Mastering and Balancing Harmonies

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Hello, hope you’re doing marvelously well. We’re back with another Frequently Asked Question Friday, otherwise known as FAQ Friday. As ever, please subscribe, hit the notification bell down there, and you’ll be notified when we have a new video.

And of course, you can go to producelikeapro.com, sign up for the email list and get a whole bunch of free goodies, such as drum samples, additional videos, multitracks, you name it. And you can also try out The Academy on a free trial.

So let’s get started with the first question.

What dB level do you normally bounce out of Pro Tools for a master?

Wow, what a really good question, and a very confusing one. Why do I say that? There is so much information, disinformation, misinformation, and confusion around levels. The basic answer I can give you is from every mastering engineer I’ve spoken to. Every single one is, when they get a final mix from you, they want this and this alone. They want a stereo file which has no digital clipping in it.

They want enough headroom to be able to do what they want. If it’s really, really loud, but isn’t clipped, and they’re running through analog equipment, they’ll just turn it down. There is no exact formula that they ask for. That mastering engineers ask for. So personally, having done this for many, many years, I usually print relatively loud with no clipping whatsoever.

I have VU meters that I listen to, and I just make sure that it prints loudly, there’s no audible clipping, there’s no digital clipping.

However, there is a multitude of different ideas about what is correct. I believe the most important thing is not to clip in your signal path leading up to your master buss, because even if you print a signal which is really, really super quiet, you could be 20dB down, minus 20dB, if it’s clipping going to the master buss, it doesn’t matter. It’s not about how loud that final signal is, because that final signal can be compressed, EQ’d, and limited in any number of ways. If it’s not clipping, it doesn’t matter. It’s good.

What matters is not clipping leading up to the master buss, because like anything, distortion can happen early. It doesn’t mean that it’s only going to happen because the master buss is loud. No, what you want to avoid is all forms of clipping going to your master buss.

That’s what we should be concentrating on. That’s what we should be talking about when it comes to printing masters is making sure there’s no clipping going into that master fader.

So concentrate on that. Give yourself a decent amount of headroom on your master in case you want to put, you know, compression, EQ, limiting, et cetera on it, but most importantly, don’t clip leading up to the master buss.

How do you balance harmonies? A third on each side, or use harmonies below the vocal?

Another excellent question. I think the answer to that is what are you going for? If the music is relatively sparse, I like the harmonies to sit around it. If there’s four other voices going on, I might go relatively far left and right, and then a little narrower around the vocal. Sort of encompasses the vocal.

If it’s a dense track, then I might on a verse have them very narrow, and then when the chorus comes in, have them go super wide to give width, because if I’ve got a lot of instrumentation, like a pair of guitars on each side, piano, bass, drums, lead vocals, synth programming parts, if I’ve got all of this stuff going on, maybe some programmed drums, if it’s all going on in the chorus, I’m looking for ways to make that chorus even more interesting, so I might go super wide on my harmonies just to kind of give some more width to the track.

When I’m dealing with less dense instrumentation, I can get a little bit more creative in what I do. So there’s no real rules, but you’ll tend to find with most people, most mixers, when you look at like, CLA, and guys like that, they’ll keep things relatively narrow in the verses, and then boom, get wide in the choruses.

It’s a very, very basic way, whether it be instrumentation, or backgrounds, whatever it is, to create size, width, and make the chorus grow the dynamics even more. Width, dynamics, everything happening at once.

So apply those same ideas to your background vocals. I do love a single background underneath a vocal. I do love slightly panned, 20-20, one on each side, and then I do like a huge width of vocal surrounding the whole vocal in choruses in particular.

But ultimately, listen to music you like. Listen to a song as a reference that you love, and copy the ideas. If there’s something you really, really like the production of, and listen to the vocals, try that. Remember, there’s no real rules with this, and all of it will work. You can keep backgrounds pretty narrow, even in a chorus. You can do all kinds of things. That might help push just the lead vocal forward if you just bring them down low and put them tight around it. As long as they’re not too loud, they won’t crowd the lead vocal, and they might actually help it sit a little bit up front.

So there’s no rules, and there’s literally a hundred different ways to make it work and sound good. I think experiment and pay attention to what other people do, and if you admire a particular person’s mix, listen to what they did in their backgrounds, and then reproduce their ideas. Try it! There’s no one right way, but as JJ said, “There’s lots of wrong ways.” [laughs]

So just try and experiment, and see what works for you.

Would you say once a mix is finished, just upload it, versus adding a limiter and then uploading it? It seems without the limiter is the way to go.

Interesting. It’s hard to answer that question very, very pedantically, because it’s mix dependent, isn’t it? If your mix has massive dynamics, and I don’t mean, you know, healthy dynamics, I mean like, kicks and snare transients that are like this, and the rest of the mix is like that. That’s where traditionally, a limiter would come in. You know, a lot of mastering engineers don’t compress much at all. They use the limiter to do a lot of that work.

You know, bear in mind it’s hard to answer that question, because it depends on what your mix is really doing. Like I said, if you’ve got a lot of fish tails, where you’ve got like, these sharp transients on kicks and snares, you might want to use a limiter to tuck them in, because if — here’s the majority of your music rumbling around here, but then there’s these huge spikes of kicks and snares, it’s not going to sound that good, and a limiter is your friend, and will pull those in and bring up the rest of the track.

However, if it’s a very, very well balanced piece with a nice, healthy dynamic range, then using limiting softly and subtly might also benefit. It’s really, really mix dependent. There’s no one size fits all, because it’s not just using a limiter, or using compression, it’s how are you using the limiter? If you’re using that just to tame some crazy transients, it’s fantastic, but if you’re using it to squash the shnizzle out of it and then create a mix which is a blob like this, that’s not healthy. That’s not healthy because as we know, when it comes to streaming services now, if they can’t read a lot of dynamics, they are turning the music down.

So that’s very, very important. You know, we had a long discussion about that — we can link back to that video as well, but there’s a big discussion on that stuff. We’ve got to be very, very careful when it comes to dynamic range. We don’t want to kill it off. Do not want to kill off your dynamic range, but at the same time, limiting can be useful for controlling transients.

So the answer is, there is no specific answer. Just don’t over limit your tracks so they’re just a big blob of no dynamics, but then if you’ve got an incredibly dynamic track that seems super quiet, except for like, super fast kicks and snares, then a limiter can be your friend to control.

So it’s completely mix dependent.

Personally, something in the middle is probably going to work for most of us, and that’s limiting the dynamic range enough so that some of the softer moments are loud enough to be audible, but not overly done so that the mix is just a big blob of wall of sound, you know.

Hi, Warren. I see you’re still using the IK Multimedia Micromonitors. Are those now your go-to monitors?

Great question. They’re not my go-to monitors. The go-to monitors for me are still the Genelecs. The 1032s. I have used those monitors now since the 90’s. Used to be a pair of Genelec 1032s and a pair of NS-10s, and then when the Super Rocks came out, the Unity’s, they for me, just blew away the NS-10s, so the NS-10s are gone.

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The reason why I have the iLouds and also the baby Genelecs is because I want to reference on other systems. The thing about the iLouds that I love and that Dave Way really loves, who else has been using them, CJ Vanston, everybody I know that has a pair, Bob Horn, Dave Pensado’s got a pair — the reason why we all love these speakers is because they’re a little hyped. They’ve got an extended low end for a small speaker, they’ve got an extended top end, and they sort of mimic what a lot of people liked the hi-fi sound of.

How many times have you gone to somebody’s hi-fi setup, if they still have one, and the bass is boosted and the treble is boosted, and it’s big smiley faces? When you go and sit in a car, it’s big smiley faces, and the iLouds have got that sort of characteristic, so they give me a different idea of how something’s going to sound. It’s actually quite pleasant.

But with the high end top boost, I can hear detail a little better. I can hear buzzes and clicks and all of that kind of stuff. I don’t listen loud on them, but they’re a fun speaker to reference, and frankly, they’re inexpensive enough that they’re an alternate set of monitors that I can judge my mixes on.

I really strongly believe, personally speaking, that great reference monitors in different situations is very, very useful.

We just spoke to Eric Valentine, and he only references on his Strauss monitors. He doesn’t have any other monitors. Those are all he uses, but then Joe Barresi has I think seven pairs of monitors to reference on.

And who’s going to argue? I mean, Joe Barresi is an incredible producer, engineer, and mixer, Eric Valentine is an incredible producer, engineer, and mixer. Who’s to say who’s right?

Personally, I’m in the middle. I like to reference on lots of different things, including my headphones. So I would strongly suggest that you have, especially up and coming, have different places to reference. Cars, houses, ear buds, headphones, monitors, whatever.

All the different references so that you can build an understanding of how your music works, but for me, the iLouds are a great way to hear the music differently, and we will just reference on them quickly just to see how the mix feels on them, and move between other things, but the Genelecs, the 1032s are still my go-to speaker.

What is your view on recording main vocals with an XY mic setup?

I don’t remember doing it. Would I do an XY setup? I might do it if it was incorporating an acoustic guitar maybe? Maybe an XY about here in front of a singer and an acoustic guitar? Just to give a stereo width. That might be kind of nice as an overall thing, but as a main lead vocal, unless the mix was incredibly empty, I wouldn’t do it.

I want my vocal to come down the middle. I don’t mind the idea of a stereo view when it’s like, maybe a lead vocal with an acoustic, maybe a lead vocal with a piano. I might try it.

But I would only try if I was capturing the whole image. I wouldn’t try an XY on a vocal inside of a dense mix. It just wouldn’t make any sense to me, because I’d feel like I was continually trying to blend the guitars, and the keys, and the programming elements or whatever around the vocal as it sort of moved, depending on the singer moving their head.

So for me, it’s not a solution I would use for just a lead vocal, but it’s kind of a fun solution on the idea of capturing a whole performance of an acoustic and a vocal, or a piano and a vocal. I might try it then. That’s probably the only situation I could think of using XY on the vocal.

Can I enter and win these giveaways if I don’t have a Twitter account and if I don’t live in Italy?

Yes, yes, and yes. Absolutely. We’ve shipped worldwide on every giveaway we’ve ever done. We’ve recently had Montenegro, Greece, Brazil, Australia, United Kingdom, obviously, Ireland, Germany, Holland, America, Canada, you name it, we’ve shipped everywhere in the world. The list is — Malaysia, I think we did something to India last year.

Basically, there’s not a country — if it gets picked as a winner, that’s the winner. So yes, we ship everywhere.

And trust me, shipping to some countries is very expensive, because they have really high duties. Our Brazilian winner can tell you all about how long it took us to get it over there. We got it to Brazil. The prize is he won the grand prize of how many Lewitt microphones? 11, 12, 13? He won the big Sunset Sound one, and it took awhile to figure it out, but we figured it out, and the duty is massive. It’s like, 60 or 65% or something like that, so it’s a lot of money.

The point is we honor the idea of shipping worldwide, so we do it, and I think Italy is actually quite easily — because if we’ve got companies like Lewitt, or a lot of these companies that are European based that we work with, they have European headquarters, so they can ship more directly and have distribution in those countries.

The point is, if it’s a problem, we figure it out, so yes you can. And as far as Twitter, that’s — the way it works is it’s a raffle. You just get extra tickets, extra entries if you do it, but all you really need to do is sign up with your email address, and then you’re entered. Just give us your email address. But if you do the other actions, you get more tickets. More entries to it. It’s a raffle, sort of like you’re buying more tickets.

But the reality is you can just enter with your email address.

When you have guitars at 50% in the verse and 100% in the chorus, which pan law do you use in your DAW? Or do you automate volume at the same time?

Answer number two. I automate the volume. Just because choruses in general get bigger, louder, more dynamic, more exciting, everything comes up. The energy comes up. So very often, I’ll have one guitar 50, 20, 30, 40, 50% panned to the left or panned to the right. Usually, typically, opposite the hi-hat. If the hi-hat is over here and it’s got motion, I’ll have my electric or my acoustic over there, because if it’s going, [imitates hi-hat], this will be, [imitates guitar].

Logically, you keep those two away from each other somewhat, so if the hat is 50 or 60% on one side, the electric guitar or the acoustic or the piano or whatever is driving could be the opposite direction ever so slightly. Keeps this sense of movement. Why put them up on top of each other when there’s only two or three instruments in a verse?

Music is logical lots of times, and then when the chorus comes in, everything comes up. So electric guitars will come up, the energy of the kick and the snare, the drummer’s suddenly cracking that snare, the kick is coming up, I’ll bring up the reverbs on the snare, I’ll bring the guitars up, so answer two is pretty much it. It’s logical. There’s very few times — If I’m panning guitars wide, it’s because everything is getting bigger, so they come up in volume.

So yes, you can use the pan law on consoles, it was always a big deal. It wasn’t on early kind of consoles, as you would pan it away, things would get quieter or louder depending on it, but this is why you always reference and check your mixes in mono. You don’t have to mix in mono. I can’t think of any of my friends that’s a main name mixer that I can think of that mixes in mono. I can think of lots of guys that will check their mixes in mono. Primarily not for a level thing, but primarily for phase and polarity issues. They’ll quickly go to mono to make sure nothing is getting quieter because it’s cancelling out.

We’ve had a lot of conversations inside of The Academy where people have been taking one guitar, and then delaying it, but only offsetting it like, a couple of milliseconds, so what’s happening is in the center, there’s some cancellation of the low end, because they’re not offsetting it enough for it to be out of time enough, they’re offsetting it ever so slightly, so these two low end wave files are almost on top of each other, and they’re cancelling each other out.

So the low end is disappearing. You go to mono and the guitar gets really thin. I’m listening in stereo, and I’m like, “This is really awkward, it feels like — it doesn’t feel like the guitar is coming out of the middle at all, it just feels like it’s coming out of the sides, but it’s 50-50.”

It’s because there’s some phase cancellation. So going in and out of mono is to check polarity and to check phase. But yes, reference in mono, but you don’t need to mix in mono, but definitely when it comes to panning, yeah, when I pan wide, I’m also bringing them up, because that’s my dynamics in the chorus.

Thank you ever so much for being so incredibly marvelous. Enjoy recording and mixing. Of course, as ever, subscribe, hit the notification bell to be notified, and go to Produce Like a Pro. Try out our 14-day free trial of The Academy, and you can sign up for a whole bunch of free goodies. There’s free videos, there’s free drum samples, there’s free multitracks, you name it.

Have a marvelous time recording and mixing, and I’ll see you all again very soon!

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Warren Huart

Warren Huart

Warren Huart is an English record producer/musician/composer and recording engineer based in Los Angeles, California. Learn more at producelikeapro.com.

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