Tips for Getting Punch in a Mix
We are continuing in the five concepts series. This little entry is going to be all about punch. Yes, I am on the road. I am in a car, but I want to keep up with you guys, so bear with me. Punch. What is punch? Well, punch is in essence, dynamics. It’s the ability for a sound to step out of the speaker and physically impact the listener. So I’ll often talk about something like speaker excursion, which is the actual movement of the cone outside of it’s bearing, and I’ll talk about punch, which is the simple vibrations in the air.
So, there’s some key elements to consider in punch. The first is your nominal listening level, because your dynamic is going to be your loudest moments and your quietest moments compared to wherever the end listener sets the record.
So, if you are familiar with the loudness war concept, where everyone is trying to compress the records more and more and more, what that’s essentially doing is it’s taking the nominal point and moving it louder, but that ceiling stays in the same place, so the total amount of excursion you can get, the louder you can get that playback becomes less, which is one of the reasons why everyone in the engineering field is so against it, because you get less punchy records.
But wherever that nominal field is, the total punch is going to be the loudest point that springs over a short period of time. Transient energy. Things that are occurring maybe 20 milliseconds or less in duration, and the speaker moves out and comes back, basically. The same way a punch would hit you in the face.
So, when you are shaping your sounds, you want to consider the micro-timing – the micro-dynamic of the sound shape, because if you have a sound that is very, very short up and down – something like a snare drum is a natural occurrence or a cross-stick in particular, you’re going to have something that sounds spiky, meaning the total duration of that very loud sound shoots up very quickly. It lasts maybe about a millisecond or less, and then comes back down.
So you do get a total amount of volume change, which is exciting for the listener, but it’s not extended enough to convey punch. Punch comes from reshaping that so that the decay of that signal takes longer. You want it to take a little bit longer, because that allows the speaker to push more weight at you.
When it does that, that becomes an impactful sound. It physically hits you, and unfortunately, if you do it for too long, if the decay becomes too sustain-y and too long, then it just suddenly becomes a sustaining sound. So it’s about finding a sweet spot where something is – you’ve probably heard the phrase, “fat.”
That’s referring to the time duration of the upward thrust of a transient sound, whether that be a kick, or a snare, or whatever else it might be.
Now, in terms of the low end, the low end is absolutely critical to punch because the lowest frequencies are actually the ones that will resonate in our body. We don’t just simply hear it in our head and our skull where the higher frequencies will resonate, but we actually can feel it in our physical body, so getting the punch in the low end right is something that takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of crafting, and one thing that I think makes the biggest difference right off the bat is your phase correlation in your low end sound.
So, if you don’t know what phase correlation is, when you take a sound, say like a sine wave, and it is in its compression stage, meaning there is positive pressure being formed, and you take the same sine wave, and you invert it, meaning, you have the same signal, but it is now in rarefaction, it’s pulling back and creating a vacuum. The signal cancels out.
So, likewise, if you were to take two microphones and put them in front of the kick drum and face one with the diaphragm at the kick, and the other one in omnidirectional mode with the diaphragm facing away from the kick, but in the same spot, when you sum those two signals together, you are going to get a lot of cancellation in the sound.
Now, the total level of the sound might actually be fairly up, because not all parts of the signal are going to cancel. You might have enough amplitude in there where you’re still losing headroom, you’re still taking up sonic space, but you simply don’t have those low end frequencies, because they are out of phase.
So it is really important that when you are working with low end signals to do things like checking the phase correlation. Super true in miking the kick drum, but also true in blending multiple kick drums together, and very true when you are triggering sine waves, multiple basses, all of those things are going to have phase interactions that are going to become pronounced, because you have simpler waveforms in the low end.
So punch has a lot to do with your phase correlation in the low end as well. Ultimately, when it comes to the overall loudness – this will be the last thing that I have to say about it – when it comes to the overall loudness of a record, a lot of people say, “Okay, how do I maximize the punch, and make the record as loud as possible?”
I think that’s a backwards way of thinking about it. I think the real question is, how quiet can I get away with printing the record to maximize the punch with it still being appropriate for whatever field the music is going to exist in. So, if it’s supposed to be a commercial pop record, how can I make the mix still seem like a commercial pop record, but back the volume and total level off as much as possible to get the punchiest record possible?
You know, or if it’s like a Club record, same idea. I know this record is going to be played back-to-back with some screamingly loud records. What can I get away with in terms of not compressing the record in order for those speakers to really rattle as much as possible when it’s played in the Club? Alright, so consider those ideas when you’re thinking about the punch of a record. You know, figure out where – start by figuring out where your listener is going to turn the volume knob when they start listening, and start moving things around from there.
Outside of that, make sure everything is properly in phase, and you will have a much easier time getting a lot of punch out of your records.