Kim Lajoie's blog

Video: Performance vs cleanliness

by Kim Lajoie on April 14, 2014

Well, this was an interesting challenge. Hand-held SM57 for vocals. Trying not to make it sound like trash. There’s a lot of suck at around 7-10kHz. Took it down with EQ and added back some air on top. Used a de-esser to bring the dynamics back into check. Couldn’t do much about the plosives though, guess that’s what happens when you don’t use any foam or anything. The 57 is a pretty trashy mic (if I’m being generous I’ll say it has ‘bite’). But it can be made to work.

Anyway, what’s interesting to me is the bigger story. My experience of making it work reminded me a lot of when I had much cheaper gear (and a lot less of it). In other words, cheaper (or more limited) gear can still get you a result that doesn’t suck, but you’ll work harder for it.

I’ve got much nicer mics, but for this recording it was important for the vocalist to hold the microphone in her hand to deliver a compelling performance (for both audio and video). And I’ll take a compelling performance over a cleaner sound every time.


Using reverb in the mix

by Kim Lajoie on April 7, 2014

Reverb is a tool that’s easily recognised and often overused. Reverb is one of the best tools for enhancing the sense of space and depth in a mix. It works by adding a wash of sound – called the tail – directly after the original sound. This tail usually simulates the kind of sound heard in a large hall. There are many different kinds of reverb – ranging from simulations of small and large physical spaces, to electromechanical reverbs (such as springs and plates), to fantasy reverbs (such as gated reverbs and reverse reverbs).

Reverb is most commonly used on a ‘send’. This is a special kind of mixer channel. Instead of receiving its input audio from the multitrack recording, it receives its signal from the other mixer channels. The amount (level) from each channel is controlled by the ‘send amount’ for each channel. This is a good way to use reverb because it allows for one reverb processor to add its reverberation tail to many channels (sends often aren’t appropriate for channel EQ or compression).

If you’re getting started with reverb, start with a simple hall reverb. Set it up on a send bus, and choose a basic reverb preset (usually the default start-up preset will be a good way to begin). Then send a little bit from each channel to the reverb. A good rule of thumb is to add just enough reverb that you can hear it. Background sounds will normally need more reverb than foreground sounds, and sustained sounds will usually need more reverb than percussive sounds.

Mute the reverb channel and compare the mix with and without reverb. It should sound like the same mix, with the reverb adding subtle space and depth. If the reverb is overpowering, simply reduce the send levels of the more prominent instruments.

If you want to customise the sound of the reverb, you can tailor it to the sound of the mix you’re working on. Each reverb is different, but there are often some common controls:

  • Length (Time) – This is the most obvious control. It allows you to change the length of the
  • reverb tail. Longer reverbs work better for music that’s slow, sparse or abstract. Shorter reverbs are the opposite – they work better for music that is fast, dense or acoustic. Too short and the reverb won’t have much effect. Too long and it’ll make the mix messy and indistinct.
  • Size – Size often works with length. While length adjusts how long the reverb tail is heard, size changes the apparent depth of the reverb. It works similarly to the the size of a physical space – a small room will sound tight and intimate and a larger room or hall will sound deep and spacious. Like length, the right setting will depend on the music. Too small and the reverb won’t have much effect, too large and it’ll sound indistinct.
  • High frequency (HF) damping – This affects the way the high frequencies are processed by the reverb. HF damping reduces the high frequencies being reverberated. Low levels of HF damping will make the reverb sound very ‘live’ – like an empty hall with a lot of hard surfaces. High levels of HF damping will make the reverb sound warmer. Too little HF damping will make the reverb sound airy and obvious. Too much HF damping will make the reverb sound dead or ‘damp’. As with the other controls, the best setting will often be somewhere in the middle, depending on the sound of the mix.
  • Pre-delay – This control inserts a delay before the reverb, making it sound later after the original sound. It can be used to increase the apparent size of the reverb. Because pre- delay separates the reverb from the original sound, it can also add clarity to particularly reverberant mix. This is most useful for vocal-heavy mixes because it allows the vocal to be quite reverberant without reducing its intelligibility

When adjusting reverb parameters, it’s often helpful to solo a single sound. Usually the lead vocal or a sparse drum/percussion part will let you hear the reverb most clearly.


How To Know If You’re Doing A Good Job Mastering

by Kim Lajoie on March 31, 2014

Mastering is often seen as a dark and mysterious art. This is particularly true among junior producers and engineers who want to learn how do do it themselves. There’s a lot of different advice floating around these internets, some of it conflicting. It can be difficult to know if you’re taking the right approach. It can be difficult to know how you can improve.

Short of hiring a teacher or mentor, the best thing to do is be clear about what you’re trying to achieve. And that means understanding the purpose of mastering.

I’ve written quite a lot about mastering here on this blog. Put simply mastering is the process that takes a stereo mixdown that sounds great in the studio and turns it into a stereo audio file that’s appropriate for distribution.

So the question is: how do you know if a stereo audio file is appropriate for distribution?

I approach this in two parts: characteristics of the audio and characteristics of the format.

For the audio to be appropriate for distribution, the two primary factors to consider are tone and level. Fortunately it’s fairly easy to know what to aim for – simply listen to other commercial recordings (in your acoustically treated, calibrated monitoring environment). To adjust your mixdown so that the audio is more appropriate for distribution, your principle tools will be a good equaliser for adjusting tone and a good limiter for controlling crest factor (which gives you freedom in adjusting level).

For the format to be appropriate for distribution, you need to know what how the release will be distributed. For CD duplication, you’ll probably need to author a master disc. For replication, you might need a DDP image. For online distribution, a linear CD-resolution audio file might be sufficient. Or a higher-than-CD-resolution file might be more appropriate. To create these formats you’ll need appropriate authoring tools. Professional CD authoring software is probably necessary if you want to master for CD. For online distribution, a render from your audio software (at the correct resolution and format) might be sufficient. Apple’s mastering tools for their ‘Mastered For iTunes’ program might also be relevant to your interests.


Using EQ for a louder mix

by Kim Lajoie on March 24, 2014

It is particularly in adjusting the tone and dynamics of each sound that the mix engineer controls the loudness of the mix. As you already know, sounds with a lot of upper midrange energy and with relatively flat dynamics have the most loudness. But unlike the composer’s freedom of choosing which notes actually make up the piece of music, the mix engineer’s tools can only modify the sound of the notes that have already been recorded. Fortunately, those tools are varied and powerful.

The most powerful sound-shaping tool available to mix engineers is EQ. This tool alone can make any sound bright or dull, strident or subdued, thin or heavy. And with such a powerful tool comes great responsibility. A mix engineer, like a composer, could quite easily make a loud mix by making every sound brash and strident. Of course, this wouldn’t be very pleasant to listen to.

A more appropriate use of EQ is to make sure each sound has a distinctive character and role in the mix. EQ can make for a louder mix by making sure that each area of the mix – the bottom, the low mids, the upper mids and the top – is clear and focused. Think about which sounds will dominate in those areas and make sure other sounds aren’t competing. This will make it much easier to make a mix loud. On the other hand, a mix that is muddy and indistinct will fight every step of the way to loudness.

You’ll probably also find that the higher the frequencies, the more room there is in the mix. The upper mids in a mix can often accommodate a few distinct prominent sounds. The very top of a mix often needs almost no carving at all. By contrast, the bass region can often only fit one or two different sounds, and the subs can barely fit one. This is why common mixing advice includes high pass filters and lower-mid cuts to increase clarify and space in the lower ranges.


The talent myth

by Kim Lajoie on March 21, 2014

Rob Bradford:

You’ll often hear that “____ is super talented.” As to imply that he/she has some sort of natural gift or ability that enables them to just show up and perform. That’s why I hate the word “talent”. Because it does a disservice to everyone. It confuses people and it distracts them from the amount of obsessive hard work that really goes into making yourself successful at something.

This is something that I certainly agree with. I work with a lot of skilled and experienced people, yet I only ever hear the word ‘talent’ used by people who believe they themselves don’t have any. It’s used an an excuse for their lack of application.

I like that Rob mentions the disservice. The concept of talent minimises or ignores the actual hard work that successful people do, where instead it should be acknowledged.


You don’t need contracts. You need trust.

by Kim Lajoie on March 17, 2014

I recently participated in an interesting discussion. A junior producer was working with a band on a recording and the band left partway through the project to do their recording elsewhere. And they didn’t pay. In the vernacular, the junior producer got stiffed.

A couple of other people in the discussion suggested that an adequate contract would be an appropriate preventative measure next time. The idea is that with a contract, everyone knows up front what each other’s expectations are and what happens if one party wants out. But what if one party chooses not to abide by the contract…?

I disagree.

I think that if a contract is the only thing stopping your artist from leaving without paying, then you’ve already lost. Think about it from the artist’s perspective – if they’ve decided they want to leave and make their recording elsewhere, having their previous producer (that they no longer want to work with) chase them with legal threats will easily destroy what little goodwill remains. Even before they decide to leave, if they’re even thinking of leaving but they feel locked in to a contract, then it means you’re not looking after them well enough.

Either you’re not the right person for the job, or you need to get better at helping artists understand why you are.

Artists need to work with you because they WANT to. You give them the best results, the best experience, the best support, the best understanding. They choose to work with you because they love working with you. Not because they’re locked into a contract.

Being the “best” doesn’t necessarily mean super-expensive gear at bargain-basement prices. It means knowing your capabilities. It means understanding your artist. It means make sure they’ve got no doubts at all that they’ll get a great recording and have a great time doing it. It means making sure they feel appropriately informed and well looked-after. It means making sure they feel in control (or at least in charge) of the whole process. It means they leave with a smile on their face, no matter what they paid.

Of course, this is about relationships.

The strength of relationships you should be building are well above simply getting paid on time. The relationships you should be building are at the level where your artists have no doubt that you’ll give them what they want. Where your artists enjoy working with you so much that they can’t wait for the next session. Where your artists know they’ll be proud to show off their recordings.

Producing and recording music is a very intimate experience. Songs are presented bare for judgement. Performances are dissected note-by-note. Creative direction can be called into question. For this to be a positive experience, artists have to feel that they’re in a safe place. They have to trust you to look after them. Obviously, you have to be 100%. You can’t phone it in. You have to be thinking several steps ahead. You have to know that you’re the right person for the job so you can engage with confidence.

You have to demonstrate that you are worthy of their trust.

And clearly, contracts have nothing to do with this. Contracts do not demonstrate confidence or invite trust. They demonstrate fear and invite suspicion. So don’t spend your time drawing up a contract. Instead, spend that time understanding your artists. Listen – really listen. Work hard to understand them and work even harder to demonstrate that understanding. Be clear and upfront about how you’re going to work together to make a recording. Be sensitive to values, sore spots and fears.

And don’t forget to smile. :-)


P.S. You can avoid getting stiffed for payment by being clear that you don’t hand over final versions of recordings until the account is settled. Or if you’re prepared to increase your risk for artists you like, don’t start the next project until the account is settled (only if doing so will help build the relationship). Or if you want to decrease your risk, request payment for each session in advance and don’t schedule the session until the payment clears. I’ve been doing this for years and haven’t had any problems. Not even funny looks.

Stability in composition

by Kim Lajoie on March 10, 2014

Stability in music refers to how predictable or comforting the music is at any point in time. Any section or moment in music can be somewhere between the two extremes of absolute stability and absolute instability.

Most good pieces of music should express a range – some stable moments and some unstable moments. Stability is usually a combination of the following factors:

  • Simple rhythms
  • Simple harmonic language (including chord progressions and harmonic structures)
  • Predictable change (not necessarily gradual change)
  • Liberal repetition
  • Easily-followed, regular musical structures (such as phrase lengths being organised in multiples of two and four)

Conversely, instability is usually a combination of:

  • Complex rhythms
  • Complex harmonic language
  • Unpredictable changes
  • Less repetition
  • Irregular musical
  • structures

How are you using stability and instability in your latest track?


Reverb is not that important

by Kim Lajoie on March 3, 2014

Yes, I know I’ve published a lot of words about reverb. A lot. I quite like a lot of reverb. Chances are you do too. There’s something about reverb that’s much more magical than other mixing tools. Maybe because it’s the tool we use to bring back an illusion of reality (after sucking it out with close-mic techniques and direct line recording). Maybe because it’s our opportunity to add something to the mix that wasn’t there already. Maybe because long dark modulated reverbs are just delicious. 

But it’s easy to lose perspective. 

Reverb (ambience, actually) is one of the least important elements of the mix. In order (and for each channel) – level, tone and dynamics – are more important than ambience. 

Level, tone, dynamics, ambience. 

If you could only get aspect of the mix right, get the levels right. That’ll give you the overall balance and depth in the mix. Even if each channel’s tone and dynamics are all over the place, you’ll get a better mix by fixing the level of each channel than anything else. 

If the levels are in the right place, the nxt best thing you can do for the mix is to adjust the tone of the channels that need it (assuming they need it). If you had to choose between equalisers on every channel and compressors on every channel, what would you choose? 

If every channel’s level and tone are in the right place, you’re probably about 75% there. The next bang for buck will be dynamics control. Compression is very common, but it’s not the only way to control dynamics. Gates, expanders, limiters and saturators can also be useful tools for controlling the dynamics of each channel. 

If you’ve got the level, tone and dynamics of each channel right, you’ve pretty much got a mix. Ambience is the final step. And it’s last because it’s the least important part of the mix. It sits at the back of everything to provide a sense of space and dimension to the mix. But it does so from the back. Obviously reverb is the most common tool here, but delays and diffusion processors can also be used to build the ambience of the mix. 

So don’t lose perspective. Reverb is great. But it’s not the most important element of the mix. It’s the least. You get to have fun with reverb once you’ve got the level, tone and dynamics of each channel in place. 


A basic primer on EQ

by Kim Lajoie on February 24, 2014

EQ is the second most important tool available to the mix engineer. It is a powerful tool for changing the tone of a sound.

As a basic example, think about the tone controls on a home music player (such as CD player or computer speakers). There might be two controls – ‘treble’ and ‘bass’. The treble control adjusts the high frequencies – turning it up makes the sound brighter, and sometimes sharper or harsher. Turning it down makes it duller, and sometimes indistinct. The bass control adjusts the low frequencies – turning it up makes the sound heavier and thicker, and sometimes woolly or muddy. Turning it down makes the sound lighter, and sometimes weaker and thinner.

The EQ available to a mix engineer usually has these basic treble and bass controls (often called ‘high shelf’ and low shelf’). Mix EQ often also has much more sophisticated capabilities. There are usually one or more midrange EQ controls as well as ‘high cut’ and ‘low cut’ filters (which are like extreme versions of the shelf controls).

Mix EQ controls are usually organised into ‘bands’. One band has a single effect on the sound, but may have several controls to adjust how that happens. The most common band controls are:

  • Gain – This is the most audible control, and adjusts how strongly
  • the band affects the sound. Positive gain adds energy to the sound, making it louder. Negative gain reduces energy from the sound, making it quieter. The further away from 0dB (either positive or negative) this controls is, the more audible the effect is.
  • Frequency – This affects where the band affects the sound. Higher values affect higher frequencies, lower values affect lower frequencies. To best experience this, set the gain of a band to something reasonably high (such as +12dB) and listen to how different frequency settings sound. Similarly, try setting the gain to something negative (such as -12dB) and listen.
  • Q – This is the most subtle control. It’s sometimes referred to as ‘width’. Some EQs don’t even have this control. Q determines how ‘focussed’ the band is (the EQ band, not the musicians!). Higher values cause the band to get narrower, meaning the tonal change gets sharper and more surgical. Lower values cause the band to get wider, meaning the tonal change is broader. When this control is labelled ‘width’ instead of ‘Q’, the values are usually reversed – higher values make the band wider, lower values make it sharper.

Your approach to using EQ in a mix will depend entirely on the raw sound of the recorded tracks and how you want to shape them to work together with the other tracks. As a general starting point, though, think back to the basic music player tone controls:

  • If you want the sound brighter, turn up the higher frequencies. • If you want the sound duller, turn down the higher frequencies. • If you want the sound heavier, turn up the lower frequencies.
  • If you want the sound lighter, turn down the lower frequencies.


  • If you want the sound more present, turn up the middle frequencies.
  • If you want the sound smoother, turn down the middle frequencies.
  • You’ll often – but not always – get better results by turning down (negative gain), rather than up (positive gain)


The shape of reverb

by Kim Lajoie on February 17, 2014

In my reverb guide, I cover the four elements of choosing and programming a reverb for a mix (dry/lush, short/long, shallow/deep and natural/unnatural). In the guide, I explain how to choose the reverb characteristics that will work for your mix, and how all the usual reverb parameters should be adjusted to create such a reverb. 

But that’s a bit abstract. 

There’s a simpler way that requires much less theory and explanation. And strangely, it’s still four dimensions: flavour, attack, tone, tail. It’s pretty straightforward. 

Flavour is the general style or mode of the reverb. Do you want a natural room? A hall? A plate? An intergalactic cloud? It’s the general sense of size and dimension of the reverberation. 

Attack is the speed at which the reverb builds up. Some reverb processors allow you to adjust this directly, others will rely on more general ‘size’ parameters. Pre-delay can also be part of this (though personally I find pre-delay to be a poor substitute for true slow attack). 

Tone is simply the overall tonal balance of the reverb. Is it bright or dark? Adjust the high frequency energy. Is it heavy or light? Adjust the low frequency energy. Is it smooth or prominent? Adjust the mid frequency energy. Most reverb processors have limited tonal shaping options – you’ll probably find you can do a lot more with an EQ inserted directly after the reverb. 

Tail is the way the reverb fades away. Quite simply: does it fade away quickly or slowly? Furthermore, does it get darker or lighter as it fades away? You might need to adjust the damping characteristics of the reverb. 

If you’re feeling stuck and you can’t decide how to approach reverberation in your next mix, focus your mind and think about flavour, attack, tone and tail.