Kim Lajoie's blog

Sweetening your mix bus, and why you shouldn’t wait for mastering to do it

by Kim Lajoie on January 4, 2010

There’s a case to be made for ‘sweetening’ your mix bus.  Many mixes can benefit from some subtle processing to bring out the best qualities of the tone of the mix and to use dynamics to give the mix a more compact, controlled sound.

To bring out the best qualities of the tone of the mix, an EQ is the most appropriate tool. For this task, however, don’t reach for your highly-flexible ten band fully parametric equaliser. Instead, go for something with character and vibe – not just in sound, but in workflow. The idea here is to use something with fewer controls, but where each control does something interesting. The recent Pultec-modelled EQ plugins are a good choice. The reason for this is that this tonal adjustment isn’t a corrective task where surgical precision is requied. It’s artistic, impressionistic. You’re trying to be creative, to add colour, to make it interesting.

To use dynamics to give the mix a more compact, controlled sound, compression is the most appropriate tools. Unlike individual track compression, the best results here are achieved by being subtle. You don’t want to completely change the dynamic behaviour of the mix. Instead, focus on less than 3dB gain reduction, and configure the compressor to simply ride the gain. Use high ratios when you want a pronounced effect, particularly on mixes with very little dynamics (such as rock music or dance music that is almost always at the same level). Use very low ratios for more dynamic music (coupled with a lower threshold to catch the lower-level audio). Faster attack and release times will produce a more pronounced effect, whereas slower times will be more more gentle and transparent.

The real tip here, however, is to do all this at the mix stage – not mastering. The mix is where you’re focussing on creative sound adjustments, on making the song sound special. Mix bus processing clearly fits here. Mastering, by contrast, should be as transparent as possible – focussing on preserving the creative decisions that were made during mixing and translating that sound to the target playback format.

The best time during mixing to apply this sweetening is at the very last stage – after reverb and panning, just before rendering or recording the stereo mixdown. This is when you’ll have the best perspective to apply processing to the overall sound. Otherwise you may end up chasing your tail in circles as further track-level changes necessitate mix bus changes.

-Kim.

6 thoughts on “Sweetening your mix bus, and why you shouldn’t wait for mastering to do it

  1. The Snark says:

    Wonderful, thanks!

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  5. 3ee says:

    I always keep a limiter on my master bus but so that it hasn’t got an effect and when I’m halfway through mixing I finetune my levels and tone as I bring the limiter’s threshhold down. Than I back it off pretty much or leave it off and continue with mixing and check again after a while.
    I found that pretty usefull as it helps you to finetune your mix and predict how the mastering process will affect your mix.
    Cheers
    3ee

  6. Kim Lajoie says:

    @3ee
    I’ll have to disagree with you here.

    I don’t believe in ‘predicting how the mastering process will change the mix’. If your mix is good, professional mastering shouldn’t change it. If the mix is not so good, professional mastering should improve it (slightly).

    If you’re using less-than-professional mastering, try at least to make sure the mastering process changes the mix as little as possible.

    If you want a certain sound, get it right in the mix. If you’re limiting because you like the sound of it, do it in the mix. If you’re limiting to transparently reduce headroom (to make it LOUDER), then you need to reassess your workflow. Transparent limiting has no place on the mix bus.

    -Kim.

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