(This is part 6 of a 6-part series by staff engineer Justin Colletti. Check out part 1 on bass management, part 2 on high frequencies, part 3 on bus compression, part 4 on panning for width, part 5 on depth, and part 6 on getting better balances.)
The high-end, or “treble” region, is another area where your mastering engineer can help you make major improvements. Great mastering can give you silky, shining clarity that’s easy on the ears and never sounds harsh or jagged. Alternately, a great mastering engineer can help your mix sounds warm, full and smooth without getting muddy or murky.
But whichever direction you want to go, we can help you get the best results when there’s already a decent balance in the high end to start. With that in mind, we’ll shine a light on where treble issues come from, and explore a few ways you can ensure the best possible top end in your mixes.
Factor #1: The Impact of the Speakers
One of the major obstacles facing mixing engineers when it comes to high end is monitoring.
The small nearfield monitors that can be so helpful in setting balances and sculpting the midrange rarely tell the full story when it comes to the high end. Smaller mixing speakers, like the still-ubiquitous Auratones, NS-10s and their modern equivalents, are great for setting midrange balances, but don’t offer much useful guidance when it comes to frequencies of 8kHz, 10kHz or higher. This can lead mixers to either overdo boosts in those regions, or neglect these upper ranges altogether.
Full-range mixing speakers like those made by ADAM, Dynaudio, Focal and Genelec are more popular than ever, and they be can be a wonderful complement to a more mid-focused “real world” mixing speaker. They will give you a lot more information about what’s going on in the top end, but be aware: Each brand has its own bias. This can be especially pronounced in the lower and middle pricepoints, and it’s important to acknowledge that to some degree, your mixes will end up sounding like the inverse of your speakers.
For instance, ADAM speakers (which I am a big fan of) tend to be on the darker and more full-bodied side. This can help engineers who mix a bit dark add some clarity and sparkle to their tracks. But there’s a flip side to every coin: This frequency profile can also encourage larger-than-expected boosts in the upper reaches of the high end—where their ribbon tweeters feel especially smooth and subdued.
Similarly, there are mixers who choose Genelec monitors for thee very pleasant sheen and top end shine that they provide on playback. This tilt however, can encourage mixers to wind up with tracks that sound a bit darker and more mid-heavy than they probably like to hear!
Thankfully, great speaker technology is easily better and more affordable today than ever before, and you can get a lot of quality for a reasonable price. But trying to find a perfectly balanced set of speakers for a final QC is still an expensive proposition. (And that’s without mentioning treating the room you’re going to put them in!) So, get the best speakers that are reasonable for you, but mindful of their inherent, yet subtle biases.
The extremely precise and detailed speakers that most good mastering engineers tend use are the closest you’ll find to perfectly well-balanced. Their expense however, and their larger footprint, are not something that’s realistic for most mix rooms. Fortunately, you can still benefit from them:
You could have more than a dozen albums mastered by some of the best mastering engineers in the business, and spend less than we do finding perfection in speakers and amps alone. Of course, we’re also happy to use them to help you get the best sound possible. That’s why they’re there!
Factor #2: The Impact of the Room
In addition to the speakers, there’s the influence of the mix room itself.
Mix rooms that lack an appropriate balance of absorption and diffusion can encourage mixers to make good choices with the treble range that just won’t translate as expected on other systems. This makes a double-check from the mastering engineer at the end of the process especially welcome.
If you’re mixing in a particularly “live” or untreated room, you are likely to wind up with darker mixes than you intend, as you subconsciously try to EQ out the flutter echo, “zinginess” and high frequency reflections prevalent in your space. This is especially common in spaces that are light on absorption.
On the other hand, if you’re in a space with plenty of thin HF absorption, you may end up with mixes that are a bit thinner and more brittle than you expect, as you try to coax extra “excitement” out of the room. This is especially common in rooms that are slathered with less-than-optimal acoustic material like foam, carpet, egg crates, or acoustic panels less than 2″ thick.
What to Do About It
Treble Tip #1: Mindful Boosts
Even when the monitoring situation is under control, many new mixers will fall in love with a treble boost in a particular range from time to time, whether its 4k, 6k, 8k or 10k. This can lead to high end with areas that are over- or under-represented, and may not sound as expected on other systems.
It sounds obvious to say, but be mindful not too boost too much in the same frequency range.
If you’re loving the 10kHz boost on your female singer, 10kHz is probably not going to be the best place to emphasize the cymbals and the tambourine and the acoustic guitar that plays as she’s singing. Similarly, if adding a dose of 3.5kHz helps your male singer step forward and take center stage, it may not be the best place to add bite to the electric guitars, and growl to the bass, and crack to the snare drum.
There is no “rule” about this, and of course, several instruments will always share frequencies to some degree. Just be aware of the idea, and take note if you find yourself reaching for the same boosts again and again, especially on instruments that play at the same time.
It can even be helpful to “stratify” your instruments a bit. Think to yourself: In this section, which instrument should own the “air” portion of the mix in the 8kHz-16kHz region? Should it be more the vocals or more the cymbals? Try to force yourself to pick one. If they’re both busy parts, you could run into trouble if you try to make both of them dominant in this area.
You can also apply this thinking to the other parts of the treble range: What instrument or two should own the “presence” band between 5kHz and 8kHz? Which should get its “bite” in the 2kHz to 4kHz area? And which instruments might benefit from not having too much high end at all?
After mastering recordings from some truly great mixers, I’ve come to appreciate how much of a beautiful effect a little bit of contrast can have: A dark and full-bodied vocal and seem to make bright cymbals take on extra shimmer, while darker, subdued cymbals, can make a vocal really seem to shine on top.
There’s no need to go too extreme and over-EQ, or force sounds to fit in one narrow range or another. This is more an idea to keep in the back of your mind as you do the things you normally do. Let it inform your choices, not dictate them.
Lastly if, your mixes end up sounding a little dark and un-hyped compared to commercial releases—don’t worry! Your mastering engineer can do a lot to a bit of clarity and shine to a slightly dark mix.
Although we can add heft to a thin-sounding mix, it’s even easier to add sparkle to a dark-sounding one.
Treble Tip #2: De-ess, Then Boost. (Or, Compress, Then De-ess!)
If your cymbals, vocals, or any other element are feeling a bit too razor-sharp, a touch of de-esser on individual tracks can do a lot.
There are no rules on where to put a de-esser, but I tend to have good luck when I use them to tame the sharp transient edges first, and then apply a high-shelving EQ boost afterward to provide some extra “air”. You can often get away with more of an overall high-end boost that way, with fewer ill-effects.
De-essers can also be an essential tool if you’re using a slow-attack compressor on your vocals or drums. While a slow-attack compressor can help accentuate the initial “impact” of an instrument in a cool way, it can also end up exaggerating sharp transients like esses and cymbal attacks more than desired. If you like what your slow-attack compressor is doing to the impact of the signal, you may want to consider putting a de-esser on at the very end of the chain to take a little bit of the edge off.
Wherever you put a de-esser in the chain, I wouldn’t recommend using one automatically. Instead, while you’re adding clarity to tracks, keep your ear open for excessive “zing” or “sizzle”, and consider softening the point-of-attack ever so slightly when needed.
If you make efforts to contain overly sibilant tracks before they make it to the mastering stage—even just a little bit—you can get all the presence you want with no harsh transients, and no need to compromise any of the clarity or detail you want on the other elements in your mix.
Treble Tip #3: Turn Down Your Cymbals. Then, Turn Them Down Some More.
Cymbals are, quite possibly, the most overrated instruments on the planet. A little bit goes a long way, and you don’t need a lot of level (or a lot of action) to hear them in the mix.
Be aware: If you mix a bit dark or don’t do much bus compression, your cymbals might end up louder than you expect once a bit of compression and brightening is applied. This goes double you’re hoping for an especially powerful, hot, or in-your-face master. That’s why I recommend erring on the side of too low, rather than too loud, when it comes to cymbal levels.
Sometimes it’s easy to get lost in all the details of a dense mix and miss the forest for the trees: Remember to always make sure that lead vocals, snare drums and solos are substantially louder than your cymbals! Once again, this sounds obvious to say, but new mixers miss this crucial check often enough that it bears repeating.
Although there’s a lot a mastering engineer can do to try and keep unruly cymbals in check, your best best is to err on the side of having them slightly too low, rather than slightly too loud. Bringing out a little more cymbals at the mastering stage is a piece of cake. Trying to subdue them often requires tradeoffs.
I know this can be especially challenging when you’re working with new drummers, who sometimes tend to hit cymbals harder than they hit the drums! Don’t worry, we’ve all been there. I think of too-loud cymbals as a normal and perhaps necessary stage of life, like a caterpillar going through chrysalis to become a butterfly. We’ve seen it all, and are happy to help tame your beastly cymbals if you get stuck. But more often than not, the best approach is just turning them down.
Summing It Up
If you can be mindful about your treble boosts, use de-essers judiciously, and keep your cymbal levels in check, you can wind up with some pretty excellent high end before your project even hits the mastering studio. This is a great position to be in, as your mastering engineer can then focus on sweetening your top end to memorable perfection, rather than helping solve problem areas.
That said, some tracks can just be troublesome, and we get that too! If you’re having trouble with the high end on mix, don’t worry about it too much—Your mastering engineer is here to help. We may have a creative solution or three that you may not have thought of, and we’re often able to share specific tricks that have worked for other clients when they’ve gotten stuck in a similar position. Oftentimes, there’s even a bit of surgery we can do to help make the most of any situation.
If you’re really feeling lost, there are two things you can do that will have more lasting impact than anything else. They will also likely boost your mixing confidence for life:
1) Try to improve your monitoring situation the best you can, and
2) Come on down to an ideal listening environment like ours and hear your mixes for yourself! It is an experience you are unlikely to forget.
And, if you’ve made it this far, you’re welcome to come by for an attended session with me, Joe, or Roman anytime. We look forward to seeing you. If you can’t make it down, we’re happy to help from afar.