How To Easily Fix Phase Problems In Your Mixes

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Are phase problems damaging your mixes? Keep watching to find out.

Hey, this is Jason from Behind The Speakers. And in this video, you’ll learn how to quickly find and fix phase problems in your mixes. But before we dive in, make sure you grab my free Perfect Phase Cheatsheet by clicking the link above or in the description below.

So first of all, what are phase problems? Well let’s take a look at a session I have here. This is from a track called “Everything Gets Old” by Dylan Owen. And I want to zoom in here, there are a couple different kick drum samples that we have in this song that are actually layers. They’re playing at the same time in the mix. And if we zoom in far enough, you can see that each of these samples has a waveform. So we can actually see the shape of the sound in our DAW. So you can see on this track here, this is the first kick drum, there are certain points where this waveform is pointing in the positive direction, meaning it’s above this line in the middle of the track. And there are other points where the waveform is pointing below the line, where it’s pointing in the negative direction.

Now this waveform is basically telling our speaker whether we want it to push out or pull back in. Remember sound is vibration, and the way that we create vibration in the air artificially using speakers is we have a speaker that’s just moving in and out. That’s all it’s doing. So a waveform basically tells the speaker at certain points we want you to push out, and at certain points we want you to pull back in. That’s all that sound essentially is, at least in our DAW.

Now this is all well and good when we just have one track in our mix. But in most mixes, there’s more than one track, right? So in this case, we have these three kick drum tracks. And if we take a closer look, you’ll see that each has a slightly different waveform. But the problem is that there are certain points where – you can see here for example – we have this first kick drum track with a positive waveform, where it’s basically telling the speaker to push out. And then at the same time, we have this second kick drum track that’s largely in a negative direction, that’s telling the speaker to pull back in. So we’re sending the speaker conflicting messages at the same time.

And so what happens is these things actually kind of cancel each other out. And the result is that in many cases the sound loses low end. It just kind of thins out and lacks punch. It just sounds kind of one-dimensional. And it’s really important that we pay attention to these things in our mixes, because often these problems can go unnoticed. They can be a bit difficult to hear sometimes, and oftentimes we just don’t know the difference. So we’re hearing that a track sounds kind of thin, or something doesn’t quite sound right, and we might try adding EQ or compression or lots of plug-ins to fix the problem, but there’s a fundamental phase problem in our mix. And if we don’t address that, then the track’s never going to sound great.

So you really want to pay attention to this whenever you’re layering drum sounds – for example when you have multiple kick drums in your track, or multiple snare drums. Whenever you have tracks that are playing at the same time or whenever you’re using multiple mics to record something, whether it’s multiple mics on a guitar amp or on a bass or kick drum, you just want to pay very close attention to this stuff. It makes a huge difference.

So in this case, one of the easiest things that you can do to try to identify these problems is just zoom in and take a look at the waveforms. And so in this case, you kind of identify the potential problem because you can see that these waveforms, at least between B and A – the kick A and B are actually kind of going in opposite directions.

So now we have a potential problem. But we always want to use our ears, we don’t want to just look at the waveforms themselves. Because sometimes things can look like this, but they can sound alright. So the first thing that you want to do to try to address this problem, and this is the easiest thing, is what I call a polarity flip. Or I don’t call it a polarity flip, that’s just what it’s called. What a polarity flip will do is basically reverse the direction of the waveform. So you can see here like at this part – we have this little section where the waveform is moving down – a polarity flip is basically going to just send the waveform in the opposite direction. So whenever it’s moving down it’s just going to be pointing up now, and whenever it’s pointing up it’s going to be pointing down. It’s just going to reverse this, and that’s one of the easiest things that you can do to actually solve a potential problem.

So the way that you would go about this, and the way that I recommend doing this, when you have something like this where you have multiple sounds that are actually layered or playing together is pick one sound that will serve as the master. And you want to compare everything else to that. So in this case, let’s just choose kick drum A. In most cases I like to choose the loudest sound, the one that’s contributing the bulk of the sound.

So I’m going to listen to this and then I’m going to basically bring in each of my samples one-by-one, and I’m going to flip the polarity on each of them, and see if it sounds better with that polarity flipped. Now most DAWs and most consoles will have a control or a plug-in that you can use. In ProTools it’s called trim, and you can see there’s this button here that looks like a circle with an X through it. That’s a polarity flip. So depending on your DAW, what you’re using, you may have to hunt around for it. But just Google, you know, polarity flip and the name of your DAW and you’ll be able to find which plug-in you need to pull up.

So let’s take a listen here, and I’m just going to play kick B with kick A. And I’m going to flip this in and out, and I’m going to ask myself which version sounds thicker and fuller. Which sounds like it has more low end. So let’s take a listen.

So it’s a little bit tough there. I don’t know that there’s a clear winner, because I like the way that the low end sounds when the polarity is flipped, but I also feel like there’s this kind of midrange-y thing that comes out that I don’t really like. There’s this kind of boxy quality that I feel like I get with the flip. I’m just going to kind of leave that out. And sometimes this is what’ll happen, kind of a toss-up, and you don’t necessarily know. That’s totally normal. But oftentimes there will be a clear winner, where you’ll just flip that button and suddenly a ton of low end will come in, and it’ll be like wow that sounds great.

So now, once we have the polarity checked for these two, we’re going to bring in the third sample. And we’re going to do the same thing, but we’re listening to all of these together now.

So I actually prefer the sound with the polarity flipped. It sounds like it has slightly more punch and impact, so I’m going to leave that in there.

So in this case, we’re using the polarity button as kind of a first line of defense to solve this problem, and that’s the easiest thing to do. So the next thing that we can do to solve this problem, and this is kind of an alternative approach but it can be combined with this first approach of flipping the polarity, is we can actually zoom in and we can try to line up the waveforms manually.

So in this case, like I have this first waveform, and it actually looks like it starts slightly later than the other two. So I can see if I can kind of nudge this back. And we’re talking about like, you know, milliseconds here. It’s not anything that you’re really going to hear, as oh, you know, suddenly this sounds like it’s playing much earlier. But we can see if we can kind of line things up a bit more.

So in this case, you can see by dragging this back, now we have something that’s lined up a bit more – where this waveform is in the positive direction, you can see it’s kind of in the positive direction here. When it’s in the negative, negative, same thing. And we’re actually lined up on the bottom one too. So I’m going to take that trim plug-in off, that polarity flip off, and see how these all sound together. So I’m going to see if I can loop this and kind of flip back and forth between those two, and let’s hear what the difference is.

So that difference actually sounded significantly more dramatic than the polarity flip did. I’m hearing more punch and more impact when I really aligned those sounds more. So that’s something that, that’s a technique that I find really helpful. And again, whenever you’re using things like layered kick drums or you’re using multiple mics on something, you want to take the time to do this. So that’s a great approach as well.

So the last thing we can do to try to fix this problem is use a plug-in to basically do the job for us automatically. There are a couple of plug-ins out there that will address these types of phase problems. One of my favorites is a plug-in called Auto Align, this is by a company called SoundRadix. And basically how it works is you set it up on the tracks that you’re aligning, so I’m going to apply this to all of my kick drum tracks here, and you set one of those tracks to basically be the master. So we’ll just use the first kick drum track. So I’m sending all of that sound to the other plug-ins, and then receiving that sound on the other plug-ins. So we’ve set this up so basically the second and the third kick drum track are listening to the sound of the first kick drum.

And now, we can basically apply this plug-in, and it will basically listen to the sound and automatically align things and kind of move things around so that we get the punchiest, kind of most impressive sound. So let’s play this and let it do its job.

Okay, so you can see on this one, this second kick drum, it actually moved the track back in time 81 samples. And in this one, it actually moved it ahead 1 sample. So this plug-in very easily, we’ve kind of done the same thing as we were doing manually by moving things around in our DAW. So let’s take a listen before and after, and you can hear the difference.

So you can hear there’s a lot more punch and impact and low end with that auto aligned plug-in engaged. And the moral of the story in this video is that phase matters. It’s something you need to pay attention to. Not the sexiest thing to talk about in the mixing process, but it does make a difference. And so you really need to be looking out for these types of problems and addressing them using one of the three approaches that we talked about in this video.

Now to help make things easier, I put together a free perfect phase cheatsheet that summarizes what we talked about in this video. So you can just have a quick guide on hand that will help you address these problems while you’re working on your tracks. So if you want to download this it’s completely free, again just click the link above or in the description below to get it right now.

And before you go, leave a comment below this video and let me know – do you currently consistently check for phase problems in your mixes? I’d love to hear your replies, so leave your answer in the comments section below.

And for more mixing tips and videos like these, check out my channel right here on YouTube, or go to BehindTheSpeakers.com.

About Jason Moss

Jason is an LA-based mixer and the founder of Behind The Speakers. He's a graduate of New York University's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. His how-to articles have been featured in leading industry publications by Berklee, TuneCore, SonicScoop, The Pro Audio Files, and Disc Makers.