Hey—this is Jason Moss from BehindTheSpeakers.com, and today I want to talk about how to achieve tonal balance. This is really difficult, and we have a lot of tips and tactics that we use to try to do this in our mixes, but often times, they don’t work all that well.
So maybe you’re using references, where you’re pulling in commercial tracks by other artists into your session while you’re mixing or mastering and comparing your work with theirs. And this can be helpful…it’s a great technique and I definitely recommend it. But it can lead to copying, and just because something sounds right on a reference doesn’t mean that you actually want to take your track in that direction. Sometimes it’s okay to have a different tonal balance than your references. And so references can often lead to copying, where you’re just blindly trying to emulate the curve of the reference, but you might end up taking your track in the wrong direction.
Now a lot of people check their tracks on different speakers. This can be helpful as well, but it can also lead you in the wrong direction, because you can end up making compromises in order to accommodate a certain sort of speaker. And that can make your mix or master sound better on that speaker, but it might make it sound worse on other speakers. So if you’re trying to make a master sound better on small speakers by boosting the low end for example, your mix is going to sound way too boomy and full and thick on larger speakers that can play back that low end. So often times, you’re leading yourself in the wrong direction by checking your mix on all of these different speakers, and it can be this race to try to accommodate everything and you end up just pulling your mix in the wrong direction.
Today I want to show you a trick that I use to achieve tonal balance in my mixes, and it makes use of something called a spectrum analyzer. So a spectrum analyzer is a plugin that you can use to visualize the frequency response, or curve, of a mix or master. And you can actually use it to help you make better decisions when it comes to setting your mastering EQ or mix bus EQ. So let me show you exactly how you can use a spectrum analyzer to help you achieve full, balanced tracks.
Okay, so we’re here in Pro Tools and I have a film score cue composed by one of my clients Megan Cavallari pulled up. Now I already mixed this, but I wanted to see if I could polish it up a little bit with some mastering EQ before I send it off.
But before I do that, I want to pull up one of my favorite spectrum analyzers. This is Voxengo SPAN, and the cool thing about this plugin is that it is actually completely free. You can download it right now—you don’t have to pay a penny. And what I like about it is it gives you a ton of flexibility over the response of the display. So you can really tailor it to exactly what you’re looking for.
So I have this preset here…I call it JM Master. If you pause the video and copy the settings here, you’ll get exactly the same results. I find that for what we’re about to do, these settings work really well. Now the key thing here, if you’re using another spectrum analyzer, is the averaging time right here. So I have a slow averaging time, and that basically tells the spectrum analyzer to ignore short-term peaks and spikes in the track and really give me a slower overall picture of the frequency content of the mix as a whole. And this is going to allow us to see the overall frequency response of the track without the spectrum analyzer being thrown off by short-term spikes or peaks.
So before we dive into my track, I just want to play back a couple different references and show you what a balanced track looks like on a spectrum analyzer using the settings that we’ve set.
So I’m going to pull up Magic AB. Now if you’ve never used this plugin, it’s super awesome. Basically, it allows you to pull in references into a session…into the actual plugin itself, and compare your mix with references while you’re working. So I have a preset here with all my favorite pop references, and we’re going to use this just to play back a couple different references and I’ll show you what they look like.
We’re going to start here with “Get Lucky.”
Okay, so I hit this hold button right here so we could freeze the display so we could talk about it. So as you can see here, in general (and this is probably going to be pretty common with most mixes that are balanced well) we see this kind of smooth roll off as we move up the frequency spectrum. And there aren’t big bumps or valleys. In general, we have a smooth, even representation of all of the different frequencies, and they kind of trail off naturally as we move up the frequency spectrum. Now in general, this is what you want to aim for. So this is what a good, balanced mix looks like. And with most arrangements, if you have an arrangement where all of the frequencies are represented, this is what balance is going to look like. You have an even distribution of all the different frequencies in your mix.
So let’s take a look at another mix, maybe “Want You to Want Me.” We’ll take a look at that.
This one’s a little different than the last one, but again, no major peaks or valleys right? It’s a little bit flatter. There’s not as much of a roll off. We might have a little bit of a bump here, which is common with EDM and dance tracks. You get a little more oomph on the bottom. And maybe there’s a little bit of a scoop in the lower mids. But for the most part, again no major peaks or valleys. Things are relatively smooth.
And again, something important to note here—when I play the track, I’m trying to find the densest or the busiest part of the song. So usually the chorus or the bridge, something where all the instruments are playing together. So you don’t want to go to a verse when there’s not a lot of tracks playing and then this picture is going to look very different. You want to go to the section of the song where everything is in.
So let’s take a look at one more here. Let’s do “The Way.” Now this…if I remember correctly…this looks a little bit different.
Okay so again, pretty even as we move up the frequency spectrum. You see there’s a little bump in some parts around 1K or 800, we hear that snare drum’s got a lot of crack to it. And obviously we see a little bit of a bump up here. It just goes to show you, sometimes you’ve got these sorts of bumps and it doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s anything wrong with the mix, but generally we’re going to see this fairly even curve as we move up the frequency spectrum on an analyzer.
Now we can use an analyzer to help us by giving us clues about potential areas of our mixes that we may need to address with EQ or balance. So I’m going to go ahead and turn over here to my mix and let’s just take a listen. And we have this routed through the spectrum analyzer so that we can take a look.
Cool, so the mix looks fairly balanced, but I can see that there’s this kind of lump here. It looks like we’re getting a buildup of frequencies around 250 or 300, 200, somewhere around there. And I can hear it actually when I listen on the snare. The snare has a lot of thickness. We’re hearing a lot of the low mids on the snare and the whole mix just sounds a little bit boxy. We’re also seeing a little bit of a dip here.
So let me go ahead and see if I can address this problem with an EQ. Now the best thing to do, if you’re doing this in the mixing process, the best thing to do is before you start adding EQ to the mix bus, go back to the mix and see if you can adjust this on individual tracks. So sometimes pulling down a track in the mix or adding EQ to an individual track will fix the problem and you don’t have to add a bunch of EQ to your mix bus. So that’s usually a better place to start. But since this mix is already finished, we’re going to see if we can do it with more mastering-style EQ. So I’m going to pull up FabFilter’s Pro-Q 2, and I’m going to play the track and just dial in a boost around two to three hundred and try to listen to where I’m hearing a lot of that kind of boxiness or wooliness.
So I hear it a lot around 200, where we really get the bottom of that snare. That’s where it sounds the most prominent to me. So now that we’ve found out where the root of the problem is, I’m going to dip this out while we listen to the track and see if I can find a spot where the mix kind of clears up a little bit.
To me, around 2 dB actually makes a significant improvement. So let’s listen to the track before our processing, and then I’ll kick it in about halfway through.
Cool, so to me that actually sounds a lot better. It’s a subtle change, but we’re not hearing as much boxiness on that snare. And now if we go back to our spectrum analyzer and take a look, we’re probably going to see that this is a little bit smoother.
Cool, so we can see that there’s a little bit of a bump still, but it’s not as defined, right? We don’t see as much of that hump as we did before. So the key here is that we’re using the spectrum analyzer as a guide to help clue us in to potential areas in our mix that may need to be EQ’d. So we’re not trying to make this line razor flat…we’re not constantly going back to the spectrum analyzer while we’re EQ’ing and trying to adjust the EQ to make the line flat. We’re just using it to give us clues.
So this is what I find is the best way to use a spectrum analyzer if you’re trying to apply this technique. Always use your ears, always rely on them the most at the end of the day. And again, this spectrum analyzer is going to give you a lot of great information. I find that it can really help you improve the tonal balance of your mixes.
So if you found this video helpful, I put together a free PDF with four other great ways to use spectrum analyzers in the mixing process. Click the link in the description below, or in the video, to get free instant access. For more mixing tips and tricks like these, check out my website, BehindTheSpeakers.com.
Video features music by Megan Cavallari.