Wednesday, April 25, 2018

How To Create A More Professional Mix - Part 4

Hello everyone and welcome back for the fourth installment of my How To Create A More Professional Mix series. We’ve already talked about using EQ and compression in the first installment, amp sim and drum enhancement in the second, and effects in the third. This time around, I want to talk about the little things that do ALOT.


It might sound stupid to some (or all!) of you, but panning plays a very important role in a mix. Panning, of course, is the placement of audio in stereo field. Do you want something just in one speaker? Do you want it in the middle of everything? These are very important decisions and can affect how the listener perceives your song. If you don’t have anything panned hard (all the way to the outside edge of the mix), then your mix won’t sound big and open. If you have too many things panned hard, your center will suffer and the song might sound weak. If too many things that are in the same EQ range are panned together, you will get a build up of frequency in that spot.

Here’s an idea - not everything that is recorded stereo needs to be panned out hard left and right! Back in the day, mixing boards didn’t have pan knobs, they had pan selectors. All you had was left, center (mono), and right. Some consoles, like the Abbey Road Red consoles, also had a “stereo” feature that put the audio into both sides simultaneously as well.

Starting in the late 60’s and early 70’s though, the pan knob that we use today was invented, and it gave us the option of more positions.

This allows a world of possibilities! Panning a bass guitar just a few degrees off of center can free up the center range for the kick to come through clearer. Many times, the snare and vocal share similar EQ curves. If you pan the snare slightly off center, you free up room for the vocal. It’s much easier for people to sit side by side than it is to have someone sitting in your lap, and the same goes for audio.

This is my basic technique for panning…
- Stereo guitars are always hard L/R
- Stereo pad sounds (strings, synth pads, etc) are always hard L/R
- Drums are panned to sound slightly exaggerated in the toms, but everything else on the kit is basically panned where it really is.
- If I have a piano and organ (or another keys sound, like a Fender Rhodes), I will pan them somewhere in the area of 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock, respectively. Sometimes between 9-10 and 2-3 as well. It just depends. When I say this, I mean that I will take both the left and right of the piano and place them in the same spot. I want the piano on one side of the mix and the other keys on the other.
- Bass is slightly off center (maybe 5 to 10 points to the left - you can’t tell it’s not centered, but the frequencies sit better).
- Acoustic guitar is opposite the bass.
- Backing vocals are panned tightly around the lead vocal, depending on how many backing vocals I have to work with.
- Lead vocals are centered.
- Guitar solos are usually centered unless one of panned guitars drops out to play the solo. Sometimes when you have two guitarists and you have them panned hard L/R, one will drop out to play the solo and I will leave them panned to keep the image of two players intact. That is more a judgement call when tracking, though.

If you need something to stand out in the mix, panning is often a viable option over volume. An example is, if my ride cymbal isn’t poking thru enough, I will try and pan it a little more and see if that helps give it it’s own space in the mix.


Automation is basically telling the program you’re using to remember a move you do (a fader adjustment, pan adjustment, EQ change,etc.), and then repeat it every time you play the song during the mix process. Back when I started in the business, only the most expensive boards had automation (there was no Pro Tools back then!), so the automation came from YOU doing the changes in REAL TIME as you made the final mix master! Sometimes you had to enlist other people because there was so much to do that two hands couldn’t cover it all.

These days, life for an engineer is much less stressful. Automation allows you to do many complex moves over and over and they will be exactly the same every time, ensuring a mix will sound the same 6 months from now when you need to go in and make a few little changes.

I do LOTS of automation. Sometimes my vocal volume automation line looks like a city outline from all the ups and downs I draw in to keep the vocal level. I cannot stress enough the need for vocal automation. Compression will only get you so far unless you destroy the vocal with massive compression, and hopefully you know better than to do that! Lots of compression is one thing, completely squashing the life out of a track is quite another!

When I think I am finished with the song vocally, I will open my volume automation window on the vocal track and start listening very critically. I am listening for any dips or swells in the volume of the vocal, however slight. I have been know to do .5db changes on words! I want the vocal to sound as smooth and even as possible. Sometimes that requires automating EVERY WORD in a line or verse. You do what you have to do to make your vision happen. A blanket 3db boost on a verse is not going to cut it. Don’t take the lazy way out - make it great!

I not only automate vocals, I automate EVERYTHING! Drums, guitars, bass, whatever. If it needs a panning move, EQ change mid song, volume adjustment, anything at all, I’m going to make sure it happens. One of my favorite, and go to, moves is guitar automation.

When the song you’re mixing, especially a rock song, reaches the chorus, that’s when you really want to grab the listener. What I do, and many other engineers do too, is automate the guitars up a db or two to bring up the energy up a notch. Any more than 2db and it will probably be heard and stand out, when all you really want to do is give the listener the feeling that the song ramped up a little bit. I do this pretty much every mix and it never fails to add power and energy to the song in just the right places. Also, automating the guitars down a db or 2 during the solo will put more emphasis on the centered solo, and a db or 2 isn’t enough to “wimp out” the overall song. It allows the solo to sound louder without actually turning it up. Try it next time you are mixing a hard rock track.


If you don’t do subgroups in your mixes, you need to start. Today. I group “like” tracks together in every session. I have an overall drum group, a distorted guitar group, a back vocal group, a lead vocal group (if recorded on more than one track). I even group within groups! As you may remember, I like to use snare and kick samples to support the live tracks, and I will group the live and sample together on an aux. I group the toms together on an aux as well. Then, I group those groups along with the rest of my drums to another group! Why do grouping? A few reasons. I like to do overall things to my sessions. I like to get my individual drums sounding how I want and then group them all for some group EQ and parallel compression. Maybe even a limiter to really bump them up in the mix without fear of peaking the aux group. I find with guitars, it’s good to do group EQ and/or compression because it really makes them glue together and give me a more cohesive overall guitar sound. The same goes for backing vocals.


Personally, I can answer this question very easily. I like to use aux tracks instead of VCA groups because with a VCA, you don’t have the ability to add inserts (EQ, comp, fx). A VCA group is just an overall volume for every track in the group, and my whole intent behind grouping is coloring the entire group as a unit as well as the individual changes I have already done separately.

So that’s it for this time. In the next (and final) installment, I will go thru some of the final touches you should do for your mix to make it turn out as professional as you can make it. See ya next time!

Steve Nall
Head Engineer - LIRS

Friday, March 30, 2018

How To Create A More Professional Mix - Part 3

Hello everyone and welcome back for the third installment of my How To Create A More Professional Mix series. We’ve already talked about using EQ and compression in the first installment and amp sim, drum enhancement, and grids in the second, now I’d like to jump right into effects.

Effects such as reverb and delay are extremely important when it comes to making a mix come together. They can convey a sense of space when there really was none and can add depth to an otherwise flat mix. But what are they really? Well, let’s talk about it.


Reverb is defined as “The persistence of sound after the source stops emitting it, caused by many discrete echos and reflections”. Go into big room and clap or talk loudly. What you hear happening immediately after you quit talking or clapping is called reverb. The larger your room, the more reverb you will hear. Now, this article isn’t going to be a lesson in what all the parameters are in a reverb plug-in. That’s what manuals are for. I want to talk about the idea and uses of reverb.

Usually, a mixer will use reverb to put the audio into a “space” or to give it a sense of power. What do I mean? Well, if you tracked the drums for your song in a tiny drum room, that’s what it’s naturally going to sound like. For the most part, that’s not what the majority of bands are looking for. You could add a reverb that simulates a much large room to give the listener the idea that the drums were recorded in a different space. Given a large enough reverb, a vocalist or drum kit could sound like they were placed in a massive cathedral when really they were in a small 10x10 room. Next time you listen to a song, try to focus in on the drums. Can you hear that it sounds like it was recorded in a big room? It probably wasn’t! It’s all about listener perception.

I’m not a huge “room reverb” guy. I am more into a type of reverb called plate reverb. What is plate reverb? Well, basically, it’s a sheet of metal in a box with a few wires and pickups attached. Not too glamorous, I know.

Just a pic of a little unboxed plate verb at a small studio.

Holy crap! Now those are plates! These are at Abby Road Studios in London.

I use plate reverbs because they are usually clearer and brighter than room reverbs. I’m not really trying to simulate a different environment with my reverbs, but a different sense of space than what a room simulation reverb offers. The “tail”, or when the reverb fades, of a plate is smoother than a room reverb as well, so for my purposes, a plate reverb is usually better suited for my mixes than a room style reverb.


I don’t just use one reverb on the entire mix either. On almost every song I work on, I have one reverb for my drums, one for my guitars, one for my backing vocals, and one for my lead vocals. They might be a mixture of rooms and plates, and they all might be plates, it depends on the situation. They are definitely not all the same size, meaning some sound larger, they have different length tails (some hang out longer than others), not the same EQ. Some have “pre delay” added - this makes the reverb effect wait a few milliseconds before being heard so the dry audio come through clearer. The point is, don’t use the same reverb for your entire mix. A long reverb on the vocal might sound great, but on the guitars it might sound terrible. Same for drums. Maybe you like a large, wood room sound on the snare, but on the vocal it wouldn’t work. You have to mix smart and give each element of your song it’s own character and space in the mix. My favorite reverb, at the moment, is the Steve Slate Verbsuite Classic (pictured at the start of this article). It has excellent sounding rooms and plates and also has great simulations of classic reverb units like the Lexicon 224 that have been staples in audio production for years.


Another great “space” tool in the mix arsenal is the delay plug-in. Delays, of course, are basically echoes. Something is said or played and then the plug-in repeats it. Simple. I use several different delays in my mixes. Some are short and some are much longer, depending on the need. Usually vocal delays have two different reasons to be there, thickening and effect. You can use a 1/8 note delay quietly on a vocal to liven it up a little and give it some excitement, while a longer delay, such as a 1/4 or 1/2 note delay would be used as an effect, say on a powerfully sung note or for the guitar solo. My favorite delay of all time is the Slate Repeater, but almost any delay will do.

There are some times in a mix where I wish the guitar player had played the part twice so I could pan it out in stereo or that the recorded stereo instrument (guitar or piano usually) isn't quite getting me the “all the way to the outside” imaging I am looking for. In this instance, delay can be used to widen the stereo image if used sparingly and constructively. What you do is this : If the track isn’t stereo already, duplicate the track. Pick one of the two tracks and, in the first plug-in spot, add a basic mono delay and set the delay time to 20-28 ms. Keep the mix at 100%, and pan the two tracks hard left and right, respectively. That’s it. On a stereo track that needs widening, I usually split it into two mono tracks and add the delay to one of them. I don’t like using a stereo delay and just turning one side’s mix to 0% because many times the volume sounds lopsided to me that way. Just a personal preference.

It’s used so much that it is actually a preset in Pro Tools delays.

Many times, I am using delays in place of reverbs. It allows me the “space” without the constant take up of bandwidth that a reverb can have. Many times what the listener perceives as a reverb or space will actually be a delay doing the same job, only without some of the unwanted side effects. When using delay in place of a reverb, the mix between delay and dry vocal/instrument should be very small (85% dry, 15% effect is a good start) so as the delay isn’t heard as much as it is felt in the mix. Of course, longer delays that are meant to be heard are a different story, which brings us to my next topic, vocal effects.


Nothing makes a blah vocal sound better than effects. This can range from a basic reverb all the way to flanging/phasing. My favorite vocal effects are some of the most basic. I like a quiet 1/8 note delay on the lead singer, maybe a small about of plate reverb, and possibly a hint of chorus to thicken them up. I have been using a free plug-in lately for my vocal chorusing called Multiply, by Acon Digital. Even though it is free, to me it is one of the best chorus plug-ins out there, so check it out next time you need some chorusing on your vocal, bass or guitars.

Free? Yeah, I can afford that!

Occasionally I will use more drastic plug-ins like a flanger or phaser to accentuate a long held out note or possibly to give a close, tight vocal some added “zing”, but those effects really draw attention to themselves, so use them sparingly.

One of my favorite vocal effects isn’t a plug-in at all, but an EQ adjustment. It is the “telephone” effect. It gives your vocal or instrument an extremely lo-fi sound that can be very cool in the right situation. Sometimes I will use it on the delay track so that the delays sound lo-fi while the vocal sounds very up front and modern. If you use it on whole sections of a song it can make the rest of the song sound even more awesome when the effect is removed.

So that’s how I use reverb and delays. Just some cool little ear candy tips to make your mix stand out from the rest of the pack. Next time I’ll discuss some of the final steps such as automation, tape sims, and VCA groups. See ya soon!

Steve Nall
Head Engineer - LIRS

Monday, February 12, 2018

How To Create A More Professional Mix - Part 2

So here we are, part 2 of How To Create A More Professional Mix. I hope you liked and got some useful information from the first part, EQ and Compression. Today we are going to get into the world of simulations and grids, so let’s get to it!


The first thing we need to talk about is amplifier simulators, or amp sims, for short. There are MANY amp sims on the market and your DAW probably even comes with one. There are companies that not only make sims, but make them tailored to different genres. You can get the Nashville expansion, the Funk expansion, the Metal expansion, the Blues expansion, and so on. The ones I use the most are Amplitude 3 by IK Multimedia and S-Gear by Slate Digital. Occasionally I will also use the Waves GTR bundle. If you aren’t using Pro Tools 12, I recommend Line 6 Amp Farm or a free sim from the company Studio Devil as well. You don’t always have to pay to get good sounds. There are plenty of websites out there offering free, legal plug-ins.

A few of my workhorses

Here at LIRCo, I actually have several different sims, but those are the ones I find myself reaching for most often. To use a sim is easy, just record a DI version of your guitar or bass signal and slap on your favorite amp sim. DONE! Well, not really. The whole trick is sifting thru all the presets and amps in the plug-in until find the sound that fits the song. Even then, the process isn’t finished. To me, an amp sim just gives me a better starting point. I still EQ and compress the track just as if it was recorded with that sound. I have found that a quick and easy way to make almost any bass sound better is to add the SVT preset from Sans Amp (a free plug-in with Pro Tools). Instantly better sounding starting point! And I stress to my students at LSRA that it is just that - a starting point. All the compression needs that were there before the sim are still there and need to be dealt with, the only real difference is that you won’t have to work as hard to get a good EQ on the track now.

Skipping back to DI tracks for a moment. It has become a common practice these days for an engineer to “split the signal” with a DI Box before an amplifier as well. See my very cheap diagram below…

I told you it was cheap!

In my recording class at LSRA, I teach this way of tracking guitars and basses as this serves a few different possible purposes. One, if you decide later in the mix process that the recorded amplifier sound just isn’t right for the song, you can switch to the DI and use a sim that has a more suitable sound.

Two, you can blend the two together for a bigger sound. I remember during a session a few years ago, I was using an awesome sounding Marshall 4x12 but the client wanted more natural low end. Now, any of you that have used a Marshall know that they are mainly midrange amps, not known for their huge low end tones. So what did I do? I split the signal and added a Mesa Boogie sim to the DI channel! Blended the two to taste, and we had an awesome rock tone with a big low end. Just what the client wanted!

Third, you can use the DI track to simulate another guitar playing the same part by adding a different sounding amp sim and panning the two off each other. You will need to be careful and be sure to check for phase alignment problems though, since the two signals are hitting the board/DAW at slightly different points in the waveform flow. Often when I do this, I will also add a very short delay to one of the guitars (usually @ 20-25ms with 100% mix on the effected track) to give the guitars more space in the mix, since technically it is really just one guitar and will not sound “stereo” like it would if you actually tracked the guitarist twice.

The forth thing you can do with a DI split is to use the DI track as an editing tool. When you are tracking distorted guitars, it is very hard to see where individual chord hits are because of the nature of the distorted waveform. If you also have the DI sitting underneath on the next track, you can easily see where to go if you need to punch in and fix a problem or where to highlight if you plan on copying and pasting sections into other places in the song.

Which track would be easier for YOU to edit?


A tiny, but powerful, saviour of mixes!

So what if you have a recorded guitar amp that isn’t quite up to the task and there’s no DI? Well, depending on the sound, there are plug-ins to help call re-cab plug-ins. Basically, re-cabs will allow you to simulate another speaker cabinet/microphone setup onto your already recorded track. It doesn’t replace your real sound (Once it’s recorded, it’s there forever!), but it can augment the sound in a very pleasing way if you can match up the right re-cab to your existing sound. You can also change the cabinet entirely (not just add another on top) by using the pre amp output of the amp to bypass the speakers and record just the pre amp sound. You then mic up the cabinet as well, and you will have the actual sound of the amp + cabinet and the ability to use the sound of the amp head with numerous other cabinet options that you have in you re-cab plug-ins. I have used the re-cab plug-in Boogex (by Voxengo) on several mixes when the recorded sounds just weren’t what I wanted, and the change was remarkable! It’s not a tool that can or even should be used every time, but knowing what they do and having access to one or more (for different flavors!) can sometimes be the difference in a decent mix and a great one.


A necessary evil...

Is drum replacement cheating or just a fact of modern studio life? This debate has been raging since the plug-ins Drumagog and Steven Slate Drums were set loose on the audio world in the early 2000’s. Even though drum replacement had been going on for years before (using triggers on actual drums), it was a well kept industry secret. Basically, you can record your drums and then, with a plug-in, replace the “not so professional” sound with perfectly recorded drum samples. It’s still the player playing, just much better quality. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Well, yes and no. It’s great if you don’t have the ability or space to track drums correctly, but on the other hand, you will never learn how to mic up a drum kit to get great sounds NATURALLY if you rely solely on a plug-in to give you the sounds! It’s really a catch-22 situation. I can’t say that replacing is horrible and wrong because I have done it on more than one occasion. The majority of the time I have it has been because the sounds I was given to mix were so bad that no amount of EQ in the world could polish them up to the level they needed to be. When I do replace, I always keep the real hi-hat and cymbal tracks, though. That way, I can still have some semblance of the actual recorded take.

The biggest problem sonically I have found with replacement is that many times it just doesn’t sound REAL. Sometimes you can hear that the snare rolls sound “fake” or that the hits are EXACTLY the same thoughout the song. Not just the same volume, but THE SAME. What makes a drum take sound "real" is the drummer and how he or she hits the drums. Sometimes sounding perfect is not what is needed.

What I have been doing lately, is using drum samples as SUPPORT for my live drums. If I have a snare that was recorded kind of thin (lack of bottom end) but still a good sounding snare, I will add a sample replacement hit in to fill out the sound. How you do it is easy. Just duplicate the track and add the replacement plug-in to the duplicate track. Add your sample in and blend the two tracks until you get the sound you are looking for! A vast majority of engineers are using samples in this same way. It allows you the “reality” of the real snare but the steadiness of tone from the sampled hit.

Now, even if you use samples, you still will need to add some compression and possibly some EQ. The triggered sound is still playing off of the dynamics of your “real” sound in most cases, and the discrepancies will still be there, just with a “better” sound. For me, when I use samples, either as support or as straight up replacements, I ALWAYS EQ the sound. A great sounding snare still needs to fit into my mix and blend with the song. I will also compress if it is the snare or toms. For the kick drum, I usually don’t need to compress because I take away all the dynamic tracking of the sample, so I get one consistent level for the entire song, but I always EQ it to fit my needs.


So you have a great sounding drum take, but the tempo is a little “loose”. What do yo do? Well, depending on the style, maybe nothing! “Jam Band” type bands are notorious for changing tempos, and at times, a certain amount of looseness is almost necessary. Rock ,metal, and even modern country bands, however, are much different beasts. A metronome is almost REQUIRED and an emphasis is placed on being locked into a certain tempo. The majority of this “problem” can be addressed by requiring the band to play to a click. A click is basically a steady pulse fed into the headphones at a certain tempo to keep the band from playing faster or slower than the decided tempo of the song. So what happens if you have the drummer on a click and they are still drifting slightly back and forth. The answer may be to quantize the drums, or in engineering speak, “lock them to the grid”.

Every mix, every time.

To say that I do this some would be an understatement. I do this ALMOST EVERY TIME. Nothing makes a rock or metal band sound more amateur than to have the tempo pushing and pulling throughout the song. Beat Detective in Pro Tools is the most used way to make the drums line up the grid. It is actually very easy to use, but in the beginning, pretty time consuming until you learn your way around and get your flow going (as with everything). I usually set up the detector to 16th notes to make sure that i capture all the audio I need to and then it’s just a matter of separating at the transients and snapping the parts to the grid. You can even set it up to not lock perfectly to the grid so you can decided for yourself what degree of “perfection” you want in the song. Usually, I am going to want the lock the drummer in, so I go for full on perfection! And the best part is that you can have the drummer perfectly on the beat and still sound like themselves and not a drum machine. Part of the trick (for me, anyway)is that you ONLY grid the drums. The guitars and bass are left un-quantized (is that a word?), and the band still sounds natural. If you try and grid everything, you wind up with a very robotic sounding track. Probably not what the band is looking for!

Locked in and ready to rock!

Well, we have come to the end of part two of How To Create A More Professional Mix. Next time, I will delve into the world of space and effects- using reverbs and delays to make your song have atmosphere, width and character that will help your mix stand out in the crowd.

Don't forget that you are welcome to stop by and tour our facilities here at LIRCo and LSRA anytime. Just give us a call at 859-335-8440 (if you're local) or TOLL FREE at 877-335-8440 to set it up, so we can give you the ultimate LIRCo experience. See ya next time!!!

Steve Nall
Head Engineer, LIRS

Thursday, February 1, 2018

How To Create A More Professional Mix - Part 1

Hello everyone! It’s been a pretty long time since I have posted anything here on the Nall In The Mix blog, and I apologize for that. Between home, my band, and the studio, I got pretty sidetracked and let NITM slip. And just recently, I had the honor of winning the 2018 Lexington Music Award for Best Engineer/Producer! Having said all that, I will try my best to do better by you from here on out, and to this end, I am starting a multipart series where I am going to give you tips on how I get my mixes to sound as professional and radio ready as possible. Some things will seem basic, while others are more involved. We are not going to take very in-depth looks into these techniques, however, as we have several things to go over and each installment in the series would be VERY long! Ready? Ok, let’s get started!


So you have gotten a song ready to mix. The first thing you need to do is pull up the faders and get a good balance between the tracks so you can hear it in its most raw form and really hear what you are dealing with. Don’t worry about volume adjustments at this point, compression and automation will fix this later on down the line. Right now you just want to hear how things sit together and how their natural EQ affects each other. Does the guitar sound muffled in the mix? Is the bass guitar low end overpowering the kick drum? Are the vocals harsh and painful in the high mids? These are the type of things you should be listening for at this early stage of the mix so you can get your game plan together.


The first real key to getting a professional sounding mix is the ability to use EQ and compression correctly and effectively. I know this sounds like a “duh” moment, but hear me out. Boosting or cutting the wrong frequencies can severely harm the sound of your mix. If you cut all your guitars (bass included) at 400hz because they INDIVIDUALLY sound better that way, there’s going to be a big, hollow hole in your sound. There has to be something in that area. If you add 8Khz to all your vocals, it’s probably going to be pretty harsh when combined in the mix. If your kick, snare, bass, and guitar all have 100hz boosted, your low end is going to be muddy and confused. You get the idea. Knowing your frequencies and their ranges will help you immensely! Just knowing that the kick low end is in the 60-80hz area, the bass in the 100hz, the snare in the 125-250hz range, and the guitars in the 200hz range will help you distribute the low end across the low frequency spectrum so that every instrument has its own low end but nothing seems muddy or stepping on each other in the mix. The same idea goes for your mids and highs. LEARN YOUR FREQUENCIES!

Some examples of separating the low end


I want to stop here and talk a bit about the SOLO button. It is, of course, the way that you can single out a track from the rest to hear it individually. To do all your EQ work in solo is going to really slow you down and hamper your workflow considerably. You don’t need to constantly be going in and out of solo on a track to make it sound good. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Here’s my technique and my suggestion to you when it comes to soloing. Only solo ONCE. Also, I only have the tracks that I have completed EQ and compression-wise in the mix, everything else is muted. I bring in the next track to be worked on and listen to it IN CONTEXT with the tracks I have already worked on. That gives me an idea about what to do to make it sit well in the mix. Once I have my game plan, I solo the track and look for the offending frequencies. I then put it BACK into the mix and give it a listen. If it needs more adjustment (and it almost always does!), I will make the changes with the rest of the completed tracks still being heard. This way you really hear what your tweaks to your track are doing IN CONTEXT with the rest of your mix. If you keep going back into solo mode, you have no reference as to how your changes are affecting the rest of the mix. There are some engineers that NEVER use the solo button and do everything in full song mode! Of course, you should always revisit your finished tracks EQ’s as you progress and make tweaks as the mix develops. One example I give students is that if you think you can’t hear your kick, mute it out. If something goes away, you CAN hear the kick, just not the frequencies you are looking for! If you just turn up the fader, now you have boosted what you need, but you have also boosted what you could still hear without the volume boost. Brightening up your high mid attack will bring out the “smack” of the kick without making the low end crazy loud and suddenly you can hear the kick again! It’s magic!


And while we’re on the subject, remember that you don’t have to use all the frequency bands in your EQ! A crazy idea, I know, but it’s true. You only need to make the track sound good with the mix. If it only needs a little bit of a high boost, then do it! You don’t have to go crazy with a bunch of mid cuts or low boosting if the track only needs a little adjustment to sit right in the song. There are times that I only pull up a ONE band EQ instead of a 4 or 6 band, because I only have to do ONE THING. It’s also good to note here that sometimes you don’t need to EQ at all! Usually DI keyboard sounds don’t need any extra help. The company that created the keyboard has spent countless hours perfecting the sounds and they will almost always sound great just by turning them up. Don’t make your job more difficult than it has to be and MIX SMART!


Now a word on digital EQ. Most DAW EQs come with a graph window that shows you where your frequency lies on the spectrum, the Q curve of the frequency cut or boost, and the amount of cut or boost. In my mind, the first two things are great, the last, not so much. In my experience at LSRA, some people become “slaves” to the graph. By this I mean that they will be boosting the kick, for example, at 80hz with a 8db boost. It will sound great, but they will turn it down to a 3db boost because it “looks” wrong in comparison to the other boosts on the EQ. I keep trying to tell people that if it sounds good, then it is good. Don’t worry about what the graph shows you. I use mostly “after market” plug-ins. Most are simulations of analog gear that are only knobs. I have no graph to get in my way and I turn the knobs til it sounds like the sound I have in my head. Sometimes the boosts or cuts are HUGE. Sometimes they aren’t. But I just keep turning them until it SOUNDS right, not LOOKS right. I have been known to add a SECOND EQ to keep boosting because if I did it all on one plug-in, I would overload the plug-in! But in the end it’s how it sounds that matters, not how it looks. Don’t get caught up in that trap.

My kick drum EQ on a recent song, for example.


The second most important element to a professional mix (in my opinion) is compression. If you don’t know how to set your attack and release times correctly, your mix will suffer and not come out like you hear it in your head. If you set fast attack times, your transient will be blunted and the instrument will become “rounded” and sit a little back into the mix. A slower attack time will give you a more aggressive front end and make your instrument stand out more in the mix. Vocals will sound more “mean” and the consonants will almost come spitting out of the track in a more urgent manner. A longer release time will give a more even signal and sustain the notes more, while a shorter release will keep the instrument or vocal more upfront and focused for the listener.

For rock songs, I find that my compression setting for drums and vocals are set with a relatively slow attack and a fairly fast release. This guarantees that those elements will be focal points in my mix.

A screenshot of my snare plug-in chain for a recent mix.

Many times, my bass guitar has a faster attack, but also a fast release. This is because I want to grab the transient immediately, but I also want to let it go almost as fast to keep it even but up front in the mix. The biggest problem with bass guitar is the volume and tone differences between the lower, thicker strings and the higher, thinner ones. By compressing with a 4:1 ratio and hitting the loudest sections with around 10db of reduction, I basically give myself an extremely even bass track. Sometimes I will either add some saturation directly to the track to “clip” the transient some more, or duplicate the track, add the saturation to the duplicate, and then buss them both to a group bass track and blend them to get the sound I need.

A screenshot of my bass plug-in chain from a recent mix.

Well, we have come to the end of part one of How To Create A More Professional Mix. Next time, I will delve into the world of DI guitars, Re-cab plug-ins, using samples to either replace or to support your drum sounds, and the use of quantizing, or griding, on your drum kit.

Don't forget that you are welcome to stop by and tour our facilities here at LIRCo and LSRA anytime. Just give us a call at 859-335-8440 (if you're local) or TOLL FREE at 877-335-8440 to set it up, so we can give you the ultimate LIRCo experience. See ya next time!!!

Steve Nall
Head Engineer, LIRS

Friday, January 6, 2017


Happy late New Year my audio friends! I hope 2017 is good for you so far. As for us, some big things are happening here at LIRS! First, it’s new gear month! We are doing some serious upgrades to our main control room to move into an even more world class phase of the business. The main addition to our arsenal is the Audient 8024HE console. If you haven’t heard of Audient before, go on YouTube and check ‘em out. In my career I’ve worked on SSL, Trident, API, and Sony boards, and I can truly say that the 8024 is a beast! Like most majors in the industry, we have decided to go back to analog for the mix even though we are still tracking in Pro Tools. With a 144 point patchbay, we can route anything to anywhere on the board. Which comes in handy with the other new additions - TWO UA1176’s, TWO Emperical Labs Distressors, and the mighty LA-2A! Combined with the two 500 series DBX 560A compressors, we have some seriously pro quality compression going on. This will definitely keep us “out of the box” and allow us to get some nice compression as we record the tracks instead of just relying on plug-ins to compress after the fact. No more nasty spikes in the audio to trick our mix compressors into hitting too hard!

On the digital side of things, we have upgraded our HD rig to Pro Tools 12 and are now using Aurora Lynx A/D converters to get our signal in and out of the Audient console. The Sony DMX-R100 that used to be in Control A has been moved to the soundstage building and we now can offer 24 track Pro Tools HD live recording services as well! If your band or vocal group wants to do a live video recording, give us a call and we can definitely fulfill your needs!

On the personnel front, we have added Grammy nominated producer Keith Caudill to our team. He has been working to bring the school (LSRA) up to the next level in audio education as well as lending his well trained ear to sessions with local and national artists that have been coming thru our doors.

Over the Christmas break we tracked 6 songs for the debut release of country artist Ryne Brashear. Ryne’s “band” for the session was brought in straight from the studios of Nashville and included Keith’s son, Kory Caudill, on keys (also a Grammy nominee and member of Justin Moore’s backup band). The band was smokin’, and we tracked all the music in one marathon session. Needless to say, there was a lot of great country music happening that day! Ryne sang all the final vocals over a couple of days and we are getting ready to enter the mix stage of the project. I have no doubt you’ll be hearing more about Ryne Brashear in the near future.

The Recording School is starting back next week and I have several students advancing to my area of the course, Studio Recording. They will be the first students to get to use the new console, and I have heard from a few students that have already completed this phase saying that they want to retake just to get some time on the Audient!

That’s all I’ve got for ya right now. Stay tuned for more updates and musings from me and my adventures at LIRS! Don't forget that you are welcome to stop by and tour our facilities anytime. Just give us a call at 859-335-8440 (if you're local) or TOLL FREE at 877-335-8440 to set it up, so we can give you the ultimate LIRCo experience. See ya next time!!!

Steve Nall
Main Engineer, LIRS

Friday, July 22, 2016

Climbing the audio ladder

This time around I’d like to talk to you about climbing the ladder in the audio world. When I got out of recording school, I moved to Memphis, TN to work at a studio there and get some experience in a major market. Now, Memphis is mostly known as a blues town and that really wants my thing, so I came back home to KY after a few months and got a job at LIRCo. After being here a few years, I decided to enter the major market again and made the move to L.A. The only problem was that local experience doesn’t really count for much when you are going to the bigs. It’s pretty much just something else to put on your audio resume.


If you are going to pursue this as a career (and not start your own local studio), you need to understand one thing. In the world of major league pro studios, everyone starts out at the bottom as a runner. A runner is just that - you run and get things. Food, packages, clean the kitchen, answer the phones - whatever is needed. Sometimes you are the studio taxi. Whatever the band/business needs done outside of the recording rooms, you are the one doing it. On the plus side, you get to just hang out with the bands in a more more relaxed capacity. When they are in the room tracking, it can be a very stressful environment, but when they are eating dinner, they are much more relaxed and easy going.

I was a runner years ago at a studio where the band RATT was recording, and a few days a week when things were slow, I just hung out and shot pool with their guitarist, Warren DeMartini. At the time I was a guitarist (I use the term loosely), and to be around a player of his calibre and just talk to him like a regular guy was amazing. Being in the studio, they drop their guard and the whole “rockstar” trip and you get to see them as real people.

Just working in a major studio can be awesome. Imagine watching the Beach Boys practice singing harmonies only a few feet from you, watching John Sykes from Whitesnake/Blue Murder lay down guitar tracks, or hanging out on the couch with some of the guys from Guns N Roses just watching TV. Well I don’t have to, because for a while, that was my life. And eventually, I moved my way up the ladder and became an assistant engineer on some sessions.


This whole business on the major level revolves around “who you know”. You could be the best engineer in town, and if you have no reputation, no one cares. You basically ride the coattails of others as you rise in the ranks. When you are a runner, one of your main goals is to make friends with the assistant engineers. If you make their studio lives easier, they remember that. Most major studios don’t like it when the rooms aren’t being used and will sometimes allow the assistants to bring in local bands for a discount to get more experience in the engineer “seat”. They will in turn, bring you in to be the assistant (at least you hope so!) on these sessions. Being an assistant engineer requires lots of long hours in the studio. Sometimes you’ll sleep on the couch between sessions because it’s just easier than driving all the way home and back again. It can be grueling at times, but when you are doing a job you love, it never really seems that bad, at least to me!

When an assistant moves on (more on that later), everyone moves up one in the ranks. So now YOU are one of the assistants. Now your job is to place microphones in basically the right spot, keep logs of everything, and run the recorder. The engineer will come in and make the final mic placements. If you keep the sessions running smoothly, people will notice. When the band is talking about food, you slip off to the side and call the runner in to take orders. If the artist and producer are talking about trying a different mic setup, you go ahead and get the mic on the stand before they even ask you to do it. Basically, you are trying to stay one step ahead of everyone and keep the session running smoothly so the artist, engineer and producer can do their jobs better. Your ultimate goal is to be so good, that the producer wants to bring future sessions to your studio and use YOU as the assistant engineer.

If you work hard enough and get noticed by the right people (coattails!), you may be asked to become part of a team outside the studio. Many times, an engineer will be asked to produce a band because they like how he worked on some other band’s project. So now he is becoming a producer and needs an engineer that he can count on. That engineer is YOU! So you will travel with him to different studios (sometimes around the world!) tracking bands until you have such a reputation in the business, that you start getting offers from OTHER producers and then you will become a truly freelance audio engineer. One of the top assistants at the L.A. studio I worked at left just as I was coming back to KY and became the go-to engineer for most of the early 2000’s rock and metal acts, so it can happen! It just takes lots of long hours and perseverance to get to that level. After I came back to KY, I was able to come back to LIRCo and moved up to the position of Head Engineer that I have had for a while now. Even though I had a lot of fun in those early days, I love where I am and I’m glad I came back to KY where I can help others starting their journey.

So if you are down for that kind of life, The Lexington School for Recording Arts can give you a great education to put you on your way. Just give us a call at 859-335-8440 (if you're local) or TOLL FREE at 877-335-8440 to set up a tour or get some info sent to you. See ya next time!!!

Steve Nall
Head Engineer, LIRS

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Vocal Compression

Over all the years and mixes that I’ve done here at Long Island Studios and The Lexington School for Recording Arts, I have found that vocal compression is one of the hardest parts of your mix. It seems that many times it’s a chore to get vocal to sit on top of the mix all the time without getting covered up by the instruments. Today I'm going to tell you the way I like to set up vocal compression, as well as a few other ways that you may want to try.

Normally in rock music, you want the vocal to stay on top and out in front at all times, but a vocalist is a very dynamic part of your mix. So how do you do this?  The answer is compression. I like to use either the Waves Renaissance compressor or the CLA 1176 simulation, but any decent compressor can get you the results that you need.

I set my compressor up so that when the vocalist gets loud they are getting around 10 to 15 dB gain reduction. I know that this may seem like a lot to some of you, but it will guarantee that the vocal is even as it can possibly be. Now, the attack and release of the compressor play a big role in getting this done correctly. I generally set my attack times to 1 or 2 ms. On the 1176 compressor, the attack times run from "1" to "7" with "1" being the slowest. With some research, I found out that the "1" setting is around 1 ms, so that works out well doesn't?  On the Renaissance compressor, as well as other compressors, you generally have a sliding scale to tell you how many milliseconds your attack time is so that could be an easier path for you to go.

When it comes to release times, that part of compression is constantly changing from song to song.  The two main options are to either have the release time set very quickly and be releasing for every single word, or holding for a longer period of time (say 600 ms or so) to capture the entire line of vocal before releasing in time to catch the next line. The problem sometimes with fast release times is that if it is too fast, then you can get some audible distortions on the track. The problem with longer release times is that you may get some kind of a "pumping" effect because the compressor is slowly releasing as the line gets quieter. What I like to do, is have a fairly fast release time, usually in the 150 to 300 ms range. On the CLA 1176, the release time is also a range of "1" to "7", just like the attack time. The "1" is 1 second and the "7" is 50 ms, so I tend to have mine set to around the "5" area.  Then I just set the threshold to allow me around 10 dB of reduction, and use the output to gain to get the vocal back up to the volume that I need. Most of the time, this will get my vocal on top and "in your face" how I want it to be, so that every word is heard correctly and nothing is covered by the band.

For a more dynamic vocal, the same settings can be used, but just set the threshold so that instead of getting 10 dB of reduction on the loud parts, you're only getting around 3 to 6 dB of reduction. Then,set your output volume so that the loud parts are as loud as you want them to be, and the quieter parts will remain how they were recorded - without added compression.

Another way of getting somewhat "in your face" style compression (without the possible audibility of squashing the track), is to set up multiple compressors that are only compressing a few db each. Many times, this way of compressing a track allows you to compress in order to just control the peaks and then if anything breaks through, the second compressor will clamp down and keep everything even.  

Well, that's it for now. Don't forget that you are welcome to stop by and tour our facilities anytime. Just give us a call at 859-335-8440 (if you're local) or TOLL FREE at 877-335-8440 to set it up, so we can give you the ultimate LIRCo experience. See ya next time!!!

Steve Nall
Head Engineer, LIRS