Mixing With Dynamic Time-Based Effects
Time-based effect and dynamics are the building blocks of every mix in existence. For better or worse, these are the two things that engineers and mixers review, tweak, and modify to get everything sitting just right. It’s easy to get lost spending hours meticulously combing them over for perfection.
And it makes a lot of sense to do things this way. A song without dynamics is dull and lifeless. You need some amount of dynamics whether real or artificial to drive your song forward. Likewise, time-based effects are needed to put your listener in a space with the sounds they’re hearing. The combination of the two define the size and energy of everything you’ve ever listened to.
So for today, I want to honor the relationship between these two and how they interact with each other. We all know that plugins react differently depending on the source you’re feeding into them, but we often think of it as a one-way street. What do I mean by that?
I mean that we all have our go-to signal chains, and usually they involve some combination of EQ & compression, followed by a reverb and/or delay. Am I right? Or at least close?
Let’s see if we can’t expand your options a bit by looking at how some engineers approach the dynamics of their effects in a completely different way.
Working With FX Busses
Digital mixing has made us lazy.
Today, anybody can throw a delay or reverb into an insert on a track and immediately start working away with it. With a convenient Mix knob right in the plugin, nothing is stopping you!
Except – it hasn’t always been that way. Back in the days of analog, mixers worked almost exclusively with sends and returns. They’d “send” copies of their audio tracks out to a hardware unit, then route them back into the board as a “return” track. This same concept is available in every single DAW today, but not every mixer thinks to use it.
The benefits of working in this manner are more than just organizational though. For starters, this type of routing allows you to send multiple tracks to the same FX bus/aux track. Doing this, you can perfectly pair various instruments and their reverbs or delays. Not only does this cut down on processing power required to run your session, but it adds cohesion to your mix.
As far as dynamics go, you can get some really incredible results when working with an FX return. Many mixers are already familiar with this strategy when it comes to group or parallel processing, but FX dynamics are often an afterthought.
The next time you want to add character to a reverb or delay – try and leave the settings alone and reach for a compressor or limiter instead. By adding it after your time-based effect, you’re effectively acting on the processed signal only, leaving the original track unaffected and creating an entirely new sound in the process.
Treat Your FX Like Any Other Channel
Like I said – FX dynamics are usually an afterthought. Engineers think “I need to add an effect to this” but rarely take the time to think about how that effect should sound. If they can’t get it to sit right in the mix, they’ll usually end up scrapping it for another setting or a different plugin altogether. What a waste!
If I threw out every delay that felt a little too dark or had a resonance I didn’t like, I’d never finish a mix. Seeking out different presets can be cool for experimentation, but it should never be your excuse for “settling” on a sound that isn’t exactly how you want it to be.
Instead of ditching your next idea, try this instead:
- Load a channel strip plugin immediately after your effect
- Find an effect setting that fits the style you’re after even if it doesn’t sit right in the mix
- Switch over to the channel strip and mess with the EQ/dynamics
- Work as though you’re “stuck” with the effect you landed on and make it the best sound you can achieve without going back to the effect plugin
Sound familiar? This is exactly what you do every day with tracks that are recorded live. There are no do-overs when you’re professionally mixing something and while the approach may feel uncomfortable at first, this practice technique breaks down a lot of mental barriers about what you should and shouldn’t do as a mixer!
Find Inspiration In Your Tools
Great effects plugins usually provide some level of dynamic control on their own. Whether it’s a high frequency roll-off/tone knob or something that modulates the repeats of a delay – inspiration is abundant when you find the right fit.
We realized this when we started experimenting with breaking out JST Sky Box as a standalone effect unit. From Day 1 working with it, we knew it was destined for much more than guitar tracks, and here we are today with tons of presets and a community of fans using it on everything from vocals to drums to banjos… It just goes to show that inspiration can strike anywhere!
If you haven’t had a chance to see what JST Sky Box can do just yet,
pick up a free 14-day demo right here and try it out for yourself!