Synthesizers & Pads: Decoded

Our mixes are hyper-saturated with digital elements these days, not the least of which are synthesizers and ambient pads. We add layers to our live instrumentation, program in melodies that we can’t confidently play live, and even record outboard keys from time to time when we find a sound we really like in a standalone keyboard.

With so many keys flying around in each mix, do you know how to do what’s necessary to take control?

For a lot of mixing engineers, the answer is “no”.

It’s not that they don’t understand the MIDI or the controls within the synth plugin itself; it’s that they don’t know what to do with it once it’s been captured and they’re trying to settle it into their mix.

Synths are tricky instruments to mix, mostly due to their eclectic tonal options and a frequency range that meets or exceeds the spectrum heard by the human ear. Couple that with the strength in numbers that multiple synths have on a mix, and you’ll find yourself fighting an uphill battle for control.

Pads can cause just as many issues. While they’re less percussive in nature, pads reduce the dynamic range of your mix by adding to the noise floor. They eat away at valuable headroom, giving your other instruments less room to work with while they’re playing.

So what can you do to take back control?

Limit Your Synth Usage

This is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but the easiest way to clean up synth noise is to use less of them. A wall of synths might be right for an electronic mix, but because of their prevalent range, stacking synths can add up quickly.

Instead, look for one or two synths that get the job done for the sound you’re looking for. By limiting the number of synths in use, you’ll have less troubleshooting as a mixing engineer when something needs to be adjusted later.

Another Form of Limiting

You can also limit your synths in a different way – by reducing their dynamic range. By using a limiter like Finality on your synths, you can make them punchy & impactful without sacrificing quality. Since the limiter acts on the peaks of your signal, you don’t have to worry about any unruly synth attack poking out of place and masking something else.

EG to What You Need

If your synth has frequency content below your fundamental frequency, consider using a hi-pass filter to clean it up. Chances are, it’s getting buried behind your kick & bass, and isn’t doing a whole lot other than eating away at your noise floor.

The same should be done for higher frequencies that could be reducing the clarity of your cymbals or the breathiness of a vocal. Trust your ears to tell you what you need and what you don’t. Intuitively ask yourself as you eliminate frequencies from your synths:

· Is my mix better off without it?
· Was it masking another part of my mix?
· Do I miss it, or am I just second-guessing myself because I know it was there?

These questions will guide you to make smarter mix decisions – not just with synths, but with every element of your mix.

Bus Compression For Synthesizers

One of the biggest myths that engineers face is the notion that in-the-box instruments are always “mix-ready”. While there are times this can be the case, there’s almost always going to be some tweaking that a pro can do to make a mix-ready instrument sound even better.

Are we talking about reinventing the wheel? No, of course not. We’re talking about taking the tools at your disposal to make something that’s a 90% match in your mix already, and adjusting it to fit perfectly.

It’s what separates good mixers from great mixers.

For synths, it’s all about the glue that brings them together. Bus compression plays a vital role in making a cohesive drum sound, but it’s often overlooked as a solution for synths. By using BG-Keys in a mix, engineers are able to bake that same warmth into their synthesizers and pads that we’ve been using for decades on other instruments.

You’re adding that saturation back into these digital elements - something that’s always been a barrier to mixing live & programmed instrumentation. It WON’T fix a poorly programmed performance, but it will elevate a good performance to new heights.

Where are you using Bus Compression?

Whether you’re compressing your guitars, bass, vocals or keys – it’s more important than ever that you treat your grouped instruments in a distinct and intentional way. Each of these elements deserves to shine but if you’re using a generic compressor, you’re missing out on the flexibility that the Bus Glue collection provides.

Come see how fellow engineers and producers are using instrument-specific compression to glue their mixes together for a polished, professional sound. The conversations are happening every day in the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum on Facebook.

We’ll see you there!