As producers, mixers, and engineers, we’re often tasked with finding the perfect balance within our work. Take for example the average metal song – our clients expect us to create these massive, impactful mixes, but it can’t all be loud, can it?
Dynamic instruments are only perceived as loud because of the silence around them. When you’ve got a double kick pattern playing back at 200 BPM and a blastbeat snare part immediately following it, the opportunities for silence are fewer.
That’s not to say that the preservation of dynamics is impossible in modern metal sessions though – we just need to be smarter about how we shape them. Today, we’ll look at a little-known automation trick that’s perfect for the job.
Loudness vs. Perceived Loudness
Turn your monitors way up and hit play – regardless of the session you’re working with, any average listener is going to use one word to describe it: loud.
Now bring them back down to an average level and try to critique and analyze your mix. Despite the entire thing being softer than it was when you started, you’re still going to have instruments and tracks that sound loud in the context of everything else going on.
This demonstrates just how subjective descriptions are in the audio world. What’s loud in one moment can be decidedly softer the next, but contextually that doesn’t matter. All that matters is how it sounds given the surrounding instruments and your listening environment.
And working simply, we can raise or lower the level of any instrument with gain – whether using a fader or clip gain. We change the actual level of the instrument. The decibels associated with that sound get proportionately higher as the source gets louder. But what do you do when you don’t have enough headroom?
You should be turning to perceived loudness instead – using other processors like clippers and compressors to increase the perceived loudness of your sound without the level changing at all.
By reducing the dynamic range of your signal with plugins like JST Clip or any Bus Glue compressor, you can create a harmonically denser sound without the volume changing at all. Simply balance the output and you’ve got the perfect hack for fuller, larger sounding drums.
Dynamics & Plug-In Automation
One of the best things about working with audio digitally is the flexibility it affords us when we need to do things with great precision or perform multiple tasks at once. Before hardware automation, engineers used to be limited to the number of fingers they had available and the assistants they had to work other parts of the signal chain. Changing compressor settings in real-time was almost unheard of.
Yet as we sit here today, there are hundreds of mixers all over the world taking full advantage of automation. Using it to enable/disable certain plugins is just the start and the real trick is changing settings and parameters on-the-fly, which is where today’s trick comes in.
For any metal mixer who has struggled with mixing blastbeats in sections of their session, I would argue that automation is the single greatest saving grace they have. They no longer must contend with loud aggressive sections blowing their session out of the water with clipping or mixing the rest of their song less aggressively to make headroom for the blastbeats.
With automation, they can change everything from a compressor’s threshold to its output level and even the compression algorithm being used. Done right, this hack can effectively swap out one compression preset for another instantaneously.
This trick can be seen in action in the video below, as demonstrated by our good friend Dominik 'Pumpa' König using Joel Wanasek’s signature BG-Drums plugin:
As you can see in the demonstration, this technique works perfectly for kicks and snares to tighten up low-end content in specific sections, but the concept also applies to nearly any other compressed audio that might need an adjustment at some point in your song.
How You Transition Matters
Although mixing is commonly focused on getting different elements of a song to work together, there are certainly occasions where you’ll need to take creative liberties to keep things interesting. Transitions are the perfect place to add a bit of your own character if you know what you’re doing.
This is the reason we worked hard to collect some of our favorite samples and transitions for JST Kaoss Volume I. This post-production sample pack is jam-packed with royalty-free samples to add a little mayhem to your sessions.