Does your vocal have a comb-over?

This morning I was reviewing a couple of songs that someone had posted and one thing stood out like a sore thumb… the vocal.

The problem was not that the singer didn’t have a great voice or the fact that it was a bit wavery and lacking confidence. The problem was that it was being highlighted by a whole stack of effects and reverb. A misguided attempt to hide its weaknesses were having entirely the opposite effect. I’ve come across this before and to me it is the musical equivalent of a comb-over.

I understand why guys do comb-overs when their hair recedes but they don’t seem to understand that a comb-over is just the same as walking around town in a dayglo teeshirt emblazoned with the words “BALD AND ASHAMED!” What they should do is keep their hair short (or even shave it all off) and fake it till they make it …and no-one will notice a thing.

So splurging a whole load of reverb and chorus and ADT over a vocal to try to hide the fact that you think your voice is bad is nothing more than a musical comb-over that works as well as a hair comb-over. i.e. it draws attention to the thing you’re trying to hide.

One thing to realize is that you can never know what other people hear when they hear your voice. That means your opinion of your own voice shouldn’t be your first consideration. I’m sure that Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and Mark Knopfler are under no delusion that their voices are aesthetically the greatest voices in history but that hasn’t stopped them having a modicum of success as singers.

Another common mistake is putting too much low-end on the vocal (or at least not eradicating the proximity effect if this was accidental). Excessive bass on a vocal went out of fashion in around 1976 when the old school radio DJs got shuffled off to Oldies stations to make way for the punk generation.

When you hear your own voice it is mostly internal vibrations inside your head which are much bassier than the sound everyone else hears. For that reason avoid the temptation to keep or create excessive bass – other people won’t be impressed and the vocal will sound amateurish. If you don’t believe me, listen carefully to commercial recordings and you might be surprised how little low end there is on the great majority of vocals.

So, what should you do?

High-pass filter. Start at 100 Hz and if necessary go higher depending on how much proximity effect there is. Do this in the context of the mix to avoid “solo syndrome”.

Fader. Use the fader to balance out the larger dynamics. If you swallow some words, use the fader to bring them up to the same level as the rest of the vocal.

Compress. For a starting point just put a 2:1 ratio compressor on the vocal with the threshold adjusted to give no more than one or two dB of gain reduction. You might find you need less compression or you might need more. One common problem is a wavery voice that doesn’t sound confident. A subtle use of parallel compression can help a lot with that. I won’t go into how to do parallel compression here but it is well-covered elsewhere on the web.

Ambience. Subtle reverb or echo only. Unless the music has the space for a big reverb it will just become mud so use a short reverbs and delays. Adjust the ambience so that it is only noticeable when you switch it out.


Love it or hate it, the vocal is the star of the show and you have to put it out there centre-stage and tell the audience to take-it or leave-it. Effects should only be there to enhance the best bits so do not try to hide anything.


© Mike Ellison.



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A cool trick for dealing with bass vs kick

A cool trick posted by Dave Pensado…

Multiband processing opens the way for all sorts of manipulations of sound. Dave shows how you can sidechain the bass using the kick but without setting the whole bass sound pumping.



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Graham Cochrane’s drum enhancement recipe

I seriously hope Graham doesn’t object to me posting about his posts so much but he says things so much better than I could. There is only so much I can do for you when I’m mastering so it’s in my best interests to pass these great tips on to you so that the mixes you send me are ready for me to apply that final polishing.

If you are not following Graham on facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and his website, you are missing out on great tips for recording and mixing.

Anyway, here is his drum enhancement recipe:




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This is the way the future of computer recording should be

This is getting towards the way things should be for Windows 8 multi-touch in a recording/mixing/mastering environment. In this case the Acer T232HL bmidz is used laid down. Skip forward to 8:00 where he gets into Sonar. I would love to see multi-touch fully implemented in Reaper.


© Mike Ellison.


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Why “Radio Ready” does NOT mean “loud”

For anyone still labouring under the misapprehension that “Radio Ready” means a track needs to be mastered loud…

Can’t put it much clearer than that.


© Mike Ellison.

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What can you do if your microphone is bright yet dull?

A posting on Facebook by Bill Simpkins reminded me of a fairly common problem.

He was reminding everyone that faders are the primary tool of achieving and manipulating the balance in the mix. Then someone brought up the issue of difficulty when balancing vocals in the mix. My initial reaction was the same as Bill’s that there wasn’t enough space carved for the vocal with EQ – either the presence frequencies on the vocal were lacking or were being hogged by other instruments.

Then it struck me it could be that the vocal mic was one “featuring” a brightness boost. I have come across a number of situations where that kind of mic was making the vocal hard to mix. The reason is that the brightness boost can make the vocal sound too loud when it’s at the correct level for the mix and too quiet if the vocal is pulled down to the level where the brightness is the right level.

If that’s as clear as mud, here is a more detailed explanation starting with the way I identify the key frequencies for any instrument or vocal…

  • Air: the highs above the brightness
  • Brightness: brightness
  • Presence: mids/upper-mids that bring the track to the fore
  • Body: 2nd harmonics.
  • Warmth/mud: The fundamental frequencies.
  • Sub-bass: Body noises, impact/pluck thumps, etc.

For any given track, these will be unique. The sub-bass for a mandolin is going to be a lot higher than for a 5 string bass guitar. Similarly the brightness for a bass guitar is going to be lower than for a mandolin (unless it’s slap bass).

So, with these microphones I’m most concerned about the presence, the brightness, and the air. The problem when the brightness is boosted by the characteristics of the microphone, it can mask a lack of presence and/or a lack of air. Brightness can be nice but it is the presence frequencies of a track that position it in the mix. If there is a conflict between the presence and the brightness it will make the job of balancing harder and it will make the mix less translatable. Bright speakers will make the vocal sound louder but darker speakers will make the vocal harder to pick-out in the mix.

So, what does one do about this?

EQ: Set up a notch filter and sweep the frequency until you find the brightness peak and cut it back until it is under control. Then set up a broad (2 octave/Q=0.7) filter and sweep to find the presence frequency of the track and bring it forward a bit. Finally set another broad filter and sweep to find the air frequency and bring that forward as necessary.

For example, you might end up with a notch (0.5 octave/Q=2.8) cutting 2 dB at 10 kHz, a broad (2 octave/Q=0.7) 1.5 dB boost at 1.8 kHz, and a broad (2 octave/Q=0.7) 1 dB boost at 9.5 kHz. It can seem paradoxical when the boost frequency for the air is lower than the brightness cut but that’s the way it comes out sometimes. Remember that this is an example and EQ should always be adjusted specifically to the track you are working on!

Anyway, hopefully this is of help to you.


© Mike Ellison.


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How to mix in 30 minutes

When I’m mastering I am aiming for a wide open sound. However there is only so much I can do and the results will be much better if it’s done by you during mixing so that I only need to do a little sweetening. That’s not me being lazy – when I’m trying to bring out the highs it will enhance the tracks that really should be sitting in the middle of the box and when I’m trying to clear the mud from the guitars, it’s going to take power away from the bass and kick.

These two videos are a must-see…

As usual this is simple, clear, and concise advice from Graham that even experts sometimes need to be reminded of.


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Do you like the sound you are getting?

Graham Cochrane asks some great questions in this blog post but the first one is the most important… “Do you like the sound you are getting?”

Here’s an old dig at drummers by sound engineers but it is applicable in many cases and not just drummers…
Q: Can you make me sound like John Bonham?
A: Play like John Bonham!

When the raw recorded track is played back, does it actually sound like you want it to? Does the bass guitar on your reggae track sound like it came off a Bob Marley album or a punk album?

Okay, if the sound you had hoped-for isn’t coming back at you in playback you have two choices: Either re-think the source sound to make it more like the way you want it, OR make the sound you have got work within its own context.

Sometimes there is just no way you are going to get the sound you would love to have. The instrument, the player, the room, any number of factors could put the sound you are hoping for out of reach. The best thing to do is to give up and go with what you have got. No amount of EQ or compression or sample replacement is going to fix the problem. In fact, the more effort you put into trying to make the sound you’ve got into the sound you wish you had is just going to make everything sound worse!

It is far better to make the sound you have got work within its own context. Make it the best that it can sound. No-one other than you knows what you wish it sounded like. In fact, other people might want to know how you got that sound so that they can copy it themselves!

The best sound available to you is the sound you have got. Either fix it at source or run with it.


© Mike Ellison.

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It’s in the attack

Graham Cochrane has put together a great explanation of the attack principle. Hearing is a lot about detecting changes and adjusting attention and this is how to get your listeners to spot things in the mix without them being too loud in the mix.


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Reference tracks

One of the most important techniques for producing great sounding records is frequent comparison to reference tracks. These are (usually commercial) recordings by other people that you are very familiar with. Each should represent something to aim for or something to avoid when you are working.

There are two basic aims: to guide you, and to reset your hearing.

Guidance is important because you want to be sure you are heading in the right direction. It is all to easy to end up with recordings/mixes/masters that sound great in isolation but as soon as they are put alongside commercial records they sound wrong and you start to wonder how that could have happened with all the care you took.

Resetting your hearing is important because human hearing is adaptive and psychological. It is adaptive in that the middle and inner ear contain protective mechanisms and the brain has compensatory mechanisms. It’s similar to the way our brains compensate for colour balance in our vision. Not only that but your brain can switch things around based on your auditory beliefs of the moment. The result is that as you work, your hearing is adjusting to the tone and dynamics of the music and to your expectations about what you are hearing and that leads to errors. Even a few seconds of a familiar reference track can reset your hearing and save you wasting hours or days fooling yourself.

One crucial thing to understand is that you must adjust the playback level of reference tracks to a similar or appropriate level compared to the piece you are working on. This can mean turning down the reference by up to 12 dB (sometimes more). This ensures you are not being fooled by the “louder is better” habit our hearing has. It also ensures that both pieces are working in the same part of the loudness dependent frequency response of your hearing – the infamous Fletcher-Munson curves:

Here are my default reference tracks. I use others but these have been my go-to set for speaker auditioning and all things recording for many years. I have a CD burnt with each of them adjusted to K-20 (more on this in another post but in short 0 VU = -20 dBFS) just to make things easy. Often I leave the CD running continuously in the player so there is a randomness to which track I get when I switch to the CD.

Rock In This Pocket – Suzanne Vega [-12 dB]
A nice clear rock track with strong bass and female vocals. I like the tonality of this record.

Candle In The Wind – Elton John [-13 dB]
Classic 1970s mixing even if the mastering on the CD is a bit hot. Great for checking bass response of speakers and subwoofers – if the bass guitar doesn’t sound even all the way up the neck, there’s a problem.

Every Breath You Take – The Police [-7 dB]
A great speaker audition track – if I can hear that Sting is playing round-wound strings on his bass, the speakers are on my short-list. Nice clear tone if a bit light on the lows.

Exodus – Bob Marley & The Wailers [-8 dB]
Sublime texture. I can feel the sound as much as hear it – especially when the organ comes it. Also supremely tight bass. Highs are a bit up-front and narrow but my ears just love to experience this track. My go-to reference track for micro-dynamics and strong tight bass.

King Of Sorrow – Sade [-14 dB]
Too strong in the lows. A great reference when checking the bass through my Sony MDR-7506 headphones. If the piece I’m working on is as fat as this, it needs a bit more work.

She Bangs – Ricky Martin [-13 dB]
Slammed with compression and limiting. The louder the music gets the more distant it becomes. A pity because the original tracks must be absolutely filled with punch and it would be great to hear a version with dynamics. Compare with Exodus above for why hotter records like this are actually weaker and less punchy. Frequency-wise, quite a good reference but I wouldn’t want to go any brighter than this.

Once In A Lifetime – Talking Heads [-11 dB]
Some nice relief to avoid ear fatigue. Light on the bass and the highs but full of movement and a different perspective on a mix than the other reference songs.

K-20 Pink Noise – [0 dB]
For calibrating my monitoring system per the K system. If only more people truly understood this system. I must do a plain-English blog on this subject.

The dB figures shown above in square brackets show the amount I had to turn down the tracks to get them to comparable loudness. It’s not so precise for the hotter tracks because the quiet bits are often too loud and the loud bits not loud enough. Note that different releases have different loudness so these adjustments might not work for you if you try to replicate this collection.


© Mike Ellison.

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