ITB Mix Secrets: Part One
The ITB Mix Secrets series of articles were written by Edvin A. of Function Loops exclusively for Razer Music. Be sure to visit Function Loops for all your pro audio & loops needs.
There is indeed a vast selection of articles and tutorials available online these days, most of them covering various approaches to producing and mixing in classic analog/hybrid studios that combine digital workstations with hardware outboard gear. However, there is also a burgeoning number of aspiring producers today who are fully ITB [In-The-Box], meaning totally computer-based. So we decided to dedicate this tutorial series to precisely this new generation of artists by showing some tips and tricks on how to achieve top-quality results with nothing else but a DAW and some plugins. The guiding sentiment here is that it is indeed possible to produce an “expensive” sounding mix with only a computer running software, proper monitoring, and some technical know-how.
This article series will unfold in several stages, with each phase covering one particular aspect of the ITB mixing process. We will proceed by assuming that you have an optimal setup that functions correctly. Regardless of our DAW of choice, we will do our best to present these tips in such a way so that they can be easily understood and applied universally. For best results, we recommend working with proper monitoring, preferably in a treated room or with at least some kind of room-correction software applied. Having a decent working environment is mandatory if best possible results are your goal. Otherwise, it’s just shooting in the dark. Room correction applications such as IK Multimedia ARC 2 or Sonarworks Reference 3 are excellent choices and will help fix many common room-related problems, but it is always a better solution to combine these with some basic room treatment.
Time and Phase Alignment: Phase
We will start by focusing on one of the most important aspects of the mixing process; time and phase alignment. Many of you may already be familiar with the importance of having correct phase relationships in the mix; in simplest terms, if a track is out of phase with your mix, some frequencies (or even whole parts of the spectrum) will cancel out and actually disappear from the mix, resulting in a weak overall sound and bad stereo image. The simplest solution, in this case, is to toggle the “reverse phase” switch on the affected mixer channel (most DAW mixers have this switch available per channel as standard). A quick phase check of every track in the mix like this is always a good starting point.
But even more efficient is adjusting the phase rotation per track to the desired degree by using a dedicated plugin. This will result in a much healthier sounding stereo image and may “bring up” individual sounds in a mix in such a way that much less EQing is needed at the end. In the audio examples 1a and 1b, you can hear the difference between a raw and phase corrected mix. The difference is subtle but audible. In dense multitrack sessions, the effect adds up and becomes even more pronounced.
NOTE: for the optimum auditioning of provided audio examples, we recommend you import them to your DAW, put each on a separate track and align parallel to each other. Mute one of them (usually the processed one), start the playback and then switch between them by toggling the solo button on the muted one. By seamlessly switching between them this way, you’ll hear the differences most effectively.
In this case, we have used Voxengo’s PHA 979 plugin to rotate, or “tune” the phase for each track in our mix (see IMG01). (In all of our audio examples we left the kick untouched and used it as a raw starting point, a “phase-axis” so to speak and tuned everything else around it.) In the audio examples 1a and 1b, you can hear how the whole mix tightens up and opens the stereo image nicely when the phase is tuned correctly. By phase-tuning all sounds, we not only correct phase errors but also make our sounds fit the mix better and sound more coherent. Just use your ears and tune the phase manually for each track while listening to the whole mix
This approach is especially recommended for producers of electronic music who create their tracks with samples and virtual instruments which tend to sound very unrelated when raw.
IMG01: Dedicated phase tweakers such as PHA-979 from Voxengo can offer a comprehensive set of useful parameters.
However, if you are mixing a multitrack recording of a live band’s performance, a different method of phase correction is recommended; automatic phase alignment. Plugins such as Melda MAutoAlign or Sound Radix Auto Align provide a simple, elegant and great sounding solution for correcting primary phase issues caused by multiple-microphone recordings. For phase-tuning a whole recorded mix, however, plugins such as Sound Radix Pi will do the trick nicely. These kinds of plugins are real time savers and very simple to use; just put one instance of the plugin per track and (almost) everything else is done automatically! Simple and quick.
Time and Phase Alignment: Time
IMG02: adjusting track delay in your DAW is a quick solution to fixing timing issues
Even though time and phase are closely related, they are not the same. Without dwelling too much on the theory behind this difference, we’ll just say that once the phase has been adjusted in the mix, “time-tuning” is a recommended next step. The simplest way to do it is to adjust the track delay in your DAW. Manually change the track’s timing offset while listening to the rest of the mix to find the best sounding “time-spot” (IMG02).
In the audio examples 2a and 2b, you can hear the difference between a raw and time corrected mix.
Advanced Phase Tuning
IMG03: KiloHearts Disperser
Another powerful trick is to use advanced phase tweakers such as KiloHearts Disperser and phase-smear only a narrow part of the frequency spectrum on a particular sound in order to make it fit the mix even more, especially in those cases when you want the sounds that cover a similar part of the frequency spectrum to fit better together (e.g. kick and bass). In this case, we have used Disperser’s second preset (Kick Snap), tweaked and applied it to both our bass and clap sounds so that they better fit the kick (IMG03).
Check the audio examples 3a and 3b to hear the difference.
Phase and time adjustments are subtle, but powerful ways to pre-tune the basic sound of your mix before any further processing has been done. If you compare audio examples 1a and 4, you should be able to hear the difference between a raw and a fully phase/time tuned mix. When done correctly, these simple tweaks will provide reliable primary steps on our path to achieving a perfect mix.