Trust Your Ears

Not another music production tutorial!!” I hear you cry? Yes it’s fair to say that the internet is already swamped with informative tutorials which are stuffed with all kinds of so called “definitive” tips and tricks. You might think that this subject has been done to death, and quite rightly so… Many newcomers to music production are often overwhelmed with the amount of information available to them. Things aren’t made any easier by the overwhelming amount of choices one has to make when starting out, not to mention the misinformation one can potentially receive on internet forums and poorly written blog posts!

Here at the Wave Alchemy HQ we regularly receive questions via email such as “How do you achieve that (insert example) sound?” or “Can you share any tips on making the kick drum cut through the mix?”

In this new series of production articles I plan to discuss the basics of mixing as well as the tools available to help create a comprehensive and professional sound. Drawing from experience as head sound designer of Wave Alchemy I aim to share my personal thoughts as well as some of my favourite tricks and processes used throughout both the production and mixing stages of electronic music production.


Lose the dials – Use your ears!

I often see production tutorials and even professionally written books that read like a set of rules. First and foremost – creating a great sounding recording is all about using your ears. There are NO magic compressor settings, no definitive EQ curves and ultimately no rules, although there certainly ARE guidelines which can help!

How many times have you read a forum post that reads like this?

Question: “What compression settings should I be using on my kick drum?”

My initial answer would be another question: “What is it exactly that you want to achieve with this compressor?”

Do you want to create a specific effect, i.e. use compression as a creative tool? Has the drum track been recorded live? In this case you may want to even out the dynamics so that each kick is of similar volume? Do you want to bring out the initial transient attack of the kick drum? Maybe soften the attack to make the sound less pronounced? Make the kick track pump maybe?

The best answer that I can give to the original question is that there is in fact NO ultimate setting. Every sound reacts differently to compression and every compressor reacts differently to the source it’s fed… Thus a setting that works great on one sound will not necessarily sound good on another, especially so when taking into account the way in which the sound interacts within the context of the mix. However there are of course basic guidelines which you can follow to help put you on the right track.

Unsurprisingly, the best way of learning how a compressor affects an audio signal is to simply practice using one! Experiment with a compressor’s parameters and note how the controls interact with one another and ultimately listen to how it affects the audio being passed through it. Of course it helps enormously to know the technical details behind a compressor and it’s controls, and this is a subject that I am going to discuss in much more detail in future articles…


Wrapping things up…

The bottom line is – If it sounds good, it is good! The way I sometimes work is to close my eyes whilst adjusting for example a compressor’s threshold. I will listen to the compression in context with the rest of the track’s instrumentation and turn the knobs until I get the sound I’m looking for. If I then open my eyes and the meters are showing 15db of gain reduction then so be it! I ultimately trust my ears over what any VU reading is telling me and this is something that I see as being very important and which comes with many years of practice… Learn to trust your ears.

Try not to obsess over what’s right or wrong, try not to read TOO much into parameter settings – just because someone tells you that you shouldn’t be doing what you’re doing doesn’t mean it’s wrong! As long as you are achieving a sound that you are happy with and that ultimately sounds good then everything is gravy! There are no “set in stone” rules, only guidelines…


Written By Dan Byers of Wave Alchemy