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Transients vs Loud Mixes

Brandon Drury —  July 5, 2011 — Leave a comment

One of the trickiest parts of being a home recorder these days is getting mixes that are loud AND still sound good.  Old timers may not agree, but I’m in the camp that only a few big boy recordings have been screwed up by taking the loudness gig too far, but I have to say that I’m impressed by how loud AND GOOD so many major label recordings are these days.  (That’s my view, take it or leave it.  I like a lot of modern music.)

I ran across a kick-butt Bruce Swedien video for Royer where he was talking about transients on a Michael Jackson tune.

You’ll see the song is using very unconventional percussion, but the rules apply for glass bottles, metal snare drums, trance kick drum from drum machines and samples, claps, and just about anything else we record with transients.

Bruce Swedien talks about he specifically chose ribbon mics because for this percussion specifically because they’d be slower than condenser mics.  The bright, initial transient spike from a condenser simply wouldn’t work by the time the mix got loud enough.  These problems existed 3 decades ago as much as they exist now and that’s something I think we all need to accept regardless of whether are final mixes are hitting -6dB RMS or –16dB RMS.

I’ve found myself utilizing quite a bit of saturation and distortion and on snares and kicks for electronic music.  The concept is exactly the same.  We want to knock off the extreme peak before the 2bus because it’s gonna have to be X volume eventually.  Those peaks aren’t going to make it with the density required by modern mixes.

The alternative is to either keep the mix at very, very low levels….more like classical music levels or shave those peaks off via 2bus compressing and limiting.  Classical-music levels will never fly with any client I have.  Pumping (and distorting the 2bus in really bad way) over some spikes isn’t cool either.  It can make the transient entirely disappear.

The interesting thing, and the one that took me the longest time to learn, was that you can make drums and such sound pretty damn good even when you tame the transients.  In fact, the sound we are used to hearing on our favorite records is the sound of tamed transients.  This doesn’t mean we entirely nuke them, it just means we pay really close attention to that first couple milliseconds because if it’s chewing up too much level, it’s going cause problems now AND will be a mess later.

Lastly, excessive-transient sounds rarely sound good.  This is the hardest part to understand, but recording real claps is the giveaway.  If you record a person doing claps on 2 and 4 in a dead room, you’ll end up with little more than a “chip” sound.  Hearing these in a dense mix without cranking them is virtually impossible.   The solution is to add sustain to them.  Reverb is the go-to tool most of the time.  Nowadays I go ahead and commit to a hardware reverb right then and there that I know will hold up through the mixing and mastering processes.

Once a upon a time I had a highly respected engineer master a mix I had done.  It was done for a super-budget price.  He was doing me a favor.  The only problem was he just ran the mix through, made it loud, and sent it back.  The snare TOTALLY disappeared.  If I had been a full-price client he would have bothered to say, “Dude, you need to read this article you’ll write in 2011.”  Instead I was stuck with a terrible sounding master.  Yuck!

Brandon

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paul999 – 07-08-2011, 12:58 AM
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Very cool article!I have just started to adopt a position close to this. I’ve used distressors for the longest time on my 2 buss. You can get some serious transients out of them. I would then mix this into my 2 buss shaving the transients and 99% of the time it made for a very robust sound. As I’ve been using my 1176 on kick and snare there isn’t nearly as much snap but they come trough the mix just fine. It is a different sound and really they are both great. People not using the same quality of compression as I am wouldn’t get away with the shaving method and I have started to see the benefit of not doing this in my own mixes as well. One thing I did learn was to get as much “snap out of eq as I can pre compression. This makes me use much less compression.

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m24p – 07-08-2011, 11:00 AM
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Ryan Canestro and Randy Coppinger did a great big snare mic shootout comparing different mics. They made a “mistake” when recording with a Neumann U87 where the initial transient clipped off (I think it clipped at the mic transformer, I’m not sure). It meant that they got to pump that snare loud and it sounded big and full. Totally Excessive Snare Drum Mic Shootout and more So I agree, sometimes you don’t want those initial transients.

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rook2c4 – 07-08-2011, 11:04 AM
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I totally agree about the excessive transient problem and its negative impact on sound. And I think the problem is at least somewhat related to the close-mic’ing of sources. When we experience a live performance of music, under normal circumstances there is a certain amount of distance between the sound source and our ears. This distance, along with room acoustics, naturally reduces transient extremes emanating directly from the source. Normally, we don’t listen to an electric guitar with an ear right up on the grill (ouch!), we don’t listen to a snare an inch away from the drum head (double ouch!), or listen to a trumpet mere foot away from the bell. Of course I would never suggest that everything needs to be distant-mic’ed for a more natural sound, as close-mic’ing has many benefits. But close-mic’ing can potentially add an unnatural amount of excessive transients to the sound that needs to be addressed in order to come across more pleasing to the ear – through compression and/or the use of microphone types that diminish transients, as the video suggests.

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samkshaw – 07-12-2011, 02:40 PM
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This is uncanny that you just released this article in the past 7 days — I stumbled across how useful this technique was myself just yesterday (if perhaps for slightly different reasons than outlined here), and then came across this article today! I was working on drums for a rock mix, and I was getting a nice, focused sound with plenty of attack from the EQ and compression settings I had dialed in. However, because these were “real” drums, there were substantial variations in the level of the transients based on how the drummer was striking the kit on a specific hit. The mix was pretty dense with a lot of distorted guitar, etc., and as a result, some of the snare and kick hits were getting swallowed by the mix in places. I thought to myself, what if I take a clipper or brickwall limiter and knock the tops of the big spikes down to the level of the small ones on some of these drum tracks? I did, and problem solved! I knew I had not invented a new technique, but I was excited to have successfully “problem-solved” in such a way.

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e.scarab – 07-12-2011, 03:19 PM
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Excellent post and comments! I wonder if some of the loudness wars is really due to the fact there simply isn’t a lot of dynamic range to the music to begin with, so they slam everything to actually eliminate whatever dynamic range was there. I guess having really fast attack times can be a good thing and a bad thing. For example, the way ELOP used to work, they were a bit slow on the attack because of the reaction time of the light source they were using. Now, even ELOP type compressor/limiters have very fast attack times. I have been experimenting with the transient shaper in Sonar Producer. I still have a bit to learn, but it seems to be a very useful tool for just these types of situations.

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pablodagnino – 07-12-2011, 09:22 PM
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This afternoon i was listening to a record i did in 1996, recorded on Blackface ADATs,and found this issue on one of the tracks. Now i know WHY i wasn’t confortable with the drums… thank u for this insight, Brandon.

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dudermn – 07-13-2011, 12:53 AM
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This is a dumb question, but what are transients? I’m under the impression that their either harmonics that are disonant to the composition their accompaning yest still the same notes , or added felt from micing. It’s just, the country I live in, we have different terms.

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Vic Demise – 07-13-2011, 03:45 AM
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Quote Originally Posted by dudermn View Post
This is a dumb question, but what are transients? I’m under the impression that their either harmonics that are disonant to the composition their accompaning yest still the same notes , or added felt from micing. It’s just, the country I live in, we have different terms.
Transients are quick, sharp sounds, like snares, kicks, claps- essentially a spike in waveform. You don’t wanna elimimnate them, but you gotta look out!! They cause distortion, however brief, but if you back off the volume, you may lose the whole sound in the mix.(That’s all I’m prepared to say on the matter at this hour!!)

There is no such thing as a dumb question. If you don’t ask, you will have a much harder time finding a lot of things out!! (Okay, there are a few dumb questions, but this was not one of them).

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mightymusic – 07-13-2011, 04:48 AM
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Very interesting article Brandon, I was just wondering – in the digital world what your take is on using Transient Designer software on problematic transients? Although it’s not my ‘go to’ tool, I have used it successfully on the odd occasion like on those initial acoustic and electric guitar spikes. Perhaps there is a better solution?

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rocksure – 07-13-2011, 06:55 AM
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Some interesting points raised here thanks. However, I just do not get this whole loudness quest. You said, “There’s a good reason the big boy mixes are loud as hell but still pound like crazy and don’t sound distorted.” Actually a lot of the stuff coming out does sound distorted. More subtly perhaps than most home recordings, but there are still digital distortions I find unpleasnt in some of the mixes I hear. They are fatiguing, and quite frankly some of them make me want to turn them off by the time a few bars have played. Let’s stop competing for loudness and look for musicality. A mix that is loud, and mastered properly, but still has some transients and breathing space sounds better to my ears than a squashed, compressed and limited to hell mix. Maybe I’m just old fashioned, but that’s my take on it.

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mightymusic – 07-14-2011, 05:22 AM
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Quote Originally Posted by ; View Post
rocksure
Let’s stop competing for loudness and look for musicality. A mix that is loud, and mastered properly, but still has some transients and breathing space sounds better to my ears than a squashed, compressed and limited to hell mix.
I think whats important here is what kind of genre it is and where it’s going to be played – like club mixes are different to radio mixes and so on, but I do agree that alot of music is fatiguing to listen to at home due to over comping and limiting. Often our ears are literally the best compressors around.

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TonyB – 07-14-2011, 06:57 AM
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Good article. You did a great job explaining the difference.As I always harp on in this forum is that there’s a difference between loud and fullness.The “big boy” mixes are full; they sound and “feel” loud. Alot of homework and care go into the tracking phase. Typically that’s the underlying culprit with loud…but not full…mixes.

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dudermn – 07-15-2011, 07:45 AM
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Here in mother Russia we call these Peaks. And what you call peaks we call Normalizate. I did mention it was a language berriar.

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drbeckel – 07-19-2011, 02:26 PM
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Could youi please elaborate on what the 2bus is, and where is it in the overall mix? Is it separate from the master track? If so, what is primary purpose?

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dedymann – 07-19-2011, 02:37 PM
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Great information, never thought condenser with create a problem later in the mix, but I understand some of the problems hear allotwhen I record foley – mainly on slaps claps hand shakes and other things with fast harsh picks.DavidSound Effects | Free Sound Effect | Sound effects downloads

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Noego – 07-19-2011, 02:51 PM
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Funny I use my Peluso Royer like ribbons on Djembe too. It just sounded right. Just angle them a bit and not closer than 6 inches or so. They sound more natural for sure. I didn’t know the big guy agreed…lol

.

Could youi please elaborate on what the 2bus is, and where is it in the overall mix? Is it separate from the master track? If so, what is primary purpose?

Too answer your question..the two buss is the stereo main buss from your board or software instead of your sub busses or groups . ….the program buss. The last resort before documenting the mix. In some but not all situations you can put compressors, eqs etc inserted on this buss and affect your overall mix to bring up levels, play with the sonics etc. .

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maniacguitar – 07-19-2011, 09:07 PM
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Quote Originally Posted by dudermn View Post
This is a dumb question, but what are transients? I’m under the impression that their either harmonics that are disonant to the composition their accompaning yest still the same notes , or added felt from micing. It’s just, the country I live in, we have different terms.
Hmm, when you talk about these dissonant harmonics are you saying that you’ve had this problem before?

I raise a question to you, I’ve heard of certain composers who say “everything perfectly in tune sounds better”. Then I heard about these harmonics that are dissonant to the notes the instrument is playing, as you pointed out.

Have you ever experimented with these harmonics’? I once tried to eq all these frequencies out in order to achieve a “pure” sound and all I got was a very clean but almost lifeless sound.

Do you think you can achieve a cleaner more precise sound if you clean out the unnecesary harmonics’?

cheers mate!

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pigsnoot – 07-21-2011, 08:58 AM
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I love transients !!! I peak the hell of out ‘em with transient designers, and shave them off brutally, so you still have that “twack” but it doesn’t consume all of your headroom

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redworks – 09-13-2011, 09:52 AM
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Quote Originally Posted by Vic Demise View Post
Transients are quick, sharp sounds, like snares, kicks, claps- essentially a spike in waveform. You don’t wanna elimimnate them, but you gotta look out!! They cause distortion, however brief, but if you back off the volume, you may lose the whole sound in the mix.(That’s all I’m prepared to say on the matter at this hour!!)

There is no such thing as a dumb question. If you don’t ask, you will have a much harder time finding a lot of things out!! (Okay, there are a few dumb questions, but this was not one of them).
actually there are no dumb questions. but there are some questions that you should ask (and answer) yourself. this is definitely not one of those questions.

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bilkin – 01-17-2012, 04:05 PM
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too bad the copyright police took down the Sweiden interview it was way informative, now it’s just not out there anymore. Way to encourage the spread of knowledge there big guys.

Brandon Drury

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Brandon Drury quit counting at 1,200 recorded songs in his busy home recording studio. He is the creator of RecordingReview.com and is the author of the Killer Home Recording series.
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