There are a lot of factors that go into making a track sound professional and polished. One of the unfortunate realities that new music producers must face today is the increasing standard level of loudness referred to as the “loudness wars.” This means that in order for your music to be commercially viable, it has to be at a competitive loudness level when played between other tracks on a club or festival system. Most of the advice found on the internet will tell you that compression is the key to loud tracks. While compression can certainly help significantly, it’s a tool that can take a while to get the hang of and it can also destroy your music if used improperly or excessively.
The truth is that there is no magic bullet when it comes to plugins that will give you a professional sounding mix. The best way to get a loud, balanced mix is a lot of practice and a ton of small moves that add up to something bigger. It’s always best to master the stock plugins in your DAW before spending endless amounts of money on plugins you don’t need, but sometimes it can be worth it to spend a few bucks and gain features that your stock plugins just don’t have. Today we’re going to talk about some 3rd party plugins that can give you a slight edge and help your music sound a couple steps closer to the pros.
When you have multiple instruments in a song that occupy the same frequency range and play at the same time, those frequencies can build up and create loud peaks in your waveform. Those peaks will then distort long before any other part of the audio when pushed into a limiter, and this will prevent you from pushing your track to its full potential. Sidechaining is a great technique to avoid this buildup as it allows one instrument to duck out of another’s way.
TrackSpacer is an amazing plugin for saving headroom and allowing you to make your mix just a little louder. What makes it so unique is that it utilizes sidechaining in a way that no other plugin on the market currently does. Rather than completely ducking the entire signal like sidechain compression would, TrackSpacer allows you to only duck whatever frequencies are detected in the incoming signal. This is extremely useful, say, if you want your kick and bass to sit well together (the ultimate battle for a dance music producer). Rather than dropping the level of your entire bass every time the kick hits like compression would, you can just compress the lower frequencies, as that is where the most buildup will be.
Multiband sidechain compression and dynamic EQ are two other alternatives to standard compression, but these plugins generally only have 4 – 6 different frequency bands that can be attenuated. TrackSpacer has 32 bands and offers precision like nothing else you’ll find. It’s a bit spendy, but if you’re looking for a sidechaining alternative that’s a step up from regular old compression, definitely look into it.
iZotope Trash 2
Saturation and distortion are two plugins that rarely get talked about when it comes to crafting a loud mix, but they are two of the most important tools to achieve that. Back in the day when studios relied solely on analog gear and everything was recorded to tape, saturation and distortion were naturally occurring phenomena. There was a natural warmth to tape recordings that is just not as common in the digital world.
Music sounds a lot different today and in order to add some of that life back into our recordings, we use saturation and distortion to emulate what was once a naturally occurring process. They add harmonic content and body to sounds that would otherwise be just too clean and pristine. iZotope’s Trash 2 is especially great for this because it is a multi-band, multi-stage saturation and distortion plugin that can completely mangle a sound or give it subtle presence. A bit of grit on the top end of a kick or bass can go a long way to cut through on laptop and smartphone speakers while making them seem louder and fuller on bigger systems.
The sheer number of parameters and presets available to Trash 2 users is remarkable on its own, but even the smallest moves can have a big impact on your mix.
Devil-Loc is another great distortion plugin. It was originally developed to be used on drums, but can give a nice flavor to just about any sound. With only two knobs, crush and crunch, it doesn’t get much simpler than this – and a little goes a long way. Try using it in parallel to your bass or drum buss to blend in some nice harmonics without completely destroying the original signal.
Grammy award-winning mix engineer Dave Pensado is quoted as saying he puts Devil-Loc on his salad.
“It goes on everything”.
If it’s good enough for Dave, it’s at the very least worth a free trial test run.