Some people refer to “mixing tricks” but are they really tricks? When is a technique just a technique? Julian looks at some common examples and decides.
What Do I Think Of As A Studio Trick?
Some people are going to disagree, that’s fine. Some people are going to think I’m being pedantic or splitting hairs, again totally fine with that, but for me some of the things being enthusiastically described as “tricks” are nothing of the sort. They are simply using equipment for its intended purpose. For something to be a trick, for me it has to involve using a tool in a new way, other than that intended by the designer.
Here are six production “tricks”, along with my thoughts on whether or not they deserve that name. Some do but not all of them. One thing I definitely think is that they are all great techniques, but tricks?…
Abbey Road Reverb Trick
AKA - Putting high and low pass filters on the send to a reverb instead of filtering the return. Not A Trick
This is a great technique which makes perfect sense because, as reverb is a time based effect, the results will be different from filtering the output of the reverb. The decay time of a reverb is rarely constant across the frequency range and keeping rubbish you don’t want out of a reverb is much better than trying to filter it out after the damage has been done. I don’t think this is a trick as it just involves using filters for their intended purpose. That’s not to say that it isn’t a good idea, because it is.
AKA - Processing the Mid and Side components of a stereo signal separately and then matrixing them back in to LR stereo. Kind Of A Trick
M/S is clever and the sides channel in particular offers a big “wow factor” Because of this, it lends itself to being talked about online but it’s not in any way new. It’s been around as long as stereo. Unlike early stereo material, modern records tend to be reasonably symmetrical with the most important information in the centre and because of this, typical stereo material fits M/S processing perfectly. Just pushing the level of the sides channel for extra width, compressing the mid channel or adding some 4K to the sides to bring out the bite of your wide electric guitars all offer something you can’t do with LR stereo. But is it a “trick”? Maybe, but you could argue that it’s just an alternative way of processing stereo. Here’s a Pro Tools session which does the necessary matrixing to allow you to experiment with M/S.
Side Chaining Kicks
AKA - Using a compressor’s external side chain input to dip the level of bass instruments automatically each time the kick drum hits to clear space and manage headroom at the bottom end. Not A Trick
This has been very popular, particularly as an exaggerated effect in dance music. What has become a stylistic choice started out as a way to allocate the limited headroom available to allow kicks which felt louder than would have been possible without using external side chains. I’m not calling this a trick as it’s using a compressor’s external side chain in a perfectly conventional way - to control the level of a signal in response to the level of an external signal. It still makes stuff pump like nothing else though!
Sub Tone Kick Trick
AKA - Using a signal generator and an externally side chained gate to synthesise extra bottom end in a kick drum. A Trick
I’ve always liked this trick, though I don’t use it much any more. It makes such a good example for demonstrating routing, dynamics processing and the link between frequency and pitch. I used this a lot when I was teaching. There are better ways to achieve this effect, such as the excellent Thump from Metric Halo which introduces a pitch drop into the sub tone which makes it sound more natural and stops it being so “ringy”. However as this is definitely using a test oscillator for something other than its intended purpose and by pairing it with an external control signal (the original kick track) and a rudimentary envelope generator (the gate) it creates a makeshift synthesiser which in my book makes this definitely a trick.
See this technique used on kicks and snares in this tutorial video.
Pultec Bottom End Trick
AKA - Using a simultaneous cut and boost to introduce a distinctive bass boost which shouldn’t be there. A Trick
The Pultec EQP-1A Is a passive valve EQ. Because of this particular design, there are separate controls for bass boost and cut but frequency selection is made from a shared selector control. Although there are separate controls for boost and cut I’m not sure it was the designer’s intention that they should be used together, it is just a convenient way to present the controls in this design of EQ. Because of differences between the boost and the cut circuits users soon discovered that with identical boosts and cuts, which should cancel each other out, the results were far from flat. Exactly why this happens is unimportant, what is important is that it sounds really good. I’m pretty sure this is unintended by the designers of the product and so I’ll happily categorise this as a trick.
1176 All Buttons In Trick
AKA - This one is probably so famous I don’t need to explain! A Trick
The compression ratio on an 1176 is selected using “radio buttons”. While lots of people reading this will be too young to remember the old fashioned car radio buttons which gave them their name, a radio button is one where by pressing another button the previously pressed one pops out - you can select only one at a time. Because they were mechanical buttons it was possible to hold in all four at once and engage all four ratios simultaneously. The result was wild and unpredictable but undeniably memorable. Only really useable in parallel with the dry signal this has become a very popular character effect on plug-ins and pretty much every 1176 plug-in features some way of accessing this “feature”. This is equipment abuse at its finest and definitely counts as a trick.
What Do You Think?
There are six audio techniques that often get labeled as tricks, only 3 of which we declare are tricks. What do you think? Are there other ‘tricks’ that you don’t consider to be tricks? Do share your thoughts and comments below…