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How to Make a Crisp Mix

When making a crisp mix, you need to find ways to both amplify and slightly distort or compress the high frequencies. Having a present high-frequency range can often be achieved with a shelf filter, followed by compression or distortion, and utilized until the mix sounds “crisp.”


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What is a Crisp Mix?

A lot of terms in audio are a bit vague, but in short, a crisp mix is one that has a good amount of high-frequency detail, and it is often slightly compressed or distorted in this range. The distortion or compressed nature of the highs creates a unique, crisp, timbre.

Let’s listen to a mix that sounds a little dull, and then make it crisp so we know what we’re listening for.

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Driving High Shelf EQ into Compression

On our mix, or individual instrument or bus, we can place an EQ before compression, and increase the high frequencies - in turn driving the highs into the compressor. This is called an emphasis technique, and it’ll cause the compressor to work harder on the high-frequency range.

This will cause the aforementioned compressed high-frequency sound, that listeners associate with a crisp sound. Let’s listen and notice how the 2 effects complement each other.

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Driving High Shelf EQ into Saturation

Similar to our last chapter, we can drive high frequencies into a saturator for a similar purpose. This time around, our compression will be soft-knee and more indicative of analog equipment - additionally, we’ll introduce harmonic distortion, filling out the sound and causing a denser sounding high-frequency range.

Let’s listen and notice how the sound is similar to our last chapter but has a unique character that sets it apart.

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High-Frequency Distortion

It’s possible to simply distort high frequencies to achieve a crisp mix - to do this, use a multi-band saturator or distortion plugins like FabFilter’s Saturn 2 or Izotope’s Trash plugin. Then isolate the distortion to just the high frequencies - in turn creating harmonics, causing a dense and crisp sound.

Let’s take a listen to Saturn 2 being used for this, and notice how the highs become significantly more prominent.

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Quick Attack and Release on Highs

For this trick, let’s use a multi-band compressor, and on the high frequencies set a super quick attack and release. This is going to cause distortion on the high frequencies, but only when the signal crosses the threshold, triggering the compression - making for program-dependent distortion.

This is a great way to create a crisp sound that responds to the signal’s dynamics. Let’s listen and note how the crispness occurs in a dynamic way.

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Transient Expansion on Highs

Transient expanders cause mild to moderate distortion on the transients, in turn making them a lot more prominent. We can use one and focus it on the high frequencies to expand these transients, causing a crisp sound, and one with a lot of high-frequency detail.

While some of the other tricks on this list create a dense sound, this one is great for making a crisp, but dynamic sound . Let’s listen to it.

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Clipper on High Frequencies

For this trick and the next 2 tricks, I’m going to set up a parallel send and on it place a linear phase EQ, with which I’ll create a high pass filter. Now I can process only the highs - after the EQ I’ll insert a clipper and clip the highs.

With the channel fader, I’ll blend these clipped highs back in with the original signal - allowing me to create a unique and crisp sound with the ability to carefully control the amount. Let’s listen to it.

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Upward Compression on Highs

Just like the last chapter, I’ll use the parallel send with a high-pass linear phase EQ to isolate the high frequencies. Next, I’ll insert an upward compressor, in this case, the Waves MV2, which will capture quieter parts of the signal, compress, and amplify them.

Then I’ll blend the compressed signal in with the original. Let’s listen and notice how this creates a very dense, detailed, and crisp sound.

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Parallel High-Frequency Compression

Last up for tricks that use parallel processing, let’s use the same setup as the last 2 chapters, but insert a regular compressor afterward. I’m going to use quick attack, quick release, and automatic makeup gain to both bring the compressed details forward, and dynamically distort the signal.

Like before, I’ll blend it back in. Let’s listen and notice how has a similar, but slightly different timbre than the multi-band compression trick we used in chapter 5.

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De-ess then EQ Highs

This trick works really well on vocals, but it can be used on other instruments and even a full mix - in short, I use a de-esser to compress the high frequencies, reducing their dynamic range and overall level. I then make up for the reduced level with a shelf.

I’ll use a shelf for the de-essing, and then an EQ shelf with the same center frequency as the de-esser, and amplify it the same or more than the amount of compression.

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Dynamic Shelf, Without Sibilance

If we have a dynamic EQ, we can create a high shelf that responds to the incoming signal, in turn increasing the dynamic range and level of the highs. To avoid excessive sibilance if we use this on the mix bus, we can create a bell over the sibilance.

This will balance out the sibilance and the highs while causing a dynamic, crisp sound. Let’s listen, and consider how this trick could be combined with the trick used in chapters 2 and 3.

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Modulated Saturation on Highs

Similar to chapter 4 in which we distorted the highs, we can use modulated distortion on the highs to combine a few effects. If we create an envelope follower with Saturn 2 and shorten its length, we can then attach it to the drive dial.

This will distort the highs in a program-dependent way, and even cause some transient expansion. Let’s listen and notice how this creates a dynamic, crisp sound.

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