How to Mix With Free Plugins

How to Mix with Free Plugins

When mixing with free plugins, starts by balancing your low frequencies using EQ and compression on kicks, 808s, and low synths – then, move on to your vocal by using equalization, compression, and saturation.  Saturation will likely be used on your other instruments to bring forward more detail and control dynamics.

Balancing Low End

For this mix, the first thing I want to do is balance my low frequencies, since I have a lot of them.  To do this I’m going to use an EQ on my Drum Loop, 808, and synth, and attenuate aspects where they aggressively overlap.

On the drum loop, I’m going to attenuate 47Hz where the 808 is going to be – I’ll also attenuate this frequency on the 808 since it’s a bit too strong, and gradually reduce the harmonics of this frequency to reduce the psychoacoustic amplification of this fundamental.

For the synth, I’ll use a gradual 6dB/octave high pass, attenuate the fundamental, and some harmonics as well.

Let’s take a listen to how this reduces masking and overbearing frequencies in the lows.

Controlling Low-End Dynamics

The next thing I want to focus on is the dynamics of my lows – so I’ll compress the 808 and synth using the drum loop as the external side chain.  This way whenever the kick of the drum loop hits, the 808 and synth are reduced, making more room.

This is similar to what we did in the last chapter, but instead of equalizing to create room, we reduce the overall amplitude with compression to make room.  Let’s listen to it.

Equalizing the Vocal with MEqualizer

With the low end more balanced, let’s start focusing on the vocal, first by gradually attenuating lows with a 6dB/Octave low pass, and then dipping some mids.  I’m also going to subtly increase 3.5kHz to add clarity and presence to the vocal, making it stick out.

Let’s listen to how this makes the vocal clearer, and more prominent.

Bringing the Vocal to the Front

With a compressor, I’m going to expand and compress the vocal to get as much detail out of it as possible.  Using MCompressor, I’m going to set a 1ms attack, 1ms release, and then select the custom shape, with which I’ll the level of the quietest details, before soft-knee compression.

Lastly, I’ll increase the output to make up for the attenuation.  The fast attack and release are causing more signals to be captured by the compressor, which is then made up for via the output, while the low-level expansion is bringing quieter details forward. 

Let’s listen to it.

Saturation on Low-End Instruments

Saturation is a great way to fill out a sound, and also create space amongst multiple instruments by emphasizing different harmonics.  For the drum loop I’ll decrease the 2nd harmonic, but increase the 4th, while for the 808 I’ll do the opposite – further separating the 2 instruments.

For the synth, I went in a different direction and emulated FET saturation with the free plugin PreFET. Let’s listen and notice how the lows become more complex but don’t conflict with one another.

Saturation on Vocal

When saturating a vocal, we can use harmonics to achieve specific characteristics – for this vocal I decided to emphasize the 2nd order harmonic, to make it have a warm and full sound.  I then blended in the effect with the wet/dry and lowered the output to compensate for amplification.

Let’s listen and notice how the vocal is fuller.

Saturation on Supporting Instruments

Next, I took a look at the supporting instruments – first I equalized them by reducing their lows and emphasizing high frequencies to add clarity.  Then I saturated, meaning I drove frequencies that I amplified with the EQ into the saturator – giving the instruments a more unique timbre.

For the saturation, I simply did what sounded best, but made sure to vary their harmonics so they didn’t overlap and lose their identity.  Let’s take a listen.

Sound Delay on Supporting Instruments

To affect my stereo image I used the Voxengo plugin Sound Delay, and changed the routing to dual mono.  Then on both of my supporting instruments, I delayed one channel by 5 to 10ms to cause phase cancellation and subsequent stereo widening – placing the instruments far left and right.

I found this made the instruments more interesting, but more importantly, gave them some space since they’re no longer being masked by signals in the already busy center image. Let’s take a listen.

Slapback and Reverb on Vocal

For the time being, I’ve done all I need to to the instrumental, so let’s look at the vocal – using 2 instances of Valhalla Supermassive, I’ll first double the vocal with a quick, 1/64 note delay, and then reverberate it with a 1/16th note reverb.

The plugin can be a little difficult to use, so I started with the preset WaveDelay on the vocal then altered the mode, mix amount, delay length, and more.  Similarly, I started with Reverb2000 and changed the settings to better fit the song.

Let’s listen to how the delay thickens the vocal, and the reverb stylizes it.

Drum, INST, and Vocal Bus Processing

Next, I’m going to create busses where I can process similar groups of instruments – I’ll start with a drum bus, then an instrumental, and then create a vocal bus. On these buses, I used the Slate Digital Fresh Air plugin, which brightened the sound of each.

I find that using this plugin on these signals separately instead of on the master output benefits the sound and gives me more control.  Then I blended the levels of the busses with the channel faders.  Let’s take a listen.

Demo Mastering with Free Plugins

Last up I’m going to create a quick demo master in case I need to show someone the track – I’ll first insert RareSE by Analog Obsession on my stereo output.  With it, I’ll switch to the mid-side more and de-link the channels, before attenuating the side’s low frequencies.

This will make the kick and bass more mono, and center – then I’ll boost some of the highs to cause high-frequency stereo expansion.  Lastly, with this plugin, I’ll subtly boost the kick on the mids, and some of the presence.

For a limiter, I’ll use LimiterOne by CISDSP Factory and reduce the threshold to enable limiting and auto-make-up gain. 

Let’s listen to the track and enable these 2 settings, and notice how it creates a decent demo master.

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