Knowing how to shape and fine tune the punch in your tracks is an essential tool for music producers. This article explores the different ways of manipulating the transients of audio material and also offers a free plugin for measuring how punchy your mix is.
What is punch in audio?
We hear the term ‘punchy mix’ thrown around a lot, but what exactly are we talking about? We’re talking about the attack and sonic qualities of the transients in audio; how they sound and feel in the context of the whole mix.
A transient is the plosive, short sound at the beginning of a waveform. A snare drum hit would be a good example of a waveform with an obvious transient. A sustained, single note pad that very slowly fades in would be an example of audio without any transients.
Creating punch in your Track
A tight musical performance where all the musical parts are playing together will help your track really HIT. Great musical performances and tasteful quantisation can help get you on your way to a punchy mix.
Arrangement and instrumentation plays a large part in punch too. When there are fewer elements in your mix fighting for space, the transients pop out more. The more musical elements you add to the mix, the more important it becomes to use the stereo and frequency spectrum intelligently.
Your recorded audio or imported samples will already have transients, but more often than not you will want to use plugins to manipulate the sound. The first step is to asses your source material to decipher what kind of transients you are working with. I like to think of transients having three main characteristics; volume, length and character. Here are some examples of common types of transients.
Very Fast and Stabby
Fast and Thick / Saturated
Fast and Soft
Slow and Soft
Increasing the volume of the transients
There are a number of transient shapers on the market both paid and free. But my favourite way to make the transients in your mix poke out a bit more is by using a process called upward expansion. Upward expansion increases the volume of the louder elements of the audio material. By using a multi band expander you can zone in on the frequencies you want to make sound more punchy.
I use the expander in Fabfilters Pro MB to target specific frequencies in the material I’m working on. In the example below I wanted to add a bit of punch to the snare without affecting the hi hats or toms that were also in the stem. Here’s what I did…
1. Create a band that focuses on the ‘bite’ of the snare frequencies (in this scenario around 650Hz to 5kHz).
2. Set the mode to ‘EXPAND’.
3. Make sure the range is in positive figures (i.e +6dB)
4. Play with the threshold so that the signal exceeds the threshold.
Here are some other scenarios where an expander can be really helpful:
• Increase the punch of a kick without affecting the sub or the click.
• Increase clarity of the hi hat and cymbal transients on the master bus.
• Adding a dynamic lift to the lower mids of a synth (careful not to make it sound muddy).
• Adding subtle transient enhancement to an entire mix. I’ll usually only do this in the upper mids and high frequencies.
Shaping the duration of the transient
The duration of the transient has a considerable effect on how punchy we perceive it to be. To short and you’ll miss it, too long and it might sound too ‘clicky’ in your mix.
Lets take a look at those types of transients again…
If you’re happy with the sound of your audio and you want to leave the transients untouched, but you want the audio to have a more consistent volume, you could automate using a gain plugin. If you feel the audio needs to beefing up you could use a compressor with a slow attack and fast release. This will mean that the compressor will kick in a few milliseconds after the transient, leaving it untouched.
The transients in your source audio are seldom ‘perfect’ for you mix, and can often feel like they’re a bit too ‘pointy’. We can make these transients feel a bit thicker by blunting them with compression or a limiter. I’ll tweak the settings to make sure the volume of the source audio is unchanged, and I’ll play around with a short attack and a slow release to blunt clicker transients to make them sound thicker.
Distortion and Saturation
Distortion and saturation when used in a certain way can add a sense of clarity to your mix. By slightly crunching up elements in your mix, you can make them stick out more which can make your mix feel punchier. Whether you’re using distortion to add more presence or using buzzy saturation sound to increase the length of the transient, it will have an effect on how punchy your track is.
Spacial effects such as reverb and delay can give your audio incredible depth and add interesting characteristics. But keep in mind that exaggerated spacial effects can make your transits sound washed out and weak. Shorter reverbs with a longer pre-delay will preserve your transients.
Controlling punch in your audio
Earlier we looked at increasing the volume of your transients, but what if you want to decrease their volume? A very simple and effective way to do this is to use a transient designer. Below you can see and example of a kick sample with an overly prominent transient. Using the SPL transient designer, I have carefully reduced the attack of the transient without effecting the volume of the kick body.
We could also use a multi band compressor to target specific frequencies that are sticking out too much. Using the same kick sample as before, I can target just the very high frequencies, leaving the low end thump of the kick in tact.
- Create a band that focuses on the clicky top frequencies of the kick (in this scenario around 7kHz and above).
- Set the mode to ‘Compress’.
- Make sure the range is in negative figures (i.e -6dB)
- Set the attack to the fast possible setting.
- Slower release and high threshold can be effective in this scenario.
- Play with the threshold so that the signal exceeds the threshold.
Another great tool to check out is Fission by Eventide. Fission separates your audio into its transient and tonal elements, lets you shape them individually, then reconstructs two two elements back together. This gives you a huge amount of control over the punch of your audio.
Measuring punch in your audio
My company Mastering The Mix created a tool called LEVELS to help producers keep an eye on the important technical details of their mix. One of the sections in LEVELS focuses on telling you how punchy your mix is. The ‘Dynamic Range’ section displays the peak to short-term loudness ratio using an easy to understand visual and DR (Dynamic Range) reading. The ‘Dynamic Range’ section in LEVELS remains active even after the trial has expired. (We’re passionate about dynamic music at Mastering The Mix…)