It’s hard to make a good sounding record. There is a lot that goes into getting a song to sound like the ones you hear/watch on YouTube, the radio or the streaming services. Sometimes no amount of eq, compression or wizardry seems to help get us closer to it. Sounds familiar?
Interestingly, these days most of those records are made with equipment that is available to everyone. An overwhelming majority of records are mixed with Pro Tools for example, often on off-the-shelf laptops. (That’s what I use to mix every record I work on and to write this blog post on too). That is quite a departure from the past when the consoles, tape machines or even studio acoustics were incredibly expensive to own or even rent but made a huge difference in the sound and feel of a record. The beautiful thing today is that since very same gear is available to everyone for a reasonable cost, the playing field has been leveled. The difference now lies a lot more with the skill of the producer and the engineer than with the gear. Basically, we all use the same stuff. Really.
That said, over the years, the top engineers have developed tricks and techniques to get the sounds they want. Some tricks were brought over from the analog days, passed down from engineer to assistant and then again to their assistant when they became engineers over the years, some were designed to emulate the effect of some of the analog gear they used to use, some were developed in the digital domain exclusively. Those tricks are part of the secrets secret that helps the best tracks sound the way they do.
My partner Guillaume and I founded PROCESS.AUDIO to make some of that secret sauce available to everyone in the shape of plugins that harness the knowledge I, and my fellow seasoned mixing engineers, have gathered over the years. Our first plugin is called SUGAR. It was designed to help enhance your tracks in four crucial areas of the audio spectrum. It was also designed to keep things simple and intuitive to allow for creative uses of the processes and minimal manual reading (the manual is pretty good though)
We have all struggled with getting a bass drum or the bottom of a whole mix to hit as hard as our favorite thumping track. It’s a perennial problem. The LOW section in SUGAR helps with that. It lets you jack up the bottom of any bass drum, electronic or acoustic, without blowing out the whole track. Because SUGAR works in parallel and in linear mode, you can squeeze a very controlled and very fat low end out of the most anemic source track without creating any mess with adjacent tracks. The hi-pass filter on the bottom left also helps control the excess sub-lows should you need to. I tend to have mine sit between 20 and 30 hertz on STEEP mode when pushing the bottom hard. All SUGAR processes have two colors that complement each other. The LOW section has THICK, which is default and PUNCH, which is designed to add back the transient you may lose when adding a lot of the process. It’s always a good workflow to try both settings as they are very dynamic and can inspire new ideas quickly.
Here’s a quick run through of how to use SUGAR on bass drums by yours truly:
SUGAR TECHNIQUES FOR BASS DRUMS
We used to get a lot of help from the gear we tracked records with. A tube microphone would be plugged into a console then into a tape machine, back into the console and then into another tape machine for final printing. The sound was going through a lot of transformers and i/o circuits before it got to the listeners’ ears. That path added a certain density to the sound. Today our recording chains are perfect. We get no color from the equipment. It’s wonderful because we can be sure that the equipment is never in the way but that artificial density created by the vintage chain is no longer there by default. The MID section of SUGAR is designed to help with that. It is particularly useful on electric basses, acoustic bass drums and on vocals recorded with cheap Chinese made microphones recorded through transformerless preamps.
Here’s an example of how the MID process works on a P-BAss:
SUGAR EXAMPLE FOR ELECTRIC BASS
The main focal element of modern pop records is the vocal. Front and center. And it’s the hardest to nail for most people. It’s really difficult to get that present yet magical tone. Often vocals are recorded too thin and it’s very hard to get the heft needed to command attention without sounding muddy (the MID section of SUGAR is there for that, see above). Then it’s difficult to get that ubiquitous sheen without making the lead shrill or unnecessarily aggressive sounding. The HI section of SUGAR does the trick every-time. Like all SUGAR processes, HI has two colors to choose from. I recommend starting with the SHINE setting and then trying the EXCITE settings if you need more push. Raise the process fader until you feel like you’re doing too much, back it off by 5 points and let it sit for a while. Come back and refocus on it later in the mix for a final tweak. (Our brains get used to high frequencies very rapidly and the SUGAR HI can be addictive.)
Here are three examples of how to best use SUGAR on vocals with lots of HI action:
SUGAR TRICK TO ENHANCE ALL TYPES OF VOCALS
The best sounding records feel like the top never ends, like there is infinite space above the lead vocal or the snare (often the brightest and most forward elements of a mix). We have all toyed with the 16k band of a Pultec style EQ to try and get that lift.
The problem with a straight EQ push is that everything gets lifted equally, which means that all those ‘sssss’, ‘kssss’, and snare transients, that took so much work to be kept in check with the arsenal of de-esser and compressors throughout your mix, are being lifted in equal proportions. It’s counterproductive. The AIR section of SUGAR works in linear and parallel fashion to raise the roof of the mix while minimizing the artifacts. It’s like a modern version of the classic Dolby-A trick using the cleanest filters possible and tuned to always sound pleasant. This process heavily phase dependent so it’s important to try both YIN and YANG every-time you use it.
Check this example of that AIR can do on a full mix:
EXPLORE YIN AND YANG WITH SUGAR
As I mentioned before, modern recording equipment is clean, delightfully clean. It’s hard to get a bad recording out of an AVID HD io for example. What you put in is what you get back, which is awesome. Yet sometimes we crave something else than pure reality. Our ears are used to the sound of the classic records that we have been listening to and learned to love. The beauty is that we can choose where and when we can add that sound. The 4 SUGAR processes help bring that color back easily and the final saturation stage is the cherry on top of the cake.
The DRIVE setting is the gateway to getting too slick a bass or an 808 to cut through an easy mix, to un-pretty-ing a vocal to add some edge, to softening transients across a whole mix to ‘make it sound more like a record’. The DISTORT setting takes it to another level and is geared more towards special effects and obvious gritty sounds. The DESTROY setting bears its name well and does what it says it does. Perfect for extreme chaos on a drum submix for example.
Here is a good example of what the saturation DRIVE circuit can do for a synth bass:
SUGAR HAS A COMPREHENSIVE SATURATION SECTION
Over the couple of years it took to develop SUGAR, it has become an integral part of my production and mixing arsenal. I routinely have 10 to 15 instances on any given mix and I use a lot less eq and compression because of it. I was delighted to see so many people including my peers of the pro-mixing community adopt it quickly as part of their toolbox. Some like Vance Powell, Greg Wells, and Darrell Thorpe were kind enough to share their presets with us so we included them along with mine in the current release of the plugin so you can use them as start points.
I’ll leave you with the first commercial release to be mixed with SUGAR 1.0 on the bass drum, synth bass, 808 bass drum, lead vocal, back vocals and mix buss.
Lolo Zouai ‘Jade’.