Build Your Track: Sound Design -Ranges, Placements, Layers -Part 2-

This blog is post 2 of a 4 post series, if you didn’t read this…. Part 1

I would check that out first, mainly as I am going to jump right into the ranges and the rest of the lessons. However, if you don’t have the back info a lot of this will seemed rushed or not make sense. Also, this post is DENSE. In fact, 5 years ago I would have looked at it, read 30 seconds and gave up due to it being content heavy. I truly think, if you can wrap your had around these concepts  it will MASSIVELY improve how you view sound design and mixing. I've taught these lessons privately for well over a year with some killer results.

Cool, so let’s quickly chat about what you will find in part 2.

-Rest of the range guide 750hz to 20khz.

A quick recap of what I was chatting about in the last post. The reason why ranges are EVERYTHING is that it will fix all your

"How do I layer"
"Why does my track sound weak"
"Why is my track hollow"
"Why isn’t my track clean etc"

Pretty much all the questions you hear on forums ( which I have recently been aggressively stalking to help guide my blog pieces) can be answered by 

“What range is giving you the trouble? Why does it have the trouble? 

Once you realize simply what range or ranges are causing the issue, you can easily go fix them.

( now, it should be noted as easy as this sounds, it usually takes YEARS to be able to hear this stuff. Truly, for years the bottom end of a track made no sense to me, 35hz, 75hz, 250hz, you could tell me all the info, but I couldn't hear the issues. After 3-4 years, one day I simply could. I know this sounds crazy, but if you've been producing for many years this most likely happened to you as well) Anywho,

If its not a range issue, its most likely a placement issue ( will talk about at the end and part 3-4). If it’s not a range or a placement issue, it can be a texture issue ( the sounds aren’t ideal together, aka your super saw with a fast attack is in the same range as the upper limits of your bass patch with a slow throaty attack which are fighting each other for space.)

In fact, the key to getting a great mix is 3 main things.

-Ideal sounds across ALL ranges ( with proper boosts and cut’s depending on genre)

-Spacing ( placing elements center/left/right/back/front of the mix and every combo in between)

-Textures that work well together ( more on this in the next blog post)

If you can nail all 3 of these, your good to go. These are the key, the amount of compression you use, the “ perfect limiter” the newest or coolest EQ plugin will do nothing compared to the above.

Something I overlooked for years was the BASIC stuff, I was focused on learning some crazy advance super mixing secrets, when I finally sat in the studio with a Grammy nom pop producer, I saw how he mixed.

It was clean, it was simple and THAT was the secret. He had each sound in it’s pocket, used hardly any ( even no) compression at times and made sure his textures played well together.( you'll learn this over time and with practice.)

On top of that, he didn’t layer redundant things, If your good at sound design, you don’t need 4 main layers for a lead, often times ONE synth with 3’0sc’s will be plenty for a main lead sound.

( a side note, when I started producing, I had NO IDEA what made up the sounds I was hearing. Over time, I learned and learned, but for many years I still thought these sounds had 5 times the amount of layers. AKA I was trying to layer WAY to many sounds, to get my point across. The more advanced you get with sound design, the more you realize how simple the sounds are, they just are designed a certain way to be effective in the mix.)  

Awesome, so I will be honest here, the reason I am hammering this point home is due to the nature of the internet in general.

People LOVE to search for the magic pill, the secret, the “one trick”

In fact, people email me all the time...Nyonyxx ! Love your blog, but your not telling us the SECRET INFO, your keeping it for yourself. ( legit, 2-3 of these a week) 

Sorry guys, there’s no magic secret info. There is no magic pill, and directly from a Grammy nom producers DAW, I see 

Great sound selection
Reverb/Delay and other basic effects
Panning/ Seperation 
Minimal Compression ( mainly in the mastering of the track)

Those are the “tricks”. The real trick is training your ears as quickly as you can. 

Let’s jump into the rest of the ranges: (These start on Part 1)

750hz to 2khz

Type: Mid Section “Fatness” ( Ghost range, aka hard to hear for new producers)

Location: Center of the Mix. Sides of the mix (left or right). Stereo of the mix (left and right less center , these means the sound is louder on the "sides" compared to the mid using a mid side processor or stereo separation) Back and Front. AKA, it all depends on the track. Sadly, there are no hard rules for this range.

When in doubt, the majority of tracks will require this section in the center, however if you have a sound around the low end of the spectrum and a sound up high, the high one may be placed else where etc. While you want to have some density in the sides of the mix, don't go over board with the mid/side processing. A little goes a LONG way.

Key Sound Design Notes: Another massively overlooked section, in my mixing endeavors it seems people often overlook this section for the one directly above it. Usually, the sounds in this range are the “carry over” from the synths above it. While this is fine sometimes, people usually have poor sound selection in this section due to this.

For example, if you are focusing on the sound around 5khz, and it has hold over into this range, you most likely aren’t thinking “ how does this synth sound on the lower ranges ”  Long story short, if your like most people you are building your synths in the range directly above this range. Make sure you listen closely and deeply to how the above ranges are effecting this range. Often times the poor sound selection in this range is because the artists aren’t even listening for it, they only hear the more “textured” section directly above.

I can safely say after 1,000’s of masters the most often that needs boosted is the 1.2k to 2k range, most often this is leading to a weak and hollow effect on the artists track.

This range is commonly known to cause “mud” as well. When I started producing I always kept this range clear due to worrying about mud. Years later I realized this just usually isn’t the case. I’d say maybe 1 in 25 tracks I get sent have “ too much” sound in this range. So in general, assume you are the norm and push more sound in this section.

It should also be noted, it's rather hard to "hear" this range on less then ideal gear ( cheap speakers/ non studio monitors/ low end headphones etc. While I understand most people will start on these, as I did for the first 3 years, I just wanted to let you be aware of the situation. 

One key note, left over reverb tends to get stuck in this range, make sure you are CONTROLING your reverb and where it is splashing, don’t just listen how the verb is effecting the main sound, check how it’s effecting ALL the sounds and how its causing additonal space to be taken up in your mix. ( remember, reverb like many effects, takes up additional space in your mix)

Layer Basic’s: Since this range is in the middle of the band, your going to have to deal with almost ALL the layers when fitting this one in. The good news, rarely people run out of room in this range ( mainly as it’s hard for new producers to judge, so they tend to ignore it) . 

More often then not, your going to want the bulk of the sound in the center of the mix ( it’s going to sound weird, if the center is hollow, but say your right side is dense). With that being said, it is possible you will have more then one sound in this range. In the end, you may end up having something around 750hz dead center of the mix caring the weight, and you may have something around 2khz pushed over left/right/ stereo wide etc etc. Use your best judgement when layering in this section, just remember you DO want to make sure you have hardness in the center of the mix.

Typical ADSR : In this range, you are free to do as you please. Unlike the low end and sub end, there aren’t many “rules” to follow, in fact it’s safe to say that every single track will be different. One good rule of thumb, if you have a bunch of fast attack sounds, use some slow attack sounds. If you have a bunch of slow attack sounds, use some fast attack sounds.

Same goes for sustain/release etc, make sure you are using a MIXTURE of settings across the sound range. You could have the BEST sounds on earth, but if ALL of them have nearly identical ADSR set ups the track is going to be lacking in texture/ tone and mix ability. Listen carefully to pro tracks, you can often hear a fast attack mixed with a slow attack etc etc.

Other Important Notes: In this section you are finally getting to a huge wide range of textures and sound concepts. What I mean is that in the lower ranges, it’s more about, density, feel, bounce etc etc. The main “ textures” of the sounds aren’t as important ( compared to having the right key for a sub bass, with the perfect release / density and bounce) . What I am trying to say is, you are now much much more free to be able to be creative with your sounds.

You never listen to a Knife Party Track and say “ wow, their sub bass was SO CREATIVE”  it hit’s so differently. 

No, you’d say “ holy shit, Knife Party’s sub end is SO CLEAN and hit’s so hard.

The low ends are all about this, the feel and vibe, the right mixture of what works in the club.

Some things work GREAT and some things don’t, more or less there are a lot more rules in the low end, less so when you get into the higher ranges of the track.

Make sure you carefully mix many different textures and styles into this range and the ones above it, this will give your track the creativity and uniqueness you crave, the sub bass hit 35hz while uber important, most likely isn’t going to land you a award for “ being creative”.

When you reach this section and above, start to trust your ears ( while making SURE you are keenly aware of what section/ space of the mix you are filling up)

2khz to 10khz

(yes I know a rather big range, but the info starts to become redundant on a smaller scale)

Type: The range EVERYONE knows about, Upper Mids/Low Highs 

Location: Can be anywhere, front/back/center/sides/left/right etc etc, sadly, I can’t give you a do this do that. Refer to the above section for more details on these locations.

Used for: The main “parts” of the song. This range is what 95% of people refer to when they are talking about a song. This may include the humming part, the bulk of the topline melody, the clairty aspects of the vocals etc. The first day you sat down to make a song, most likely the first few hours were spent mucking about in this range. Although sounds will most likely have carry over above and below this range, this is what people pick up on first.

The reason being this is the easy range to hear. The upper highs, you have to shift your thoughts upward to solo them out ( mental pictureing what’s up there) The mid of the song, you have to “dig” through the mix to be able to hear it. The sub end, you need a hi fi system and the bass end you’ll need to train your ears to be able to pick that out through the clutter. However, day one, you can easily pick out this range and get to work. ( this is why this range often has way to much going on, compared to the other ranges)

This is why most “preset sounds” you copy will come from this range, even if it’s a bass. Let me drop an example of what I mean.

Say you are searching for a Zedd bass sound, popular a few years back. While the low end of the bass sound was in fact a bass sound, the part of the sound you really wanted was around 1.5-5khz ( don’t have a daw infront of me, but you get the gist, it wasn’t in the bass range)

Needless to say, if I would cut all the sound above 500hz ( no longer bass roughly) and gave you a “Zedd sound” with the bass range only, you’d quickly go WTF that’s not the sound. It could be the real bass sound zedd is using, but without the part that’s highly audaible, it won’t sound the same.

What’s the point of this? I will come back to this later in the article, just keep this in mind so I don’t derail this section.

Key Sound Design Notes: Freedom, that is the best way I can describe this section, you are free to open your mind and do as you please. Unlike the low end, there are millions of combos of sounds that will sound good in this range ( and also sound awful) obv, I can’t list them all out. All I can say is make sure to use different textures, placed in different spots in the mix ( remember, 3d box theory) don’t place everything center of the mix, ESP if 2 sounds are in the same range, push one left, one right, just make sure they aren’t over lapping unless you DESINGED them to do so. Which is a more advanced topic I’ll cover at a later date.

One thing to note in this section, 90% of tracks I get sent have too many sounds in this range ! Let me say this again, most tracks put ALL the sounds in this section.

Weak 350-750 hz range, weak 750hz to 2.5khz range, then CRAM 5 sounds into this range. The reason ? Again, it’s the easy range to hear and pick out in the mix.

If you have an arp at 3khz, if you have a piano at 3khz, if you have a topline at 3khz, if you have saw chord mainly at 3khz you have TOO MUCH in this range. Lowering one a good deal, raise one a bit, slide the other one’s around in the mix to make sure they aren’t in the same space is a great idea.

I’d like to hammer this point home, so read this carefully…

If you’ve been producing under a year ( or even longer depending on time spent) there is a HUGE CHANCE all your sounds are focused in this range. I’ve seen people stack 6+ sounds that all hit in the same range, in the same section (center)

Simply put, spread your sounds around the ranges and spread your sounds around the sections ( front/back blah blah blah) you get the gist by now. This is the key to keeping this range clean. 

In the end, ask yourself, do I REALLY need this 3rd pluck sound at 4khz?  If you don’t, kill it.

Layer Basics: the above section touches a lot on layer basic’s. Again, just like pervious sections, avoid using the SAME textures over and over again, make sure you have smooth sounds, rough sounds, hard sounds, fast attack sounds, slow attack sounds etc etc. If you listen to any popular song ( that has a bunch of layers) you will see they try to have each texture in it’s own spot.

Next time you add a sound to your mix in this section ask yourself?

Does this attack interfere with XYZ sound. Does placing this lead in the center of the mix conflict with the vocals? Does it conflict with the 3 other lead sounds I have in the center? Should I move it somewhere.

When in doubt, destroy the layer or move it. As I said, the bulk of tracks tend to have WAY to much going on in this range, esp when drums are introduced.

Typical ADSR Settings: There aren’t any, truly, there are millions of combos that would work and ton’s that won’t, try to copy your favorite artists to learn what works and what doesn’t. When in doubt, keep the track “ slower and drier” than normal.

Other Notes: Remember, this is the section you hear the most often, your already putting lot’s of sounds in here ! I highly doubt there is any producer reading this that has “ a super thick mid range” without any sound in this range, it just doesn’t happen.  If anything, learn to remove things from this section not add them.

Always keep in mind when adjusting your OSC’s up or down a octave the effect it will have on the mix, learn to listen deep to what it’s doing to the mix, this is the ONLY way to get layers to work and keep your mix clean.

10khz to 20khz

( I know someone is going to email me, why don’t you chop your track at 19khz, or 18khz, or even 17khz, so I am answering this now. Just do what you think sounds good, I’ve met a number of different producers in my life, I’ve seen 20khz cuts, and 18khz cuts and lot’s of number in between. If someone swears that “ cutting at 18khz will fix your track ! It will add head room and fix the mud in your low end, just smile and nod. In the end, cutting at 18khz will make your track less bright at 18khz, it’s not going to add magic head room, or massively change your track. For what it’s worth, I’ve met a guy that’s been mastering tracks for 15 years, his answer? “ Do what sounds good”) 

Type: High End, Shine/ Volume

Location: Can be anywhere, but by default typically the highs get pushed to the top of the front of the mix ( though could be buried in the back I suppose). You often times hear highs in the center, splashed to the sides, splashed to one side etc. 

Used for: Shine and “ bigness” of your track. The extreme highs WILL make your track appear bigger ( classic white noise drop anyone). Also, the extreme highs are needed to make the rest of your track sit right, without them most likely your track won’t have a good spacing effect even if the rest of the track has good spacing. The high end gives the illusion of space in depth in the mix, but it needs to be used carefully to fully benefit from this effect.

Key Sound Design Notes: This range is going to fall inline with the other 2khz to 10khz range. This is just going to continue to push the sound to brighter/ bigger and more shinny compared to the below range. Now, a LOT of producers ( I did for years) will neglect the high end of synths, or will generically cut or boost them. Sadly, there is no do this do that for this section either.

I’d mixed songs that needed HUGE boosts around 12khz, I’ve mixed songs that need MASSIVE cut’s around 12khz, you just never know until you have someone give you feedback ( assuming you can’t tell for yourself yet).

I do have a few tips that seem fairly common. As I said about the previous range, it is easy for producers to hear, 90% of the time they have to much sound concentrated in that range. With this being said, since there is a ton of sound in that range, often times a lot of it bleeds up into this range. You have a bunch of saws around 5-10k?, A LOT of sound is going to bleed up into this range.

With that being said, your best bet is to tame the sounds in the range below it, properly space them and get rid of stuff that isn’t needed. When you go to adjust sounds in this range just remember a lot of the bulk will come from sounds not originally in this range.

Layer Basics: Since this is the extreme highs, you aren’t going to have a ton of stuff competing for space up here ( high hats, top’s of some snares’ top’s of some claps” etc) . When designing your track, simply keep in mind where the highs of your synth are hanging out and then decide where you want to put the hats or other high instruments.

For example, say your main drop lead is really bright around 12khz. Since it’s so bright, it goes all the way to the top of the mix. While you could try to shove a bright hat on it, try sending the hat to the left or right side ( assuming the main lead is in the middle of the track) this way the highs won’t be competing.

Another example, say you have a rave lead on a big room drop that is using stereo separation to push the mix loud in the stereo field ( aka the right and left side are loud, the middle not so much) you may want to put the main hat in the middle, since the sides are full of extreme high sound already. 

Try to layer your highs smartly, your entire track could be beautiful, but if you have to much sound in the highs in one section, the entire mix can be effected for the worse.

Typical ADSR Parameters: Like the previous section, there isn’t much of a do this do that guide.A lot of it will come down to how the parameters of the section below it are set. In the end, what sounds solid is a good rule of thumb, but remember to not have ALL the same settings on all synths.

Other important notes: The extreme highs WILL control how big your track is. It’s a weird illusion, but if you have a “huge drop” without extreme highs it will sound weak and small even at volume. Highs also come in MANY different styles and tastes.

Basically, there is good sounding noise, bad sounding noise and everything in between.  Sadly, when it comes to adding noise to your sounds this is something that will just take time to learn to master. In the end like everything else, you will figure out what noise sounds good and what noise doesn’t. ( for those unaware, adding noise to a sound can be a easy way to get the extreme highs boosted when needed) but of course there are ton’s of other ways as well.

I urge you to listen VERY carefully to the extreme highs of your favorite tracks, try to hear how they are crafting the " shine/ noise" of their synths, having the perfect splash of shine and noise really can make or break your track in the end. 

Cool ! so that about does it for the Range Guide .

Hopefully this is helping paint a clear picture for you!

In part three, I will be talking about one of the most important topics ( that's rarely talked about). Basically every sound you add is going to hold space in multi ranges. The very most basic/ saw/square/triangle/sines are going to have different amounts of additional textures and characteristics. Say you have a sine, it could be ONLY playing at 2,093hz when it's clean. If you add distortion/tubes/bit crushers etc, they are going to physically add sound characteristics to additional ranges.  When you learn this concept, and how effects/ additional OSC's/ Different tables etc you can craft your tracks with better clarity.  

To make a long story short, When you learn that adding XYZ to your sound will have XYZ effect on the frequency range and it's sound output, you then design your tracks easier. It's no longer a giant guessing game and hunting for presets for 5 hours a session.

In Part 4, I will talk about how to vertically align your sounds and how to stack them so they sound like they hold their own space in the mix. This section will talk about textures and all the info you need for placement ( front/back/sides/mid/left/right etc). I will try to give basic concepts on what textures work well together and what don't.

I know this concept is a bit dense, but if you can grasp..

1. That the most common over populated range is 2khz to 10khz because it is easy to hear. 

2. Most producers over look 300hz to 2khz, thinking it will cause mud. ( watch for reverb getting stuck down here , which seems to be the real issue )

3. That You need VARIOUS ADSR settings on the elements in your track to have everything sound clean.

4. That if you have multi layers in the same range, your going to need to PLACE them somewhere in your mix. ( front/back, sides/ L/R blah blah by now you get the gist)

5. When designing your sounds and mix think. What else is in this range ? What else is in the location? What else has the same style ADSR settings. If you try to avoid to many double ups, you'll be much better off.

6. Start viewing layers as NEEDING their own space in the mix, not just shoving everything in the center, splashing on effects and hoping for the best, remember effects can MOVE the sounds location in the mix, do this with a purpose not just for the hell of it.

Once you get a clear understanding of all the ranges and their placements in the mix, the world will open up to you.

I truly wish you the best, and look forward to sharing Part 3 and 4 with you soon!


Posted on July 14, 2015 and filed under Music Production.