So you want to know why your DnB mixes don't sound so great
Whatever your sub-genre is in the DnB realm, this post might be of use to you. I’ve been in situations where a mix does not sound exactly as I want it and dealing with this is quite a challenge, so I thought I’d share some tips to address this.
This Is Not A Magic Bullet
Just to manage expectations, at the end of this post you will not be a DnB master producer. While I try to be as comprehensive as possible, the burden falls on you to dedicate the time and effort to become better at this. So, without further ado let's get this out of the way.
Kick & Bass
Don't be an amateur on this one 😅, try to approach the kick and bass as if you are mixing live drums. Your current approach might be based on soloing the bass or the kick and spending valuable time to make it sound awesome and then move on to the next - please stop doing that !!!!
You will only end with both tracks not working well together although individually they might sound great. That shouldn't be news for you dude because...
#A: mixing is about bringing instruments together in context, rather than solo.
#B: You need to think of the kick and bass as two parts of one instrument like a live drum recording.
So start by unmuting kick and bass together, and at this point, you can make an informed decision whether your kick needs bottom or there is enough weight coming from the bass - whatever it is; make a mental note or use comments on your DAW.
Do it this way, critically listen then objectively evaluate your low-end character, and start making changes accordingly. Always check before and after to make sure your kick has enough punch and your bass is distinguished with enough definition, it's a DnB track you are mixing so kick and bass are our bread and butter here.
🤨 Don't be intimidated or put off if there is no clear separation between the kick and bass, or one is masking the other; masking is a byproduct of two tracks occupying the same space and frequency. Find the right spot where both tracks work well together (that will not be the same for all sub-genres of DnB), then make a decision and boost what is good and remove what's bad; that could be a resonating frequency in a kick or could be the gritty top end of your bass.
It’s always a good shout to start by cutting the same area in the opposing instrument and adjust as and when needed, next, insert your favourite side-chain compressor as you will need it later on,
One more thing to keep in mind, DnB is a dance music genre, so try to get whatever you can below 100 Hz to mono, you can go even a step further and make sure your kick is tuned properly, this ensures there are no phase problems thereafter. To conclude, pay close attention to those two tracks since they are the foundation of your whole tune.
The next thing you need to shift your attention to is placement, my startup approach for a DnB mix is working in mono so I can find out exactly which fundamental frequencies I need to highlight among instruments I have in a session. Let me clarify this f**kery.
In any given session, every instrument will have a fundamental frequency and a bunch of harmonics,1st, 2nd, 3rd ..etc; combined together with variable levels, create that complex wall of sound you hear in an instrument. If you adjust and manipulate the fundamentals and those harmonics; you will be able to create space for everybody to sit amongst each other nicely, just a heads-up, avoid cutting out fundamentals or too many harmonics otherwise you will end up with very thin tracks that have zero character!!!.
The same approach can be used to address masking -whether partial or full masking. Common masking suspects are vocals and synth, or hi-hats and high-end vocal samples, you can combat masking using any of the following: stereo field; proper panning, delays, and reverbs, don't forget to check in mono and different playback hardware to make sure your mix translates well, you can experiment with placement in different ways; you can put 8th note hi-hats with an element that is playing triplets - always make sure you got enough definition among different instruments in the mix.
One of the most misused tools in a mix, it is a valuable tool to use for different instruments, but more importantly for vocals. Using compression on vocals will give it consistency and stability, which is what you expect from a vocal-led tune, another worthy mention is a de-esser, it specifically targets problematic sibilance and clean up a vocal and make it sound smoother and clearer.
For those of you who are interested in a creative compression approach, try one of the following:
#A side-chain the vocal to the kick, push it a bit too far and you will get interesting results.
#B tie a compressor to your sends and push it as much as humanly possible to get some overdrive, you can back away from the compressor if you're just after power and presence to the vocal.
#C Sidechain a wet vocal signal to itself, this can help clear up a vocal and keep it grounded and centred.
Understandably, compression can be confusing for some, I recommend using compression to provide consistencies in your drums, or control the microdynamics of your drums; start there.
tip: slow compressors are best for group tracks and faster ones are commonly used for individual tracks.
Everybody loves a classic, Amens, Thinks and the rest, they are a core item that is commonly used in DnB productions, there are a few things to keep in mind when working with classic breaks.
Since those were recorded in an antiquated era with vintage gear, the high end will be severely reduced; you can improve that by a high shelf EQ or saturate to introduce some complementing harmonics to fill the gap in the high end. I do think there is nothing wrong with keeping the classic sound, so if that is what you desire then leave it alone, but if cleaner and modern is your go-to then try the former and let me know how you get on.
I think I mention this more than I should; however, here it is again. At the mixing stage, using a reference mix keeps you grounded and less prone to randomly wandering off and catching the shiny object syndrome. To keep this short and sweet... use a tune from the same sub-genre and pull it in your session and match their levels, please consider the defining characteristics of your tune and what you want in focus; is your tune vocal-led, bass-led?!!!
While we are talking about referencing, let's not forget about mix bus processing. I tend to use a couple of compressors to start with, one to capture peaks and the second for tone and character with minimal gain reduction applied, don't yourself forget to bring up your make-up gain after adjusting the threshold to compensate. A multiband compressor is next on my mix bus, something flexible enough that can help you do slight adjustments to your mix's frequencies, if you find yourself doing too much of it then back off, back to the drawing board and fix your mix.
Last but not least, a limiter; there are a ton of them available so I will recommend none for now, but I recommend you set your upper limit and push the gain until the limiter starts to work, then adjust the release as you desire, I usually go for short to medium attack times.