The world of transients can be one of the trickiest areas to really get right in a mixdown. For a snippet of sound lasting only a few milliseconds, they certainly cause a lot of trouble for producers. Get them wrong and you may end up with a mixdown that lacks any kind of dynamics or subtlety – or go too far in the other direction and you could arrive at a track that pops and crackles with no energy or volume. So for some tips on how to avoid getting caught up in this all-too-familiar trap, read on…
First, we’ll quickly look at what transients actually are. If you look at the wave form of a hi-hat or snare sample, you’ll normally see a wave that starts off loud, but then rapidly tails off. That spike at the start, when the wave form is at it’s highest – that’s the transient right there. It’s simply the fraction of a second of high-volume sound. But it’s completely essential, as it defines the whole character of the sound – it’s the instant when the drumstick hits the drum. Try cutting off that first part of a snare hit and you’ll hear the sample sounds totally wrong; almost unrecognisable in fact. No-one would use a snare like that!
So transients are an integral part of many sounds – but they’re also very useful in the mix too. In a busy track with lots of elements, it can be hard to make things stand out. A sound with a strong transient, however, will cut through the mix with ease; the transient will pop out of the mix for just long enough to catch the ear, making it seem loud and present, even if the rest of the sample is comparatively quiet.
If transients are so great, then, where’s the problem? Well, if the transient on a sound is too prominent, it risks eating up all your headroom, which means your mixdown may end up overly quiet, lacking power. Equally, there are many processes like distortion , compression, or even gating that may remove the transients – which could lead to a mushy, indistinct overall sound with no punch.
What you should try to achieve at first, then, is an idea of what you actually want your transients to be doing. Does every single thing need to bounce up out of the mix? Probably not. If you are layering up two or three snare drums, for instance, then it’s likely that you’ll only need a notable transient on one of them, to keep it simple. A sub-bassline probably won’t have any at all (transients, by their nature, are at high frequencies). Percussion elements that sit behind the main kick and snare might not need as much in the way of transients – while your main hi-hat certainly will, as would an energetic piano line.
Once you’ve got an idea of where you want your transients to be, it’s time to start managing them. There are plenty of tools at your disposal for this; envelope shapers, clippers, compressors, distortion and the envelope controls on your sampler or synth can all be used to help.
Compressors are arguably the most useful tool though, as they can easily add or remove transients. Set up a compressor with an attack close to 0ms and you’ll remove the transient altogether. Alternatively, turn the attack up to something like 50ms, use a steep ratio, and you’ll be creating a transient. To hear this more clearly, yank the threshold down dramatically so that the compressor is really clobbering your sound. That 50ms attack will now be very easy to hear, and by tweaking it higher or lower you’ll be able to adjust how much of a transient you’re letting through. Then put the threshold back to a sensible level and you’re ready to go.
By using this technique on a buss, you can gel sounds together somewhat; put all your layered snare samples together through a compressor like this and you’ll be creating one volume envelope that sits across the whole snare sound, making it nice and coherent.
So compressors can create transients by letting the initial part of the sound through, then turning everything else down. Envelope shapers, on the other hand, do the opposite – they leave most of the sound untouched, but turn the initial burst up or down. They’re extremely useful to roll off the attack of a sound when you need to, but be careful when using one to create a transient. As it amplifies the sound so dramatically, it’s possible to use up all your headroom very rapidly indeed.
A lot of these tools can (and sometimes should) be used in conjunction. It’s very easy to mess up transients as a by-product of some other process. For instance, ragging your hi-hats through a bitcrusher or distortion unit is a great way to get them sounding tougher and grittier, with some tasty harmonics going on. But this will also scrub off any dynamic range. So by putting a compressor with a suitable attack after the distortion, you can re-create the lost transient again.
We mentioned noise gates earlier – these, like many time-based procedures can really affect your transients. Often, by the time a noise gate notices the signal coming in, and opens to allow the sound through, it has missed the transient. You can get around this by turning up the ‘lookahead’ function (to about 10ms) or so – or if that doesn’t work, using a compressor or shaper as detailed above.
We could go on for hours here – it’s a subtle and difficult area – but the main issue is to be aware of your transients. Listen closely, keep an eye on your meters, and if necessary bounce some tracks and look at the waveforms (until you can hear the differences without looking). Be sure that you’ve got transients where you need them, make sure that your plugins aren’t losing them (or creating ones you don’t want) and where you don’t need them, consider removing them. This is the important thing – knowing what you want! Once you’re confident you know what’s going on, the rest will fall into place. So go forth, listen out for your transients, and make those mixdowns really punch!
Categories: Advanced Production