One of the biggest challenge of finishing a song is to properly adjust the tonal balance. There’s no doubt this part of track-making is puzzling; many people – even experienced producers – are still going to have some issues with tonal balance some days. There are tools and methods to correct tonal balance, but it’s always a challenge; I feel that it’s important to share some tips on how you can make adjusting tonal balance easier.
What is tonal balance?
I’ll keep this as simple as possible: tonal balance, from my perspective, is dividing your song into three frequency sections and figuring out how to adjust them. For instance, in certain genres, you want the tone to be totally balanced, while for dance oriented, electronic music, you’d want the lower end louder in the mix. While this sounds extremely simple to achieve, in reality, it can be a nightmare.
The biggest issue with tonal balance is that if your tone is wrong, your work when played in a specific context (ex. in a club) will sound completely off compared to similar songs of the same genre.
Common problems with tonal balance include:
Lower end anemic: The song will feel weak, energy less and hollow.
Lower end too loud: The song will feel muddy and lacking in body.
Mids lacking: The song will feel empty, no punch or body, far off.
Mids too loud: The song becomes unnecessarily aggressive and obnoxious.
Highs lacking: The song lacks definition and precision in the sounds.
Highs too loud: The song is fatiguing and harsh.
Using the right tools for tonal balance adjustments
Monitoring is of course, crucial to adjusting the tonal balance of a song. I’d say 75% of the time I get a file for mastering and the tonal balance is completely off, mostly because of the artist’s listening environment. While we don’t all have the budget or space to have a fully treated studio, there are some things you can still do:
- Cross-validating. With my speakers, I’ll always check a mix periodically with headphones as I work. I like to have a different perspective and I find that the sound I have between the two often reveals a perspective I missed.
- Mixing at a low volume. You’d be surprised at how you’ll automatically hear what’s wrong. Reduce by half the volume level you’re working with and listen to how the kick comes through, then the melody compared to it, then the high end, etc. Cross-validate with a reference track.
- Using a subwoofer. Many people will tell you that you don’t need a sub to do a good mix but it certainly helps to have an idea of what’s happening down there. Many of us will have issues with the neighbors so I suggest to only use sparingly just to check your mix. A good alternative is getting a Subpac.
There are also tools you can use in your productions to help you. I use many but here are some of my favorites:
This plugin is a life-saver, no doubt. You load in your reference track, adjust the volume to match and then you can swap between your mix and the reference. There are even some dynamic graphics to show you what part of your mix is too loud or lacking in comparison to the reference track.
If the track is already mastered, you won’t be able to rely on the compression meter but the levels will be used the same way. For 60$, this is certainly an essential to have in anyone’s collection.
When I first started to make music, I really didn’t like shelving EQs as I felt they weren’t useful, but once I started looking into them, I have to say that it almost became one of those obsessions one can have for a plugin. There are many of them, so I’ll name a few and then explain how to get the best out of them.
- Tonelux (Softubes): One of the most recognized and acclaimed tools out there. It gets things done, quickly. Often on sale too.
- Solid EQ (Native Instruments): I love this one because you have some precision on what you do and it is a good mix between being a musical EQ and a transparent one.
- Maag Audio EQ4: This one is great for highs. It’s one of the most used in the industry in mastering to get the proper “air” sound, right.
- Hammer DSP (Kush Audio): Crazy musical, warm and outstanding all the time. Often something to just play with on the master bus to see all the different moods one song can have.
- Sie-Q (Sound Toys): A bit like Hammer. Musical, and slightly magical in how it handles the mids.
- ValvEQ (Kazrog): A good alternative to the expensive Bax EQ by Dangerous. It’s handling your tone in MS mode as well.
Using the right techniques in tonal balance
If the EQ, cross validation and other tools don’t seem to work for you, I’d recommend a very simple technique to help you nail down the tone.
Basically, we’ll limit it our tone balance to three sections but you can pull it to four or five if you want, but the lower the number, the easier it gets later on. Knowing this, I’d encourage you using Ableton Live 10 for the use of the groups in groups feature. You can make alternative groups where you push all the channels using lower end in one group, then mids, finishing with highs.
If you have only three groups or busses, you really limit your options to these 3 faders to control. The less you have in front of you, the more focused you’ll be.
The way I usually do it, I’ll start with the main, loudest channel and put it as the loudest one, then mix the 2 others accordingly. Pretty often I feel like knowing the level of the low end first will greatly help settle the rest.