The Overlooked Secret Trick To Punchy Mixes
This is a guest post by Ola Göransson. If you would like to contribute a guest post to Audio Issues, please read the guest post guidelines right here.
Ssshh – don’t tell anyone…
What if I told you there’s a secret trick to help you maximize punch and translation across systems? And it’s free – no fancy boutique plugins needed.
Yeah, I know, you’d tell me I’m crazy.
There are no secret tricks anymore and definitely no free lunches. Well, a few months ago I sat in a room with 15 other mixers and producers and we were all flabbergasted as we realized the importance of… polarity!
”That’s it!?! The ol’ phase switch!?! Get outta here – you’re wasting my time”.
Hang on – give me a minute. This will not be the sexiest mixing tutorial you’ve ever read, but it may make a huge difference in how your mixes sound in the end.
Hear me out…
We were 15 professionals, more or less, who didn’t know about it and I still have not heard one blogger or YouTuber focus on it. I’m not saying nobody’s ever covered it, all I’m saying it’s been given much less attention than parallel compression, attack times and other fun stuff.
Perhaps it is one of the many small steps that compound into a professional mix that you are not yet aware of?
Don’t phase me out just yet!
We all know phase, right? You have two tracks of a source, say a “kick-in” and “kick-out,” and you make sure they are aligned.
Here are two waveforms perfectly in phase with each other.
These waveforms are partially in phase, but if you follow the arrows you can see a few parts where the two waveforms are out of phase with each other.
Polar opposites attract – or do they?
Having two tracks of one source in phase is vital, we all know that. Polarity, however, refers to the signal of each individual track.
The ol’ phase switch on your preamp or plugin doesn’t really correct phase, meaning it doesn’t align one waveform with another track of the same source.
The ”phase switch” simply changes the polarity of the waveform – what used to be up is down and vice versa. I know, many of you are fully aware of this, but here’s how it matters to your mix:
To explain this as simple as possible – polarity can either be positive or negative.
Positive polarity with the waveform starting up
Negative polarity with the waveform starting down
It’s vital to ensure that you have the positive polarity on your tracks in a mix because the positive polarity pushes your speaker cone before it subsequently pulls it back. If the polarity is inverted, the signal pulls the speaker cone back before it pushes it forward. If you have two sources playing at the same time with opposite polarity those signals will compete and ”confuse” your speaker.
Different speakers react differently to these conflicting messages. So if you don’t get your polarity aligned your mixes will lack punch and they will translate differently on different playback systems.
Are you with me?
The devil’s in the details
Let me play you a few examples. Keep mind, like much in music, it is subtle. In the first few examples, it can be hard to hear the difference. But if you listen closely and on good headphones or speakers you will.
”Well if I need to listen closely, how much can it matter?”
In music production, I think all the little things add up and in the end, all those little things compound into a mix that sounds professional.
Multi-Miked Kick Drum
Here’s an example of a kick drum with positive polarity and with the polarity inverted. It is subtle, but try to get a feeling if the kick is in front of the speakers or ”back” in the speakers.
Sound clip ”Kick”
Sound clip ”Kick inverted”
Kick and Bass Playing Together
Here’s a clip of the kick and bass together. The first clip has both sources in positive polarity, the second clip has the kick inverted and the third clip has the bass inverted. In the first clip, it feels like the bass and kick are working together. When the kick is inverted it loses a bit of its punch and the two instruments sound a bit detached.
When the bass is inverted, to me, it sounds a bit out of control and, again, detached. Well, the two sources are confusing the speaker. One is pushing and one is pulling it back at the same time when they should be working in tandem.
Sound clip ”Kick & Bass”
Sound clip ”Kick & Bass _ Kick inverted”
Sound clip ”Kick & Bass _ Bass inverted”
Acoustic Guitar Example
Listen to the acoustic guitar. In the first clip, with the positive polarity, it sits in the mix but once the polarity is inverted it sounds a bit hollow and detached from the song. Like the song balance is tilted somehow.
Sound clip ”Full song”
Sound clip ”Full song _ Ac inverted”
Here’s the piano inverted. Compared to the full mix above it seems a bit detached and tilted.
Sound clip ”Full song _ Piano inverted”
The Wrong Polarity Might Make Your Mix Fall Apart
As I add instruments with the negative polarity you will feel the whole mix change. Compare the full mix above with the clips where I have inverted various sources at the same time. In the first clip, both the acoustic guitar and the piano sounds a bit sunken in.
In the second clip, I find that the snare sounds a bit thinner and the kick loses its punch. In the third clip I find the bass out of control and the whole mix feels like it’s falling apart. Subtly, but it’s there.
Sound clip ”Full song _ Piano Ac inverted”
Sound clip ”Full song _ Piano Ac Kick inverted”
Sound clip ”Full song _ Piano AC Bass inverted”
On to the next phase
So what do you need to do to ensure the right polarity in your mixes?
Well, step one is GIRATS: Get It Right at the Source!
Make sure you record all your instruments with a positive polarity.
How can you tell?
The first indicator is to look at the waveform – does it start up or down? However, that’s not the whole story and is not a guaranteed method. You need to flip the polarity on your preamp as you record a few samples and listen. On some sources, it’s really hard to tell but in many cases, you hear it when you compare the two takes. The source should sound like it’s in front of the speakers, not inside them.
What makes it extra tricky is that engaging a guitar pedal for the solo or switching a cable could potentially change the polarity. Furthermore, if you are in the habit of layering drum samples the case of polarity becomes even more important to ensure you get that punchy kick.
The good news is that if you happen to record in the wrong polarity you can check your tracks before mixing. Many plugins, like Logic’s Gain plugin, have a polarity switch. Go through each track, flip the polarity and listen.
I know, I am sure you have read a million more exciting articles on how to compress a kick drum or use various reverbs.
How fun can it really be to go through a gazillion tracks in a mix and flip polarity? For sure, there are more exciting tasks while mixing. But in the end, if you do not get your polarity aligned, you will have a hard time creating a mix that sounds punchy and professional.
Ola Göransson has spent the last ten years trying to learn as much as possible about audio production while doing non-audio related work to pay the bills. He is currently in the process of recording and mixing his own album. A few songs will soon be released on Spotify under the band name Stony Point Rd. If you would like to have your songs mixed by him or have other thoughts on possible collaborations you reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.