In Part 1 of this series we looked at how a compressor’s attack settings could be used to ‘soften’ the transient of a sound so it is perceived as being further back in a mix. But the real question is, why would you ever want to do this? Shouldn’t your goal be to preserve the transients of all the sounds in a mix? The answer is (like most things when it comes to mixing) – IT ALL DEPENDS!
Bruce Swedien, famous for his engineering work on Michael Jackson’s ‘Off The Wall’ and ‘Thriller’ albums, once said, ‘The groove is in the transients.’ Now that’s a statement that packs punch! But what does it mean? Here are a couple of interpretations to consider:
- Interpretation #1 – If you want your music to groove, you need to protect the transients – that’s where the groove is. In other words the transients are literally what help make the groove ‘groove’.
- Interpretation #2 – Put the groove in the transients! In other words allow the element/elements that you feel carry the groove in your mix to retain as much transient information as necessary.
Real World Applications
When taken together these interpretations offer great insight into potentially unconventional uses of attack settings to craft professional sounding mixes.
For example if you decide that the kick, snare, hi-hats and bass are carrying the groove in a mix, you may want to use a slower attack to preserve the transient information of these instruments. However you may also opt to use faster attack settings on other ‘non-groove’ elements so they don’t get in the way of the groove. Faster attack settings will take the ‘edge’ off these non-groove elements, often pushing them further back into a mix, with the result that they are free to achieve other mix objectives, all while playing a supportive role to the groove.
This is not to say you should completely kill the transient of everything other than the groove (unless of course this works for your mix!). On the contrary, you should deliberately use attack settings to manage the transient information of your mix in such a way that every element serves the emotional goal of the mix.
I recently ran into a scenario that required some serious attack management! The groove (which was being carried by the drums) sounded great but was a little too defined and ‘present’ for comfort. It was literally jumping out of the speakers and slapping me around the face!
To resolve this I simply left the kick and snare tracks as they were and changed the attack setting on the OH drum mics from a slow to a fast setting. The results were amazing! The OH drums lost their edge, sunk back into the mix, and created more space for the kick, snare and hi-hats to cut through. The fast attack setting on the OH drums also had the added benefit of providing additional body, dimension and cohesion to the overall drum sound.
The end result was the groove opened up and felt more natural – kind of like I was in the room with the drummer rather than listening to a hyper real and over-defined version of events.
Not All Transients Are Created Equal
One of the implications of Mr Swedien’s ‘The groove is in the transients’ insight is that not everything in your mix has to be THE groove – in the same way that not every instrument in a mix carries the tune. Therefore it is not essential for absolutely every element to have it’s transients preserved, accentuated, and presented at the front of the mix. Some transients will need to be kept forward for sure, but others might benefit from being ‘softened’ or pushed deeper into the mix with faster attack settings. You get to decide.
One Control Amongst Many
At this point it is also worth remembering that a compressor’s attack is just one of the controls that can be used to shape the envelop of sound. When used in conjunction with the release, ratio, threshold and knee controls, a myriad of effects can be achieved. For now we’re just focusing on the contribution a compressor’s attack settings make to the overall mix.
In the final part of this series part we’ll look at a few more useful uses of the attack control. Until then don’t forget, ‘The groove is in the transients!’
What other interpretations/applications can you think of for ‘The groove is in the transients’?
What’s your strategy for attack settings when mixing? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!