In a previous article I explained some of the waveform basics that every DJ should know. In this article, I’m going to go a bit more in-depth with how you can integrate your knowledge of waveforms into your mixing style.
One thing that might become immediately apparent after spending some time with waveforms is that they are not all created equally. The phenomenon know as the ‘loudness wars’ has resulted in a lot of heavy compression and limiting being used in the mastering phase of track production. This process reduces the dynamic range of the song, resulting in a track that on the surface appears to have more ‘power’ and will stay at a consistent volume throughout.
In the waveform terms we previously discussed, this process results in less variation in the height of the crests and troughs. In addition, the peaks of these crests and troughs will be close to their maximum height (without distorting). You can see examples of a heavily compressed/limited track as well as an ‘average’ track below. Clearly, there are some differences…
Note that when you hear a heavily compressed/limited track it might appear to have more power simply because the ‘loud’ parts are more consistent throughout the track. In reality, this reduction of dynamics actually makes the track less powerful because there is less separation of the musical elements, resulting in a dynamic ‘blurring’ of sorts. This ‘blurring’ works well for radio, streaming, and listening on earbuds, but when played on a properly set up club system it will seem less ‘punchy’.
So how can you use this information when you’re mixing?
When you are loading a new track into one of your decks (Serato, Traktor) or getting ready to trigger a new clip (Live) you will immediately be able to visually compare it’s waveform with the waveform of the playing track. If there are obvious differences in the waveform you should be able to make some preliminary adjustments to your settings (i.e. the volume). This could apply to either a full section of a track that has been mastered differently than your playing track, but also for various elemental sections of a track. For example, if you are going to mix into a verse or chorus of a track that has been heavily compressed/limited you might want to turn down the initial volume to make a smoother transition because it will appear to be very loud. Conversely, if you want to mix into a less busy hi-hat only section you might have to turn up the initial volume for it to cut through the mix.
Normally, you would be doing this in your headphones and by looking at the VU meter on your mixer, but you can use the visual technique to help you when you need it. Also, instead of using the volume faders to mix in/out, you could use your basic EQ controls. In the example of a highly compressed track, you could kill the lows, mids, or highs to make some room for the mix. Killing the low end is usually a good way to cut through because when you have two sings playing the full spectrum, the result can often be quite muddy.
One thing that I find to be helpful is to set your track volume faders at about -6 dB. Depending on the hardware setup, the effects and plugins you are using, and the PA system, you might have several different gain stages that will affect the overall output. If you are running a heavily compressed/limited song through a mixer track set at 0 db, then have various effects on it, which then gets sent to a PA system with limiter safeguards, the resulting sound will probably sound very squashed. By running your mixer tracks at a lower volume you allow room for various gain stages to work on the song without it constantly hitting the limiter ceiling. This is especially true for Ableton Live users that create effects racks for all of their tracks.
One part of the debate between vinyl and digital is the issue of dynamic range. Songs on vinyl records often sound cleaner and more ‘punchy’ because they have not been heavily compressed/limited in the mastering phase. In the two images above, you could think of the ‘average’ track as an average waveform that a vinyl record would produce and compare it to the same track heavily mastered as a digital release.
The issue of digital file size and the audio quality also comes into play as part of this discussion. Lower quality audio files have less audio information in them, so when they are heavily compressed/limited the results sound significantly worse than a more dynamic song of the same quality. You should always use the highest quality audio files available. 320 kbps + or bust!
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