Intimate Production Techniques

With the runaway success of Billie Eilish’s debut album (winning 4 Grammys) ‘When we all fall asleep, where do we go?’ it’s clear that ‘intimate’ or ‘mumbling’ vocals are in vogue. In fact, it would be accurate to state that ALL the sounds within a mix are produced with ‘presence’ or ‘intimacy’ in mind and not just the vocals. It might not be to your tastes but this type of production is fast becoming very popular amongst the ear-bud listening generation. If intimate productions are rocking your boat then the following techniques and processes should help you in achieving an up-close and personal mix.

The approach to achieving a close-up and personal sound rests in the use of existing old school technologies coupled with innovative new processes and a daring mindset. As technology moves forward so do production techniques – they are inexorably linked. Sadly, in today’s world of ‘let the software do the work’ ethos producers seem to be reluctant to use tried and tested techniques that engineers have developed for them. There is an unhealthy move towards using this type of ‘analysis and application’ software and we are seeing more and more software developers accommodating this requirement. From track analysis software to ‘one knob magic processes’ the role of the producer has changed to the point of being an assistant to the software rather than the other way around. The same can be said for the mastering market. It seems preset driven software is all you need to master a song nowadays. However, out of all this negativity, some good has surfaced – most notably in the design of multi-function plugins. We are seeing more and more plugins offering all manner of extended functionality for a required process; a good example would be FabFilter’s Pro MB (multiband compressor) which not only provides traditional downward compression but also offers upward compression and downward and upward expansion. FabFilter’s approach to designing plugins that offer all the required functionality inherent within a process is one of the main reasons that professionals use their plugins. Izotope have taken the multi-function ideology a step further and their products now come supplied with all manner of analysis and compensatory processing. Sound Theory’s Gullfoss is another product that offers adaptive processing in that you dial in a set of values for the basic parameters on offer and sit back and let the plugin do the work for you. Mastering the Mix is another company that has grabbed the analysis and application market by the neck and their products are not only useful and helpful guides but most can make intelligent suggestions as to how to alter values to achieve optimum results. In fact, many software developers are going down this route and it would be fair to suggest that almost all mixing and mastering tasks can be achieved by the use of these analysis and application software.

1 UP 1 DOWN

All of this whinging has led me to the first of the processes used in achieving intimate productions – that of combined downward and upward compression also referred to as two-way compression. But before I unleash all that is two-way compression let me gently foray, with you, into the world of compression. Every producer knows that compression is about manipulating the dynamic range of audio and NOT the volume. A long, long time ago in a workshop far, far away an engineer came up with this insane invention; he called it ‘the volume knob’. This crazy creation had the amazing ability to raise or lower the volume of audio. Mad huh? At no point did he, or his mates, pose the question ‘why don’t we call this volume knob thingy a compressor’? All jokes aside, audio compression is actually a very simple process and the subject has been eloquently covered by countless articles at this manor. With regards to intimate production techniques, the important distinction to outline is the difference between upward and downward compression and how these two processes affect the dynamic range of audio, which are critical in achieving ‘presence’, or ‘closeness’, in a mix context.  For this article, and to keep the processes in context, the dynamic range of audio is determined to be the difference between the loudest and quietest parts of the audio signal, and is expressed in decibels (dB). A downward compressor makes the loud bits quieter above the threshold whilst keeping the quiet bits below the threshold unaffected. An upward compressor makes the quiet bits louder below the threshold (by compressing and applying gain makeup) whilst keeping the loud bits above the threshold unaffected. By using downward and upward compression simultaneously, the audio signal’s dynamic range can be reduced from both above and below the threshold which results in a signal that does not have severely compromised peak transients had the same level of dynamic range reduction been attempted with just the downward compressor.

We now know that compression simply alters the dynamic range of the audio being processed but how does that help us with regards to achieving intimate productions? The answer is quite simple but it does require you to use your imagination in envisaging the shape of the audio being processed by using two-way (combined) compression. Imagine the audio is represented as a nice and squishy hotdog shape, no bread of course. Now imagine grabbing the hotdog between your fingers and squeezing its width. This is what happens when you apply downward and upward compression at the same time: you are, in effect, squeezing the audio both above and below the threshold closer to the threshold. If the quiet bits are louder and the loud bits are quieter then the audio is much easier to gain stage to a specified level. Let’s look at this in context; you have a busy mix and you are trying to get the vocals to sit nicely in the mix. Now, each time you drop the level of the loudest part of the audio the quiet bits get masked by other sounds. If you raise the quiet bits to be heard then the loud bits are too loud. Of course, you can use downward compression to narrow the dynamic range and afford a more balanced difference between loud and quiet bits but this comes at a cost; peak transients are compromised, and a better approach might be to use volume automation to control these gain variances, and this is the more traditional approach in managing variable gains within a mix but with intimate productions, we are trying to achieve an even narrower dynamic range without having to use aggressive downward compression. The idea is to use a range that acts as both the upper and lower gain limits for the audio to ‘travel’ in so that once left at the target gain value it can be heard clearly and in detail. Once two-way compression is used and the target value set no automation is required as the overall range the audio travels in is so small that the loud and quiet parts are almost at the same level and can, therefore, be left at one specified target gain value.

You can apply two-way compression as two distinct processes or as a single process. A novel approach in achieving two-way compression as two separate processes is to use the auxiliaries of your DAW to house each process. By disabling the routing for the channel the audio resides in and having only the auxiliaries active you can blend various amounts of each compressor mode to taste. You can also apply further processing to each auxiliary thus allowing for even more processing choices. I like to keep things tidy and use combined processing for two-way compression. The Waves MV2 (fig 1) is a fun tool for achieving both downward and upward compression simultaneously but it does not allow for selecting different threshold values, attack and release times or even offering control over the ratio. Hornet’s Dynamics Control plugin (fig 2) is far more versatile and offers an upward and downward compressor and a compressor/expander which acts to squeeze the sound around the threshold. You can alter threshold and ratio values for each compression mode and there is a global attack and release function to shape all the compressors. However, currently, the plugin has no make-up gain feature which I find a little surprising. This omission forces the user to use independent processing to control the output make-up gain. I use two-way compression on all sounds that exhibit a wide dynamic range. By narrowing the range the quieter elements of a sound are exposed and this translates across as ‘presence’.

waves mv2 downard upward compressor

 

ADAPTIVE PROCESSING

Upward and downward compression are great processes for altering the dynamic range of audio and thanks to the narrowing of the dynamic range quiet bits can be heard alongside the loud bits which means we can work with very narrow gain margins and still hear everything in detail. But this isn’t the only process we use to create intimate textures within a mix context. One very powerful technique that works but in a markedly different way to two-way compression is that of adaptive and compensatory processing and the best example I can think of to express this process is Sound Theory’s Gullfoss. Gullfoss is an intelligent auto eq plugin. It has only five parameters on offer and comes with a single page manual, but don’t let this simple and minimalistic approach fool you, the software is remarkably powerful and yet easy to use. The real power of this software is what goes on behind the scenes and the whole topology and product goal is based on a model of human auditory perception. The user dials in a number of settings for the 5 parameters on offer and the software creates an eq response that adapts itself continuously and dynamically as the audio is played. It is stated that the eq will counter the side-effects of phase problems and most notably with temporal smearing that takes place with the use of minimum phase designed equalisers and multi-mic scenarios. The eq is also constructed to avoid overshoots and ringing. However, with regards to intimate productions, it is what the proprietary perception modelling achieves when trying to expose masked frequencies and taming pronounced frequencies. The two main parameters are Recover and Tame. Recover exposes and processes frequencies that are masked and Tame suppresses and processes frequencies that are dominant and cause the masking problems in the first place. The final three parameters are control parameters for Recover and Tame and to balance the overall eq response. The beauty of Gullfoss is that once you have dialled in the necessary settings the software takes over and applies the desired changes in real-time and continually adapts to achieve the goals set by the parameters. With intimate production techniques, we are constantly trying to unmask and emphasise frequencies and bring them up in the mix closer to the more dominant frequencies that may, at times, be the cause of the masking. In effect, we are trying to make the quieter hidden frequencies louder and louder dominant frequencies quieter. Although this is not quite the same as narrowing the dynamic range of the audio the overall process does result in a similar type of ‘quiet meets loud, loud meets quiet’ scenario which, after all, is exactly what our goal is in trying to achieve an up close and personal sound.

NO SPACE IS GOOD SPACE

Reverb is without a doubt the most important effect used by producers. It is predominantly used to define the overall space that all the sounds within a mix will reside in. Well recorded sounds do not need any additional processing to define their location within a given space as the recordings themselves will expound the characteristics of the space the sounds were recorded in. However, even with well recorded stems, producers will still use reverb to glue all the sounds into a pre-defined space. In addition, reverb is used to express depth. By using the various reverb parameters, most notably diffusion and filtering, we can ‘place’ sounds within a space. By ‘placing’ I am referring to sounds that sit up-front or ‘at the back’ of a mix and not left and right pan locations. Intimate production techniques generally omit the use of reverb almost completely, with the exception of providing a reference (see; Perception), and instead use equalisation and filtering to achieve both depth and front-back placement. This type of approach requires a different mindset to the norm and the real skill of the producer is in achieving space and depth without the use of reverb. If you consider how sound travels then you will note that high frequencies dissipate much faster than low frequencies. We mimic this behaviour by using equalisation to low pass sounds that need to sit further back in a mix and high pass sounds to bring them up-front in a mix. Volume plays a huge role in the depiction of distance and by coupling this with equalisation/filtering we can create both a sense of space and how sounds sit within that given space.

Although mix reverbs are a no-no it doesn’t mean that other effects cannot be used. The aim is to not use effects that denote a given space but, rather, to use them to emphasise and colour a sound, and that includes reverb. I often use delay effects instead of reverbs to extend a sound’s sustain or to add the perception of depth. Delay effects have the advantage of not smearing frequencies like reverbs do as they only concentrate on a single ‘reflection’ as opposed to a multitude of early/late reflections afforded by reverb effects. Distortion is another process I use quite regularly to treat vocals instead of opting for an equaliser and with dry unaffected mixes it adds an extra layer of sparkle and definition. Harmonic exciters are potent alternatives to simple equalisation processes and they can often add sparkle and presence to a sound simply through the auditioning of generated harmonics. Minimum phase designed preamps are often used instead of minimum phase designed equalisers as they do not perform any corrective processing but instead colour a sound in a pleasing way that lends itself to minimalistic and intimate productions. All forms of harmonic distortion are highly useful when it comes to intimate productions as they often provide depth and vibrancy to staid sounds and work extremely well with minimalistic productions as they can be heard in their entirety thanks to the low track/stem counts.

If we use Billy Eilish’s production techniques as a point of discussion then you will note that reverb has been used quite extensively throughout the album. However, it is context that matters and reverb for colouring sounds is a ‘yay’ whereas master mix reverbs are a ‘nay’.

I often use reverbs to add presence to certain sounds but the way I use them is to remove almost all late reflections and work on early reflections, an imperceptible reverb decay value, a very short pre-delay, and tons of diffusion. In effect, I am removing all the parameters that would help in denoting a given space. Instead of the ‘reverb wash’ effect, I am aiming for ‘presence’.

PERCEPTION

A trick that many EDM producers use, and to be honest it is an old school technique, is to utilise an ambient looped or sustaining sound to act as the backdrop or anchor for the mix. All the other sounds in the mix will then be referenced against this ambient backdrop. The psychoacoustic effect of having a sound referenced against an ambient sound is that the sound is then perceived to be more pronounced and clearer. In EDM music you will often hear pink noise sweeps appear at breaks, bridges and prior to the drum beat and bass-line progressing into full flow. The effect is quite noticeable in that the drum beat and bass-line sound stronger, deeper, and clearer. But more importantly, they appear to be sitting in their own given spaces even though no effect has been used to denote the space for the mix. It is the reference that tricks the mind into thinking there is depth and width to the mix.  With intimate productions, the vocals are usually used for all sounds to be referenced against. If you listen to Billy Eilish’s Bury a Friend you will notice the vocals have been ever so slightly affected. Once the mix sounds are referenced against the vocals the perception of ‘space’ takes over the whole mix.

Complimentary processing also works in tricking the brain that one sound is more pronounced than another. Whereas with ambient referencing we are referencing sounds against a single texture/colour, with complimentary processing we are actually highlighting one sound against a like for like sound. A good example of this type of brain trickery is when we come to processing low-frequency sounds that share similar frequency ranges, and the best example I can think of that has cost many a sanity is marrying the bass and the kick within a mix. The traditional approach is to use ducking to control the interchange between the bass and the kick drum but this is not a perfect solution as one sound needs to be, in effect, attenuated to create the space for the other sound to explore and vice versa. With minimalistic mixes the ducking process is obvious and is easily heard and that is not what producers aspire to achieve. The secret to a good production is that processes must go unnoticed and only the results to be heard, and in the case of ducking hearing one sound above another is not the aim. The aim is for BOTH sounds to be heard at the same time and for that to be successfully achieved we need a different set of processes. A combination of compression and expansion yields a far stronger perceptive result than a simple ducking process. The technique involves downward compressing the fundamental of one sound and expanding its harmonics while expanding the fundamental of the other sound and downward compressing its harmonics. This sea-saw process fools the brain into thinking that both sounds are playing at the same time and is a highly effective solution for managing sounds that have shared frequencies and predominantly at the fundamental.

THE AIR BAND TRICK

In audio production, we producers are always looking for ways to trick the brain into thinking that something is there when it isn’t. Using reverb to denote space is one such example. But because we cannot use reverb with intimate productions we head straight for the air band and with the use of some clever trickery, we can fool the brain into thinking that the mix is airy, has acres of presence, and is sparkly. To work the air band, which invariably lies between 10-20 kHz, we need to process frequencies that actually exist within that range. Some producers add huge gain boosts to this range, even if there are no sounds actually present within the range, thinking this will magically create ‘air and space’. In fact, all this achieves is to give the high end a brittle and harsh texture. Once the air band range has been established gentle boosts or applying some form of harmonic excitation can really make this range stand out and sparkle. However, there is a very cool trick that I have been using with intimate productions and it works quite well in providing a sense of space and airiness without the use of reverbs.

The process uses a plugin that has a feature that I wish more manufacturers would adopt. The weapon I am referring to is FabFilter’s Pro Q3 and in particular the ‘split band’ feature. This allows the user to place an eq node anywhere on the audio’s frequency spectrum and to split the node into two further nodes; left and right. These nodes can now be moved to create a wider stereo image for the given frequency range. The trick is to find the perfect air band location. Simply sticking a node around the 10-12 kHz range does not magically create ‘presence’ and ‘air’. You need to locate the frequency range that contains high-frequency information to be able to truthfully use this feature. Let me show you how easy it is to achieve this brain foolery with the following example:

I am using a segment of an instrumental track (below) kindly sent to me by one of my students. The track is called Icarus and I have selected a section that I feel will benefit greatly from this air band trick.

(audio) icarus segment.mp3

I have imported the track into Cubase and inserted the wonderful FabFilter Pro Q3 equaliser plugin on the Icarus audio channel. The GUI’s spectrum analyser displays the frequency response of the audio and it is actually quite easy to locate the air band range just by viewing which frequencies are active at the upper end of the spectrum. Select a midway point between the start and end of the air band and place a node there. By using the band solo feature we can audition only the frequencies in this range and that makes it considerably easier to set the air band range than auditioning the whole spectrum.  I have left the Q factor (band-width) at its default value of 1.00 which affords a wide enough range to capture the air band. If you want to fine-tune the range all you need to do is to change the Q factor. Once you are happy with the air band range split the node into two further nodes; Left and Right. You can now separate and position the Left and Right nodes to taste as I have done below.

air band trick using fabfilter pro q3

(audio) icarus segment air band trick.mp3

You can clearly hear the difference this little trick has made to the overall texture of the mix. The audio sounds as if it has both presence and space even though we have not used reverb to define the space. In some ways, and this is only relevant when it comes to the air band, it sounds as if we have created a faux reverb – fake reverb.

LESS IS MORE

Intimate productions techniques only work if the mix is minimalistic. It is hard defining clarity, space, depth, and presence when many sounds are playing simultaneously. Whereas this is exactly what is required for producing pop music it is the exact appositive for this type of production. With pop music productions, it is not uncommon to have 100+ stem counts as stems/sounds are used for layering as opposed to having each sound sitting in its own space. The interest of the listener is maintained by the multi-layering process. In effect, each sound appears to have deep layers that the brain tries to evaluate and reference and this keeps the brain active and interested which is ultimately the aim of every producer – to keep the listener interested. Hip Hop production is the closest comparable for the type of processes covered in this article as Hip Hop leans towards minimalistic productions both in terms of the number of stems used and in how each stem is presented. The idea is to have a sparse bed for the rap and backing vocals to explore and reside in. Instrument sounds are kept to a minimum and only used to provide a contrast for the driving rap lines and sweet backing vocals. Intimate productions follow the same ethos but take it to a whole new level. Because reverb is regarded as hell-spawn, instrument sounds have to be processed with even more attention to detail. Call it ‘precision processing’. If each sound is not crafted to perfection then the errors jump at you with no consideration for your karma or street cred. It’s amazing how constricted a producer feels when reverb is removed from the equation. But I think it’s a good thing. It forces the producer to think outside the box and experiment with processes that they might not have used had reverb been the go-to effect for all things spatial. It is through these restrictions that new clever and innovative processes are discovered or created. When listening to a busy mix it is hard to isolate specific sounds and evaluate the frequency spectrum and dynamic behaviour each sound boasts. Sounds will overlap and either sum or mask each other. The dynamic motion of individual sounds are difficult to ascertain in a busy mix but with a sparse and minimalistic mix each and every sound is heard in its entirety and this is why it is imperative that each sound is optimised to as near to perfect as possible because errors are easily exaggerated in minimalistic mixes. In busy mixes errors can often go unnoticed but not so with intimate productions.

UP, DOWN AND AWAY

Whereas compression is used to narrow the dynamic range of audio, expansion is used to extend or widen the dynamic range. This may seem to contradict the advice from the 1 Up 1 Down section but it is actually an additional process that is performed on the whole mix as opposed to individual sounds. With mastering, engineers tend to use compression and limiting to homogenise a mix to display a good balance of volume against dynamics. Loudness is not the aim even though it seems to still be a pre-requisite for certain genres. Expansion, for some reason, tends to go unnoticed with the less professional mastering engineers, and yet it is such a powerful process. What is even more perplexing is that upward expansion seems to be used far more often than downward expansion. It seems that making the loud bits louder above a specified threshold is more appealing than making the quiet bits quieter below the threshold. I think this harks back to the loudness issue. We tend to think loudness affords more detail whereas in reality separation is a bigger influence. Although the result is the same when it comes to extending the overall dynamic range of the mix the perception of how the dynamics behave are very different. Which expansion mode you use is dependent on how you want the listener to perceive the ‘up close and personal’ attributes of the mix. If the mix is biased towards a narrow banded response with all the sounds coming across as ‘the same level’ then I might opt for upward expansion. By structuring the threshold such that only the peak transients are highlighted, upward expansion raises the peak transients whilst leaving everything below the threshold unaffected. The overall effect of this process is that the attack portions of the sounds now sit above the bodies which come across as ‘pronounced’. Generally, and I use this word tentatively, most peak transients tend to sit with the attack component of a sound as they define how velocity is applied to the sound. With vocals, for example, it is easy to understand this behaviour as plosives and sibilance tend to carry a lot of peak transients whereas the body of a word that follows the prominent attack will generally be quieter with less pronounced peak transients. However, I might not want to pronounce peak transients and instead aim to quieten the quieter elements of the mix to achieve an even more intimate and controlled response. Staying with the same threshold setting and using downward expansion the quiet parts are made even quieter whilst all the louder peak transients are left untouched and this translates across as more intimate and less distinct. Which mode is selected is really dependent on what you are trying to achieve and because both modes extend the dynamic range it really comes down to how you want the mix to be perceived. My advice is to use both modes, render the mix and listen to the overall responses, and gauge what each mode is doing to the audio using a spectrum analyser.

Let us look at an example that incorporates both compression and expansion but using middle and side. I often use this process when mastering mixes and it really does add another level of detail to a mix that conventional downward compression, static equalisation, and limiting don’t. Using the FabFilter Pro Q3 dynamic equaliser we will add presence and motion to a mix. I will stay with the Icarus audio file for now as we are familiar with it.

(audio) icarus segment.mp3

The aim is to solidify the low end of the mix (mid) using downward compression and add presence and motion to a wide range of upper frequencies (side) using upward expansion.

The process of locating where to place each of the two nodes is agonisingly simple. Use the spectrum analyser to display where the prominent low and high-frequency ranges lie. Create a node somewhere in the low-frequency range and duplicate the process for the high frequency. Solo the low-frequency band and listen to make sure you are capturing only low-end frequencies and not the mid-range frequencies. As a starting point, I generally place a node at 100 Hz and move it around, whilst auditioning in solo mode, until I have caught the most prominent low frequency and from there I create the range using the Q factor (band-width). Once you are happy with the node placement and frequency range click on the node and select Stereo Placement/Mid. Perform the same steps for the high-frequency range and this time select Placement/Side (below).

up and down m/s using fabfilter pro q3

(audio) icarus segment up and down.mp3

Now that we have successfully created the mid and side components we need to define each range’s behaviour. I have opted for downward compression for the mid element and upward expansion for the side element. Adding sparkle and presence to the side element helps to lift the mix and add both space and clarity. The fact that the mid element is compressed at the same time as the side element is expanded further pronounces the sides whilst keeping the low-frequency mid under control. This is a simple yet effective mastering process but please don’t feel you have to use the exact same behaviours as I have. Experiment with different behavioural modes, thresholds, split bands and so on until you achieve the texture you are after.

LOW END

The low end of a mix refers to the low-frequency content present within the mix and how these frequencies are processed. Many believe this is exclusive to the bass and kick but it actually refers to all frequencies that reside in what the producer determines to be the low end of the mix. Invariably, the low end of a mix sits in the 0-800 Hz frequency range, but this is not gospel as the low-frequency range of one mix might be very different to the another, and as vocals, synths, pad sounds etc share this range it is critical that this area is processed correctly.

It might seem strange picking low end as a subject for intimate production techniques but it is this area that reigns supreme for this type of production. With certain genres like Hip Hop, the two critical areas of processing are the low end and the vocals. It is the same with intimate productions. The low end acts as the bed for the mix and all other sounds sit in or hover around and above this bed. In effect, the low end anchors the mix and all other sounds are given free rein to explore the remaining frequencies.

The process I use for managing the low end for intimate productions is the exact opposite of what I do for individual sounds – upward expansion! The aim is not to reduce the dynamic range of the bass and kick sounds but to extend their dynamic range and specifically above the threshold. By setting the threshold to just below the peak transients and using upward expansion we can extend the peak transients further up the dynamic range ladder. The difference from quiet to loud is now extended and that helps to make certain low frequency sounds peak above the mix and then drop to below the average mix level to allow other sounds to explore the vacated, or attenuated, space. This is actually quite an important distinction to make; low-frequency sounds are highly intrusive in that they can completely dominate a mix if left at a constant level nearing the mix level, whereas mid to high-frequency sounds are not as intrusive and benefit from having a constant level as shown in the 1 Up 1 Down section. This is only relevant in the context of intimate productions. The idea is to have all sounds occupy a certain level range for the mix and the low frequency sounds to dip above and below this set range.

The best way to demonstrate this is to use the problematic Roland TR808 bass drum and a dynamic piano line and mix the two using upward expansion on the 808 to raise and drop it above and below the average mix level which in this case is set by the piano line.

(audio) piano riff 90 bpm.mp3

(audio) 808 kick 90 bpm.mp3

(audio) piano and 808 90 bpm.mp3

You can hear that the 808 is struggling to be heard above the piano line. Let us now insert the FabFilter Pro Q 3 on the master bus and use expansion to pronounce the 808 line. I have exaggerated the process so you can hear in detail how the 808 drops and peaks above the average mix level.

using M/S with fabfilter q3

(audio) piano and 808 expanded 90 bpm.mp3

The 808 drops nicely below the average mix level allowing the piano to be heard in full and when the expansion process kicks in the 808 rises above the average mix level and can be heard in its entirety.

This is a very cool approach in achieving separation whilst keeping detail and intimacy in check.

Tracking

Let me end this article by touching on what I feel is the most important aspect in achieving intimate productions; that of tracking. If we use Billy Eilish as an example you will note that all her recordings are sung into the microphone both closely and at a constant level. The overall texture is attributed to the room she sings in, and it might surprise you to know it is a bedroom with no acoustic treatment. The environment is critical when it comes to vocal tracking and we spend more time and money trying to achieve a natural sound that we sometimes forget to use the room’s qualities to our advantage as Eilish and Fiennes have done with their debut album. Microphone choice is as important as mic technique and the recording environment. I have achieved excellent results using both small and large-diaphragm condensers but results can vary depending on a number of factors; the recording environment, the preamp and mic technique. The one thing I have noticed, be it deliberate or by accident, is that Billy Eilish uses the proximity effect to her advantage whereas most producers try to remove it. Whether this is actually the proximity effect caused due to her using a cardioid mic at close quarters or the room’s acoustics is hard to tell but it is a wonderful way to add to the presence factor of her vocal deliveries. On occasion, I will deliberately record with the proximity effect but the trick is to control it, by varying both distance to mic and angle of mic, so as to achieve the right level of low-end presence as opposed to booming low-end mush. At other times I might opt for a large-diaphragm condenser as most microphones of this topology will invariably have what we refer to as a ‘vocal lift’; call it the microphone’s response or colour if you will, and it is the response of the microphone that is as important as the preamp and the recording environment, so choose your mics carefully for the given task, whatever it is.

I could dither (you see what I did there huh?) all day about intimate productions but what I have tried to achieve with this article is to give you an insight into some of the techniques we producers use to achieve intimate mixes. But as is the case with all things audio, experiment and find your own bespoke techniques and when you have share them with the world.

If you found this article to be of use, then these might also interest you:

Mixing Pop Music

Mixing Hip Hop

MixBus Strategies