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Just to get it out of the way, I have no formal training in music production, let alone sound engineering. So apologies in advance if I say anything stupid.

I have been using Reason to make hip hop beats for a little while now, and I have noticed two problems with my finished products:

1) They always sound dull and muffled compared to professionally produced/recorded tracks (by that I mean any music I've bought).

2) They always sound softer (as in lower volume) than professionally produced/recorded tracks. This happens even if the volume is going all the way into the "red" in the "Mixer 14:2" master volume indicator.

Based on what I've read, I'm guessing this is due to a combination of a lack of compression, improper EQ within tracks, bad mixing, and a lack of mastering. Is that correct, and can I assume that if I learned to do all of these things properly I would get tracks that sound as bright, clear, and loud as anything else playing on my iPod? If so, can anyone point me towards learning resources for doing this in Reason?

I guess I should ask, is it even possible to really mix and master professional-sounding tracks in Reason? Or would I need a different program (or to submit my tracks to a mastering engineer)?

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4 Answers

A good track starts with a good mix. A good mix is needed before any mastering is done on it. The 'dull soft' sound is due to a number of factors and you have mentioned most of them (eq, compression, stereo spread, saturation and volume). As each sound in your mix is different, there are no hard rules to getting this sounding 'bigger'. Different parts of the mix require different processing.

Overlapping frequencies is one cause of sounds sounding dull. As all sounds are wave forms, when two (or more) wave forms collide they can cancel each other out (known as destructive interference). The best way to avoid this is to take into account the frequencies of the sounds and the spatial position.

As a programmer, I code by a rule called "separation of concerns" and I also apply this to music. For instance, when creating sub bass sound, the purpose of the sound is to create a low frequency, therefore it needs no higher frequencies so I eq-out all of the top end (with sub, depending on the sound anywhere above 80-120 hz). With high-hats (and other high frequencies), I eq out all the bottom and some of the low mids. To be honest, I eq-out all of my sounds below the 60-80hz mark (apart from the sub of course) as the only low end I want in the mix comes from the sub. If you have two instruments that occupy a similar frequency range, you can change the spatial position using panning and other techniques/tools. This all helps to keep the sounds clean and out of each others way so they can sound their best. It helps them all sound and fit nicely together in the mix as you don't tend to have too many overlapping frequencies causing issues.

Eq-ing sweeping to find 'sweet spots' can also bring out the character of a sound. To do this, chose a fairly narrow 'q' setting on the eq and set the gain high and sweep through the sound until you hear it sounding overly brighter/punchier etc. Keep it on that frequency 'sweet spot' and then reduce the gain to a decent level. This is also useful to do to remove and resonance in sounds that could occur when it is played at high volume (in clubs for instance), to do this, just listen for frequencies that make it sound resonant at high gains and then do an eq-cut at that frequency with a narrow 'q'.

One other very important thing is that if you are using samples, the quality of the sample is very important (you can't polish a turd as they say) so eq-ing to find and boost frequencies that are not there is futile. Always pick the best sample for the job and then tweak it.

The range of frequencies of your track will also have a big effect, to bring out the low end of a track, it needs to be balanced with a decent amount of high end. It is all about balance. A good way to learn is to take a track you like the sound of and put a frequency analyser on it and compare it to a another frequency analyser on your track, You can use this to see what frequencies are missing in your track.

One other tip, lower frequencies (like kick drums and sub bass) tend to be in mono whilst higher frequencies have more stereo spread which helps give it a 'wider' feel (especially in dance music). Think of the sound as a funnel shape with the lower frequencies central (mono) at the bottom and the higher frequencies, spreading out, at the top. With modern music, especially dance, there are a few things that are important; width (stereo spread), height (volume/loudness), depth (reverb etc.), range of frequencies within the track and dynamics. Pendulum were very good at maxing out all of these qualities giving it a 'wall of sound' feel. Whether this is deemed 'good' or not is debatable and subjective. It takes a lot of time and patience to get it sounding the way you want. Don't be afraid to experiment and just enjoy the process.

Once a good mix is in place with all the sounds fitting nicely together you can start thinking about adding things like compressors and limiters to the overall mix (note: more often than not you will have compressors on certain instruments as well). The best way to do this, I found is to just use your ears, add a compressor, tweak the settings and constantly a/b it, i.e. turn it off and on to see if sounds better. As I am not a mastering engineer however (and don't have the equipment) I tend to just send this off to a mastering engineer who knows what he's doing :-) but it is a good learning experience to experiment yourself.

p.s. I am not a huge fan of reason (although it can be used to produce decent tracks). This is because I use a lot of 3rd party vst plugins and effects which is not supported in Reason and limits its usefulness to me. I was using an older version however so Rack Extensions may provide more flexibility in v6 (but I haven't read too much into it).

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If you are making hip hop, I assume you want your drums to stand out and 'punch'. My kick/snare, and most drum sounds actually, are generally set a little higher than other sounds on the mix. The meter for my drums gets well into the yellow while everything else stays usually right at the point between green and yellow.

Pay close attention to your levels every time you add an instrument. Remember volume level doesnt always translate to loudness, try tweaking every knob to see what makes something sound fuller or crisper without necessarily raising the meter.

I almost always slightly boost the lower frequencies on the master eq and/or add an eq to my drums to do the same. That is a good point made above about frequencies overlapping.

DONT get into the red or simply raise the track volume because remember you are just making the 'dull/muffled' mix louder. Only AT THE END after you have your mix the way you like it should you play with the master volume.

I generally slightly raise the master maximizer at the end (I'm referring to the 'mastering suite' at the top of the rack above the mixer).

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Dull and muffled sounds to me like frequency space. That is, there aren't high frequencies where you would expect them. The low frequencies are lacking, etc... Within Reason, that is probably an issue with EQing.

The volume issue is likely related to something called gain structuring. Imagine, instead of Reason, you actually had all of that outboard gear. Each piece of gear has an output 'volume'.

When you chain a bunch of those pieces of gear together, you can see how you'd have to be both careful and deliberate as to how you set the 'gain' of each piece of gear, so that the next piece of gear in the chain would be getting the proper signal strength at its input. There are specific numbers involved here, but to keep it simple, not too high, not too low.

In your particular situation, one thing you didn't mention was how you're listening to the output of Reason. Is it leaving Reason, going to your computer's headphone out? Digital out?, etc. That is certainly one more piece of the gain puzzle. You could have everything cranked in Reason, but if your headphone volume is down, well...

If your master mix meter is going into the red, are you hearing a distorted output? even if quiet? If it is not distorted, then I would guess that you've got a piece of gear (virtual or otherwise) in the chain after that main mix, which is keeping the volume low before it finally reaches your speakers. If it is distorted, your issue lies in your gain structuring.

Finally, EQ, mixing, and mastering can all improve your sound. If you learned to do all of those things properly, you would definitely get tracks that sounded as bright, clear and loud as anything else on your iPod (and incidentally, you might also find yourself a new career! Many people spend a lifetime learning to do it "properly" :) ).

Lastly, yes, it is possible to create professional-sounding tracks in Reason. This book was suggested to me years ago. I wouldn't say I swear by it, but it is a fantastic set of guidelines for mixing. And while googleing for it just now, I also ran across a blog page that someone wrote up... a Top 8 Takeaways from said book.

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There's possibly not really enough space in a stack exchange answer to actually get to the root of the problem ... though I see the other answers have made valiant efforts, and no doubt you should study these, and they may indeed cover the answer, but still ...

The fact that you a) notice, and b) have the humility to ask shows me that you both have an ear ( which can be honed) and are serious about your tracks sounding good. To that extent I recommend that you study the recording process in as much detail as you can, that way when you as a question like the one you've asked you may be already ruling out some of the more common problems yourself and thus get higher quality answers.

Recording engineering is a vast subject requiring a lifetime of study but you can get the basics without spending a huge amount of time.

I would recommend one or all of the following

  • Get a couple of good up to date books on the subject and read them cover to cover
  • Scour google video/youtube for everything you can find on recording. I would recommend techmuzeacademy.com / www.techmuze.tv and their podcast and youtube pages too. There is also an excellent series on google video called into the lair but it's aimed more at people with a knowledge of the basic
  • Now is a great time to make sure you're using the best DAW for you. I think you can download trial versions of ones you haven't used.
  • Possibly enrol in your closest recording course ... it doesn't have to be a 4 year course or anything, the basics of mic position, signal level, routing, eq and balancing a mix can be taught quite quickly ( it's learning how to get it to sound awesome is the part that takes ages )

Volume level you probably need to use a maximiser like waves L2 Ultramaximixer, or Ozone's Izotope has one built in. I don't know what works with reason but you could google maximizer I suppose.

Mastering. I'm not sure that I'd be mastering in reason, but I don't know the program well so ?? I have used Wavelab with Isotope and gotten good results. I generally think in terms of getting someone else to master my mixes, and you can do that online quite cheaply if budget is a concern , and I've had good results with that myself.

Edit : I haven't checked this out but I think it may help you. If it's not specifically for reason, and I think it's not, then you would still be able to use the same techniques and princibles as all DAWs do essentially the same thing ( or at least I know cubase and pro tools do at any rate ) ... http://therecordingrevolution.com/5minutes/

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I can verify that therecordingrevolution.com/5minutes makes a world of difference. My mixes went from dull and lifeless to bright and vibrant after watching the series. The tips at that link apply to ALL genres as well. –  Herbert Jul 2 '13 at 13:23
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