Back to blog
November 25, 2020

Rich Keller using harmonics to enhance the mix




When you use a processing plug-in on the master bus or in a mastering session, your settings are particularly critical because you’re affecting the entire mix, not just one track. That point is made clear in our latest excerpt, which comes from two videos, “Rich Keller - Mixing Hip Hop Vocals,” and “Rich Keller Deconstructing Nipsey Hustle, ‘Grindin’ All My Life’.” You’ll see Rich treat the master bus with harmonic saturation, a type of processing he’ll sometimes use instead of compression.

Ring Around the Planet

First up in the excerpt, we find Rich demonstrating his mixing techniques on a song called “Hero” by Nicky G. In this case, he uses three plug-ins on the master bus, the UAD Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor; FabFilter Saturn, which is a multiband saturation plug-in and the FabFilter L-2 limiter. This segment focuses on his use of Saturn.

Saturn has an in-depth feature set for a saturation plug-in. You can create up to six frequency bands, each with its own set of controls, and set the crossover points wherever you want. You can select from one of 16 distortion varieties for each band, including tube, tape, guitar amp, and even one called “Destroy.” You can even apply an array of modulators.

Crossover into Saturation

But in this situation, Rich is keeping it relatively simple. He uses Saturn to create subtle harmonic distortion that will add a little brightness and energy to the mix. He creates a 4-band setting for Saturn.

The upper-mid-band controls of Rich’s master bus setting for FabFilter Saturn in the Nicky G. example.

Each band has a master level control and four Tone sliders. Rich starts by pushing the high-band master slider (for which he set a 1000Hz crossover point) up by almost 4dB. He also increases the highest of the four Tone sliders in that band. He leaves the Drive control—which governs saturation amount—down, however.

He moves to the mid-band, which he boosts by about 3.5dB. He’ll usually turn up the Drive control on this band, but because this mix is already on the verge of saturation, he decides not to.

When he plays some of the track and compares it without and with the Saturn’s processing, the difference is quite audible. As Rich intended, it adds presence and a little more sonic intensity.

Mad Maximizer

When the excerpt moves to the Nipsey Hustle segment, Rich selects the UAD Precision Maximizer to create harmonic saturation. This plug-in combines saturation and a limiter that you can separately control. It’s designed to make full mixes or individual tracks sound louder, warmer and more present.

It offers two operating modes: 1-Band, which processes the entire mix the same way; and 3-band, which has three bands with fixed crossovers at 200Hz and 2.45kHz.

Rich’s setting on the UAD Precision Maximizer, which he uses on the Nipsey Hustle master bus for the “Grindin All My Life” mix.

The Input knob controls the amount of the Maximizer effect. The Shape knob governs how much saturation you add to the signal. The Mix control lets you dial in parallel effects by blending the wet and dry signals. The final knob is for the Output level. The latter comes in handy for reducing levels that are too hot when you boost the Input.

Rich explains that on the original mix of “Grindin All My Life,” the only master bus effect was the UAD Precision Maximizer. He reasoned that Nipsey’s vocals were consistent from a level standpoint and already sounded good (if it’s not broke, don’t fix it). He was afraid if he put a compressor on the master, it might react to the instruments in certain spots in a way that would not work well with the vocal.

He says that in rap music, the vocal has to be “loud and proud.” The analogy he draws is to the main spotlight on a lead singer on stage—nothing else should cross it or impact it.

To get a setting he likes, he sweeps the Shape knob until he hears the right amount of saturation. Using only his ears, he comes up with a Shape setting of 56.5%, which is almost the same as he had it before. He says after mixing for so many years, he’s extremely consistent.

Crushing It

A quick explanation of saturation: In the analog domain, it’s created by overloading the input of analog hardware such as mixer channels or outboard processors. The signal has nowhere to go and starts to compress and distort, creating harmonics above it that differ depending on the type of gear. The more you overload the input, the more saturation you’ll get.

Tape, tubes and transformers each create different-sounding harmonics, all of which are pleasant to the ear. Plug-ins like FabFilter Saturn and the UAD Precision Maximizer are analog-modeled processors, which means they emulate analog saturation characteristics within their digital circuitry.

A guitar waveform zoomed to the sample level before (top) and after (bottom) being saturated by FabFilter Saturn. Notice how the saturation flattened the peaks.

Fun with Saturation

You can use saturation to add richness to any source. You saw Rich apply it to the master bus in the excerpt, but it’s also great on instrument busses and individual tracks.

In the following three examples, you’ll hear the UAD Precision Maximizer on a drum-and-percussion bus. To avoid the “louder is better” effect, we evened out the volume on all three examples, even though the Precision Maximizer’s processing made it louder on the second example and loudest on the third.

First, with the Precision Maximizer bypassed.

Here it is with a moderate setting.

This time it has a heavy setting.

The settings for the moderate and heavy applications of the Precision Maximizer in the last two examples, respectively.

Taking it Further

Between its multiband capabilities, saturation types, per-band tone controls and modulation effects, FabFilter Saturn can do a lot more than add warmth and presence. You can use it as a multi-effects processor to significantly change the character of the source.

The following examples will show a couple of Saturn’s possibilities. First, we’ll start with a basic beat with Saturn bypassed.

Next, you'll hear the same loop with Saturn in a three-zone setup (crossovers at 123Hz and 1338Hz) with the lower band set for Old Tape, the middle band for Broken Tube and the high band for Warm Tube.

The low and high band levels have been reduced slightly. In addition, envelope followers were used to modulate the Drive on the lower band and the Presence on the upper band

The lower-band settings for the next example.

Taking it even further out from the original, this time the loop has a three-band setup with crossovers at 152Hz and 2500Hz. The low and high bands are using Clean Tube saturation while the middle band is set to Old Tape. Several parameters are modulated with LFOs including Drive, Tone settings, Mix and more.

The mid-band settings for the next example.