A harsh mix is a nightmare for many amateur audio engineers. Don’t worry though, it raises its ugly head on professional mixing sessions as well. But there’s nothing to worry about. At least not if you know how to handle the beast. Now that you’re revved up to tame the ice pick, let’s examine a couple of approaches.
Dull the edge
EQ – the obvious way: It’s pretty usual to reach for the equalizer when you want to pull down a certain range of the spectrum. But where’s this obtrusive harshness? Most people would automatically try to cut the very top end – about 10kHz and above. Sometimes they are exactly right. Many times however, they will end up eliminating the precious highs. The ones that give you that expensive sounding sheen, and are in no way aggressive.
If you want to cut the real ice pick, you might want to search for it in the 3 to 7 kHz range, but especially around 5000Hz. You will be surprised how a few dB cut here will make your whole mix sound better and more high fidelity, eliminating all the spectral problems at the same time.
Do you want to do it on the master bus though? Sometimes you can get away with it, but as far as true mixing goes, you better go back and try to find the real culprits. Cutting on the individual tracks will serve you better in the long run.
Compression – the dynamic method: Few things sound as good as a well set up compressor on the stereo bus. The side effect of being able to take away some of the harshness is just a helpful bonus. Or is it? Actually, the reason why compression can make a mix sound punchy and round is the very same why it can tame those hard and screechy edges. They key to it lies in transients. Most of the time the attack of a tone falls in the range of high mids and treble. If you set up a relatively short attack time, you can effectively turn down the level of these frequencies.
Distortion – fight harsh with gritty: Even though it sounds counter intuitive, it works pretty close to what compression does. Anything that does a passable transformer and/or tape saturation can work for you in taming that harsh mix. You might not get the desired results without using the above two methods as well. But who cares, when this shit sounds so good. If you are careful enough, you can use distortion on the 2 bus and it will sound like chocolate dripping on your tongue.