“Ear candy” is one of those vague, subjective terms that can mean anything – but you know it when you hear it! As a rule, this will confuse your expectations in some way, at least the first time, and cause your ears to prick up and pay attention.
The ear candy can be a vocal or lead line, in which case we tend to call it a “hook”. Or it can be part of the arrangement, like an unusual rhythmic pattern. In the context of a mixing tutorial, however, we’re probably more interested in effects or post-production tricks.
These are often technology-driven: abusing Auto-Tune, for example, is a trick that has long lost its novelty value. Many of us are familiar with the compressed, gated reverbs of the 80s, and the vocal stutter effects that became all the rage when samplers first became available. Be careful, jumping on the latest craze could tend to date your mix!
Fortunately, the modern DAW offers a huge range of creative options, even before you use third-party plugins, so it should always be possible to find new ways to sprinkle sonic pixie dust on a part, while still avoiding becoming a cliché. In this walkthrough, we’ll explore a few of them.
1. Height change
Move a vocal or main part down an octave, mix it with the original, then fly it for certain words or phrases to add emphasis. Use your DAW’s pitchshifting, or a plugin like Soundtoys Little AlterBoy, and be sure to play around with formant shift if available.
2. Formant change
Now try using the formant shift functions alone: make a male voice sound more female for a phrase, or vice versa. Try going through different formants rhythmically during a long sustained note. Formant shifting is also a good way to add tonal variety to layered backing vocals by the same singer.
3. Reverse Reverb
Reverse reverb isn’t new, but it’s much easier to create than before! Simply reverse the part, apply the reverb and print, then reverse the result. For convolution reverbs, try inverting the impulse response. It’s a great way to add an eerie, otherworldly feel, or create a grand entrance for a party.
Nothing new either, but vocoders will still be cool! The risk of cliché is reduced by the infinite variety of carrier signals available: any sound rich in spectral content will work, such as synths, distorted guitars or noise to create a “whispered” vocal effect. As the backing can be anything, you are also free to add additional harmonies or counter melodies.
5. Multi-tap delays
Multi-tap delays are great for one-off effects, causing certain words or phrases to bounce around dramatically, then suddenly stop. Many plugins exist to do this for you, but don’t forget your most powerful option: do it manually in your DAW! Create a few more tracks, pan and add effects, then move copies of the clip around until you get something you like.
6. Master Effects
The lead channel is a great place for dramatic one-off effects: a short, sudden cut to silence can be very effective when applied to the whole mix, or to everything but the vocals. But you can take it a step further with stutter or glitch effects, pitch jumps or slowdowns, filter sweeps, and more. – they will all have more impact when applied to the whole mix.