As I mentioned in my overview of what are transients, audio transients can best be described as those initial palpable “hits” of a sound; they’re the first thing we hear when we hear a sound. In the context of mixing, transients grab our attention and draw our ears to a particular instrument in the mix. A transient rich mix is one which has a lot of “punch” and keeps the listener engaged. There are some tricks we can use to preserve transients and even ADD audio transients to any instrument to keep them visible and our mix especially punchy, so let’s cover them now.
How to Add Audio Transients
Because higher frequencies travel faster (see parts of a sound wave for more information), the transients of a sound are typically in that 2-8k region. With the snare, it’s that crack of the stick on skin of the drum which occurs around 5k which helps the snare assert itself and cut through even a busy mix.
Here are some tips to help make those frequencies more pronounced in the mix to add to or bring out audio transients.
White Noise to Simulate Audio Transients
Let’s start with a sneaky one, and a great tip for bringing out audio transients for tracks otherwise lacking in them.
Similar to my sine wave kick drum trick, we’ll be using an external sound to supplement our existing audio to put in something it’s lacking, or in this case we’re simulating audio transients.
Whereas there we used a sine wave, here we’re going to be using white noise.
White noise is essentially high frequency rich distortion, at least how we’ll be using it, making it an ideal candidate to cut through your mix.
Out of context and on its own, white noise just sounds like a grating blob of sound. Mixed in ahead of a track with subtlety, white noise simulates the audio transients our track(s) might be missing due to poor equipment, recording conditions, etc.
Let’s stick with a snare for argument’s and simplicity’s sake. Let’s say we like our snare sound, but it’s not cutting through the mix enough despite level or EQ adjustments (more on this in a moment).
In this case the white noise trick will work well to help that snare cut through the mix.
Create a duplicate of your snare track and mute its output in such a way so that it plays but isn’t heard in the mix. In Ableton Live, I simply turn off the track activator for that second snare. One last thing – move that snare earlier on the timeline to play 1-3 milliseconds BEFORE your actual snare.
Next, pull up a clip of white noise and drop it on a new track next to your snare. Many DAWs have samples of white noise, but you can grab one online just as easily. Drop it into your DAWs sampler to make an instrument out of it and create one very long clip of white noise via midi notes.
Conversely you can just download a long 5 minute instance of white noise and drop it on your timeline as an audio track.
In this example I opened Omnisphere and loaded up its white noise sample, creating a midi note to play it constantly for the duration of my mix.
Now drop a noise gate on that white noise (see what is a noise gate) and sidechain it to the duplicated snare track we created and you should have something which looks like this:
The last thing to do is set the gate’s threshold. Because we activated the sidechain, the gate is opening based on the behavior of the duplicated snare. Set the threshold so that it opens every time the snare hits.
Now set the level of your white noise so that it adds the audio transients you want to that snare, helping it assert itself in the mix.
Note that the reason we duplicated the snare rather than just chaining the gate to our original snare was so we could bump that snare up 1-3 ms. This isn’t necessary, and if you want to skip that time change you can do so in which case you don’t need a duplicate of your snare. I like that transient hitting a little bit early.
Actually, if your DAW allows you to adjust the delay to make something play early like Live does, you can skip duplicating the snare and simply set the delay to NEGATIVE 1-3 miliseconds on the right. This simplifies the process.
Regardless, the white noise is perceived by the listener as that initial hit of the transient. When paired with the actual instrument, it grabs the listener’s attention and gets them to notice whatever instrument you pair it with in your mix.
You may want to pitch up or down the white noise, depending on what you’re pairing it with. In this case, the piano roll/midi notes works well for easily and transparently adjusting the pitch.
I typically use this trick on kick drums and snares in particular, but you can use this on other instruments in your mix, even if just a one off time at the start of a section to add emphasis.
You can even use the same white noise track to trigger multiple instruments, using multiple gates, albeit without the same precision that multiple tracks would allow for.
EQ to Boost Transients
We don’t always or even often need to add in transients. Sometimes a perceived lack of punch in a track can be fixed simply by turning the track up one decibel or so, OR we can bring out audio transients via EQ.
With EQ we can give a little boost in the relative area to help that instrument cut through the mix.
In going back to our snare example, as I mentioned earlier the audio transients are that stick on skin which is prominent in the 5k region:
That cracking sound is the first thing we hear before we get the roundness and decay on the snare.
A small boost in that 5k region will add a little crispness overall but mostly help bring out that cracking sound.
This draws our ears to that snare which keeps the listener locked in to the timing, rhythm, and overall energy of the song which the snare carries a lot of.
Remember that whenever we make a cut we’re actually boosting the remaining untouched frequencies in the process.
This is the basis of subtractive EQ, removing the stuff which isn’t adding to the mix and consequently placing the emphasis on the musical frequencies for that track. Cutting lower frequencies will oftentimes result in a greater emphasis on the transient rich frequencies of that track.
Audio Transients Tips
- Audio transients are the initial higher frequencies of sounds which hit our ears first and draw our attention to a track/instrument.
- These help instruments assert themselves in mixes, keeping a mix punchy and engaging for the listener.
- The crack of stick on skin with a snare drum is a perfect example of audio transients.
- If your track is lacking in transients due to poor equipment or a poor recording environment, we can simulate them with white noise.
- Have a long track of white noise which constantly plays for the duration of your mix, then drop a sidechained noise gate to the track you want to simulate those audio transients for.
- Conversely, you can add a small boost in the 2-8k region (exact transient frequencies vary by instrument) for your track(s).
- Remember that when you make a cut, you’re emphasizing the remaining frequencies, so cutting lower frequencies will generally add to that track’s transients, albeit slightly.