When you’re trying to get better at mixing, you might check out a site like MusicGuyMixing.com here to read a tutorial or two. And while you’re there, you might run across a particular term mentioned like, oh, I don’t know, what feels like a THOUSAND times but it never gets explained. Let’s end the confusion right here, right now. What are transients?
What Are Transients
In the context of mixing, “transients” is a term used for the initial perceived sound of a clip of audio.
It’s typically associated with the higher frequencies of an instrument, as those are generally what we hear first. This is no coincidence as higher frequencies are generally perceived as being closer than lower frequencies.
So when we talk about the transients of a snare drum, we’re typically talking about that initial crack of stick on skin. That snap is the first thing we hear before we get into the rounded tone or fullness of the body.
On the kick drum, the transients are the sound of the beater head on the skin. That percussive tone is what comes through first before we perceive the following thickness of the body of that kick.
It’s the percussive sound (in nature) of most instruments which accounts for their transients.
Why Transients Matter
Transients are important because they draw attention to that sound and the rest of the tone.
I mentioned the snare and kick just now to help me define what are transients because they are arguably the two most important instruments in any mix.
Together the kick and snare keep time, establish the rhythm, and as such are the backbone to any song. They help the listener keep their bearings and better connect with a song.
As such, the listener needs to easily be able to pick out the kick and snare in any mix.
Transients help those integral elements “cut through” the mix (another term you’ve likely heard before) by helping the listener pick them out, even during busier sections of a mix when a lot of instruments are playing at once.
Without transients, tracks quickly get lost in a mix, regardless of the instrument, and the mix begins to lose focus.
How to Bring Out Transients
You can bring out transients or otherwise preserve existing transients in three ways.
Boost the Upper Mids
The upper mids are generally the frequencies where the percussive tones reside. A little boost in the 3-5k region typically helps a track better assert itself. Check out my complete and free EQ cheat sheet for specific frequency ranges for every single track in your mix for more information.
Watch that Compression Attack
Compression flattens out a signal, and there’s no faster way to lose your transients than through over-compression.
Compression can be great for adding sustain to a track, but not at the expense of our transients and losing the track in the mix.
This is what the “Attack” setting on a compressor is for. This dictates how long in milliseconds before the incoming signal gets compressed.
Turning up the attack, i.e. making it longer, to be long enough to hear those uncompressed transients come through before the compressor engages gives you the best of both worlds. The track still cuts through the mix while you get more thickness as well as sustain on the back end.
Use Reverb Wisely
Reverb also swallows up transients, in this case by simulating distance and space and smothering our transients. We want the immediacy of those transients preserved, so be careful when adding reverb to a signal. This means:
Similar to the “Attack” setting on a compressor, “Predelay” on a reverb dictates how long in milliseconds before the simulated reverb of that track plays.
Without predelay, the reverb plays on top of the dry signal so there is no separation and as such, the transients are lost.
Experiment with different predelay times to create separation between the clean audio and reverb instance of it so that the dry signal still is able to cut through. Refer to my overview of the Haas effect for more information on how much time it takes the human ear to perceive a difference between two copies of the same sound which is very close to what we’re doing with reverb.
EQ Your Reverb
I’ve mentioned this before when I talked about the Abbey Road Reverb Trick, but it’s a good idea to drop an EQ after your reverb to help it get out of the way. It’s not as relevant to preserving your transients as the predelay, but it still helps to clean up your mix.
Use Reverb as a Send
There are two ways to use reverb (or any effect for that matter): as an insert or a send (see inserts vs sends).
Unless you’re doing a very specific effect on one track, you typically want to create an aux/return track and drop your reverb on it.
This allows you to leave the dry signal 100% dry, preserving your transients, and instead blend in a bit of reverb to taste with the send knob. Note that you should still use predelay to create that separation between the two signals.
What Are Transients Reviewed
- Transients are the initial sound you hear when you hear a clip of audio.
- The transients on a snare or kick are the percussive tones of the stick or beater head against the skin of the drum.
- They matter because they help a track cut through a mix whenever it plays. Without them, a mix quickly loses focus.
- You can bring out transients by boosting in the upper mid frequencies.
- You can also preserve them by using enough attack on your compressor and predelay on your reverb.