How To Use Expansion To Get A Punchy Mix

Do you find your track just isn't punchy enough after mastering? Do your transients lack clarity in the high end? Is there something buried in your mix that sounds flat and dull that you want to bring out without affecting the rest of the track?

This blog post is for you!

One of my favourite techniques whilst mixing and mastering is using clinically precise upward expansion. Below is a track I stem mastered in October 2016, My Way - Calvin Harris (Tiesto remix) ... Using the club preset in LEVELS of course. This track is particularly punchy but it's still as loud as other club tracks. One of the tricks I used to get this sound was ‘Upward Expansion’ and I’m going to explain how you can use it to improve your mastering.

What Is Expansion?

Think of expansion as the opposite of compression. There are a few different types of dynamic processing but lets keep it simple for now and say: Compression decreases the volume of the louder elements, whereas Expansion increases the volume of the louder elements.

How To Use Expansion In A Mix

I use the expander in Fabfilters Pro MB to target specific frequencies in the material I’m working on. In the example below I wanted to add a bit of punch to the snare without affecting the hi hats or toms that were also in the stem. Here’s what I did…

  1. Create a band that focuses on the ‘bite’ of the snare frequencies (in this scenario around 650Hz to 5kHz).
  2. Set the mode to ‘EXPAND’.
  3. Make sure the range is in positive figures (i.e +6dB)
  4. Play with the threshold so that the signal exceeds the threshold.

How to use expansion in mixing.

And now we start tweaking the settings so it works musically with the rest of the mix. I’ve set the attack to very quick so the transients are pushed up. The release is on a moderate setting. It doesn't return to original level immediately as I find that to not be very musical. The release is fast enough that it comes back to the original level before the next hit. I find this type of setting brings about dynamics with appropriate character for the track.

Here are some other scenarios where an expander can be really helpful.

  1. Increase the punch of a kick without affecting the sub or the click.
  2. Increase clarity of the hi hat and cymbal transients on the master bus.
  3. Adding a dynamic lift to the lower mids of a synth (careful not to make it sound muddy).
  4. Adding subtle transient enhancement to an entire mix. I’ll usually only do this in the upper mids and high frequencies.

Conclusion

An expander is a great tool to bring some punch into your music with incredible control. It’s a dynamics processing technique that is not talked about often and certainly under exploited. Give it a spin on your next track and listen to the difference it makes! 

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