Today I want to talk about a plugin that has become a staple in my mixes: MaxxVolume. MaxxVolume is a dynamics processor that's becoming a secret weapon for a lot of us in the world of live sound. My first real exposure to MaxxVolume was on opening night of the US leg of Bruce Springsteen's “Wrecking Ball Tour” last year.
I've been a Springsteen fan for years and have seen my share of shows, but I knew something was different the moment Bruce took the mic. The vocal sounded natural but had plenty of power to stand amongst the rest of the 17-piece band roaring from the PA. I immediately headed back to FOH to try and catch a glimpse at how fellow Waves Artist John Cooper was making this happen, and it wasn't long before I spotted MaxxVolume doing its magic.
FOH John Cooper Mixing Bruce Springsteen
Since that show I've seen growing praise for MaxxVolume from Waves Artists so I figured I should figure this thing out. It didn't take long before I was hooked, and these days MaxxVolume is a staple in my mixes on two primary elements: vocals and matrix feeds.
I can't speak for anyone else, but I know MaxxVolume was a little confusing for me to work with at first so today I'd like to lay out a systematic approach for getting started with this plugin.
Getting vocal dynamics right can be tricky. Novice engineers often resort to simply pushing overly dynamic vocals up too far in the mix so that every word is heard, but the result is often on par with what you'd hear in a karaoke contest where the vocal sounds disconnected from the rest of the mix. My goal in dynamics processing on a vocal is to give it the same amount of apparent dynamics as the rest of the instrumentation. That way the vocal feels like it's a part of the music happening on stage even if I'm requested to turn a vocal up beyond where I would naturally place it in the mix.
You can start with a preset, but some of these tend to be a little aggressive for my tastes and the current music I'm mixing so I like to start without anything working. The first thing I'll do is turn on the Leveler in the center section of the plugin and adjust its threshold.
The Leveler works as an auto-gain control or AGC. AGC's are typically feedback-style compressors that work fairly slow. Think long attack and release times here. The Leveler will smoothly gain-ride signals back down to the threshold when they cross it so another way to look at this is as a very slow limiter.
I will typically set the threshold to match my desired average signal level on the vocal. I generally set my signal level right around 0 dB VU and sometimes a little above that which translates in digital-level-speak to somewhere in the -18 to -20 dBFS range.
Next I might play with the button just above the plugin's center meter which toggles between "LOUD" and "SOFT" which controls the release time of the Leveler. I typically lean towards "LOUD" settings, which translate to faster release times, however it's always worth checking. "SOFT" might give the perception of a quieter vocal relative to "LOUD", however this might also be more transparent in some situations.
Next up I move to the High Level section. This section is the plugin's traditional compressor and is very similar to another favorite vocal compressor of mine: Renaissance Vox. So this is where I do my traditional vocal compression.
The vocalists I work with right now are generally experienced singers, and I'll typically do 2-3 dB of compression on the High Level side. That might not seem like much to some guys, but I typically have a couple other compressors operating downstream such as a C6 and possibly some type of bus compression and that all adds into it for me.
One thing to note about the High Level side is that the compressor features automatic makeup gain, and I typically pull the Gain control down a bit to minimize some of this.
At this point, my vocal is usually in pretty good shape, but there are some cases where the Low Level section can come in incredibly handy. The Low Level section can be a little confusing at first because the threshold and gain controls work backwards from a traditional compressor.
The Low Level controls basically function as an expander. Using the Low Level section can create a similar effect to using parallel compression on a vocal to bring up the quieter stuff without pushing the louder stuff down in level. On the Low Level side, gain is applied to the signal to begin with. As the signal approaches the threshold, that amount of gain is reduced so there is no added gain when the signal goes above the threshold. Are you still confused?
Here's the way I look at the Low Level section. Low Level is for bringing out anything that is still getting lost after I've set the Leveler and High Level sections. For example, the nature of a lot of modern music has vocalists singing low in their register during the verse and higher during the chorus. Many singers lose power in their voice in their lower register so Low Level is a way to give them a little help.
I typically start on the Low Level section with the threshold all the way down which basically turns the processing off since any signal will be above my threshold. Next I'll set the Gain for the maximum amount of gain I want to apply. I usually start with 6 dB, but if you want to be as aggressive as possible, push your input fader up until you run into feedback. Note how many dB you pushed the fader up, knock a couple dB off that number just to be safe and set your Gain to that value.
Next I listen to the vocal within the context of the mix. If I lose the vocal in a section, I'll slowly bring up the threshold to dig the part out. It's that simple.
Finally I adjust the Gate. The Gate comes in handy with cleaning up any stage ambience I'd like to reduce bleeding into the mic. I typically set the threshold as high as I can get it so that the signal is above the threshold during the quietest vocal sections. The Gate on MaxxVolume works quite nicely on a vocal, but it's still not something I want closing down while someone is singing or talking between songs.
What I love about this process is I get dynamic control of my vocal without losing the perception of the natural vocal. MaxxVolume just makes it easier for me to get my vocals to stand in the mix.
Next time I'll talk more about how MaxxVolume has helped me even out the dynamics of my matrices that send my mix beyond the walls of our auditorium to our hallways and video control room. If you'd like to learn more about MaxxVolume in the meantime, I'd suggest you check out the MaxxVolume user manual. Waves' user manuals are always great resources for learning more about their plugins.