5 Mixing Secrets to Eliminate Harshness | Soundways

What is Harshness?

Harshness is a term that is often used in the audio industry.  However, harshness can mean different things to different engineers.  

So, what is harshness exactly?  

Harshness is the result of an unbalanced audio core.  The core is the frequency range which the human ear finds most sensitive, 2kHz - 5kHz.  Balance in this range is essential for crafting mixes that translate.  

Harshness can be the result of several problems.  Early digital recordings were known for harsh high frequencies.  Digital technology has now progressed to the point that modern gear should not introduce any distortion in and of itself.  

Poor quality condenser microphones can produce harsh resonances.  Poor quality preamps can create a variety of distortions.  

If your studio maintains quality gear, the tools are not the problem.  Harshness can result from a flawed mixing environment.  If your room isn't acoustically designed, even the best monitors will still produce poor results.  Large full-range studio monitors can mask the audio core.  This causes engineers to make bad decisions and craft mixes which don't translate.  

Engineers must ensure that their mixes don't sound harsh on consumer systems.  

Core Production Workflow


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The Core Production Workflow optimizes translation on all playback systems.  It allows engineers to focus on the audio core in the most refined way.  A mix may sound great in the studio but, doesn't in other listening environments.  In the past, engineers have used NS10's to hear details in the core.  These speakers may work for some mixing applications.  However, they aren't optimized for core listening and introduce distortions.  Reveal is the first plug-in developed for core listening applications.

Place Reveal on your DAW's master bus.  Turn on Critical Listening mode to make EQ and level adjustments.  

Listen to your mix with Critical Listening engaged.  You may find that your kick drum and bass instruments have disappeared.  If this is the case, use LowLeveler.  

Place LowLeveler on your kick drum and bass instruments and adjust the Upper Bass (Harmonic).  Then, turn off Critical Listening mode and adjust the Low Bass (Fundamental).  This workflow ensures that your bass instruments are harmonically balanced and translate accurately.

Tip #1:  Get it from the Source

The best way to avoid harshness is by recording a great sound from the source.  A harsh source recorded through great mics, preamps, and converters will always sound harsh.

Listen to your source instrument or voice in the room.  Does it sound harsh?  If so, you may want to adjust the tone or choose another source.  

A guitar amplifier is a good example.  If your amp sounds harsh in the room, adjust the tone controls.  You may want to reduce the high frequencies and balance the mids and lows.  If your recording still sounds harsh you may have problems with gear choices or gain staging.  

Tip #2:  Harshness Listening

Reveal's Harshness Listening allows engineers to focus on the audio core, 2kHz - 5kHz.  This is the area that usually causes harshness.  Using the Core Production Workflow engineers can pinpoint harsh sources and address these issues with ease.  

Place Reveal on your DAW's master bus and turn of Harshness Listening mode.  Listen to your mix.  You may find that your hi-hat is too loud, or a vocal sounds harsh.  Address these issues with your tools of choice.  Try cutting out some frequencies around 3kHz.  

This workflow will reduce harshness and ensure that your mix translates to all systems.

Tip #3:  Avoid EQ Boosts, Don't Listen in Solo

Avoid using excessive EQ boosts in the audio core.  Boosting frequencies in this range can seem like a good idea when listening in solo.  A 2kHz boost can add presence to an instrument.  However, this will result in harshness if many tracks are layered.  

Excessive EQ boosts will cause the mix to take on the sonic quality of the EQ.  Listen carefully and avoid boosts.  Use subtractive EQ to achieve similar results in a transparent way.

Tip #4:  De-ess

Vocals can be a source of harshness.  Consonant sounds like "s" and "t" result in high frequency peaks.  These peaks are called sibilance.  If you find that your vocal has problems with sibilance, use de-esser.  

Place the de-esser on your vocal track.  Set the threshold and center frequency.  Use a quick attack and release time.  The de-esser should only react during instances of sibilance.  This will control peaks without impacting the rest of the recording.

Tip #5:  Be Careful with Compression

Compression can control the dynamic range of a recording.  However, over-use of compression will bring out subtle distortions.  To avoid harshness, use compression with extreme caution.

A long attack time allows transients to pass through without compression.  This can add punch or bite to a recording.  Avoid long attack times when addressing harshness.  A medium attack and release time with a low ratio will control the dynamic range of a recording without bringing out subtle artifacts.