DAWs allow for the addition of effects to a mix in two ways: directly on a track as an insert or through an auxiliary channel called a return. This article discusses return effects and the types of errors that might occur when you use a send to route audio to a return effect, beginning with…
1. Not using sends and return in any way
I used just insert effects throughout my producing days. In my DAW, I saw the return channels. I’m sure there are a few newcomers reading this who are in a similar situation—so continue reading!
The primary advantage of return channels is that they may be utilized concurrently by many tracks. This makes them an excellent option for effects that we commonly utilize in a mix, such as reverb and delay.
For instance, many mixers may send guitars, vocals, and drums to the same room reverb in order to generate a genuine, unified picture while mixing jazz. Individual spring reverbs and bouncing delays would just add to the confusion of the darkly illuminated club ambiance you’re attempting to portray. A solid old-fashioned rock mix may use the same technique, but with greater reverbs to conjure up images of a stadium.
Even in an EDM mix where naturalism isn’t as vital as it once was, return channels can expedite processing and save CPU resources. Consider using the same reverb plug-in on your clap, snare, and hi-hat; instead of sending them all to a single return, why not send them all to a single return and then mix the sound to taste? This manner, you save the hassle of adjusting each insert each time you wish to make a change.
2. Using the return effect when an insert would do
With all this discussion on return channels, it’s worth noting that there are certain circumstances in which an insert is a superior alternative. Here’s an example:
Though we’ve shared several warning stories about over-processing on the iZotope blog, treating sounds harshly sometimes make them sound better—and definitely stranger. Inserts, I feel, function better in certain instances, when processing nearly completely obscures the original sound. Want to control a signal that has distortion? How about chopping it up with an auto-panner? Give it a chorusey ’80s sheen? Make a powerful statement with an insert.
Return effects excel as a last step of audio enhancement. Perhaps a guitar needs a bit more air or depth, but you don’t want to adjust the track’s EQ setting. Complete it by routing it via a modulation and reverb return.
3. Ignorance of the submix
Submixes are another use for an extra track. If you have six guitar tracks and want to alter their levels simultaneously, combine them together under a single aux track. Additionally, you may solo or silence the group in this manner.
While each DAW implements the submix setup somewhat differently, the ultimate effect is the same: the chosen guitar track outputs are available through a single stereo channel. Submixes are a need in big mixes when frequent modifications are required.
However, there is more! If your guitars need group processing, such as a high-pass filter or some mild saturation, this may also be accomplished from the submix. Additionally, if your guitars are interfering with your voice, you may submix the lead vocals and utilize them as a sidechain input for the guitars. This kind of management is often required in busy mixes where masking is a persistent problem.
4. Steer clear of the sends fader (it will not bite!)
Due to the fact that many DAWs conceal or tuck away return channels, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the send—which replicates an audio source to the return channel—can be automated. Automating sends is a powerful mixing technique when numerous tracks are contained inside a single dial. Never be scared to use automation while mixing.
5. Making a mistake with your gain structure
When an effect is used directly on a track as an insert, managing the dry/wet knob is critical. If the wet setting is set too high, it will pull the listener’s attention away from the music. Too low, and the impact will be negligible.
Return channels operate differently, since the audio in a return channel is a replica of whatever is supplied to it. Prove it for yourself by sending an audio source to an empty return channel. Two identical copies will be playing at full volume and a master bus will be in the red.
Therefore, what does this indicate for gain staging? Best practices vary according on the impact you deal with. Turn the wet control all the way up for time-based effects such as reverb and delay, and use the send control to adjust the mix between the original and treated versions. Reduce the wet dial on the plug-in, and more of the copied dry signal will be introduced, overloading the output channel. Dropping the return fader is also ineffective, since it reduces the effect level of everything routed into the channel. In summary, the send is your ally.
When adjusting the output level of compressors and analog-modeled plug-ins, either the plug-in output or the return fader should be used. Because these effects are sensitive to changes in the input level, altering the send level may upset the mix’s balance.
6. Sticking to a single return effect
Though you will soon figure this one out on your own, there is no need to limit yourself to a single effect per return channel. By combining many complementing plug-ins on the same return, you may create a unique ambient effect into which to mix sounds.
Additionally, you’ll see that return tracks have their own sends, allowing you to feed the output of one into another for additional processing—or even back into the return track itself! This kind of routing can quickly get difficult, so I suggest that you consider why you’re sending returns to one another before establishing any links.
As a starting point, certain mixers may route a voice via a delay and then route the delay’s output to a reverb. This provides a longer, washed-out decay for the delay without muddying the voice itself.
If you’re new to sends and returns, I hope this post has helped you understand how to utilize them and avoid common pitfalls. There are additional mistakes you may make, but the ones listed above are the most typical ones.