Are your tracks sounding a little flat in the final mixdown? Our resident studio hound Chris Lyth is here to help!
One of the hallmarks of a great production is a mix that appears to live in its very own three-dimensional acoustic realm. Many mixes have very little space: they're cluttered with sounds and frequencies that compete for attention. This can not only lead to a 2D mix, but a harsh and confusing one for the listener.
In real life we hear sounds in three dimensions, but most music is produced to come from a left-and-right speaker system. Consequently we need to use our audio tools to mimic what goes on in the real world, and apply that to our soundstage. Think of your mix as you would a landscape picture or a 3D movie.
I'm going to walk you through ways of creating a 3D mix, with a few simple tips and ideas to think about when you are producing your next track...
1. 3D EQing
When we hear something in real life, close sounds are obviously louder and brighter in tone, and distant sounds are duller and quieter. So if you need a sound to be at the very front of your mix - let's say a snare or a lead line - this should sound bright in the high and mid frequencies and be placed high in the mix. A sound you wish to put in the distance should have some of its high and low end rolled back, and be mixed at a lower volume to help create this audio illusion.
2. Reverb balance
To create a realistic 3D space, we will need a number of different length reverbs and settings. For example, try setting up three reverbs on three separate AUX sends: a long, dark Hall, a medium Plate and a short, bright Room. Use longer, darker reverbs for the distant sounds and shorter, brighter reverbs for the sounds towards the front.
Contrast is key in creating front-to-back depth in the mix. To make something seem close, something else must appear far away to create a convincing 3D element. Less is more: putting cavernous reverb on everything will make all the parts sound distant, 2D and unfocused without creating any back-to-front separation.
One of the great things about tape delays (apart from the warmth they impart) is that the high frequencies roll-off gradually on each repeat. Try sending the delay to one of your longer reverbs to create movement and reflection in your distance field. Conversely, a brighter digital delay is a great way of adding movement, and making a vocal or lead sound big while keeping it at the front of the mix.
Think of very short delays as 'reverb lite', a way of creating space around your instrument without cluttering up your mix with reverb tails.
4. Wide stereo from panned mono
Just as we talked about contrast going from to front-to-back, contrast is also needed in the stereo field to achieve a trully widescreen mix. Many plug-ins and sample libraries have a tendency to sound very stereo - it's as if every source is trying to sound quite 'complete' on its own in terms of dimension and spread. But when everything is 'very stereo', there's little room for anything to sit in its own place, and your mixdown can quickly become a one- dimensional mush.
So don't be afraid to split a stereo signal and throw away one side to give you stereo space. Width in the mix is really about bravery with the pan control and balance. Often we are a little reticent to pan a part extremely, but a touch of delay or reverb panned to the opposite side is enough to stop it sounding so stark.
A sharp snare will sit in the front of the mix more naturally than a smooth pad, as it has a sharper transient attack. If you feel that a part in the mix is sounding a little too forward and don't want to reach for the reverb, using a transient designer will soften the percussive attack and push the sound further back. A compressor with a fast attack time will have a similar effect.
Alternatively, if you want to move something forward, use a compressor with slow attack, or again a transient designer to sharpen the sound.
Plan your parts and arrangement so that your instruments aren't conflicting with each other. For example a bright, brash synth, 303 riff and lead vocal will eat up all of the room in that frequency range, whereas a simple drum pattern, a warmer duller sounding synth and a lead vocal will leave plenty of space for everything to breathe.
Again, less is more where space and depth are concerned, so don't over-clutter. Parts will sound bigger for having less competing with them, and they will also retain their 3D credentials.
EQ automation can be a powerful tool for carving space along your track's timeline. Use it in the same way that you would volume automation, but duck certain frequencies at the point that they coincide with other instruments in the arrangement. The secret here is to be very subtle, especially in the mids and highs, as the listener will pick up on it if you're too heavy-handed.
8. Create depth and contrast with texture
Use distortion, bitcrushing and saturation to create separation in your soundstage. For instance if all your parts are very hi-fi and pristine, adding in a sound that is distorted and lo-fi will create a juxtaposition that will make it stand out against the glossy, polished ones.
9. Talking drums
The main thing that gives the illusion of space on your drums is what is happening on the snare or clap. You may want to have the snare up front, but still put some space around it. Timing the reverb to the BPM of your track using the RT60 (Reverberation Time) control will help keep your reverb tight (this is a good thing to do on all reverb to avoid clutter).
Also, use some pre-delay. Experiment with settings from 20 to 90ms, which will allow the transients to be heard before the reverb kicks in.
10. Your 3D toolbox
Our suggested tools for the above would include Lexicon PCM Bundle, Valhalla Vintage Verb, Logic's Space Designer, Soundtoys, Echoboy, Flux IRCAM Verb 3 and Audio Ease Altiverb.
Be suspicious of tools that make extravagant claims. Plug-ins like stereo wideners can help a little if they are used on one instrument in a mix, but they are not going to give you a big wide mix by slapping them ham-fistedly over your master bus.
If you're a newcomer to mixing in this way, then be patient, listen lots and practise even more. There's knowing that a cake needs eggs, flour, sugar and milk, and there's knowing how to bake a cake - the difference is experience. Get to know how depth and space work in real life: the next time you're in an interesting acoustic space, clap your hands and listen to how the sound reflects around you. Have fun!
Words: Chris Lyth