Width, Separation, Impact, in mixes, is something that people struggle to find progress with, and in return, they push their mixes to a place of extremely low dynamic range(really squashed and loud to try to solve that.)
This is partially related to production and partially related to the way we approach visualizing where each instrument and voice in a mix should sit on the frequency spectrum, the 3-dimensional space(if you can think of a mix as 3D), and how dynamics either add to or take away from, the impact of a particular component of a song.
Let’s start with the production side of things.
The most common mistake I see when looking at people's productions when being sent stuff to mix is the inability to recognize that they’re simply adding too much stuff in the song.
It sounds simple, but it’s a lot more complicated than that.
It goes deeper, into recognizing what particular sounds and elements are the most important things in the song, and what are just there to create variance and interesting ear candy.
Most of the time, the pro-level producers recommend forming a basis of a song with 4 to 5 main instruments, not too many different unique melodies(in relation to each other), and trying to find good enough sounds and synths, etc for those 4 to 5 different main instruments so that you don’t actually need to add 25 different sounds to make it sound... full and awesome.
Of course, it then makes sense to build the production around those main instruments, and if it means adding 25 different ear candy sounds here and there, be sure to go ahead and give it a try. But it’s NEVER meant to be overcrowding, and it’s never meant to overtake the focus from the main elements. That’s how you end up with a mess of frequencies when mixing, and a nightmare to try to sift through.
The other idea is that you should be focusing on trying to select sounds that make sense within their respective frequency areas. So, for example, maybe you want to sound design in a way where you give enough room on the high frequencies of your bass for other sounds that are supposed to be in that frequency area to shine through.
It’s not always applicable, but it’s a good starting mindset when you’re trying to create a picture that fits together like one, cohesive puzzle instead of an environment where you’re trying to mash multiple puzzles together.
You could technically apply that concept if you’re given something to mix and the sounds are clashing greatly. You could ask your client if they’d let you try to assist with cleaning up the placement of each of those sounds in the frequency spectrum because it’s clashing and causing it to become less impactful. (Obviously, you’d have to find a polite way to say that, not my direct approach)
This is shifting into the realms of mixing, but these things I’m about to mention can definitely be seen in pretty much both production and mixing.
Creating a front-to-back dimension with reverb volume can really go a long way in placing instruments in a 3-dimensional space.
There’s a neat trick I like to use that has a way of separating instruments and voice and placing it all in the same particular room while feeling like they’re all in a separate physical space in the room.
Austins Depth Trick
1. Create a Reverb Send of your choice. I’d recommend a short to medium plate reverb. Sometimes, a spring reverb also sounds quite cool.
2. Turn the mix knob to 100%
3. I’ve tried to think of the best way to translate this so that it works in all DAWS, and I’ve come up with one possible way. Duplicate every track you have in your session. Add a delay plugin to each track, set the delay dry/wet to 100% on each one, and change the milliseconds of the delay to be set at a UNIQUE value ranging from 10ms to 100ms.
So simply put, your delay settings will be different for every single duplicate.
The reason why you’re doing this is because you’re putting each instrument etc in its own space in the room.
Then, set the output of each of those tracks to the short to medium reverb I mentioned in step 1.
Then, simply control the output volume of each of those duplicate tracks until you’re sending JUST as much of the signal into the reverb as you want to be present.
And Viola, you’ve now created depth and made everything feel like it’s in the same space while still sounding like it’s sitting in different areas of the room.
Sometimes the simplest answer to this is the best one.
You could try to add a transient shaper plugin and very slightly increase the attack so you get more transient.
This could work, sometimes, on various different types of content. However, sometimes, it could actually make the content worse. For example, using it on vocals might bring out unnecessary sibilance.
Masking is another huge issue that goes with the way something is produced.
Maybe there’s too much frequency build-up in a particular area and it’s covering the most impactful frequency of your kick drum. You might be better off finding what other instruments are heavily pushing power into the kick drums' main frequency section and simply reducing that with a bell curve of an EQ in the other instruments.
You’d be surprised, the impact of the kick suddenly pops out, and it turns out that there wasn’t quite so much of a problem with the kick as you once thought there was. Good sound selection still matters, but you’d also be surprised at to how much this actually counts as well.
Stereoized Bass Frequencies
One of the things that also reduces impact is the way that certain plugins might overly stereorize bass frequencies of a kick drum, bass synth, and etc. While this is pretty cool in some ways, it sometimes has a way of detracting from the impact of the sound itself. There are definitely cases where people have been extremely clever about these things and gone against the rules, but they’ve also ensured that it made sense in the context of the production ITSELF.
Try to stick to making your bass-heavy instruments mostly center, and build the track around that. You can definitely experiment with it, but there’s sometimes a right and wrong way to go about that particular process, and often, it’s heavily reliant on how the rest of the track is fitting around it and what you’re hoping to achieve from the listener perception.
It’s without a doubt more satisfying to push a mix into a limiter and hear it super loud.
It’s the very makeup of our brain speaking to us when we do that.
However, deciding what in the mix needs to be squashed, and what doesn’t, can help create much-needed depth and variation in the mix even when pushing it loud in the mastering phase.
Yes, most of the time, a lot of the things we do when mixing end up compressing things to hell and back, but there are times when volume dynamics count in bringing a track to life and ensuring it doesn’t sound flat.
Maybe this might be complex volume automation of various instruments as the track ebbs and flows(if you’re going to compress to hell and back, this is an option) and sometimes it’s you just compressing some instruments less than others at certain points to allow them to create a little impact.
Try these little tips and tricks to get your mixes sounding alive, dynamic, and remove lifelessness from the equation.
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Until Next Time!