One of the keys to a great mix is creating separation between each instrument. Most instruments feature overlapping frequency ranges, which can cause your mix to lack definition and sound cluttered. In this blog, we’ll break down our favorite tips for bringing space and depth to your mixes so each instrument can be heard clearly.
One of the most effective ways to solve a frequency masking problem is to rearrange the track and transpose one of the offending instruments. For instance, if you’re struggling to achieve separation between two guitar parts, transposing one of them up or down an octave will usually do the trick.
In some cases, however, you may not have the liberty to record new parts. And in other situations, like when mixing drums, you may not be able to separate the instruments using pitch. Alas, you'll have to move on and use another method for creating separation.
Levels and Automation
The level of a track can have a huge impact on how we perceive depth. The louder something is, the closer it sounds. Reduce the level of a track to push it further back in the mix, or make it louder to bring it forward. You can create focus in your mix by making certain tracks louder than others.
One of the most interesting parts of music as an art form is that it utilizes time. Static mixes are boring, as listeners are engaged by dynamic mixes. Try to give each track its own moment in the mix by adjusting levels during different parts of the song. Bump up the drum bus during a fill. Boost the guitar for the solo. Crank the bass during the breakdown.
Panning can be an excellent tool for creating separation in a mix. It may seem counterintuitive, but the key to dialing in the perfect pan position is to mix in mono. While it may not be as noticeable, panning instruments in the stereo field does create a noticeable effect in mono.
If you can dial in a good mix in mono, it will sound great in stereo. You don’t have to mix exclusively in mono, but be sure to reference with a mono cube monitor often!
If two instruments are fighting, try panning them to opposite sides of the mix. This is a great trick for busy mixes with lots of guitars, keyboards, and horns.
When trying to create space, it's best to convert stereo tracks to mono. Stereo tracks take up a lot of space in a mix and rarely work well in busy mixes.
EQ is one of the most common tools for correcting frequency masking issues and creating separation between instruments. By using subtractive EQ to carve out space for other instruments, you can effectively slot instruments into different frequency ranges.
Start by using a high-pass filter to roll off any unwanted low end. For instance, if your kick and bass instruments are clashing, try high-passing everything below 60 Hz or so on the kick drum to make room for the bass. Similarly, a low-pass filter can be used to tame harsh cymbals or guitars to make room for other instruments.
Next, identify the fundamental frequencies of the clashing tracks. For instance, the kick drum typically has a fundamental pitch somewhere between 50 Hz and 200 Hz, depending on the size of the drum. If you’re having trouble identifying the fundamental frequency by ear, try using the frequency sweeping method; boost a band with a very high Q value, and sweep through the frequencies until the offending sound stands out. Alternatively, you could use a frequency analyzer plug-in, but the quicker you learn to identify frequency problems by ear, the better!
By using a bell with a high Q-value to reduce the fundamental frequency of the kick in your bass channel (and vice versa), you can create more space and separation. Just be careful not to carve either instrument to pieces!
If you do need to make cuts to an instrument, try boosting that same frequency in another track. By letting another instrument occupy that space, you can help give each one its own room in the mix. For instance, if you cut 300 - 400 Hz in your kick drum, try boosting that frequency range in the bass guitar using a wide bell.
Depth and Ambiance
The front-to-back dimension or depth of a mix is controlled by three factors: volume, brightness, and ambiance. As you know, the louder a track is in your mix, the closer it will sound to the listener. This effect can be exaggerated by adjusting the brightness. Use a shelf to increase the high end to make a track sound closer, or a low-pass filter to roll off the top end and push it farther back in the mix.
Levels and EQ can only create so much dimension, though. For extra depth, try using reverb or delay to push instruments back in the mix. Sending a mono track to a stereo effect is a great way to add width to an instrument as well.
Use pre-delay to create separation between the dry and wet signals. Simply increase the pre-delay on your reverb unit to create a short delay between the dry signal and reverb tail, allowing the dry signal to cut through the mix more clearly.
Compressors are typically used to glue tracks together, but in certain situations, it can be very effective at creating space. Side-chain compression is an excellent tool for keeping transient information out of the way of sustained notes. It’s commonly used to temporarily duck the level of the bass whenever the kick drum hits, allowing the kick drum to be heard without being masked by the bass.
Simply insert a compressor with a side-chain input on your bass channel, select a send from the kick drum as the key input, and dial in the desired amount of compression. Just be sure to tweak your attack, release, and ratio settings to avoid any unwanted pumping.
Multi-band compression can also be used to suppress certain frequencies of a track when they become overpowering. For instance, it’s common to use a multi-band compressor on the bass channel to prevent certain notes from sticking out and getting in the way of the kick drum. Instead of gutting the low-mids altogether, you can use a multi-band compressor to attenuate those frequencies when they become too much.
Follow these steps and you’ll be well on your way to creating powerful mixes with clarity and definition.