When mixing music, depth refers to the implied feeling of how close a sound is to you. If all of your instruments sound like they are an equal distance from you, the song ends up flat and unfocused, because your ears won’t be able to easily differentiate which instruments are more important in context. It’s better to keep important elements like lead vocals, up close, while pushing supporting elements like backing pads, further and further away. Essentially we’re creating a hierarchy for the listener's ears. Usually we create depth in a mix with a time-based effect like reverb or delay. But with so many genres using walls of reverb and delay as a creative tool, sometimes you need to find other ways of sitting things appropriately. Here are five other ways to ensure that your mixes have the depth necessary to pull the listener in for the ride, without using your reverb or delay effects.
Leveling Methods and Mono
Volume is the number one way to place something forward or backwards in a mix. Loud things sound close, it’s as simple as that. So balance your levels with that in mind at all times. Ask yourself “how important is this element in the overall scheme of the song?”, when finding a sweet spot for an instrument. Use your answer and your ears to set the volume accordingly.
During this stage, checking your mix in mono is useful way to balance levels more accurately. Eliminating the stereo field will focus your ears and make you commit more to volume relationships when placing things in the mix. Wide stereo mixes can deceive the loudness of elements, so placing everything dead center while you balance tracks will help you hear their real volume in relation to each other. As a sidetone, checking in mono is also really important nowadays since so many people are playing through mono iPhone speakers, at least on a first casual listen. I know us audiophiles don’t, but a lot of our potential listeners do.
EQ to Deceive
EQ can do a lot to create the impression of depth. As something gets close to a microphone, the bass or low frequencies get louder. This is called the proximity effect. Knowing this, we can trick the ear into thinking something is closer by adding a little low end to it. Better yet, we can remove the low end from other competing tracks, so that the element you want sitting up close has nothing to compete with down low and sounds bigger. It’s usually better to cut a frequency from a competing instruments than it is to boost the frequency of the instrument you’re trying to get more of.
Let’s look at the opposite scenario. Air absorbs high frequency content as sound passes through it, so sounds coming in from a distance have less energy in the highs. As such, when a sound is further from a microphone, it loses a bit of it’s top end and detail. Using that philosophy you can roll off some top end from a sound if you want it to appear further back in the mix.
We can combine our two EQ techniques quite easily to simplify matters. Simply decide what element(s) you want to push back, open an EQ and run a low and high pass filter to move the sound away from you. Tweak to taste. You can also experiment with different filter slopes and plugin types on each track for further separation.
Lo-Fi, High Distance
Reducing the sample rate or quality of something is a great way to add separation, while pushing something back while mixing. If you have a track with full audio quality and you play it next to one recorded with less fidelity, the “lo-fi” track will usually appear further from you, as your ears have a high quality reference that appears fuller, and more in your face. Tools like Redux in Ableton can reduce the quality of your audio. You can also just export the track at a lower bitrate and then reintroduce it into the session. If you decide to use plugins, choose wisely. Some bit reduction plugins add distortion and sparkle in the top end, which moves things forward in the mix. Fix that by EQing a bit of the highs out afterwards, or by using the Low Pass if there’s one built in.
Saturation and distortion are probably the digital mixing world’s Most Improved Player as of late. It’s always been there, especially in the world of tape, but with software really improving on this front, more engineers are creatively distorting everywhere they can. Subtle saturation is especially helpful for getting instruments to cut through a mix and sit forward on laptops and small speakers like earbuds. Use it subtly to push things forward without touching your volume fader, especially on percussive elements and bass. Saturated midrange on bass is one of the best ways to ensure that a baseline shows up in the front, even on small speakers. The more musical saturation options add a unique layer of color, so experiment with different saturation plugins/units on different tracks, or parallel process different saturation tools on different frequencies.
Transient Shaping is one of my favorite ways to move things forwards and backwards as an engineer. If I hit snare drum inches away from your face, and then step back 20 feet and do it again, the second snare hit will have less transient energy. What I mean is, that initial hit, or attack, will be less detailed and sharp the second time around because of the added distance. A transient shaper allows you to produce that same effect. If you want to add distance to an element, run it through a shaper, and roll off some of the attack to tame the initial hits. Multiband Transient Shapers allow you to setup different configurations for the lows, mids, and highs, so you can really tweak the sound. Sit pads behind a kick by rolling off the attack on the Low and Mids, which is where the kick is the strongest. You can also achieve a similar effect using standard compression, by playing with the attack settings. If a compressor has a fast attack, it’ll kick in quickly and tame that initial transient, subduing it in the mix.
Hopefully this gives you a few options to explore when trying to add more depth to your mixes. For more #LoftLessons, and the finest loops ever repeated, visit www.thelooploft.com