How to use tone and depth to separate sounds

A common problem with poor mixes is a lack of clarity between sounds. It’s as if all the sounds in the mix are stepping on each other’s toes trying to get to the front. As a result, the mix is messy and confusing.

This is often because the mix engineer could not decide which elements of the mix were more important than others, or which elements of each track were important to the mix.

Tone

I’ve written before about filling frequencies. Obviously that is a highly artificial way of separating instruments. Avoiding that technique, however, does not forbid you from deciding which parts of each sound are more important for the mix. Some sounds mainly contribute to the low end of the frequency spectrum. Some mainly contribute to the midrange, and others mainly contribute to the top end.

Listening to a sound in isolation (solo’d) can create an expectation that it should cover the entire frequency spectrum. This is fine if that is the only sound in the mix (or it’s a very sparse acoustic mix), but in a denser mix it results in unnecessary crowding.

Instead, focus on bringing out the aspects of each sound that are most useful for the mix. If it’s a growly bass, make sure you can hear the growl in the mix. If it’s a bright synth lead or guitar, you probably don’t need much low-mid energy. If it’s small percussion, make sure it pokes through the top of the mix. The best (and most natural) way to focus the tone of each instrument is to use EQ to reduce the energy in the areas that are not so important. Sounds may become thin and/or caricatured, but often this is necessary to assemble a mix in which each sound plays its part.

Depth

Even after focussing on tone, you may find yourself with several instruments that occupy a similar tonal region. Classic examples are kick and bass, guitars and vocals, drums and percussion. In these cases where it is not appropriate to separate the sounds by tone, you must separate them another way. Depth (distance from the ‘front’) is an excellent way of doing this (it’s a shame that many poor mixes have no sense of depth at all). Skilful and artful use of depth can make many midrange instruments work together beautifully.

Using depth well, however, requires the mix engineer (and often the producer) to make decisions about which instruments will be featured (placed in the foreground) and which will be relegated to the background. This is often difficult because the mix engineer and producer, having uninhibited access to the most intimate folds of a mix, can hear the beauty in every sound. It is certainly a tough decision to be able to polish a beautiful sound only to bury it deep within the mix where almost no-one will notice it.

Perhaps an admirable trait of a great artist is the courage to throw away good ideas.

-Kim.

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    • Oliver Charles
    • January 20th, 2010

    Superb post :) I’m a new reader to your blog and i’ve got to admit I am (or was…) one of the filling frequencies type people – but I think this has inspired me to go play with some old tracks again :)

  1. This certainly is a veritable goldmine. I will read your posts with great interest!

  2. this is a really great post (and site too). I was mixing a Hip Hop track today and I’m gonna go jump back into it right now and try out reverb on a couple of sounds!

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