Posts Tagged ‘ Depth ’

Everything louder than everything else

Are you trying to make everything louder than everything else?

Maybe you’re constantly frustrated that all your sounds aren’t coming through with the clarity that you want. Or you can’t decide what level each sound should be at. Or maybe you sometimes feel like you’re chasing your tail:

  1. Turn up the drums. Now the bass is too quiet, so turn that up
  2. Now you can’t hear your pads, so they come up too
  3. Now the vocals are drowned out, so bring them up too
  4. Now your drums aren’t punching through any more, so go back to step 1…

It’s a common beginner’s mistake. You’ve lovingly crafted each sound, so of course you want every sound to be heard clearly and appreciated by your listener. The problem is that most mixes don’t have enough space to feature every sound (the exception is very sparse mixes that only have a handful of instruments).

What your mix needs is focus. You need to swallow your pride and make some hard decisions. Some sounds must be placed in the foreground, other sounds must be placed in the background. In most kinds of music, the vocals, drums and bass are in the foreground. That’s all. Other sounds sit behind them, and may be partially masked by them. I’ve written about this before – it’s called depth.

What if you still want to draw your listener’s attention to your lovingly crafted background sounds? You can do this be having pauses or breakdown sections in your music. This is where some of the foreground instruments are not playing, allowing the listener to hear the sounds behind them in more detail.


How foreground sounds shape the character of the mix

The character of a mix’s foreground elements shape the overall character of the mix.

Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Clearly, the sounds that are loudest and most prominent in a mix will contribute the most to the overall sound of the mix. Likewise, the sounds that are quietest won’t contribute much.

In practice,  what this means to you will depend on what stage of production you’re involved in – performing, recording, mixing, etc.

If you’re  recording a song, you should pay careful attention to the sound of the main elements of the song. For example, if you’re aiming for a crunchy lo-fi sound, you’ll get most of the way there just by tastefully treating the vocals and drums (assuming a regular pop-style song). If you’re careful (or bold), you could even process the audio on its way in. Similarly, if you want a slick clean sound, you should focus your efforts on making your front end as hi-fi as possible – including instruments, mics, preamps and recording interfaces. You can probably get away with a bit of grunge in the background or incidental instruments, so long as you get the foreground instruments spot-on.

The same goes for mixing. If the foreground tracks already have a strong character you should go with it. Work with it, not against it. Similarly, if the foreground tracks are quite raw, you have some freedom to shape the sound of the mix – even if the background or incidental sounds have some more character.

Keeping this in mind, you’ll realise that you shouldn’t spend too much time on establishing the character of the background instruments. Every little bit helps, but remember to focus your time on getting the foreground instruments exactly how you want them. Don’t waste time getting carried away tweaking a sound to perfection, only to bury it under layers of more generic-sounding tracks.

Focus your time on where it will make the most impact.


Why you need direction and focus in your mix

Every mix needs direction and focus. Like almost everything else in life, you need to have a pretty clear idea of what you’re about to do *before* you do it. You have to go into it knowing what you want.

If you don’t know what you want, how are you going to get it?

A mix is no different. Before you even start adjusting EQ or patching in compressors, you need to know how you want to end result to sound. Not necessarily the exact settings (although ballpark would be good!), but you certainly need to know the following:

  • Which sounds will be in the foreground? I’ve written a lot about depth already. Without a clear focus in the mix, you’ll end up trying to make everything louder than everything else… with predictably bad results.
  • What will the overall tonality of the mix be? (eg – light, deep, thick, saturated, acoustic, etc). Unless you know this, your mix will likely end up mediocre (even if it’s a decent functional mix!)
  • What ambience does the mix need? (eg – short/long, lush/dry, deep/shallow, natural/unnatural). This needs to be decided in the context of the speed, depth and tonality of the mix. Rather than loading up a reverb and twiddling the controls until it ‘sounds good’, take the time to think carefully about the ambience of the mix before you reach for any reverb.


Six ways to get bigger beats

Who doesn’t want bigger beats?

Well, maybe your neighbours. But maybe you don’t like your neighbours. Who am I to judge? I just supply the tools. It’s up to you to use them ethically.

Here are some quick tips:

  • Depth. Separate your drums into two groups – main foreground drums (kick and snare) and secondary background drums (hats and other percussion). Keep the rhythm of the main foreground drums simple, but make the secondary background drums a bit more complex. Make sure the foreground drums are MUCH louder than the background drums!
  • Tone. Big sounds occupy a wide frequency range. Use EQ to make your foreground drums tall. Pay particular attention to snares – they can have energy ranging from the lower mids all the way up to the highest audible frequencies. Making sure your main snare drum has energy across a wide frequency range is an important part of making your drums sound huge overall.
  • Compression. Yes, drums love compression. Everywhere else has written about this, and there’s no need to repeat it all here. Try out a bunch of compressors and see which ones you like the best.
  • Dynamics. This is not about compression. Of course you’ve read elsewhere about using compression on drums. Of course compression is important, but dynamics is more than just compression. Dynamics is the difference and changes between quiet and loud. Making sure you’ve got a good balance of quiet and loud sections in your song is key – when the loud sections come in, they’ll be very effective. If everything is loud all the time, it will be much less effective.
  • Reverb. It’s not just for pushing sounds to the background. Use a programmable reverb and set it up with the biggest size, but shortest length. This will give you a great giant sized reverb that doesn’t muddy up the mix. You won’t need to add much to the drums – just enough to give them some space. If your reverb processor is particularly good, use more of it and compress the lot – use a reverb->compression chain on a kick&snare group.
  • Space. Make sure the drums aren’t competing for space against the rest of the mix. A few huge instruments (such as a bass and lead) are ok, but if everything in your mix is big the drums simply won’t cut through with enough power. Remember – if everything is huge, nothing is huge.

There’s really not much more to it. If you can abide by these guidelines, you’ll have beats as big as you want – every time. Sucks to live next to you.


Five ways to make space in your mix

Running out of space in your mix? Want to add more parts without being buried in mud? Simply want a clearer, cleaner sound? Check out these techniques:

  1. Reduce the mids and low mids. This area will add a lot of mud to your mix if you have a lot of instruments. It’s not necessarily that all your instruments have energy focussed here (although they might!), but that having a lot going on in the mids and low mids gives a feeling of mud. Having strong mids or lower mids in just one or two instruments can produce a sound of warmth and body, but more than that is usually too much. If you want to create space in your mix, clear out the lower mids especially, leaving only the essentials.
  2. Don’t squash the dynamics. Dynamic space is very important. Natural dynamics and transients give instruments room to breathe. It also makes more space in the mix (for other instruments, or just for space’ sake). Squashing the dynamics through overcompression, limiting or saturation makes individual sounds bigger, but sucks the life and air out. Of course, compression is often a useful effect, but be clear – the more compression you use, the less space you’ll have in your mix.
  3. Push sounds further to the background. I’ve written a lot about depth and effective use of background. With a deliberate approach to depth, you can draw focus to the most important elements of a song and still have a lot of space (or room for more instruments).
  4. Use panning effectively. Personally, I’ve not a big fan of panning, but it’s certainly a tool that, if used effectively, can enhance the space in a mix. Try mixing a song entirely in mono (or at least with every instrument panned centre), and then apply panning at the very last stages of the mix. You’ll hear the space open up in front of you.
  5. Consider composition techniques. Although this post is mainly focussed on engineering, composition has as much to do with creating space as mixing. Rhythm in particular can have a significant effect of the sense of space in a song. You won’t have much space if everything is playing all the time (the effect is similar to the engineering approach of making everything louder than everything else). Instead consider restricting some instruments to off-beats, syncopated rhythms or using rhythmic counterpoint. Similarly, consider the pitch range of your instruments. Greater pitch range and mobility will open up space.

So next time your song is sounding too crowded, try this techniques and you’ll be on your way to adding more space.


The secret to full-sounding mixes

This applies to all the composer+producer+engineer types out there…

Have you ever felt like your mixes were empty? That they sound a bit incomplete? Perhaps you’ve compared your music to your favourite commercial references and realised that they somehow sounded thicker and fuller? You’ve got all the obvious parts in your mix – kick, bass, snare, lead, hats, pads, comp synths, etc – the same as your references, but somehow it sounds like you don’t have enough.

What you’re missing is the background.

The background is often made up of a lot of different sounds, each barely audible. On their own they sound quite small and insignificant, but together they form the sonic backdrop for your song.

You may not have paid much attention to the background parts because they’re not sexy. The sounds are small, thin and don’t draw attention to themselves. Listeners don’t comment on them. It’s understandable.

Sometimes it’s hard to spend time working on the background parts. It’s much more fun to focus on the big fat foreground – for the same reasons that your listeners focus on the foreground. It’s naturally more interesting. Maybe you add some hats and percussion. Perhaps a synth pad or piano or something and call it a day. Besides, those drums need a bit more tweaking…

Here’s a trick: Mute your foreground instruments.

That’s right. Mute your kick, bass, snare, lead vocals, main melodic instruments… anything that’s supposed to be the centre of your listener’s attention. You’re probably left with a somewhat unsatisfying background texture made up of only a few sounds (with a lot of dead space in between them!).

Now, go about adding some more parts! Fill in the gaps. Make it interesting. Build a musical texture that has character and individuality. Even if it’s made up of loops, your choices and the combination of loops will make for a unique sound. If you want to add a bit more individuality, break out some crazy effects. Not just your regular EQs and compressors – this is the place for those strange modulation effects, sequenced effects, random beatslicers and other strange and wonderful contraptions. It’s the perfect place to use that cool experimental effect that’s too drastic for a main part, but you kept in your plugin folder ‘just in case’.

This doesn’t just apply to electronic music. If you’re working on pop or rock, mute the drum kit, guitars, bass and vocals. There’s lots of room for adding extra background parts. Perhaps add some more clean or distorted guitars. Try a different approach to micing your piano. Have some fun with rhythmic vocal growls. Create new percussion parts from kitchen utensils. This is your opportunity to try out a new instrument or recording technique. These are the kind of touches that give a song a unique character, a sense of individuality.

By adding in these background parts, your mix will become fuller and thicker. It will also have more character and texture. Even though your listeners don’t usually comment on background sounds, they’ll notice something different about your sound. Try it!


Five secrets to making your mix louder

Don’t dismiss this post yet! Even if you’re in the ‘more dynamics’ brigade, these tips will give you clearer mixes that suffer less in mastering. That means better-preserved dynamics and higher fidelity!

For those of you who really do want your mixs SUPER LOUD, this tips will let you push more volume without your sound turning to mush.

  1. Go easy on the bass. That includes sub bass, kick and melodic bass. It always tempting to turn them up, but the low frequencies really use up a lot of headroom (high peak level for the same perceived volume). The more headroom your audio needs, the less you can push it in mastering and the worse it will sound when it’s pushed hard. First try to compare your bass levels with commercial reference songs. Listen carefully to the level of the low frequencies in comparison to the rest of the spectrum – you might find there’s less than you initially thought! Also consider saturating the kick or the bass.
  2. Saturate those peaks. Take a look at your mix bus peak meter to see if any tracks are ‘poking out’ of the mix – often it will be the kick or the bass. Used carefully, you can use saturation to reduce the peak level of your kick or snare tracks without reducing the perceived volume. Often peak level reductions of 6-9dB are easily attainable without adversely affecting the audio quality. Limiters are usually not so useful here because they’ll tend to change the sound too much.
  3. Embrace the background. Push some instruments further to the background. If you try to put too many sounds in the foreground you’ll end up with an indistinct mush. This indistinct mush will quickly become even worse when you apply heavy limiting in mastering. Instead, try to identify the three or four most important elements of the mix (typically the snare, kick, bass and lead synth/vocal). Be bold and push everything else to the background! You’ll get a mix that’s more focussed and more powerful.
  4. Leave your stereo widener at home. Stereo widening tricks might be fun to play with, but they’ll rob your mix of punch and power. If you want those foreground sounds (snare, kick, bass, lead) to hit as hard as possible, stay clear of any stereo width manipulation. Some subtle widening is sometimes useful for special background effects, but remember – if you do it, do it in moderation.
  5. Be careful of the lower mids. The region between 100Hz and 1000Hz is the cause of many troubles. It’s very easy to put a mix together that has a lot of mud build-up in that area. To get the ultimate clear mix, get brutal with an EQ! Make some big dips in the lower mids for all background instruments, and make sure you don’t have any excess lower mids in your foreground instruments. You need to keep some lower mids, because that’s where your body and thickness comes from. Here’s a secret though – a mix with body and thickness only needs a few foreground instruments to have that body and thickness. To put it another way, a few fat foreground instruments makes for a fat mix. A lot of fat instruments makes for a flabby mix.

With these mixing tips you should be able to get a few more decibels of clarity in mastering!