Technical Articles/November 11, 2015
Mixing isn’t always about balanced sounds and subtle tones. Sometimes the opposite holds true.
Mixing audio – live or in the studio – is so often about merging sounds together and making them all fit that it’s sometimes easy to forget about contrast.
Sometimes a sound needs to be made more distinctive so that it jumps out and hooks the listener’s attention. In your next mix, that sound might be a guitar, a synth, a backing vocal or an effect… or all of these sounds in some circumstances. Next time you’re at the console or computer mixing up a storm ask yourself this simple question: “Do I need more contrast in my sounds?”
The question is particularly relevant when problems arise. Maybe your mix sounds too fat and indistinct, or maybe it’s grown flat and lifeless. Sometimes you’ll reach a point in proceedings where the mix lacks colour and drama, or gets perilously thin as everything competes for the high end. Sometimes a mix can develop a grey pallor where nothing seems ‘visible’ enough.
When any of these problems arise, go back to first principles: “Can I hear the things I want to feature, and if not, why not?”
Sometimes it’s your determination to soften, balance, merge and settle the sounds into place that results in a lack of definition. You may not even notice this happening at first until you A/B your mix against another piece of music. You do A/B your mixes I assume?
Particularly when you’re mixing in a critical listening environment, like a studio control room where everything sounds more focussed, sometimes you can get carried away with making everything sound too subtle and discreet. Always remember, in these spaces your mix should sound more dramatic than you ultimately want it to. Out in the world 50% of that drama is lost in a sea of sensory distraction.
IT’S ALL UP FOR GRABS
So where does this healthy contrast come from? Well, the best place to start is in the song writing, followed a close second by the recording phase. Here everything is up for grabs: from the environment you choose to record in and the instruments you choose to play, to the people who play them and the recording equipment you use to capture it all. Mixing follows on from there, but here too sounds can be turned on their ear at a pinch. Fat sounds can be turned into tiny midrange squawks, dry sounds into ambient atmospheres and so on – there’s an endless world of possibilities out there. It’s not the equipment that determines your limitations, but how your brain determines what to do with all that gear.
Contrast, in the simplest terms, is all about opposites attracting: fat with thin, wet with dry, wide with narrow, long with short, distorted with clean, and so on.
If you’re looking for more contrast in your current mix, one of the best places to start is with high- and low-pass filters. Get to work on some of the sounds that aren’t pulling their weight. Start off by ripping the bottom-end out of any sound whose core tonal contribution is supposedly midrange. If that’s what you’re after, why on earth do these sounds possess frequencies like 38Hz? Get rid of them. It might be a piano or an overdubbed guitar… whatever it is, try hitting the sound with a 24dB per-octave filter and don’t just fiddle around the extreme edges either… push it right up to 800Hz. Next try ripping out the tops as well by applying a low-pass filter at around 4kHz. That way the instruments properly designed to articulate the bottom end, like bass guitar, will be far clearer, and the sound you’re having trouble with will suddenly fit into places you never thought possible.
The point here is to emphasise what’s interesting about a sound, or create interest where none really exists… some of the coolest, most other-worldly sounds I know are made from heavily filtered, largely conventional ones. Of course it’s up to you how far you push the filters, but the key concept here is <<experimentation>>. Listen to the way radical and/or seemingly idiotic EQ tones affect the overall soundscape you’re creating. You might be surprised by what you conjure up.
Reverb – space generally – is another key ingredient that can make or break a mix. When used badly it can savage definition. Start by fundamentally increasing the contrast in your mix between the wettest sounds and the driest. Remember, contrast is just that; a dry sound is best appreciated when a wet sound accompanies it. If all the sounds are wet – or dry – the sense of space and scale is far less apparent. Put a dry sound in front of a wet one, however, and the three-dimensionality of the picture immediately springs to life and becomes inescapable to even the most disinterested punter.
EVERY SOUND IS FARE GAME
Nothing is immune from the process of experimenting with contrast. Pan things hard. Where there are too many stereo sounds in the mix, cut some of the left or right channels so individuals instruments suddenly become mono and appear somewhere, rather than everywhere. Hack into vocal tones, distort one guitar but not the other, make one reverb effect long and the other very short, mix it up… I could go on here with endless examples but I’m out of space.
Too many engineers seem to think a great mix is made up of a bunch of manicured sounds built entirely with the solo button engaged… All they have to do is release it and hey presto, the perfect mix – total and utter nonsense. A good mix is the sum total of all the sounds working together, and how any individual instrument sounds in isolation is essentially irrelevant.
Whether you’re song writing, recording or mixing, think about contrast, experiment with the sounds in your mix – particularly the ones that stubbornly fail to engage you – and don’t let the word ‘mix’ be subconsciously replaced with the word ‘blended’.