One of the problems with amateur tracks is that the mix is very ‘2D’. This means there is no depth to the mix. Depth can be created in many different ways. It is usually desirable to give the listener a three-dimensional sense, such that it actually is “in the music” rather than outside a passive audience.
You can achieve this three-dimensional effect usually using a combination of volume, equalizer, compressor, panning, reverb, and delay. These tools and effects can then help you place your instruments further back in the mix, thus bringing the most important elements to the spotlight automatically.
Let’s see how we can create depth in your mix and what are the best ways to get a really good mix in the final!
The volume decides fundamentally whether a signal is more in the background of the mix or whether it is in the foreground. It makes sense to first tune the individual volume for each track of your mix. It may seem silly that I have included this but when I hear amateur mixes and there are clashing frequencies and it sounds very flat, the main problem is the levels. If you hear clashing frequencies and have a muddy mix, reach for the volume fader before an eq or reverb. A common mistake when mixing is too high a bass volume. Especially beginners tend to make the bass louder than necessary or the hi-hats.
If you listen to a modern professional production that you find to be particularly rich in bass, you will often find out that the bass is actually not that loud. The studio monitors will reveal the real sound! That’s why it’s recommended, somehow mandatory to have some studio monitors, is a necessary investment. Even a cheap pair of monitors is better than laptop speakers or simple room speakers. To control the volume in your mix you can simply use the volume controls inside your DAW or use a dynamic processor plugin for best results.
It’s not a secret that the main purpose of the reverb effect (and partly also delay) is to create the feel of the instruments in a room of any size. The equation is quite simple: the larger the softer space, the further behind is also the sound. Short reverb can actually help some elements to be moved back slightly in the mix, but not at all in the same tangible way as long reverb. Short space and plot reverb are therefore preferred on instruments that you want close but at the same time want to keep natural. Long reverb, like the hall or chamber reverb, is then significantly better at creating a true sense of distance.
With the reverbs and plug-ins available today, it’s easy to make the tracks sound as if they’re being played in different spaces and at different distances. Some reverb effects immediately offer the positioning of the sound source in the virtual space, while others require you to get down to business and change the right parameters.
Reverb is an obvious way of creating depth and a wider stereo image. Change the size and the imaging of the reverb to make a sound further back into the mix or closer.
Use the Delay to get even more depth. Delay can again make the source wider but can also push sounds further back into the mix. Do this by changing the cut-off and how the sound delays such as ping-pong.
There are plugins with fantastic emulations of so-called “tape delays” (band echoes), which usually sound more natural than digital delays.
Compression is mainly used to reduce dynamic range but can also be used to bring sounds to the front and the back of mixes. Did you know that the settings for attack and release actually affect how you perceive where the sound comes from? Use a short attack and long release to push sounds to the back as this compresses the whole sound and keeps compressing for longer after the signal no longer passes the threshold. Use a long attack and short release to bring sounds to the front as this allows the transient to punch through uncompressed and the compression to end straight after the signal is no longer over the threshold
Equalizer is an extremely powerful tool when it comes to placing instruments in different locations in the stereo image. Use high-pass and low-pass filters. This makes sounds further back into the mix as it makes quieter and also removes frequencies which the main sounds such as the leads and chords will take. The further the track is to be pushed back, the stronger you should lower high frequencies with a flat low-pass filter. This helps for a better mix as there are less clashing frequencies.
There are a lot of factors to consider, it matters if you use pre-made samples or record each instrument in the studio. With practice, you’ll be able to tame your mixes and ultimately get great results.
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