Go to part 1 of this article
So, how to start?
With a plan. First off, I imagine in my head or on a sheet of paper
the placing of individual instruments/musicians on the virtual stage and
then think how to “re-create” this space in my mix. Typically
I’d have three areas: foreground, mid-ground and background. Of
course, this is not a rule. If we make a raw rock mix with a sparse arrangement
and in-ya-face feel we don’t need much of a space, on the other
hand, in a dense, multi-layered electronica the depth
So, I have divided all my instruments into, say, 3 spatial groups. Then,
in my DAW, I set the same colour for every instrument belonging to the
certain group, what is wonderfully handy – I immediately see everything
at a glance.
The tracks that I usually want to have close are drums, bass, vocals.
A bit deeper and further I’d have guitars, piano, strings. And then,
in the distant background I’d have synth textures or perhaps some
special vocal effects. If there are string or brass sections in our song,
then we need to learn about placing the orchestra instruments first in
order to reproduce it. Surely this is the case only if we are aiming for
But sometimes we don’t necessarily need the realism,
especially in electronic music. Here almost anything goes!
Going back to our plan...
No matter whether we struggle for realism or not I suggest
to start planning from pinning down which element will be the furthest
- you need to identify the "back wall" of the mix. Let’s
assume that in our case it is a synth pad. From this point, any decision
about placing instruments closer or farther away has to be based on our
At this point we have to decide what reverb will we use.
There are basically two ways of thinking. Traditionalists claim that we
should use only one reverb in the mix, not to give misleading information
to the brain. In this case we have the same reverb on each bus (in terms
of the algorithm), changing only the settings - especially pre-delay,
dry/wet ratio and EQ. Those of a more pragmatic nature believe that it’s
not always the realism that matters, especially in electronic music and
only the end result counts. Who are right? Well, they both are.
I’d usually use two, maybe three different reverb
algorithms . First would be a short room type of reverb, the second, longer,
would be Plate, and the third and farthest would be Hall or Church. Thanks
to using the sends from individual tracks I can easy decide how far or
close the instrument will sit on our virtual stage.
Do not add a reverb to each track, the contrast will allow
you to enhance dimension and imaging even more. If you leave some tracks
dry, the wet ones will stand out.
Filtering out the highs from our returns not only sinks
things back in the stereo field, but also helps to reduce the sibilants
- reverb tends to sort of spread them out in the space, what is very irritating.
An alternative method of getting rid of sibilances from reverb is to use
de-Esser on the sends.
COMPRESSION AND ITS ROLE IN CREATING A DEPTH
Can you use compression to help creating the depth? Not
only you can, but you must!
As we all know, the basic use of the compressor is to “stabilize”
the instrument in stereo field. It means that compressor helps to keep
the instrument the same distance away from the listener thorough the whole
track. To put it another words – its relative volume is stable.
But of course we don’t always need it to be. This is particularly
important for instruments placed back on a sound stage, because otherwise
these will not sound clear. Now, how the compression can help us here?
As we all know, the unwritten rule says that the gain reduction should
not exceed 6 dB. This rule works for instance for solo vocals. The bigger
reduction can indeed “flatten” the sound. Yet this is not
necessarily the case when it comes to backing vocals or, generally, instruments
playing in the background. Sometimes these are getting reduced by 10 dB
or even more. In a word – everything what is further away from the
listener should be compressed heavier. The results may surprise you!
There is one more thing I advise to pay attention to - two
basic work modes: RMS and Peak. PEAK mode is "looking" at peaks
and reduces the signal according to it. What sound does it give? In general
- more squeezed, soft, sometimes even pumping. It’s useful when
we want the instrument to pulse softly rather instead of dazzling the
listener with its vivid dynamics. The RMS mode causes the compressor to
act like the human ear and not focusing on signal peaks that often have
little to do with the perceived loudness. This gives a more vibrant, dynamic
and more natural sound. It works best if our aim is to preserve the natural
character of the source (and that’s often the case for example with
the vocals). RMS mode gives a lively, more open sound, good for pushing
things to the front on our sound stage.
The interesting fact is that built-in channel compressors
in SSL consoles are instantly switchable between Peak and RMS modes. You
can find something similar in the free TDR Feedback Compressor from Tokyo
Another very popular effect is delay. It is, one might
say, a very primitive form of reverb (as reverb is nothing more than series
of the very quick reflections).
As you may remember from the earlier part of this article,
I mentioned the pre-delay parameter in reverb. You can use it in pretty
much the same way in delay plugin to create the sense of depth in the
mix. Shorter pre-delay times will make instruments sound further away
from the listener, longer times will do the opposite. But you can of course
use the delay in many different ways. For instance - very short reflection
times with no feedback can also thicken and fatten the sound nicely. Try
The thing I like the most in delay is that it gives the
mix a certain context of space. The music played in an anechoic chamber
would sound really odd to us, as we hear all sounds in a context already
from birth (the situation is of course no different with the music). No
matter if you listen to a garage band, a concert at the stadium or in
the club - context of the place is essential to an appreciation of space
in which the music is playing.
NOW, HOW TO USE ALL THIS KNOWLEDGE IN PRACTICE
And now I will show you how I use all of this information
in practice, step-by-step.
1. The choice of reverbs.
As I said before, the first we have to consider if we aim
for realism or not.
I always struggle when it comes to reverb. Like, what the
best sound settings for what instrument/sample. Should I use a Hall or
a Plate? Should I use an aux or use it as an insert. Should I EQ after
or before the reverb etc. I don’t know why, but reverb seems to
be the hardest thing for me to understand and I wish it was not.
And then comes another big question. How much reverb should
be applied to certain tracks? All decisions made during the mixing process
are based on what makes me feel good. One good advice is to try monitoring
your mix in mono while setting reverb levels. Usually, if I can hear a
touch of it in mono it will be about right in stereo. If I get it too
light in stereo, the mix will sound too dry in mono. Also - concentrate
on how close or distant the reverbated track sounds in the context of
the mix, not on how soft or loud the reverb is (a different perspective).
2. Creating the aux tracks including different reverb types.
3. Organizing the tracks into different coloured groups.
At the top of the session I have a grey coloured group –
these are the instruments that I want to have really close and more or
less dry: kick, bass, hihats, snare, various percussion loops. I have
Room reverb going on here, but it is to be felt, not heard.
Then I have the blue group. These are the “second
front” instruments with Hall or Plate type reverb on them.
And then I have the background instruments, the back wall
of my mix. Everything that is here is meant to be very distant: synth
texture, vocal samples and occasional piano notes.
4. Pre-delays, rolling off the top, the bottom, 300Hz
and 4500 Hz.
My example configuration would look like this:
- Room: 1/64 note or 1/128 note pre-delay, HPF rolling
off from 200 Hz, LPF from 9 kHz
- Plate: 1/32 note or 1/64 note pre-delay, HPF rolling
off from 300 Hz, LPF from 7 kHz,
- Hall: no pre-delay, HPF rolling off from 350 Hz,
lowpassing is usually quite low, in the 4k - 5k zone (remember the air
absorbs high frequencies much more than it absorbs lower ones).
The distance eats transients. And attenuates the direct sound, the first
arrival of the initial transient. But the reverberation picks up and amplifies
the steady, tonal part of the sound. The distant sound is much less transient-laden,
far smoother, far more legato, far less staccato, less "bangy"
and "crunchy," than close-up sound. It is also harder to understand
the words at a distance. That’s why I often compress the longest
reverb to flatten or to get rid of transients. Set a fast attack if you
want there to be less of a transient at the start, and the parts to be
squashed more. I also use a transient designer (such as freeware FLUX
Bittersweet) and move the knob anticlockwise
to soften the attack a little.
Foreground: drums, percussion, bass and saxophone.
Mid-ground: piano, acoustic guitar.
Background: synth pad, female voice.
For a long time I had the tendency to put way too much reverb on everything.
You know, I thought I would get the sense of depth and space this way,
but I was so wrong… Now I know that if we want one track to sound
distant, another must be very close. The same goes to volume and every
other aspect of the mix - to make one track sound loud, others need to
be soft and so on.
There are some more sophisticated methods that I haven’t tried
myself yet. Like a smart use of compression for instance. Michael Brauer
once said: “I’m using a lot of different sounding compressors
to give the record depth and to bring out the natural room reverbs of
Some people also get nice results by playing around with Early Reflections
parameter in reverb. The closer a sound source is to boundaries or large
reflective objects within an acoustic, the stronger the early reflections
Contrast and moderation - I want you to leave with these two words and
wish you all a successful experimenting!