Through this tutorial, we'll explore a counter-approach that could produce better results. Often, less is more. By ensuring that the very best ideas within your productions are given room to breathe and to really make themselves heard, you can give your mixes more power and clarity. We'll also see how individual tracks within a mix can combine in creatively to make those stronger moments stand out. The musical ideas that form the backbone of a track are hard enough to lock together in the first place; let's try to ensure that they're not diluted at the mix stage as we strive to give space to them.
First, let's use a couple of pads to demonstrate how it's often better to reduce the role of certain parts rather than boost the levels of everything around them. Pads and other harmonic parts of a track often spell out the chord progression and provide harmony—but they serve a less useful role in the mix if they're left simply to play statically, drawing life out of the more interesting musical parts.
For now, let's mute the second pad and explore a few of the ways we could bring more life to this first pad sound while simultaneously freeing up some mix space.
Both of the examples above benefit from the fact that the rhythm of another mix element is imposed upon the pads, unifying the groove of two mix elements. We're going to explore the power of this same idea later in the tutorial, but we could also decide to bring both movement and more mix space to the pad without routing in a sidechain signal.
Of course, to demonstrate each of these treatments clearly, the level of the pad in each example is too generous, so let's bring this down to a level that still gives the pad a role within the track, but which obscures the delayed vocal part less. Let's also re-introduce the second pad sound and consider another parameter we could modify to create space within our mix. Usually, it makes sense to pan sounds that you most want to capture your listener's attention centrally. So it equally figures that any sounds that are playing a more supporting role, but that are also panned centrally, are leaving less mix space for those more important musical parts.
This will serve two complementary purposes when combined with the rest of the sounds in the mix: it will make this part sound quieter while also adding extra stereo width, subtly making the track more interesting overall.
As you can hear, this final mix introduces another key feature in the bid to maximise mix space. This second pad employs volume automation to slowly increase its level through the second half of this eight-bar phrase. Volume automation can either be used like this through whole phrases or applied more dramatically. If you're balancing a vocal within a mix, it may be necessary to employ a volume offset on each and every note.
When we turned our attention to using a compressor and locked the rhythm of another mix element to our pad via sidechaining, we hit upon an important feature of any well-balanced mix: a co-ordinated rhythmic shape played back across a number of parts. As you probably know, the rhythm section of a rock & roll band doesn't refer to the drummer alone; instead, it's about how the inherent rhythm is unified through drums, bass, keyboards and often rhythm guitar, too. Even if you don't make rock music, it's worth keeping this in mind through electronic production, as you can achieve both power and mix space by assigning a single rhythm across a number of parts.
This is a common process for producers to adopt, either by importing a series of loops from a sample library or raiding software instruments for arpeggiated patterns that lock together. And yet, if you listen closely, this track doesn't lock these patterns together at all. The beat loop has one rhythmic identity, the stab sequence has another still and so on; each new part obscures any real sense of rhythmic identity, rather than reinforcing one ear-catching rhythmic pattern.
We could modify the arpeggiator again, but another effective way to edit sequences like this is to convert them to audio files and chop them up.
To finally tie the mix together and provide more space, we can use another example of a compressor treatment.
It's still early days for this track, but the power in this mix is becoming more apparent now, mostly due to the sense that all of the parts are feeding into the same rhythmic structure. Whenever you're programming, look to achieve something similar by stacking parts on top of one another so that three or four sounds play the same notes, rather than each featuring its own rhythm. It's a great way to build real drive into a track without filling in every single rhythmic hole.
As we saw with the filter sequence above, internal effects can also be killers of mix space, often obscuring any sense of clarity. There, a delay treatment obscured the rhythm we wanted, but reverb treatments can be just as guilty of filling a mix unnecessarily. Whether applied to synths, percussion or vocal parts, over-long, over-bright or over-bloated reverbs are potential mix killers. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways we can modify them to wrest back some of that lost clarity.
We need a way to retain the reverb length in the gaps between phrases, while also lessening the reverb treatment while the vocal phrase is playing. There are two solutions. First, we could use automation to drop the level of the reverb bus during the vocal phrases and ramp it back up between them. However, a more dynamic way to achieve a similar result would be to use compression again.
The next issue for the vocal part is that the reverb itself is too washy in the mid-range. We want it to be brighter and dreamier between those phrases, but at the moment it's overloading in the middle. Again, we can use effects that bear on the reverb but not the original vocal tone by adding another processor to the auxiliary bus after the reverb and the compressor.
However, the knock-on effect is that the rhythmic loop that feeds the same reverb treatment is affected, too. But this isn't a problem, really—the reverb on this sound is too long anyway, so we were always destined to adjust it. The problem this time is that we do want to knit the mix together using similar reverb treatments, so again, we need a creative solution.
The mix is already sounding clearer from these subtle mix changes, and copying the same reverb treatment across a number of auxiliaries so that long, medium and short variations on the same spatial theme can be called upon for different parts within a mix.
As we've seen through the examples above, there are lots of ways to breathe space into a mix. There are plenty more besides, however. If you find two elements are fighting one another, set up EQs on both and enable frequency analysers to see which frequencies overlap; it's likely that the bloated sound comes from those elements contributing to the same frequency bands. Decide which of the two sounds is the more important in that frequency range and use EQ to drop the level of the other sound at the same point. Similarly, try not to program sounds that are likely to interfere with more important mix elements. In film music, a golden rule is never to program solo or loud parts for instruments like violins or flutes while dialogue is being spoken, for the simple reason that the music will obscure any talking. There are lessons to learn there for dance and pop music, too, so be ready to apply volume automation or sidechaining to sounds that fight a lead vocal. As we've seen, you can achieve effective mix treatments via levels, pan, tone and reverberant space as well as through a range of other effects and DAW tools. So as ever, use your imagination to create solutions. Your mixes will sound all the clearer for it.