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Friday, April 10, 2015

The Lowest 25%, Part 1: Getting More Fullness when Producing and Mixing

If you've been around the audio world for more than a few months, it's likely you've heard an analogy in which mixing gets compared to filling a cup. Somebody probably recommended filling that cup with kick (or drums) and bass first, warning you not to put in too much right off the bat for fear of your cup overflowing. Still, as you added other elements, power players, such as lead guitar, vocals, and the drums and bass, began to take a lot of your attention.

It's easy to set and forget the instruments and effects that hardly seem to be present already, so why bother dedicating much effort to the things that barely make it into the bottom 25% of your cup? Well, clarity, space (fullness), and dynamics are 3 of the most important areas any mixing engineer can master, and seeing how these things relate and working to achieve them can really add to the sense of unity a great musical group brings to the stage or studio.

Assuming you have at least a basic understanding of effects like EQ, reverb, and compression, this series of articles will focus on how you can use the least popular channels in your mix to enhance the clarity, fullness, and dynamics of those that make up the "attention-grabbing" 75% of a live or studio mix. Often times, what we don't consciously notice—that quietest 25%—is what makes those featured parts sound better…or worse!

Part 1: Studio Mixing - You Must Have Enough in Your Cup

Whether you write pop songs, pump out beats, compose orchestral scores, or focus only on mixing, you've probably run into a situation where something just doesn't feel right. I very regularly listen to work by people who publicly release their work feeling like it wasn't full enough, and they have no idea how to fix the issue except by turning up their favorite channels more and hoping for the best.

Fullness is almost a trick category though. Think about it. If you were asked to bake 12 muffins and were given enough muffin mix for 6, it doesn't matter what you do. You'll end up with 6 muffins. Sure, you could spread it out over 12 cups, but you'll still end up with 6 muffins…just in 12 halves. In the same way, if you only have parts for 6 instruments, all of which play a vital role in the song, you can adjust the EQ over and over or automate the faders to be louder at the chorus, but you'll still only be hearing 6 instruments. This is like filling your cup 75% of the way with the important and "featured" instruments and nothing else.

However, it is possible to take more instruments and more parts and still make it sound like only 6 or 7 things are going on. Kind of like if you were instead given enough muffin mix to bake 12 muffins but only needed 6. You could make 6 regular muffins, or you could pour a little extra batter on 1 or all of them to make them bigger. Maybe a bit drips into an empty cup, and you have an extra bite-sized muffin, and, whatever's left over can be thrown away or saved for another time.

So, it is vital to make sure the bottom 25% is even available before you can worry about using it.
If you're strictly a mixing engineer, this may call for asking the producer for some more tracks, but if you are also creating the music, here is what I call the fullness 5—instruments that make great fillers—and tips on how to appropriately use them:

  • Acoustic Guitar / Second Acoustic Guitar
  • Piano / Keyboards
  • Organ
  • Synths / Pads
  • Extra Electric Guitars
  • (Vocals)
Composer's note: if you are writing for orchestra, and experience fullness problems, it might be time to start studying woodwinds. Odds are you know more about strings and brass. Also, if you are writing hybrid / Hollywood style scores, synths or any of the other instruments on the fullness 5 list are great tools to use too.

The key with fullness parts like these is to fight the urges naïveté will present you. They don't have to be up to the same volumes as everything else in the mix, even if somebody played a killer organ lick or great piano part. In fact, when used as fillers, turning these instruments down just below the point where you can no longer distinguish them—or can just barely hear them when other instruments rest—is best. If you have a hard time believing it makes any difference to have something that quiet in your mix, hit the mute button, and your ears will be surprised at the difference.

Acoustic Guitars

These magical instruments have decay, meaning their sound fades away after initially being plucked, but they can add massive fullness to songs. This is even moreso if you record a second acoustic guitar or double the first acoustic guitar. 

I remember creating a song for which I had two acoustic guitars playing identical parts in some places and slightly different rhythms in others. I panned one somewhere to the left, and the other somewhere to the right. Even though acoustic guitar was a "feature instrument," only one idea was originally written. Plus, I had organ and electric guitars as well. However, I recorded two tracks in case I needed backup, and it was the second acoustic track that really added to the fullness. I left it muted after working on the other tracks in a more distinguished fashion, and said, "Why is this song so weak all of a sudden?" Then, I realized acoustic 2 was still muted, and I was thankful that I had recorded it.

Due to their decay, acoustic guitars can present different amounts of fullness depending on how they are played. If you strum out whole (or longer) notes, the beginning of each chord will be the most full, while if you maintain a steady eighth or sixteenth note rhythm, the sound won't fade away.
Just remember, if you are doubling a single acoustic track, you'll have to offset the timing a touch and maybe edit them slightly differently in order to avoid phasing issues.

Pianos and Keyboards

Whether it's jazz chords on a Wurlitzer, simple and steady triads on a grand piano, or just the 1 and 5 notes repeating on an old upright, keyboards are great at filling out space and blending in, even if the initial attack (striking) of the notes sticks out a bit. Plus, keys enhance the sound of guitars, bass, synths, or other "featured" keyboards when played properly.

Strong power chords can give distorted electric rhythm guitars more punch or bass guitars more tone, and they can give the impression that there is less decay on either. In addition, higher notes on a piano can fatten lead guitar and synths or blend the end of a guitar run into the beginning of a piano lick so seamlessly that you don't know when one instrument stopped and the other started (dovetailing).

Organ

Before there were synths and pads, there was organ…the mother of all non-decaying fillers. Because an organ can hold out a note at the same volume indefinitely, it can potentially be used for an entire song without anyone realizing it was there in the first place. The B3 is the go-to organ for most situations, and programs like Logic Pro and Pro Tools come with some pretty decent stock replicas should you not have access to one of these very pricy instruments.

My biggest tip here? The less you do, the less noticeable organ is…without sacrificing fullness. It has the ability to blend extremely well or stick out on a moment's notice, and it is just as common to hear it stabilizing an acoustic guitar or piano at the beginning of a song as it is not to include it at all until the final verse.

Because organs do not have decay, the low range can be used to beef up long bass notes, perhaps even better than a piano can. The mid and high-mid registers can do the same for guitars. Only in the absolute highest range does an organ have difficulty blending with anything but similarly pitched synths, but when you reduce its volume to be in that lowest 25%, it can add a great presence without being overbearing.

Synths and Pads

Considering pads are just synths edited well-enough to sound calming or deep, this group easily offers the most variety. There's literally an unlimited number of synth types that can be created in any given interface due to the many parameters the user can control. In addition to being able to sound harsh or biting, techno-clubbish, 8-bit, spacey, swirly, stringy, brassy, or even like real acoustic instruments, synths and pads can be either decaying or non-decaying instruments. You get to choose!

Because of the high level of customization, it's very easy to match them to the vibe of most songs, and they require little arranging thought if you aren't great at playing music. Simply one note or one note at a time will do in many cases, and chords only add to the fullness. Pads blend a little more quickly than regular synths, and, while being louder may be appropriate for pads on a real ambient or spacey song, you might never know pads are in some of the other tunes they are featured in…

Electric Guitar Heaven

…Or, even more shockingly, you might think you are hearing a pad, when you are in fact hearing additional electric guitars. These instruments are surprisingly versatile—they can be confused with or help to enhance keyboards, synthesizers, other guitars, organs, and even vocals.

You can quickly overdo it when adding extra electric guitar tracks, but there are lots of possibilities for the many situations background EGs are used in. Simply doubling and panning a part may work for one song, while changing the tone works for another. Muted power chords, drawn-out open chords, or fast CAGED chords may be played in contrast to each other, or each chord could be picked one note at a time. Effects may be used to emulate those pad-like sounds, or ostinatos (short, repeating patterns) may focus on one or two notes.

Background electric guitar writing and mixing could be an entire article in itself, but, like the other instruments, not everything has to be heard distinctly…especially if there are other, more prominent guitars present.

Vocals

Not officially on my fullness-5 list, extra vocals are a great way to add fullness to a song. However, they tend to stick out and catch attention, even when in the background, because we humans love to hear the sound of our voices. Things like "Oohs," "Aahs," choirs, harmonies, doublings, and octave doublings all serve their purposes in the right settings, but they don't often get mixed so low that you couldn't recognize them as vocals.

Wrap-up

So remember, some of these things are probably going to be features in every track you mix. However, if they aren't doing anything interesting, they can be pulled back a bit in order for something else to shine (more on that in my discussion on clarity).

And, if a particular song doesn't have the oomph you want for that epic line, try adding a small amount of something new. Got a song that has two electric guitars, bass, drums, acoustic, pad and piano, yet a crescendo to the pre-chorus just doesn't add the fullness you wanted? Perhaps a quiet synth doubling the pad, an organ, and a Rhodes doubling the piano will help.

Thanks for reading! Be on the lookout for the rest of this series, where I'll cover topics like having too much in the cup, using reverb, monitor volume, and even having enough in the cup in live scenarios.

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