Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Lowest 25%, Part 2: Achieving Space, Clarity, and Dynamics in When Producing and Mixing

Doing less now makes more seem bigger later…it's true!

Last week, I talked about achieving fullness when producing and mixing in a studio setting. You can check out Part 1 of the series here. If you don't have enough in your cup, you won't be able to take a song to the places it needs to go. However, we are often times given extra parts, allowing us many options for achieving and maximizing fullness. But, even when a song is relatively high energy, it's just as important to make sure that your cup isn't 100% full 100% of the time.

Now a full on symphony is going to be quite a bit more dynamic naturally than, say, an R & B song, which is going to be more dynamic than a pop punk anthem. Yet, each has its place for ups and downs, fullness and space that take turns relieving and exciting listeners. In general, a sweet melody or soulful solo shines over a moment of great space, while more aggressive solos or three-part harmonies often find their places among sections that need to push fullness to the very brim. Of course, there are exceptions. For example, a cappella sections are those that feature voices—usually several—and nothing else.

So, what can you do with that overlooked 25% of the cup to balance your mix once you have all of the necessary elements for achieving fullness?

  • Reduce what's being played in the verses / down moments
  • Reduce how many instruments are playing in the verses / down moments
  • Keep volumes low
  • Use automation peaks for transitions
  • Craft EQ differently from main features
  • Don't be afraid of different reverb practices
Reduce what's being played in the verses

This is a bit more obvious, and a good musician or producer will already know to either change playing techniques or how much is being played between different sections of a track. However, this can be a difficult concept to grasp if you are a musician who is new to recording or playing in a live band. It can be even more difficult if you've been playing the same way for 30+ years and don't like change. People who come from solo performance backgrounds are used to having to sum an entire song up on one instrument, and they are used to playing more for the duration of the song.

Some practical examples from my "fullness 5" list would be:
  • changing a full 8th or 16th note background guitar strumming patterns to palm mutes, whole notes, or individual note picking
  • playing whole notes or longer on pianos and keyboards, using fewer notes per chord, adding in very small licks or runs sparingly
  • holding out only one or two notes on a pad or organ
  • only including stabs or short riffs on synths
  • using harmonies halfway through the section or on certain words / phrases
The special thing about this is that, when combined with some of the other techniques, you may decide to do less throughout the song. For example, your verses and choruses both may have whole note filler parts that are connected by a more active pre-chorus.

Reduce how many instruments are playing in those spacious sections

If the previous section is difficult for some to grasp, this one might be impossible. However, in any good composition or production, nobody plays the entire time, with the exception of pop loops and drones. Having electric guitar two or three, Rhodes, or piano play less is good, but having them wait until halfway through the verse, the pre-chorus, and the chorus to play anything at all has the potential to be great. This is especially true when the main instruments (lead guitars, keys, or strings, bass, drums, etc.) of the song have reduced what they are playing.

Keep volumes low

In order for all of these extra "fullness 5" instruments to make up the bottom 25% of your cup, they have to stay in the bottom 25%! For the most part, the majority of these instruments should not be consciously heard. Did you try my suggestion from part 1? Whether you are mixing a verse, chorus, tag, bridge, or otherwise, try lowering the volumes of your filler instruments until you can't really tell if they are there or not. Go back and listen to your mix again, then mute any of those tracks when you get to the section in question. You should feel a big change in fullness / space, and if you practice, you might even be able to learn to hear and distinguish those instruments when you unmute the channel(s) in question.

If you have only one or two extra background instruments, or if you have several that barely play anything, you can get away with a few "feature" moments where they stand out a bit. Just remember, though, that the more you have, the less each part can do. Too many parts at too loud a volume can really over-thicken and muddy up a mix.

Use automation peaks for transitions

Background instruments can greatly manipulate the way transitions as a whole feel. In addition to being able to layer in new instruments at distinct intervals, you can use tiered, steady, or a combination of tiered and steady automation to boost the impact of a downbeat. 

Because your fillers are already at a lowered volume, you have a lot of dynamic range to play with. You might even pull one or two of them higher up in the mix for those few seconds. A B3 with the speed switch activated for the rotor in a Leslie cabinet or an aggressive synth are two examples of tracks that may pop during a transition. 

Then, just when your cup is close to spilling over, you can take a little sip out of it by lowering those volumes back down...Not to where they were before, though. You don't want them to disappear completely. You just want them to sound like they disappeared but not feel like they did. By keeping these instruments out of the way, you allow a greater clarity without losing fullness.

Remember, transitions don't just happen between sections. Sometimes, they occur at the halfway, two-thirds, or other points in a single section to give that section some more meat before trasitioning to the next one.

Craft EQ differently from main features

The daddy of pre and post-production clarity features, EQ has the ability to totally transform the way audio sounds. You're going to want a fairly natural sound for your main instruments in typical situations, though there are many pop mixes that feature heavily EQ'd pianos, vocals, and some other instruments. However, when you over-process tracks like this, you run the risk of a mix sounding too thin or too muddy.

With the bottom 25% of your cup, over, and yes, even under-processing can actually be used to your advantage in order to keep your fillers from competing with more important instruments of a similar frequency range.

Instruments like second acoustic guitar or keys might have all of the bottom end completely cut in order to keep from competing with the bass or mid-friendly instruments in a song. Likewise, an electric guitar or synth might have the high end automated out during the verse and sweep back in later on. Thinning out or muffling instruments like this is a great option when you need to clear up sonic space for a more important instrument, especially when both instruments are panned to a similar location.

On the other hand, especially dealing with synths, very natural sounding piano samples (or live performances), and orchestral recordings, you may do a lot less with the background EQ than you do with the EQ on the main instruments. Synths are so drastic, yet particular in the tones they can create that any change to most of the billion knobs you get to play with adjusts the frequencies the synth plays as well. So, if you've found the perfect synth or pad tone and it isn't overbearing in any range, you may not cut anything and have a beautiful sound when it's pulled down in the mix. Or, you may even boost the range you want to stick out the most and lower the output (which is essentially the same as cutting things you didn't want). One example I often hear is people adding a little more high end somewhere 8k or above to give their synths a bit of extra sparkle. Turning it down afterwards just pulls that sparkle down too, but it clears out some of those mid and lower frequencies that may not have been right for the situation.

Don't be afraid of different reverb practices…

…especially if you are playing really big, spacey, ambient music!

You've all heard how reverb's done in the industry nowadays. You get your track sounding nice and create a send that receives some of your instrument into a very wet auxiliary reverb track. You never bothered to see what changing from pre-fader to post-fader does, and when your friend tried to explain it to you, it went right over your head.

Well, in orchestral music, reverb is so powerful, it can make low end instruments feel like they tripled or quadrupled in size. What? Reverb on the low end? In orchestral works, it's a requirement, not a crazy option. While you may not be adding reverb to the kick and bass of a pop song, most other instruments get reverb, and this is really where you can start to change the function or "appearance" of your fillers. All of a sudden, your keys start to sound like electric guitar, your electric guitar starts to sound like a pad, your organ widens up, and your choir starts to shimmer.

Some of the other reverb practices may cause your background instruments to be more present in a mix or lose identifiability, as you could see above, but that's fine if the ones that do stick out more don't get in the way of those important features. So, how do you achieve those tones?

First, pre-fader sending allows the reverb level (wet) and regular fader levels (dry) to be controlled separately. This means that you're going to hear a lot more reverb at lower send levels on pre-fader tracks. This also means that your main fader can be all the way down, and you will still hear the reverb through the aux channel. If you are looking to keep the digital sonic space relatively the same while making an instrument feel like it is moving forward or backward in that digital room, this is a great option to play with. Or, if you don't want more than a couple of reverb tracks and need a big, far away sound, pre-fader is for you.

Or, and this is my preference much of the time because of the amount of orchestral work I do, you can set up reverbs on aux tracks and change the output of your instruments directly to that aux instead of bussing them through an aux send. This is the same as just putting the reverb plugin right on an instrument's channel, but it keeps you from having to put a separate reverb unit on every single track, which takes a lot of processing power. By changing the output, you can achieve the same effect with multiple instruments using one reverb unit. Like going post-fader, this allows you the ability to control the wet (reverb) and dry (regular signal) levels. Be careful, though, not to edit the reverb unless it is within the unit itself (for example, the EQ tab within a convolution reverb unit), or the effects added will be applied to all of the instruments too, since they are running directly into the aux track. The nice thing about sends is that you can edit the reverb tracks as you like without affecting the instruments.

So why do I prefer to place instruments fully in a reverb unit instead of just going post-fader? Well, they aren't quite the same. Going post-fader or even pre-fader often make instruments feel like they are just moving closer to or further from the monitors on which you are listening. This isn't bad, but going fully through the reverb unit makes tracks feel like they are being placed inside a new room, not just digital space with nice reverb. Since not all instruments are recorded with room mics, especially when you are working with orchestral samples, dry guitar tracks, or the recordings of under-budgeted amateurs, you can almost emulate different mic positions by going directly into the reverb. Nothing feels as close, up front, or in-your-face when you place a track in the reverb unit's room, especially when you compare two identical tracks at the same volume levels. So, this option isn't for every track, especially main ones that you want to use to punch listeners in the face. However, it's great for making tracks feel like they were recorded in a different space than they may have been originally.


Applying even a few of these techniques to mixes that give you trouble or that leave you unsure of what you can do with the excess background instruments will make huge differences in the clarity, dynamics, and space/fullness of any given section. Plus, some of these principles can carry over to the rest of your mix—your lead vocal, bass, lead acoustic/electric, piano, main synth, violin, drums or whatever else is your main focus.

If you haven't read Part 1, be sure to check it out, as it explains the "fullness 5" and ways to use the bottom 25% of your priorities to liven up a song without making it obvious you did anything differently.

Thanks for reading! Be on the lookout for the rest of this series, where I'll cover topics that can be applied to live mixing, like monitor volume, dealing with too much, and yes, having enough!

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