Nuance is what separates the pros from the beginners when it comes to mixing, and these 5 details which take your listening and processing skills to the next level.
By Will Vance
There are certain mix details beginners often miss, and these nuances can hold them back from getting attention from fans and demand from clients.
Not to worry – mixing takes practice and patience! Whether you're a talented hobbyist or a newer engineer, by the end of this article, you'll know 5 of the most common details most amateurs don't know they're missing, and it will hopefully shave months (if not years) off of your learning curve.
1. Proper Treatment of Spatial Effects
After reverbs and delays are added across instruments and auxes as atmospheric effects, many producers are often blind to the deceptively large amount of sonic space that instantly becomes occupied.
Curbing this comes from giving these spatial effects the same amount of attention you'd put into processing your lead instruments. So, let's look at a few quick-fire tips to elevate these essential effects.
Tip #1: Coloration on Your Reverbs
Reverb presets are a great starting point for beginners, but the lack of color in the stock-tuned FX often creates flat and lifeless spaces. If your lead synth or guitar had these same qualities, a bit of saturation or light distortion would enliven the signal, and similar concepts can be applied to spatial effects. Compare the below Bass examples, and listen to how the Aphex Exciter adds industrial overtones to the TrueVerb.
- Example 1a – Bass (basic reverb)
- Example 1b – Bass (reverb + Aphex Exciter)
Tip #2: Modulate Your Reverbs
Reverbs, on their own, often fade with linear predictability. Phasers, flangers and other modulators add an additional counterpoint of movement that prevents the reverb from growing stale as it evolves over time. Compare the below examples, and see how Metaflanger’s cosmic quality makes for a better guitar take.
- Example 2a – Guitar (basic reverb)
- Example 2b – Guitar (reverb + MetaFlanger)
Tip #3 – Extract Sonic Details Within the Reverb
Reverb creates a hidden palette of sonic anomalies, often called artifacts, and heavy usage of tools like EQ boosts or saturation can bring these artifacts to light and make for truly interesting textures to be nestled under the dry signal. Listen to the ethereal sheen that the API 550 and Abbey Road Saturator bring out of the Abbey Road Reverb Plates when used on a vocal.
- Example 3a – Vocals (basic reverb)
- Example 3b – Vocals (reverb + EQ and saturation)
Tip #4 – Draw Attention to Spatial Elements
Delays and reverbs are notoriously hard to control, but stereo imagers, bright saturation, light compression and other tools can help keep control of these unruly elements, putting the direction and intentionality of the mixing back into your hands. Listen to how widening the S1 Stereo Imager enhances the spatial effect on the Synth created by H-Delay and Abbey Road Saturator.
- Example 4a – Synth (basic delay)
- Example 4b – Synth (delay + S1 Stereo Imager)
Now that we’ve covered a few fast-fire tricks with reverb let’s dive into more broad applications and practices I see beginner mixers and engineers consistently miss.
2. Correct Gain Staging
A common misconception is that gain staging is just setting channel volume when it actually happens at every point of amplification along the signal path to ensure optimal signal to noise ratio (avoiding unwanted distortion).
Digital plugins can handle high input volumes without digital clipping, but the same cannot be said about analog emulation, which helps achieve a warmer and fuller mix precisely through proper gain staging. Don’t just watch the internal meters. Watch the volume in between plugins as well.
There is no magic number when it comes to optimal input gain between plugins. In fact, it’s almost a science in and of itself. Instead, simply be mindful of the volume changes happening between plugins and how they are reacting to the fluctuations of volume in turn. Soon enough, you’ll drive inputs and reach for coloration tools completely on instinct, much like I do the CLA-2A for adding bite on lead parts.
3. Cleverly Utilizing Width
Pan pots and imagers work fine for achieving width in a mix but, if relied upon solely, will still achieve unprofessional end results. We perceive sound as being “wide” based on discrepancies between the channels, and by using this principle to our advantage, we can heighten a mix’s width while maintaining headroom, avoiding odd phasing issues, and creating a more encompassing listening experience.
So, let’s dive into some clever ways we can use this simple premise to achieve a super-wide sound.
Tip #1: Layering for Width
Being intentional with your selection of sounds when layering for width can create interesting stereo placement (and even movement) within the collective sound. When stacking sounds to achieve width in a mix, you must aim to combine sounds that complement each other instead of relying on identical tones.
Each of these sounds (advised to be no more than three) must be unique enough to create a clear distinction in its own placement on the stereo field. Panning two similar sounds left and right makes for ambiguous stereo placement where the boundaries of each sound are.
- Example 5a – Synth (basic layering)
- Example 5b – Synth (complex layering)
The first of the above examples consists of two similar-sounding synths panned hard left and right. Compare that to the next example where the right-panned synth’s ADSRs, filters, and tonality have been adjusted to now complement the other. The separation is especially apparent on headphones, as a clear distinction between the channels is established through the two layers, thus creating a far wider end result.
Tip #2: Contrast for Width
Let’s take this a step further by noting that width is also perceived by juxtaposing the direct center of a mix to its extreme lefts and rights. Setting benchmarks in your mix is a great way to achieve this, so let’s look at how it’s done.
Listen to the below example depicting a lead synth without any context of stereo placement. You may roughly tell that it is playing down the center of the mix, but it lacks concrete definition.
- Example 6a – Synth (mono)
Now, let's set some benchmarks in the mix by adding a single percussive layer. Listen to the layering concept live in action, as two shakers whose timbres and attacks complement each other are panned to the extreme sides of the mix.
- Example 6b – Synth (mono with panned shakers)
It helps to listen on headphones to notice how the benchmarks established by the shaker open the mix and make it feel infinitely wider by comparison. This works best with subtle sounds that don't command much attention. Staccato arpeggiators, ghosting percussion and ear-candy elements are ideal as you want the listeners' attention directed to the front and center of the mix.
Tip #3: Double Tracking for Width
Double tracking is a common approach for adding width and fullness to acoustic recordings but can also be replicated through clever use of groove templates. This is perfect for audio samples whose biggest flaw is that, by their nature, they are immutably printed to audio.
But what you see is not always what you have to get...
- Example 7a – Generic guitar loop
Two near-identical recordings are played together, resulting in a thicker and wider sound appearing as a single performance. Groove templates offer similar variations both in timing and velocity, so you should create just enough variation between the audio samples to give the impression that two takes are being stacked together. Let's listen...
- Example 7b – Guitar loop with groove template variations
MIDI files and VSTs can also benefit from this trick! Simply duplicate the MIDI channels and inject some groove into one and leave the other unaffected. Just watch that CPU overload and be sure to freeze tracks if necessary!
4. Taking Advantage of Processing Chains
With the number of plugins available, it's easy to lose the forest through the trees about what exactly you are trying to accomplish when processing sounds across your projects. Luckily, frameworks exist that help to demystify the confusion surrounding processing chains that are simple, powerful and malleable enough to use on almost any instrument channel.
So, let’s start at the very beginning, working through this framework using a basic Moog saw patch from a digital VST.
- Example 8a – Moog (basic)
Step 1 – Saturation
Saturation plugins should be placed first in the chain in most situations, as placing them afterward muddies the waters fairly quickly. Saturation (and distortion) adds upper harmonics, thickens the sound and alters the signal, whereas the rest of the chain is designed to tame what’s there.
- Example 8b – Moog (with saturation)
Placing distortion plugins after reductive EQs or compressors will only introduce untamed frequencies that kill your mix, which is why placing them early is paramount.
Step 2 - Subtractive EQ
Between the source sound and the following distortion, you should have all the frequency content you want, and the subtractive EQ will help remove any unwanted frequencies in the sound. Subtractive EQs are often surgical with high Q values to remove resonances, dampen frequency shelves caused by the saturation, and cut frequency bands entirely.
- Example 8c – Moog (subtractive EQ)
Exact details on professional EQ use go beyond the scope of this article. For now, it’s important only to note that digital, surgical and subtractive EQs are often best placed immediately after the saturation. Here you can learn more about choosing the right EQ.
Step 3 - Compression
The placement of compression is arguably the most central aspect of a processing chain. Placing a compressor too early squashes undesirable frequencies, which eats up headroom as squelchy resonances are brought to the forefront. Place the compressor too late in the chain, and you'll compress spatial effects and other modulations (which is fine if you want to, but chances are you don’t).
- Example 8d – Moog (compressed)
From here, each step after serves to accentuate only the controlled frequencies that then remain!
Step 4 - Additive EQ
Additive EQ is about light coloration intended to add analog warmth to a sterile and digital sound. Obviously, analog emulation plugins like the API EQs or the PuigTec EQs work best as they tend to boost frequencies in a warmer and more sonically pleasing way compared to the precision and sterility of digital EQs.
- Example 8e – Moog (additive EQ)
Subtle boosts of 1-3dB are all you need here to help round out mid ranges or add a bit of air to the upper frequencies of specific instruments.
Step 5 – Effects
For the final stage, you'll be left with a controlled sound comprised solely of frequencies you actually want to be there, leaving you free to add both spatial and modulation effects.
By adding reverbs and delays here, the signal running through these effects is as controlled as possible, making life easier across the entirety of the project. Placing these same effects earlier in the chain risks losing the control over the mix you have worked so hard to gain.
The same can be said of modulation effects like auto-panners, phasers and stereo imagers. Some of these effects may adjust the tone, coloration and dynamics slightly enough to cause your compressors and additive EQs to behave erratically, so saving them for the end gives you complete control over the result.
- Example 8f – Moog (effects)
Compare the start and end points and notice how far this simple chain took a sterile source signal. It now sounds warm, punchy and as if it was made on expensive hardware instead of an everyday VST.
5. When to Use Which Reverb
As noted above, beginners tend to introduce many reverbs at random across the project, when selecting a specific few for the job would have saved their mix with less effort. So, let’s give a brief summary of each, as many beginner mixers miss the subtleties introduced by different reverb styles.
The warm tones and long decays of Hall Reverbs add massive space and thickness to any sound, meaning they sound great when applied in isolation but can quickly wash out a mix, making it overtly distant when put into the rest of the mix. Long story short, never dial in Hall verbs in solo!
These are like Hall Reverbs but on a smaller scale; this allows for better control over the space being replicated. For any mix that requires a highly specific place, Chamber Reverbs will be the tool for the job. Vocals, guitars, lead synths and other elements that consume a lot of attention should have a touch of chamber reverb to achieve this goal.
The shorter tails and brighter reflections give more intimate and immediate proximity to whichever sound they are applied to. Room reverbs go on anything you want so close you can touch but avoid it on instruments with slower attacks or anything you want pushed further.
The shimmers and short tails associated with plate reverbs don't replicate actual acoustic spaces. These thrive on frontal mix elements that need a bit of bright shine and crispiness (most often vocals or individual drum elements). When used in small amounts and in tandem with other reverbs, plate reverbs make elements pop in the mix.
This reverb offers a unique tonal sound, unlike any other reverb unit. As such, it can be seen as more of a stylistic tool for sound design and effect rather than actually putting elements into a space.
Want more ways to improve your mixing skills? How to Hear Compression: Ear Training Guide
Want to get more tips straight to your inbox? Subscribe to our newsletter here.