Few other mediums can evoke emotion like music can. Much of it is songwriting, performance and arrangement, but the mix stage is no exception. Learn 4 mix tips to create emotion in your music.
By Charles Hoffman, Black Ghost Audio
Very few things can tap into as many different emotions as music; it makes you laugh, cry, rage, and more. At a production and songwriting level, you can use various arrangement techniques to create emotion, such as selecting appropriate chords and progressions.
At a mixing level, there are many techniques you can use to evoke emotion; we’ll focus on 4 of these techniques in this article.
1. Preserve the Feelings That Make the Track Special to the Client
Whenever you introduce change to a client’s mix, you run the potential risk of taking the song in a direction that the client is unhappy with. One of the ways you can meet (and exceed) your client’s expectations is by consulting with them ahead of time. Find out exactly what aspects of the song they like, and identify the areas of the song they think can be improved.
As much as music involves hearing, it’s fundamentally about feeling. There’s a significant period in which you’ll be learning how to use your mixing tools on a purely technical level. Once you surpass this learning period, you’re able to start focusing on how the mixing decisions you make affect songs on an emotional level; these are the nuanced decisions that truly matter.
Accordingly, you risk losing the feeling your client felt when writing their song if you modify their mix inappropriately. The final product you create may be viewed as subjectively “good” by many people, but this doesn’t change the fact that your client loses a portion of their ownership over the song. When a client says something along the lines of, “The song sounds very different,” with a bit of uncertainty in their voice, they typically mean that you’ve lost the original feeling of the song that made it special to them.
Identify what your client loves about their song, specifically on an emotional level. Any changes you make to the track should build upon their emotional goals. A “clean” mix comes second to the emotions the song evokes. It’s your job as a mixing engineer to showcase a song’s emotional content through the use of your mixing tools.
2. A Sense of Space Is Your Most Impactful Mixing Tool
Every mixing decision you make affects the feeling of the music you’re working on, but some creative tools have more of an effect than others. Effects like reverb and delay both allow you to modify the space that the elements of your song are perceived to live within, which has a profound impact on the overall vibe of your music.
Before I apply reverb to a sound, I first imagine the space I’m going to model, along with how it looks and sounds. Perhaps I want the guitars in my reggae track to sound like they’re in a small intimate club, or maybe I want the background vocals in my rock track to sound like they’re in a cathedral. The guitar reverb will provide a warm and comforting feeling, while the background vocal reverb will produce a cool, airy feeling.
The IR1 Convolution Reverb allows you to model the reverberant field of different real-world spaces. Apply the IR1 to one of your tracks and then cycle through the available presets; select the one that comes closest to the sound of the space you’re trying to recreate. Check out “How to Create Realistic Room Sounds Using Reverb” for information on perfectly fine-tuning and dialing in your reverb settings.
I’m sure you’ve smelled something before, like someone’s cooking or the scent of a certain perfume, and instantly flashed back to a memory or feeling from your past. In the same way, the sound of a space is linked to the feelings you associate with the space; this can contribute to people’s musical preferences and why some people like certain songs while others don’t.
Delay tends to sound slightly more unnatural than most reverbs, but it still has its place in evoking emotion. The classic 1/8 note or 1/4 note delay that you hear on lots of pop and hip-hop vocal leads isn’t something that naturally occurs, but the way you process this type of delay can give it an organic edge.
Experiment with applying high-pass and low-pass filters to your delayed signal. Cutting the lows and letting the highs through can spark bright and joyous feelings, while allowing more of the bottom end through can call upon dark and ominous emotions.
Apply a delay like the H-Delay Hybrid Delay to your lead vocal track, and select one of the four available analog modes for some additional flavor. Set the delay time to a 1/4 note or 1/8th note value, modify the HiPass and LoPass knobs to attain a dark or bright tone, and then set the feedback amount to taste.
Through modeling rooms with reverb and affecting your delays with filters, you’ll be able to tap into the emotions of your listeners. Set a feeling as your goal and use the tools you own to achieve it.
3. Apply Serial-Parallel Processing on Aux Tracks
Aux tracks allow you to do much more than simply using a common reverb or delay for multiple track elements; they let you create processing chains that make use of multiple devices, resulting in unique parallel effects that can be used to draw certain emotions from your listeners.
Heavily compressing reverb on an aux track and applying a gate to it allows you to create lead synths drenched in reverb that still feel aggressive, in-your-face and present. An excessive amount of reverb tends to push sounds to the back of your mix, but that’s not the case here. If you want to provide elements in your song with a feeling of overwhelming grandeur, use the following processing technique.
Apply a reverb like Abbey Road Reverb Plates to your lead synth using an aux track; this particular reverb has a bright and airy tone, which compliments many EDM leads. Apply heavy peak compression to the reverb using a compressor like the API 2500 in feed-forward mode. Engaging feed-forward processing will result in a very responsive form of compression.
A fast-acting compressor will allow you to achieve the synthetic feeling and perfect aesthetic coveted in genres like pop. When you remove dynamics from a sound, you generally lose the “raw” feeling and impact that comes along with the raw recording, which may or may not be what you’re looking for.
Use a fast attack time of around 0.1, a ratio of around 4, and a fast release time of around 0.1-0.2 when applying the API 2500 after your reverb. You want the compressor to apply heavy compression quickly and then lay off the gas as soon as the reverb drops below the set threshold level.
In some cases, such as when producing singer/songwriter tracks, you’ll want to use a slow-acting compressor. This will allow transient material, such as fine vocal articulation, to pass through the compressor and make the performance feel more intimate. Increase the attack time on your compressor to let more transients through, or swap it into feedback mode if the setting is available.
To complete the larger-than-life reverb effect, add a gate immediately after the API 2500. You can use the gate that comes with the C1 Compressor; it’s simple to use and works great. The cool thing about applying a gate to this aux track is that you can use the original lead track as the gate’s sidechain input to create a reverb that maintains an amplitude envelope similar to the original sound.
Set the original track as the C1’s sidechain input source. Adjust the Gate Open value so that it sits just below the sustain level of your lead synth sound, and then modify the gate’s release time to affect how the reverb decays. Ideally, you want the reverb to decay along with the waveform of the lead track, making the sound it’s affecting feel full-bodied, lush and powerful.
This is one of the more advanced ways you can use serial processing to beef up sounds in your mix and make them feel overwhelmingly large. Experiment with using different types of creative effects on your aux tracks to come up with your own unique parallel processing chains. I recommend trying out different combinations of saturators, reverbs, delays, compressors, gates and even vocoders like OVox.
4. Use Colorful Analog-Modelled Effects
In the pursuit of clarity, many mixing engineers end up straying away from colorful processing tools. Digital processing may very well provide you with the most transparent form of processing, but this isn’t always necessary. Analog-modeled effects that provide unexpected tones can provide you with exceptionally musical and emotionally pungent results.
The Scheps 73 EQ and distortion unit provides a characteristic sound of the ‘60s and ‘70s that is warm, fat, and rich; this has been achieved via the use of Waves’ component modeling technology. For unusually cold and lifeless vocals, Scheps 73 works wonders.
Turning up Scheps 73’s pre-amp knob will introduce subtle harmonic distortion effects suitable for vocals, and engaging the Drive button will allow you to apply substantial distortion effects to sources such as bass and guitar. This distortion can make sounds feel heavier and more grounded on an emotional level. For bass music, distortion can drastically influence the severity of a listener’s “bass face.” Bass that feels dirty, gritty, and guttural is usually the result of heavy distortion. For an even more aggressive sound, you could try Berzerk distortion.
In the real world, sounds that are further away from a listener tend to lose their transient energy; you can emulate this by applying transient compression. Sounds closer to a listener are much more transient and louder than sounds that are further away.
For intimate jazz arrangements, refrain from overly compressing your drums, but for larger-than-life orchestral arrangements, consider applying moderate peak compression to push your drums to the back of the mix.
A superb way to keep your drums feeling punchy and snappy is by using an SSL style compressor, like the one found in both the SSL 4000 E-Channel and G-Channel. Mixing engineers tend to reach for an SSL style compressor when processing drums or vocals that they want articulate. Digital compressors often apply compression in a way that sounds linear and calculated, whereas analog-modeled compressors can introduce quirks like harmonic distortion and variable release times based on input level.
Check out this article to see a comparison between the SSL E channel and G channel.
Apply either the SSL E-Channel or G Channel to one of your drum tracks, like your snare. Select whether you’d like to affect the signal pre-equalizer (default) or post-equalizer (CH OUT), and then fine-tune your compression settings.
To tame the transients of your drums, use a fast attack time (F.ATK = 1 ms) and quick release time of around 0.1 to 0.2. If you want to let more of your drum transients through the compressor, use a slow attack time that is program dependent (F.ATK off). Use a moderate ratio of around 2:1 to 4:1 and reduce the threshold level until you’ve achieved a desirable amount of gain reduction.
A song that lacks variation can feel bland and boring, and processing tools that lack variation in the way they apply processing can feel the same. Every analog-modeled plugin has its own sonic signature and can be used in different ways to create and enhance a range of emotions.
For example, a high-pass filter applied to the background vocals of a Lil Peep track may assist in making the song feel sad and relatable, while the same high-pass filter applied to the background vocals of an Ariana Grande song may enhance the track’s sassy attitude. In this way, the feeling your processing tools bring forward is situational and content dependent.
Emotion is what fuels music, and there are plenty of mixing decisions you can make to sway the feelings a song invokes in its listeners. Consult with your clients before mixing their tracks to identify and hold onto the feelings that made the song special to them. If a song requires a more focused emotional direction, consider using spatial effects, serial-parallel processing and colorful analog-modeled effects.
Check out these 7 tips on improving your critical listening skills!
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