Picture your mix like an empty canvas with an endless palette of creative options! Learn 4 ways to create artistic contrast using depth, width, color and dynamics.
By Will Vance
Understanding contrast in a mix is a valuable tool to help bring a more artistic perspective to an otherwise technical topic. Rather than imagining your mix as a mass of frequencies, decibels and inputs, picture it like an empty canvas or raw color palette.
Here we’ll look at 4 different ways to create artistic contrast in your mix, with concepts borrowed from the art theory realm.
1. Contrasting Depth in a Mix
Stationary visuals, like photography and painting, require the creator to find ways to mimic movement and space despite the 2D medium. You can recreate a similar perception of movement and depth in your mix as the photographer has done in the image below.
a. Focal Depth
Focal depth is where items in the foreground of the frame are shown in more detail than those in the background. Notice how the grass in the above image is far more detailed than the mountains despite the drastic difference in scale?
Both transient shapers and compressors with medium to slow attacks are ideal for accentuating the initial details in the sounds you wish to draw to the foreground. This allows for the snappy and detailed transients to pop out of the mix, which directs the listener’s focal point to the element you want to appear closer.
In the above image, the left-bank grass only appears close because of the less-focused elements in the background. With regard to a mix, that detailed, transient-heavy sound only appears near to the listener when contrasted against the less-detailed elements you’ve pushed further back in the mix.
This is why reverb works so well for depth, as the dusty qualities it introduces washes out the semblances of detail that would usually draw things forwards. But that’s not all. Fluid and gentle compressors, such as the SSL G-Master Bus Compressor whose attack is set to fast around .1 or .3 remove the sound’s details which, contrary to the slower-acting dynamic controllers above, pushes it further back in a mix.
Let’s hear it in action:
Compare the two examples above and note how the use of transient shapers helps subtly draw out details in the guitar section, thus pushing it forward in the mix. The details brought out through the transient shaper is then contrasted against heavy reverb usage on the supporting elements (the vocals and strings).
Any plugin that offers multiband processing can also work amazingly here, because when the ear is able to pick up the contrasting effects across individual bands of frequencies, we latch onto it as a more detailed focal point in the mix. But tread lightly here, as multiband tools are likely to be finicky and can cause more harm than good when handled incorrectly.
Notice how the different saturation between the mids (gain fader set close to 20dB) and lower high’s (gain fader set up to 30 dB) brought on by the Vitamin Sonic Enhancer adds presence that further draws in the sound of the foreground?
b. Focal Movement
Giving movement to a sound is another way to create depth and contrast in a mix. Just as a sense of depth is created by the gradient contrast as the waterway moves out of focus in the image below, the same can be done in your mixdowns.
Movement plugins like Brauer Motion bring a new dimension of contrast to supporting sounds, which in turn, directs the attention to more stagnant and immobile elements of the mix (usually leads, vocals or drums).
The first loop above is of an isolated monophonic rhythmic sequence from a hardware synth.
Then, listen to the second example and note how the lead guitar suddenly feels even more front and center once drastic motion is introduced into that same monophonic rhythmic sequence. Using panners on numerous mix elements makes for a disjointed composition that lacks focus, so get the most out of these effects by only using them on one or two channels.
2. Contrasting Width in a Mix
Humans perceive width entirely through contrast. Two identical sounds can be panned hard right and left, yet we will perceive the result as mono simply because of the lack of difference between the sounds. But the moment we introduce any difference between the two sounds, width is instantly created.
So, let’s dig into 2 ways we can use contrast to achieve a wide mix.
The cheap and washed sound associated with many amateur mixes is a result of a lack of definition in the mix, especially regarding the stereo field. These types of mixes come across as having everything wide in the mix, and as a result, nothing sounds wide.
So, how do the pros avoid this?
The best mixes sound super wide because other choice elements are placed directly in the center. Let’s hear some examples in action (you are definitely going to want to put on headphones here).
Listen to the above example and think about what you notice. Pay special attention to individual elements as you compare over multiple listens.
The best mixes are greater than the sum of their parts, so when listening, it’s almost more important to hear how the elements of the mix widen as other elements (in this example the bass) narrow throughout the above example. Or contrarily, pay specific attention to how the bass narrows, making the chord appear much larger by contrast.
To get the most out of the above example, and through creating contrasting width overall, setting benchmarks in your mix is absolutely necessary. The benchmarks are all about extremes, so panning a specific element hard left and another hard right helps establish where all of the other elements in the mix live.
Let’s take the audio example from above and extrapolate upon it using this next idea.
Listen to how much wider the above example sounds. See how the benchmark samples of the shaker patterns panned hard left and right help establish the ultimate width of the overall mix? Once this is established, you can clearly identify that the two pad layers are wide, but not as wide as they could be.
Through this, a defined and three-dimensional space associated with professional mixdowns is created.
3. Contrasting Coloration in a Mix
Our eyes are sensitive to contrasting hues and colorations, and so are our ears. Being intentional about similar contrasts in your mix can actually serve multiple purposes within a single project.
Think about how you perceive the below image and how it relates to the accompanying rough mix that follows, both of which are pretty in their own right but lack any emotional weight or central theme. The below image is essentially the visual equivalent of what a rough mix is, and it's our job as mixers to turn these into something special.
It all starts by creating a bit of contrast between the two primary elements, the bass and lead, and seeing how the end result changes.
Knowing your plugins is critical here, as some process specific frequencies bands better than others and the contrast between the different colorations will obviously make all the difference.
We want to add a brightness to the lead that will contrast against the bass in the following steps, and here’s how we’re going to do it…
Harmonic excitement and compression are your best friends for brightening up lead instruments. The Aphex Vintage Aural Exciter with 20% dry/wet is a great way to boost the brightness in that 5k Hz range, followed by a CLA-2A compressor with a medium amount of drive to attenuate the harmonics. If it needs a bit more presence and power, a bit of multiband compression from the C6 will help level off those frequencies and bring it all forward in the mix.
Here’s what the result sounds like when the lead is processed:
Now let’s add some dark and gritty modulation to the bass to contrast against the bright and cheery lead:
Where the harmonic exciter offered the above lead a gentler saturation, the complete opposite type of effect should do the trick here. I’ve used the Berzerk Distortion unit with a touch of added modulation through its ‘Go Berzerk' feature to add a bit of movement to the sound. Finally an analogue EQ, the API 550 to be specific, rolls off the top frequencies around 4k to create contrast against the brighter harmonics of the lead.
Here’s what the result sounds like when the bass is processed, and take a look at a visual equivalent of the result we have just created in this example. The timbre and energy of the bass is far more drastic, which gives it even more separation from the brighter elements in the mix.
How does the heightened color contrast between the left and right side affect your perception of the image? For me, it allows my eyes to easily track the lines of color which creates a far more fluid and effortless experience, and the same effect has also been achieved in the mix!
Not only does the contrast in coloration create a more engaging and interesting composition overall, but it also makes your mixdown easier – only minor additional EQ work is now needed since the sounds actively work to separate themselves from one another. Contrast really is a win/win!
Bonus Tip on Coloration: It’s impossible to talk about coloration without mentioning texture. Varying and contrasting texture creates a sense of depth and detail when done correctly.
4. Contrasting Dynamics in a Mix
Controlling the volume range of a track overall can be a great way to give more perceived impact in between sections. The initial burst of energy in a hook is heightened if it’s preceded by quietness, in the same way that a breakdown appears even more mellow if you can wind the track to its emotional peak just moments before transitioning.
Generic filter and gain sweeps can achieve this with little effort, but better results can be achieved by leaning on Waves’ more creative filtering options. Waves’ Metafilter is my Swiss-army knife for these types of situations, as its sequence options offer more intricate ways to achieve this end.
The contrast in dynamics and in the movement of the sound overall creates a fluid and engaging section that pushes the track forward. This can only be achieved through powerful creative tools like MetaFilter.
The above example uses the dance-friendly loop from earlier and builds on a moment of exciting tension using multiple features from MetaFilter simultaneously. The bandpass filter sweep thins out the chords, creating a moment of anticipation mere moments before the wall of sound is reintroduced.
At the same time, the LFOs and sequences add modulated movement, which is contrasted by the sustained, held chords in the following section. The build and release of tension creates a far more impactful moment in the song.
Contrast in a mix is undoubtedly the best way to create a living, breathing 3-dimensional space that easily transports your listeners to another place. Once you master the concepts outlined in the article above, you will be well on your way to creating professional and exciting mixes.
Want more on creating width and space in your mix? Here are 4 Ways to Create Depth in your Mixes WITHOUT Reverb or Delay!
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