Could you create depth in your mixes WITHOUT any reverbs, delays and spatial effects? We’ll prove how can you do just that, with these 4 must-see tricks.
By Josh Bonanno
The perception of “depth” is an important factor in creating a tangible sense of space in your mixes and can be a great way to create interest, tell the story of your song sonically, and immerse the listener into what feels like a new world.
There are lots of ways to create depth in a mix, the most obvious being through the use of reverbs, delays and other time-based spatial effects. While these are undoubtedly excellent mixing tools and certainly have their place in presenting the aural illusion of a sense of space and depth, there are also other ways to ehnahce depth.
First, we’ll need some background knowledge on how the ear perceives sound.
How do we perceive depth, and why is it important?
Our ears work in extremely complex ways. At every moment, they are working together with our brains to hear, perceive and spatialize things left, right, front, back, near and far. For this reason, we are able to go about our daily lives aware and alert to our surroundings, sometimes even without the need for us to see or visualize things.
This is the reason clear, tangible depth is so important to create in your mixes.
Our ears are naturally tuned to listen for depth, as it helps the brain understand the space and environment we are in at any given moment. That’s why a good song feels like it transports you to a new world – because, in a way, it does. While a lot of these senses rely on the acoustic space you are in (i.e., reverb and delay), there are some fundamental things our ears are listening for and communicating to our brains to help bring that space to life. By learning and understanding how to make that same sort of tangible space happen in your mixes without relying entirely on reverbs and delays, you will be able to create a better foundation for depth and spatial interest in your songs.
Let’s look at four foundational ways to create depth without the use of reverb or delay.
1. Start with your levels
The easiest and most fundamental way to build a sense of depth and space into a mix is to be intentional about the overall balance of the faders and the way the volume of each individual instrument is working together with others. If you think about our perception of sound in the real world, sounds that are farther away generally sound quieter than sound that is located closer to the listener. Therefore, you can use this knowledge to your advantage in your productions and mixes by turning the volume of elements you want to be farther away down in level. It may seem basic, but the balance of the faders can create wildly different images and senses of depth by doing nothing more than just turning elements up and down.
Consider Example 1 below. Just by changing the fader balance, you can hear how Example 1a has the vocal much more forward, present and driving, while Example 1b lets the vocal sit further back in the mix with the instruments (mainly the drums) holding down the energy. Both feel like a proper balance and make sense to the ear but give off dramatically different emotions and intentions for the song.
In Examples 2a and 2b, you can hear a slower section of the song where the relationship of the synths and drums come forward against the vocal. Again, both balances evoke different emotions and senses of depth that you can choose between when mixing to accurately capture the sense of space you want.
2. Intentional EQ Balance: Darker is Deeper
The next critical thing our ears are attentive to when understanding the perceived distance of something is a sound’s tonal balance in relation to other sounds.
What does that mean?
Much like we just learned that our ears use the volume of something to understand how far away it is, also the overall brightness of a sound (or lack thereof) provides additional information to our ears as to its distance. Because our ears are inherently more sensitive to high frequencies, sounds that are bright will always feel closer in relation to sounds that don’t have the same amount of treble energy. The reason for this traces back to the Fletcher-Munson curve and the way that our ears are naturally “tuned” to hear certain frequencies as subjectively louder than others when played at the same SPL. Another reason is that high-frequency waves are physically shorter than lower frequencies and lack the ability to project far distances. So, if a sound is “duller,” we know immediately that it’s coming from further away.
So how can we use this to create depth in our mixes?
Going back to our original balance in Example 1, we can begin to play with the front-to-back relationship of mix elements, this time simply using EQ. Example 3a shows how boosting the top end on the electric guitars brings them forward and makes the vocal feel more pocketed and “inside the mix.” The additional high-end also brings energy and movement to the song that might be a step in the right direction for this mix. The SSL G-Channel strip is a favorite of mine for this type of boost on electric guitars, but any EQ would serve a similar purpose.
You can hear how in Example 3b I did a similar EQ move, but this time on the drums. The drums come forward and feel more upfront with the vocal simply by boosting a high shelf starting around 5k.
Example 4a shows background vocals that were recorded bright, exactly like the lead vocal, and therefore all parts feel forward and similar in their depth. You can hear that they are a bit one-dimensional and compete with the lead vocal. Example 4b however takes a broad-EQ shelf and cuts high-end around 8k, removing some of the brightness from the background vocals and pushing them behind the lead in a natural, balanced way.
In all the examples above, the lead vocal serves as the “anchor” for where different elements are living in the mix (this is typical for modern pop music) and demonstrates how every small move can bring a different sense of perspective, depth and emotional direction to the song. While these moves may seem subtle at times, they are all working together to provide a solid foundation of depth and placement of the elements in our mix. This foundation is critical because when it does come time to use reverb, delay and other spatial elements, it will make them far more effective and believable, serving to exaggerate the depth stage we’ve already created, rather than muddying up the sonic palette of the song.
A final note while talking about EQ, it is important to remember that it’s all about balance. Just like moving the faders in the previous section, changing the tonal shape of something using EQ will change the relationship of everything else in the mix. For that reason, don't be afraid to experiment, or in some instances, be rather drastic with your EQ moves. Try cutting low end instead of boosting top end, cut mid-range information and let the sound be scooped, try hard-filtering sounds, etc. There are no rules, so try different things and see what works for you!
3. Front-To-Back Panning Using Compression
Compression is a mystical tool that takes time to fully grasp, but when you begin to understand it, the possibilities of how to harness it start to feel endless. One interesting way to use a compressor is as a “front-to-back pan knob.” This might sound a bit crazy at first, but let's think quickly about how our ears perceive sound in a physical space and how that relates to transient information.
Consider a drum kit, which is very transient heavy. When you are standing in a room with a drummer who is playing the kit, the closer you stand to the drums themselves, the more direct attack (transient) of the drum you hear. The further you get from the drums themselves, the less direct attack of the drum you will hear, and the more “room” and its natural reverb you will hear.
Using that knowledge, you might be able to see how the attack knob on a compressor can work as a “front-to-back pan knob.” The quicker you set the attack of the compressor, the more the initial transient will be squashed down, and therefore the further away the sound will be perceived. The opposite is also true. The slower you set the attack on the compressor, the more the transient will actually be enhanced and therefore feel even closer.
To hear this in practice, compare the two examples below. Using a fast compressor like the CLA-76 on the drums, you can hear how, in Example 5a, with a slow attack, the drums feel very forward (listen for the snare). In Example 5b, the very quick attack makes the drums more “buried” and pushed backward in the mix.
It is important to note that the attack knob on an 1176 (CLA-76) is backward, so all the way to the left is slow, while turned fully right is fast. The release knob can be dialed to taste and will usually depend on the tempo of the track. Once you get the hang of this front-to-back technique on drums, you can try it on all sorts of other elements. I find it useful for getting the lead vocal to sit just right. By sweeping the attack knob from fast to slow, you can find the perfect pocket for your vocal in the mix.
It is important to remember that none of these examples have any reverb, delay or spatial elements at all other than what was recorded in the room. That means that all the depth we are creating in the song will only be enhanced further when we do begin to add our reverbs and delays.
4. Narrow Panning and Perspective
Finally, let’s consider panning. Think visually about your optical perspective of driving your car on the highway. The cars and traffic that are the farthest away from you (yet still in your view) are generally going to be centered and distant. The cars that are closest to you will generally be either directly in front of you or to your immediate left and right.
My point being, we generally view things that are the farthest away as being more cen-tered rather than hard-panned or heavily weighted to either side of our perspective. It is very similar to sound.
In Example 6a, you can hear the mix is wide-panned and balanced and generally feels like most elements are up-front and close to the listener. Example 6b is much more center-heavy, with the mix feeling a bit “distant” overall.
This shows that while you might commonly consider hard-panning instruments left and right in order to create a sense of space and depth, it might be much more impactful to actually leave some sounds centered in order to create a real sense of distance. This is not to discourage the use of wide panning, but you can utilize the extreme left and right channels for elements you want to feel more forward and less distant.
Take Your Mixes to the Next Level
We’ve explored 4 very powerful ways to create a sense of depth in your mixes without even touching a reverb or delay plugin and relying simply on perspective and balance. When you build depth into your mixes this way, the reverb, delays and spatial effects you do choose to use are going to be much more effective and efficient.
A final thing to remember is the importance of contrast. Sounds that are dark and far away need to be contrasted by something bright and forward for the true impact of perspective. In any balanced mix, depth makes the most sense when both near and far exist to present the full picture.
Josh Bonanno is a mix engineer, producer, and beer snob based in Nashville, TN. To hear his work and know more about what he does check out joshbonanno.com
Want more on creating depth in your mixes? Check out Chris Lord-Alge’s series on mixing with depth here!
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