7 Obscure Mixing Techniques Used by the Pros

Most of the time there is an obvious choice. Need more mid-range? Grab an EQ and boost the midrange. Need more control of the source? Volume automation or compression. Easy. But sometimes we face strange challenges — like how to get more bass in the kick without running out of headroom. Or how to make something sound brighter that doesn’t have much harmonic content above 7 kHz except hiss. Well, where there’s a will there’s a way. Sometimes the way is just a little less predictable.

So with that said, here are seven counterintuitive mixing techniques pros regularly use to solve unconventional problems:

1. Using a low-pass filter for brightness

What? How can using a low-pass filter make something brighter? Well, let’s say you have a distorted guitar. It’s power goes up to about 5-6 kHz, but after that it’s just noise. A treble boost will bring out that noise, clog up your mix, and make the guitar harsh. Instead, use a low-pass filter with a very steep slope. This does two things: first, it cuts out noise and distortion. Second, it actually accentuates the tone at the corner frequency — so while you might be attenuating everything above say 6 kHz (for example), you’re actually boosting the 6 kHz region. This happens because the EQ generates resonance right at the corner of the pass band — and it’s actually pretty clean and clear!

2. Adding mid-range for bigger bass

When we want to hear more bass in a bass guitar, kick drum, or other low-end element, the obvious solution is to boost the low end. However, sometimes what we really want to do is just draw more attention to that bass element. We can do this by adding mid-range: pulling up the thud of a kick or the gnarly overtones of a bass. This pulls our ear to that element, telling us there’s more of it there — even if it’s actually just more mid-range. This can be extremely valuable when you don’t have much headroom, or there’s something else competing for attention in the low end.

3. Using compression to increase dynamics

But wait, doesn’t a compressor restrict dynamic range? Not necessarily  It attenuates a signal that exceeds an amplitude threshold. In most cases that will restrict the dynamic range. However, if the attack is long enough, and the threshold is low enough, a compressor can actually exaggerate the attack. This happens because the compressor allows the front of the signal to pass mostly unaltered, while still pulling down the sustain of the signal and making the attack more prominent relative to the sustain. This can be very useful when trying to bring an already over-compressed signal to life (over compressed … compress it some more!) — or for injecting some serious snap into a dull drum sound.

4. Sharpening transients before a limiter on the master buss

If you’re using a brickwall limiter on your master buss, chances are you’re doing so to make something loud. And to do that, you want the maximum amount of headroom available. So why on earth would you use a transient designer in front of a limiter? Wouldn’t exaggerating the attacks use up your headroom faster?

Well, yes and no. Technically yes, but remember that these things are perfectly mathematical. Sharpening the transients can do two things: first, you can legitimately get more transient through the limiter and still retain loudness because a transient designer is boosting in a different way than the limiter is cutting. Second, the limiter is pulling down everything in the mix. That means while your kick hits harder for that 10ms, your bass gets attenuated for that 10ms as well. The attacks will poke out clearer in the mix, thus exaggerating the dynamic perception. Warning: sometimes this sounds like crap, so use it when it works and don’t use it when it doesn’t.

5. Using distortion to make something sound cleaner

Now that really doesn’t make sense. In what way could distortion possibly make something sound “cleaner”? If we define clean by clarity of tone rather than by purity of the original sound, we can use harmonic distortion to make something sound more “polished.” Light amounts of harmonic distortion will exaggerate the overtones of a source. Our brain uses these harmonics to tell us what exactly we’re hearing. It’s kind of like saying we’re going to make this clarinet more “clarinet-y” by emphasizing its partials. [editor's note: clarinet??]

6. Using reverb for intimacy

Remember that reverb is used to create a sense of space. Without reverb, it’s hard to define the front-to-back relationship of elements in a mix. Contrasting wet elements with room sound to the elements that are almost entirely dry can actually create a more “in your face” effect than simply leaving a sound 100% dry. The key to doing this is to keep your forward elements sent to a reverb that is a) primarily early reflections, and b) has a long pre-delay. The other benefit to using this kind of “ambiance” reverb is that it reinforces the tone of the dry signal a bit, which often makes it pop forward as well.

7. Mixing quietly towards loudness

Not that I feel loudness is absolutely paramount to a successful mix, but in today’s climate of iPods, noise-ridden listening environments, and DJ controlled playlists, it’s important that the record lives within the same general vicinity of apparent loudness. Or to say it another way: the record shouldn’t sound out of place amongst the other records being played shoulder to shoulder with it in the same genre.

Getting a mix to sound loud without losing tone, dimension, or punch can be tricky — especially when the references of today’s mixes are as loud as they are. So I’ll say two things: first, trends are showing that the loudness wars are easing off in pretty much every genre except EDM — so aim to make your mix maybe a little quieter than your references. You’ll have a much easier time getting the mix to hang together. Second, mix your record at low monitoring levels. The reason this works is because it forces you to create energy and excitement when loudness is not an option. This will force you to be more selective about EQ and compression settings, as well as general levels and imaging.

When all said is done, you’ll find that a record that creates the impression of a big sound at low levels, will sound absolutely huge when it’s cranked.

Now it’s your turn! Drop some of your own counterintuitive techniques in the comments.

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss engineers from his private facility in Philadelphia, PA. Credits include Snoop Dogg, Gorilla Zoe, Arrested Development, Dizzee Rascal, Gift of Gab, J-Son and many others. Get in touch at Weiss-Sound.com.
  • http://Www.kellsound.com/blog Jordan Kell

    Great post. Most of these I have been using already consciously or not. However I have not tried the transient shaping tip. I will have to give it a shot. While my tip isn’t quite so counter intuitive I do get asked about it often. I create varing early reflections on my vocal reverb. I duplicate the track in Pro Tools and delete everything but the last syllable or two then slide them anywhere from an eighth note to a half note and pump that through my reverb plugin. Great end of phrase vocal technique.

  • http://weiss-sound.com matt weiss

    Nice tip! Sort of a flip on the concept of using a delay as a reverb. You’re using your reverb as a delay.

  • Tact Booige

    Very interesting techniques. They make sense.

  • John McNeill

    oh, that’s beautiful article! Nice and awesome!

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  • http://www.resoundsound.com/ Ilpo Karkkainen

    Love these tips. Great observations and they are all very useful and practical techniques. My personal fav is #7. Great!!

  • Sander Smeekes

    Lovely tips, thanks!

    Sometimes when the baseline is a leading part in a track: I duplicate the baseline and remove the low-mid frequenties on the duplicated channel, then add some distortion make the baseline sound more dirty/raw/distorted.

  • Shorty_dammit
  • Brecht De Man

    “[...] while you might be attenuating everything above say 6 kHz (for example), you’re actually boosting the 6 kHz region. This happens because the EQ generates resonance right at the corner of the pass band [...]”
    Definitely not (always) true. Some filters (e.g. second order with little damping) have a peak around the cutoff frequencies, but others do not. Keep in mind that cutoff frequency is not always defined in the same way, and especially with filters the signal will be attenuated significantly around 6 kHz already (and virtually unharmed around 4kHz and below).
    Some good points otherwise.

    • Matthew Weiss

      Steep filters. Not all filters. And I think there is one design (Buttersworth?) that can get steep without the bump, but I can’t think of any others. Maybe some weird FFT designs…

    • Brecht De Man

      Not convinced about that, I can think of more than a couple traditional filter designs (analogue and digital) that do not come with a bump. Steepness will depend more on factors like filter order (usually translated in e.g. 12dB/24dB/… per octave). Whether or not there is a peak will indeed depend on design but also parameters (most often translated into frequency and Q, or resonance/emphasis/contour dial on analogue synthesisers.
      Butterworth filters are actually very common in audio effect designs (similar for their analogue ‘equivalent’ as far as I know), and can show a bump depending on the parameters, contrary to what you say. In general a filter may well have some attenuation at the cutoff frequency (which can be defined in different ways, so beware of filter designs).
      All engineering considerations aside: use your ears! (And not eyes, general practice, habits… but you know that.)

      At any rate, I didn’t mean to discredit your point which was a very valid one, but felt a word of caution was in place for those not familiar with filter design. Happy to discuss further or agree to disagree…

    • Matthew Weiss

      Not taking it that way. My experience has been that on low pass filters, the more the poles or the steeper the curve the greater the resonance at/right below the cut off freq. But I can assume you are right. Filter design is something I know just enough about to be dangerous.

    • Brecht De Man

      Haha :) good.
      You’re undoubtedly right in a lot of cases, it just can’t be generalised.

  • Lucas

    Wow~ thanks for the tips~

  • The Catalyzt

    I underestimated the monitoring at low loudness thing so much for so many years, that when I tried it for the first time I was floored by how much EASIER it was to hear what was going on and mix properly, even in my jacked up room (I know, I know, I need room treatment like I need ears). I’m still learning about bass at low volumes though – it tricks me because if it sounds right loud it sounds kinda quiet soft. Sometimes I equate quietness in the bass with boring-ness, and its a little bit of work finding a happy medium between the loud and soft – but I tell you what, my mixes certainly are better.