The Importance of Space in a Mix: Part I

We spend a great deal of time considering individual sounds in a space. We prescribe attributes to the instruments and the players in order to organize our thoughts about the sounds and how they blend. We may often say a singer is “mid-rangy,” a snare is “ringy,” or perhaps the acoustic guitar is “warm.” We do the same for microphones, pre-amps, compressors, and what have you.

It is surprising how little time is spent considering the sound of rooms, reverbs, delays, and whatever other spaces are coexisting within our mix. Considering that sound is defined by air vibrations within a space, one would think the room would be held in equal importance to that which is resonating in it. But, when entering a new space, how often do we consider it’s sonic characteristics? And more frequently, when building a mix, how often do we think of space(s) as its own sonic element?

Perhaps more often than we realize. After all, why do we spend so much time rolling through reverb presets trying to find the perfect one, when we seldom know what the right one will be? And why does a plate sound good one time, but a hall sounds better next? Something instinctive is motivating these decisions. Like all sound sources, we are on some fundamental level listening for — and striving for — tone, rhythm, and coherence.

The Importance of Mixing the Space/AmbienceReverb

The purpose of having customizable reverb is to find that which perfectly compliments the sound source or the surrounding sound sources. We can pick and choose a reverb with a certain sound that highlights the tones or rhythms in our mix. And frequently, we will send multiple sound sources to the same reverb for the sake of coherence.

The complication comes in when there are multiple spaces present in the mix. After all, how can one element exist in two spaces at once? Or three? Or, why is it that the choir sounds like it’s in a church but the lead vocalist sounds like she/he is in a concert hall?

Sonic Cues for the Listener

Of course, the end listener is not listening on such a discerning level. The end listener is only picking up on subtle sonic cues that either indicate the sound is coherent or disjointed. So our task is to lead the listener’s ear where we want it to go. Do we want a unified sense of space, or something surreal?

That’s our job as the artist, producer, or engineer. To orchestrate all the sounds and consider what feelings and emotions they evoke. They key word here being “orchestrate.” A random piling of sounds will certainly sound “unmixed” or perhaps, more importantly, “ineffective.” Reverb and space are no exception.

Listening for Spacial Characteristics

The primary goal to understanding and sussing out any mix is listening. When listening to the drums, bass, vocals, strings, etc, perhaps we should also make a point of listening to the space in the capture. If you’re not used to listening to space then using a compressor as a listening tool with a fast attack and release and a low threshold will exaggerate the room sound in the capture.

Everything has spatial characteristics. A DI’d bass has no space sound — but that is still a spatial characteristic and must be considered. After all, if everything is close miked in isolation rooms, or DI’d, the capture is going to come out very dry for better or worse (usually worse).

While listening to spacial sound, we are inherently listening to our front to back sound field. A DI’d bass is going to sound extremely forward while our drum kit miked from thirty feet away will naturally sound way back. This is a major advantage when organizing the image of our mix, as it can be recorded strategically to do the front to back work for us.

Tonal Cues

The trickier part of listening to space is the tonal cues. This is an immensely complex task, but can effectively be dumbed down into frequency response and “texture.” This can be broken down into an even more fundamental question: Are the room sounds complimenting each other or clashing? A bright, open, Lex PCM 96 Hall reverb might sound fantastic on vocals, but if the acoustic guitar was recorded in a dark sounding dense room, the two reverb sounds will clash (or at least sound incoherent). While every mix is different, by and large this example will yield something that sounds “unmixed.”

Mix the Ambience

A brilliant colleague of mine named Gregory Scott turned me on to a unique but supremely effective concept. He said that one of the fastest ways to improve one’s mix is to “mix the ambience.” I’ve taken this to mean mixing not just with the space sound(s) in mind, but actually take the time to get all your room mics, reverbs, and delays up front or in group-solo and mix them. Get the plate slap from the snare sounding like it belongs with the room capture on the guitar. Or — if you have a surreal space — make sure it’s orchestrated in a way where the entire sense of space is working in the mix, or focus of the space moves in an evocative way (more on this in the next article). Once all the ambience tracks are mixed, start bringing in the elements that have the most space in them: drum OHs, and mid-distant strings for example, and focus specifically on their space and how it sounds with the other spaces.

Part 2 : Tools for Mixing the Space…

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://none Norris Turney

    Hello: My name is Mr. Norris Turney: I’m a newcomer to mixing, and remixing I have an ear I’m also a musician. in reading the artical what do you mean by space, and mix and how does this apply to remixing?. I’m looking for a good online school for mixing do you have any suggestions.

    Thanks.

  • http://www.weiss-sound.com Matthew Weiss

    The easy answer to “what do I mean by space?” is room sound, reverbs, and delays. The not-so-easy answer is the sound of locality, the air around instruments and vocals, the depth and width in the mix. All of these things are space, and all of them are related.

    I’m not sure about your remixing question. It depends on what you mean by remixing. If you mean dubbing in a new production under a set of vocals – you are going to want to make the sense of space coherent in the remix – or the vocals will still sound like they aren’t really part of the production (I hear that A LOT).

    As for online schools, I’m not really sure. I haven’t looked into them.

  • AlmondCazvind

    Very cool and usefull, what do you think about lexicon reverbs? Those not have Damping or Density and at the same time they have another parameters like Shape, Spread, Size, which are very common in other reverbs (like logic’s ones). Maybe you could explain these things and their aplication :)

    Thank you

  • http://www.weiss-sound.com Matthew Weiss

    Hey AlmondCazvind,

    Sorry it took a few days to get back, been busy doing all that stuff I write about :)

    I love the Lex verbs – for a specific type of reverb. I find they make a great choice for open ambiances – good “feel it but don’t hear it/get distracted by it”. First thing is that the Lex verbs have different names for different parameters on different units – so it gets a little confusing working it all out.

    Not to answer is a douche way, but definitely go through the user manual to get an idea of all those different settings. Some are easier than others (size being the psycho-acoustic size of the room). Spread and shape effect the distribution of sound through the early reflection – on the one side of the coin you can get sound hitting the ER like a shot gun – which can be cool for impact off of snare drums. On the other side of the coin you get a faded, soft entry into the Early Reflection – which can be good if you want the ERs to sit down in the mix.

    The other weird one that’s on a lot of Reverbs is called “Randomize”, or sometimes “Wander.” It took me a while to figure out what this one was doing – because it kind of sounds like diffusion. Randomize breaks up the “room modes” – the tonal peaks and dips in the reverb generation. Setting this lower can subtly emphasize tones from the dry source, setting it higher will get rid of rings. Like everything, there’s usually a sweet spot.

    I’m saving up for the Lex PCM now – I have it at the studio I manage, but not at home. It’s pretty breath taking. There’s a lot to be said for real plates, springs, and of course – room mics – but for artificial reverbs, I honestly feel like the software has come very close and in some ways exceeded the hardware. Don’t send me hate mail for saying that :)

  • http://www.weiss-sound.com Matthew Weiss

    Oh – I should also mention that high shape values will separate the reverb from the source – almost makes it a bit like an echo. If you turn the spread up into that you will get a very dense and excited wash-back reverb. Kind of a cool effect I’ve been using lately to add energy to sustained elements.

  • http://www.backpackmusicgroup.com anthony navarro

    Great article. When considering space in a mix, there are tons of options with recreating space if your mixing in the box. Especially with the power of plugins. Sometimes I’ll mix to recreate the sound of seeing the band live in a venue. I imagine what the band would sound like if I was in front of them in at whatever venue there playing. This is usually a good starting point for mixing live instruments.

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  • Scott Delacorte

    Nice article !
    I have a question, what headphones would you recommend?
    I have thinked at SONY MDR-7506HD .
    Thank you!

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  • http://www.questmusicstore.com I love Gear

    This is a good blog.
    Nothing is worse that a completely dry recording where everything is in your space. Similarly worse is when someone just grabs some verb and throws it on everything. As opposed to carefully select the verb for each source and eqing it accordingly.

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  • https://xsparadigm.bandcamp.com Lawrence Moseley

    A recommendation by Robert Fripp. If you have two guitars make the reverbs used for them to be mono. This leaves space for both without the intrusion of so much reverb.

    Good blog. Cheers.