6 Mix Nuances You Feel, Not Hear

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Have you ever thought that there’s just something badass engineers do that the rest of the world isn’t privy to? Are you disappointed when everyone on forums seems to agree that engineers are generally just using really good judgement and basic processing?

Well, don’t get your hopes up too much, because 95% of a great mix stems from great decision making and the use of basic processing that everyone has access to. But, that last 5% does contain a bit of secret sauce. Secret awesome sauce. Every seasoned engineer will have their own recipe. I certainly have mine.

I want to share some of my personal techniques. These are little things I do that really add up over the course of a mix. Each one of these techniques are based around one idea: you don’t really hear it when it’s there, but you miss it when it’s gone.

By building these subtle effects into my mix, I create something that elevates the overall sound without dramatically changing it — which is often a desirable goal when mixing.

They also amount to some of the things which just seem to separate a finished mix from a rough mix in that way that’s hard to put a finger on.

1. Fast Decaying Reverbs

One of my principal approaches to mixing is to create depth and polish.

Often times I may want something to have a 3D image and a “glossed” tone, but I don’t necessarily want to hear an audible reverb or delay.

Tucking very short reverbs into generally dry sounds very quietly can add just a bit of depth and hi-fi-ness to a source sound. I’m constantly experimenting with algorithms, timing, and various other settings and I recommend you do the same.

The only generality here is that I tend to lean a bit more towards early reflections with medium diffusion (when diffusion settings are an option). There’s also a few presets in the FabFilter Timeless delay plugin that I like for this purpose.

You don’t need a lot of this stuff. I’m turning my returns down as low as -15 to -20 dB below the source sound. Just enough so you miss it when it’s gone!

2. Subtle Distortion or Saturation

A touch of distortion can really make a sound pop in a mix.

If it doesn’t sound “distorted” but brings a bit of harmonic energy into the fold, then I’m usually into the idea.

Not to sound like a FabFilter commercial here, but I like to experiment with Saturn because it gives me very fine control over the specifics and degree of distortion.

3. Micro Panning

Finding movement is paramount to a successful mix.

A tiny degree of panning, almost too little to hear unless you solo the source, can go a long way in this regard.

This is a go-to move for sequenced hi-hats. I tend to pan them very quickly. It’s also useful for background pads/noises. A slightly slower pan is usually good for more sustained sounds.

Delay returns are also a great place to play with moving pan positions.

4. Subtle Volume Rides at Section Changes

Volume automation is not just good for evening things out, but it can also be great for creating contrast.

Next time you’re going from the verse of a song to the chorus, try a few of these little techniques:

  • Bump the chorus up on your sub-mix/master fader channel by 1 dB.
  • Bump the very first moment of the chorus up 1 dB above that, and quickly return it back down.
  • Find a sustaining element right before the chorus and start pulling it up a bit in level to create a subtle crescendo movement.

Even the vocal reverb/delay return can be effective to bump up right at a transition point.

5. EQ/Compression/Distortion on Effects Returns

I have a cool video tutorial on this but felt that it was worth mentioning here.

Reverb/delay returns are elements in the mix just like anything else.

Coloring the ambience in a slightly unique way can help create tonal complexity and augment the sense of depth.

6. Removal of Unwanted Sounds

A great deal of what you’re hearing in a great mix is what you’re not hearing.

The removal of bleed and mouth noises, the reduction of breathes, the taming of plosives and sibilance — all of these excess sounds add up to one thing: distraction.

Not to say breath noises don’t have their place — but you’re the master of the playback, so be decisive about what you don’t want, what you do want and how much of it you want.

Conclusion

Ultimately we as engineers are doing our best to get the music through the speakers in the most captivating way possible.

Sometimes that’s about the big picture. But it’s also about all the little things, the subtle decisions we make that amount to something bigger than the sum of its parts. That’s why I may do things that the average listener probably won’t consciously hear.

Share some examples of the nuances you include in your own mixes in the comments below.

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss is a Grammy nominated and Spellemann Award winning audio engineer from Philadelphia. Matthew has mixed songs for Snoop, Sonny Digital, Gorilla Zoe, Uri Caine, Dizzee Rascal, Arrested Development, 9th Wonder, !llmind & more. Get in touch: Weiss-Sound.com.
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  • Juan Zárate Martínez

    Sometimes I enhance the stereo feeling by pulling some Panning into the FXs, as Matthew wirtes, ambiances are also part of the song. So I tend to make them more “Protagonic”

  • Panning is overlooked a lot, simply because people who start producing maybe not fully get it. But when you make use of panning in subtle but ways that make sense, than it can help to give every element of your track it’s own space. Maybe two leads are playing one melody together to form a ‘layered lead’, but they clash a bit with each other. Pan one a bit to the left and the other to the right and it will not only sound wider, but it will also clash less. Same for drums and other stuff, sometimes it just feels better when the hats are slightly left while all other percussion sits slightly to the right.

    “Just do what sounds good and follow your feelings.”

  • Tyler

    Great article and super helpful information for understanding how even subtle touches can make such a big difference, even if you can’t hear it. One thing I am confused about though is what you mean when you say “pan quickly” and “pan slower.” Do you mean incorporating panning automations so the sound pans between the left and right fields, either quickly or slowly? Or what exactly did you mean by that?

    • In regards to hats, or rhythmic elements, I’ll often pan them back and forth in a tempo relevant way. So an 1/8th note hat rhythm will have an 1/8th note pan, usually square shaped (moves pan position instantly). With sustaining sounds like pads, I may pan a sinusoidal pattern at a rate of 2bars or something to that degree.

  • NK

    the chorus volume automation is a great technique I love using. along with that, I’d suggest panning wider some things like big synth sounds with a lot of energy (works best when using many layers, to fill up the stereo field a bit) to let the vocal shine through for the chorus, and returning to a more center heavy mix for the verse. it can add a lot of energy instantaneously, which is often what you want for a chorus to pop.

    • Matthew Weiss

      Absolutely! Great tip!

  • Anthony Brant

    Great tips. Big fan of 1dB automation moves to shift the energy. Sometimes I find that 1dB increases on the submix can be too much, so my work around is having more specific submixes (i.e. all percussion, all bass, all vox, all music and all fx). This way I can shift the energy of more specific busses by 1dB. For example in a rock mix, I might just bump up the drums in the chorus by 1dB, or the fx buss by 1dB (or more) in cool bridges. Its especially cool when you have a buss comp to feed into driving a bit more GR with these increases. For something more melodic, I might bump up the all music buss in a chorus, which contains all my guitars, synths, etc. Subtle automation can really give you control of ENERGY.

  • Alexander Diego Story

    I like this article. Beginner mixers, and occasionally guys who’ve been at it for longer, sometimes want the Big Magic Fix tips, but they don’t realise that it’s these micro judgement calls which add up to the big picture. A friend of mine once put it like this – the final mix is just a collection of thousands of details. I never forgot that.

    The 1db bump is a cool idea I’d like to expand on, as I more commonly prefer slowly attenuating the master channel on long builds. When mixing energetic dance music, the bigger and slower the build, the more I find I can counter the rising energy with a slow volume roll off, and I like to get cheeky with how much I can get away with. If I have a minute long build, starting with the fader at 0dB, I’ll see if I can automate down to -2dB by the end of it.
    Carefully balancing the roll off against the rising energy of an epic build, no one will notice… but you’ve just bought yourself a few decibels to cash back in when the drop comes in. How about THEN cranking up to 1db on the drop, and rolling back to 0dB as suggested on the article. That 3dB ramp will hit your crowd in the chest like a baseball bat. If too noticeable, balance it out by boosting a riser by the same level as you’re attenuating on the master.

    Also on drops – having build elements (say a couple of risers) start hard panned,then automate swooping inwards to Centre for the transition.

    For gloss micro reverbs, I love SIR2 convolution software. Recently I happened across a folder called ‘Recording Hopkins’ which has some great IRS. I find that a transparent tone (in other words, lack of colouration) is perfect for adding sheen with subtlety.

    For hi hat panning, and a plethora of other tasks, my life would simply be empty without the Xfer LFOTOOL. This plugin is such a workhorse. 8th or 16th panning with easily adjustable width? Pumping sidechain? Even moving volume mods… this tool makes automation and sidechain routing a thing of the past.

  • medway808

    Been checking some older 80’s mixed recently and interesting how much volume differences there are at key spots. Check the piano in Ride Like The Wind just before everything kicks in at 20 seconds.
    One note comes up a bit, then back to normal, then pretty loud on the last note before it kicks off. I can imagine if you did that in a mix today the client would probably complain 🙂

    Another is Rebel Yell, just as Billy sings “last night a little dancer” during the intro at 0:25 there’s a quick jump on ‘dancer’. and then again on ‘dancing’.

  • Chris Miner

    I like the slight volume bump. Sometimes I even pull the volume down slightly (for a bar or two or however long it makes sense and fits the arrangement) just before bumping things up so that the bump feels a little more powerful without changing the actual volume too much.
    I also like experimenting with sending a tiny reverb (with a really really short decay) into a larger reverb to get the “space” I’m wanting.

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