6 Mix Nuances You Feel, Not Hear
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.
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.
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.
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.