5 Concepts for Getting a Great Mix

Hey, folks. Matthew Weiss here — weiss-sound.com, theproaudiofiles.com, and mixingwitheq.com.

I’m going to be talking about some vocabulary in this tutorial. Now, this is not a technique tutorial, but by understanding these five ideas, it’s going to help with every other technique tutorial.

It’s also going to give us a beacon to aim for when we’re talking about going for making a good mix, because most of the time, striving for these five concepts are going to yield a good mix.

Now, how you get there and the idiosyncrasies, and the nuances, those are going to change from record to record. Sometimes, we might not want as much of one of these things, etcetera, but these five things are very important to know, and they are:

 clarity, punch, depth, character, and emotion. Clarity, punch, depth, character, emotion.

What does all of that mean? Well, clarity. Clarity is the ability to hear every individual element in a mix. That doesn’t necessarily mean that everything needs to be separated.

For example, if you have a bunch of string layers, as well as some horn layers and some timpanis, they might all meant to sound like one unified orchestra. But our ear identifies that part as, “oh, that’s the orchestra,” and we clearly hear it separately from say, the kick drum, or a lot of times, the bass and the kick are not meant to sort of combine into one glue-y low end. A lot of times we want to be able to go, “oh, that’s the bass, and that’s the kick.”

So, clarity is the ability to identify individual elements in a mix, and that’s not the same as separation. Separation tends to refer to a frequency thing, where there might be some overlap that we don’t necessarily want.

Clarity is simply the ability to identify things. So if you take something like an acoustic guitar and a snare, there are going to be a lot of frequency overlap between those two elements, but we still might be able to hear them both clearly, simply because the shape, harmonics, and pan positioning perhaps of those elements are going to be different.

Snares are short, spiky, have a lot of dense harmonics, acoustic guitars have a lot of lined up harmonics, or musical harmonics I should say, and tend to be more sustain-y, and present different types of transient energy.

So we use all of these things to be able to identify them. We might not necessarily need EQ to separate them, but sometimes we do. It really just depends on the exact circumstance.

Okay, punch. Punch is dynamic energy. Now, it’s one thing to be able to hear the kick and hear the snare as musical elements, but it’s a whole other thing to be able to feel the kick and feel the snare. This is not necessarily just drums.

Sometimes you have an upright bass, and you want to feel the percussiveness of the bass being plucked. That would be punch. Dynamic energy.

So the way I like to think of it is, “do I feel like I’m hearing something, or do I feel like the speaker is pushing it out at me? Is it stepping out of the speaker to hit me like a punch?” Literally, like a punch. So that is punch.

Alright, depth. Depth is a really difficult concept in mixing. It’s one of the trickier things to really get down, because it’s pretty convoluted, but if you know what you’re aiming for, I think it’s fairly obvious when you’re getting it.

So, here’s what depth is.

[mimes one hand close, one far away]

Depth. You can see that this hand is forward, this hand is in the background, and there’s a couple of things that we need in order to do that.

One being that we need something in the foreground to be able to perceive something in the background, because if it’s all here, it just looks like one 2-dimensional plane, there is no depth. So to have forwardness, we need background. To have background, we need forward. That contrast is really important, and there’s definitely some cues we can use to help us get there.

Stuff like reverb, delay, frequency spectrum, loudness, timing. These all are indicators of where something might live in terms of the front to back depth. There’s also side-to-side width, which I sort of consider the same thing.

That’s contrast between the left and the right side, which allows us to have a bigger overall image, and the reason why this is important is it creates a sense of realism, and it creates a sense of energy, and emotion and it creates a world that the record kind of lives in, and that can be a very compelling thing.

Okay, so next we have character. Character is a little bit ambiguous. Character is a sonic identifier that gives you your own sense of the record. What I mean by that is that it’s not about whether or not all of the music is working. That’s the building blocks. That’s the most important thing. But, is it doing something besides just working? Is it giving us a texture, or a tone, or a context that’s a little unpredictable, or unique, or something that’s compelling in some way, shape, or form?

It doesn’t have to be weird. Sometimes the character of something is that it’s exceptionally clean and sounds super pristine. But sometimes it’s that it’s dirty, and weird, and we like it for that as well.

So it just depends on the individual record, and unfortunately, I can’t really say anything too specific about it, because character is – it would be infinite. Everything can have its own character and its own way, but it’s things like – you know, if you listen to something and say, “Oh, wow, that sounds like a really stock drum that I’ve heard a million times,” well, maybe it’s time to replace that drum and get something in there that’s a little more unique that you haven’t heard a million times.

Whatever it may be.

Alright, and the last one is emotion. Emotion is extremely important. I saved it for last, because it is in fact the most important, because the fact is, you could not have clarity, not have punch, not have depth, not have character, but if you have emotion, you could still have a successful record, but it’s going to be hard to have emotion without character.

Anyway, the point being is that you need to feel the song in terms of what it’s trying to convey to the listener. If there’s a really dominant backbeat with a lot of stabby kind of sounds, then maybe this is supposed to be an exciting, dance-y, happy kind of record, and we want to bring out that groove as much as possible. We want to feel that push and that pull. We want those stabs to kind of maybe overwhelm the track for the brief period that they’re there, so they kind of go “woah!” to the listener, and give them that sense of surprise and that brief overwhelmingness is sort of good, because it gives the listener something to return to, so it’s exciting.

Or conversely, we might want something that’s projecting an idea of isolation, or loneliness, or somberness, where we’re maybe playing down the groove elements, and playing up melodic elements, and creating a sense of space that feels far away, or despondent, or something like that.

In case we want a sadder kind of tone, and then of course, there’s a whole myriad of emotions in between, and to the left and to the right, and there’s a million ways to do it, and this is where mixing becomes an art. We take the emotion that’s being presented to us, and we bring it out as effectively as we can, because we want to give every drop of that emotion to the listener, because that’s ultimately what’s going to make them fall in love with the song.

So that is the most important thing. It’s also the hardest thing to master, but it is important to understand that it is a very, very crucial beacon to any record.

Alright, guys. So I hope that this vocabulary is giving you something to identify, and to listen to, and think of it as like a strainer for any time you’ve got techniques being presented, or any time you’re presented with the actual music to mix. Think of it like a strainer, like, “Okay, is this achieving clarity? How is my clarity? Is there enough punch? How could I create more punch? What about the depth; is there enough front to back imaging, or is it what I want?”

You know, all of these things, ask yourself these questions about these five things, and I guarantee it, the techniques will come into place, but if you don’t know what you’re going for, the techniques don’t matter.

Alright, guys. Until next time.

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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