Tips for Increasing Clarity in a Mix
I’m on the road right now, but I wanted to keep up with some of these vlogs. I talked about fix concepts in mixing, and the first one that I listed was clarity, so I want to talk about that.
Clarity is the ability to hear things in a mix. You have a mix with kick, snare, hi-hats, bass, guitars, a couple of guitar layers maybe, some synth, strings, maybe an acoustic guitar, some vocals… We might want to hear all of these elements in the mix. Sometimes we don’t.
What’s important is to understand the role that everything is playing, because clarity hinges on the idea of knowing what’s supposed to live where. So, for example, let’s say we have a rhythm guitar part, and we want it to sound really big.
Well, we might do as many as six doubles of that guitar. We might do it in a lower tone, a mid-range tone, and a treble-y tone, and layer them up. Do we really want to hear six different guitars, or do we just want to hear one really big guitar part?
Probably the latter. So, it’s important to understand that not everything needs to be clear. That’s a starting point. The other thing is that when something does need to be clear, we need to also assign precedence. So, for example. The vocals and the electric guitar.
Those both probably need to be heard pretty clearly in your average rock mix. However, which takes precedence? Well, that’s going to depend on the part and the arrangement, the point in the song, your intention, but the fact is, is that if they’re interfering with each other in some way, do we get the vocal out of the way of the guitar, or do we get the guitar out of the way of the vocal? If we don’t know, a lot of times we end up not doing either. We sort of just try and make everything clear, and that leads to some problems, which is what I’m about to talk about now.
Clarity is not always about subtractive EQ. I find that people tend to be pretty polarized with EQ in general. They’re either doing lots of engineer-y style subtractive EQ, or they’re doing a lot of balls to the wall additive EQ, and very little in between. Like they’re just trying to polarize how they treat things tonally, and that doesn’t really make sense.
The problem with using exclusively additive, or focusing on additive EQ is that it creates a domino effect. You add 2kHz to a vocal to hear it, then suddenly you’re adding top end to the guitar to hear that, then suddenly you’re adding top end to the hi-hat because they’re not bright and sting-y anymore, and now the vocal is getting masked again. So we’re adding more 2kHz and top end to the vocal, and what ends up happening is you get these really harsh, and actually not very clear mixes at the end of the day.
Subtractive EQ, we get sort of a different effect. If we don’t have goals and intentions, and we’re just sort of trying to make everything sound clear, we often get a very clear mix, but we kind of get a lifeless mix that’s sort of two-dimensional, and that’s because a lot of those tones that we tend to cut, like the microphone proximity tones, and some of the dirtier room tones tend to live around 300-600Hz, and we tend to etch out a narrow lot because there’s a lot of stuff in there that we frequently don’t want, but if we do it too much, if we’re not using discretion about it, we end up taking out a lot of the depth of the sound, and we end up making things thin.
So yeah, everything can be heard, but it all kind of sounds “bleh,” like, why would we want to do that? We don’t.
So, we have to be okay with frequencies overlapping. Do you need 1kHz or below in a hi-hat? Not really, no. But, might you want it? Well, yeah, there’s a percussive energy that’s in there that’s going to live around 500Hz, and we don’t necessarily want to totally eliminate that.
Maybe we do, it’s going to depend on the record, but you know, in a lot of records, we’re going to want to feel the punch in the hi-hat, so we don’t want to high-pass our hi-hat at 2kHz. We’re going to lose all that low end.
But, we probably don’t want whatever is living under that 500Hz. We probably don’t need whatever is under 200Hz in the hi-hat. That’s unlikely. So we might want to get rid of that.
So it’s about choosing importance. It’s about figuring out what we want to convey, and then doing it.
Now, the other thing about clarity is that it’s not entirely reliant on separation. And by separation, I mean unmasking different elements using EQ. It also revolves around the idea of dynamics, and harmonics, and you can separate sounds by allowing them to exist differently in time.
Short, spikey sounds, and long, sustaining sounds, even if they have a lot of frequency overlap, will still be clear to our ear. So we can use these kinds of tools to do less subtractive EQ.
Oh, you want the acoustic guitar and the snare to separate? Well, maybe, instead of taking out, I dunno, 1kHz from the acoustic guitar, maybe we can just round off the transients of the acoustic guitar and make it more of a sustain-y sound, and suddenly the snare will come to life.
Volume is another one. Don’t ever underestimate the power of the fader. Simply turning something up one dB can really eliminate a lot of clarity problems, and just allow something to step forward and feel like-like. It’s a huge change, actually.
So, sometimes getting nit-picky with those one dB changes can make a big difference in that regard.
Harmonics is another good way to get something to stand out. You know, the way we differentiate between a violin and an oboe playing the same exact note is through the harmonic content. We hear the frequency overtones, and we go, “Oh, that’s a violin,” or, “Oh, that’s an oboe,” or, “Oh, that’s an electric guitar.”
Our ear can tell what it is because of the harmonics. So, when we use distortion, or we use EQ or something like that to bring out those harmonics, we give the element more of its character, and by bringing out more of its character, it allows the ear to identify what it is better.
So, sometimes distortion is a really good tool for getting clarity into a sound. So, we use all of these things. Pan position is another one. If you pan – if you have two things that are overlapping when they’re right in the middle, just pan them apart. You’ll hear them perfectly separately, very easily.
Then of course, you have to check your mono fold. Make sure that when it comes back into the center, it still sounds good as a record, but that’s a great way to create clarity without necessarily having to separate things and make them sound thin using EQ.
So, I hope you guys get this and run with it. You know, consider the different ways of creating clarity in your mix that aren’t necessarily based on EQ solely. Use EQ when you need it, of course, but also use level, pan, distortion, dynamics, those kinds of things to get the clarity that you want.
And yeah, I think you’re going to get better mixes for it.