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How to Create Width, Height and Depth in a Mix

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The hallmark of a great recording/mix for me is one where the music all lives within a tangible, dimensional world. The exception being songs that call for a two-dimensional or more lo-fi approach.

In general, a recording that has width, height and depth creates for a compelling sound.

And truthfully, I think part of the magic of a song is pulling the listener into a different world — creating the illusion of the space only adds to that effect.

What is width, height and depth? Just like in film or paintings we can create the illusion of three dimensions on a two dimensional surface.

In film the surface is the screen, in paintings it’s the canvas, and in music it’s the stereo field.

The only difference is that with a screen or canvas, the height is already given simply by its existence, whereas with the stereo field we have to create an illusion of “top-to-bottom” dimension.

Height

So let’s start with height.

It’s a strange and interesting phenomenon that we hear high pitched frequency content as coming from above, and low tones coming from below.

Partially this is due to suggestion. We subconsciously equivocated “high” pitch with “high on a vertical scale.” Partially, this is due to common tweeter placement with speaker woofers most often being lower than the tweeter in vertical alignment. Partially, this phenomenon is also caused by the way low frequency tones project. The wider dispersion of low tones allows them to reflect off the nearest surface such as your desk. Higher tones are more directional and will reach your ear without as much near reflection over short distances.

For these reasons and probably others, we tend to hear high harmonic content as “up” and low harmonic content as “down.”

By creating contrast in the extremes of the frequency spectrum we can make a mix sound “tall.”

If just one naturally bright element like a bell or hi-hat is a touch brighter, and one low element like a kick or bass is a touch subby-er, the whole mix will expand.

Width

Width is also about contrast.

If two sounds are exactly the same and play at exactly the same time from each speaker, we perceive it as coming from a center point between the two speakers. This is often called the “phantom mono” or “phantom center.”

The key here is similarity. As soon as the sounds become different, or the timing becomes different, they start to spread across the stereo field.

It stands to reason that two sounds that are easily localized (meaning our ear can clearly hear where the sound is coming from like a woodblock, triangle, or glockenspiel) played at different times will sound very wide.

The greater the contrast between what’s happening in the left speaker versus the right speaker, the wider the image.

While this seems fairly simple, remember that in a dense mix it’s very easy to get harmonic stew. Sounds can begin to run together pretty easily.

A prime example is doubled guitars. If you double a guitar part four times and pan two doubles to one side and two doubles to the other, the end result is often not as wide as desired.

The key here is to create as much contrast as possible: use different guitars, amps, and/or mics and mic placement for the doubles. Create contrasting tones. This will allow the ear to hear more separation when they’re panned apart.

On the subject of width, I’m also generally a proponent of using natural panning, rather than relying on chorusing, haas delays, or doublers. Two different takes of a guitar line is going to sound wider than one take sent through a doubler.

Depth

Lastly we have depth.

Depth is a bit tricky. There are three things to remember in terms of defining front-to-back placement.

  1. Louder sounds closer
  2. Brighter sounds closer
  3. Less reverb sounds closer

And all of the converse is true as well.

Start with level. It’s so much easier to mix when you have an idea as to where something needs to live in terms of volume. Keeping in mind your front-to-back image while setting levels will help things fall into place very quickly.

In terms of tone, high frequency sounds loses their energy faster than low frequency sounds over distance. So as a general rule of thumb, you can roll off some highs to help shift things back. It should also be noted though that when sounds get very close to us we tend to hear the low-midrange more prominently as well.

That “in your ear” sound is more characterized by low-mid forwardness than by brightness. It’s a bit counterintuitive, but once you get a feel for it, finding the right tonal balance will make sense.

Then there’s the reverb. Reverb is a whole subject unto itself, but, suffice to say that generally the more reverb a sound has the further back it will fall.

Going further: the shorter the pre-delay, the farther away the element will seem. And, reverb that is higher in late reflections rather than early reflections will also be indicative of a sound that is further away.

Level, pre-delay, and early vs late reflections — these things all work in conjunction to form a realistic spatial sound.

Of course, getting natural space at the recording stage is best. If you know you want your drums to sit back a bit, place the overheads a little further from the kit. And record the room capture from further away too.

Contrast

The linchpin to all of this is contrast.

In order to make something sound very close, something else needs to sound far away.

In order to make something feel high in the speakers, something else needs to feel low.

This isn’t the easiest stuff when it comes to engineering records and it takes a long time to get down. But once you do, you’ll quickly find your records having that special hard-to-place quality that just sounds “like a record.”

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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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  • I like the article

  • Steven Gospel-Guitar Edmonds

    very nice article

  • thanks for this Matthew! Really useful! Particularly like the advice on the widening of guitars and using different amps etc.

  • nice write up. I also think that looking into Mid/Side audio techniques is quite powerful. You can apply this at mixing with stereo tracks (drums, guitars overal group mixes, etc). EQ’ing in Mid/Side I think it’s more realistic than thinking in left/right mode.

  • Really insightful article, Thanks!

    I would also recommend checking out the Duplex Panner which is designed to tackle depth, width and height in the same system.

    The Duplex Panner allows users to generate enhanced stereo mixes that create out-of-the head, spatial, and realistic experiences on headphones but without deteriorating stereo playback. Finally a method that bridges the gap between headphones and speaker playback. One mix, two amazing experiences!!

    Check out the AES award-winning plugin the Duplex Panner
    here and become part of a new era in music production by contributing in the Kickstarter campaign !

    With your contribution on the Kickstarter campaign , I will be able to fully develop this product to include suggested presets, have a fully functional mono/stereo mode, and most notably be the first all-in-one master bus panner where you can pan all your sources rather than scrolling through all your tracks. Please visit the Kickstarter campaign for more info and don’t miss out on the future of music.

  • Pierandrea Neonbug Petazzi

    Good one 🙂 Thanks, your articles are great

  • Bas Groot

    A trick I’d like to share about dimensional recording: Great for hip hop where often a 2nd/3rd MC double lines or words.

    I record vocals using 3 large diaphragm mics. One in the middle and a stereo pair about 2-4 feet away, at head height. Now when I record the lead vocalist I keep the center mic where it is. When recording a 2nd or 3rd voice, I move the center mic stand and the vocalist to the left or right, close to one of the stereo mics.

    As a result is that the 2nd and 3rd voice have the same basic presence as the first, but their own, very natural sounding placement. This is caused by the different delay times caused by the position of the mics relative to each other; almost as if it actually were 2 or 3 vocalists that were recorded together.
    The 2 extra mics lift the vocals a bit more to the front because you can hear some depth behind it.

    A bit of panning of the center mic itself has more effect than panning a mono channel; a tiny notch left or right is enough to space them apart. By experimenting with the volume of the stereo pair compared to the center mic and rest of the music, you can play a with how wide one vocal is in the stereo field, and how far away from the background.

    Also you have an extra stereo channel that you can liberally torture with FX whilst keeping the center clean, intelligible and up front.

  • Maurice Da Moose

    Great write-up man

  • Michel Franskaya

    “Going further: the shorter the pre-delay, the farther the element will seem.”

    I believe it’s the opposite, isn’t it? When you talk directly in the ear of someone, there is no pre-delay (so it’s short). When you speak to someone from far away, the pre-delay is longer, it take time for the 1st reverberation to travel from the speaker to the auditor.

    • Francesco Lo Cascio

      Not exactly… a short (or null) pre-delay means that we instantly hear the return of the effect (early reflection are very fast!). When pre-delay is set to a fair amount (usually 50-80ms but even more) there’s this tiny amount of direct signal before we can hear reverberation. This helps having sounds more “in-the-face” (and helps hearing all the lyrics too!) even when long-type reverbs are used. This is common knowledge among mixing engineers. 😉

    • Ryan McDougall

      When something is distant the sound generally arrives at the same time as it’s reflection. 0 pre delay gives the perception of being further away.

  • Ryan McDougall

    Try adding reverb as an insert then compressing to get the effect of having actually being recorded in a larger space.
    http://www.ryan-mcdougall.com

  • Daniel

    I think this guy copied your article to sell his services (see everything about “Height” in your mix on down): http://www.acousticfields.com/sound-stage-height-width-depth/

    • Thanks for the heads up on this. They’re a very shady company.

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