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In The Studio: Instrument Roles & Creating Space

Sometimes assumptions regarding traditional instrument roles can limit your ability to emphasize what should be strong in a song...

By Bruce A. Miller March 11, 2016

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The drums must provide the rhythmic foundation and centered and strong. The vocal has to be loud. The bass has to thump. The guitars have to wail.

Or do they?

Too often people mix on autopilot, processing each instrument into typical roles…without really considering what they are doing. If you ‘ve tried to understand the feeling of the song you’re mixing, you may realize that the instruments before you would best support that song if they were doing different things than usual.

For example, the guitar and bass may provide the strength of the rhythm leaving the drums to play accents. The solo guitar may work better as a background texture rather than the center of attention. The vocal may be better served if it was buried in the track.

It’s easy to make assumptions regarding traditional instrument roles. But sometimes those same assumptions can limit your ability to emphasize what should be strong in a song. Making the bass as powerful as you can may cause it to be impossible to showcase the rich bottom of the piano. Cranking the drums may make the acoustic guitar rhythm weak and change how the vocal seems to fit with the track.

I have often presented instruments in different situations. In one mix I panned all of the drums to one side and balanced them with a single heavily strummed acoustic guitar on the other side.

In another, I took the rhythm guitar that overpowered the track whenever it played and stuck it to the side with a harsh filter—creating the image of the lone guitar player in the corner sticking his two cents in rather than running to the front of the stage and taking over the song.

If you have been reading my articles, by now you should know the importance I place on both the song’s feeling and the illusion you can create to enhance that feeling. If the feeling is intimate, then that screaming guitar may break that feeling. But the same guitar placed in the background very wet can add a haunting feeling that will enhance the intimacy.

Here’s an example of this point of view taken to an extreme:

I was mixing the song “El Paso” for Homeless Heart. The song started with a simple acoustic guitar and a simple vocal, singing about the raindrops on the bus window mingling with the tears rolling down her face as she thought of the boyfriend she missed.

Suddenly, there was a tom fill and the band kicked in, complete with a raging guitar solo that ended with howling feedback. Then the song went back to the simple acoustic guitar and vocal.

Boy was I ticked off. They had the perfect illusion and they had me believing them, but when that tom fill started it was a horrible intrusion that destroyed that illusion. I just could not maintain the sensitivity.

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About Bruce

Bruce A. Miller
Bruce A. Miller

Recording Engineer
Bruce A. Miller is an acclaimed recording engineer who operates an independent recording studio and the BAM Audio School website.


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