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Ask Jonah: Getting Two Signals To “Play Nice” In The Mix

"Try thinking about which frequency ranges are most critical to the sound of each instrument, and remove what’s not as important with your channel EQ."

Hi Jonah:
My question is about blending, which is something I have a hard time with, though not always. What is your method and why? For instance, blending things like piano with electric or acoustic guitar, or making the bass and kick work together better. Any help or advice is welcome. Frequently I find that it’s not necessary to blend much, but then there are those times… – Anonymous

Any difficulties with getting two signals to “blend” in a mix are often rooted in a psychoacoustic phenomenon called auditory masking, which describes how our perception of one sound can be affected – masked – by the presence of another sound.

There are entire textbook chapters about this, but the basic “gist” is that inside the cochlea in our inner ears, there are a bunch of hair cells called stereocilia whose job it is to react to incoming sound waves. Each hair cell only responds to a relatively narrow range of frequencies (called a critical band), not unlike a single filter band on a graphic EQ.

More importantly for this discussion, the hair cells will only respond to the loudest signal in their frequency range. Basically, the stereocilia are bad multitaskers.

How does this translate into useful information behind the mixing console? A signal with a lot of 1 kHz energy can mask the ear’s ability to hear the 1 kHz energy in a quieter signal. In other words, multiple mix elements that have similar spectral content can fight for space. If you’ve ever spent time dialing in each instrument to perfection only to have them disappear into an undefined, blurry mess when playing together, this is why.

Try thinking about which frequency ranges are most critical to the sound of each instrument, and remove what’s not as important with your channel EQ. Also, try cutting back that frequency range on other inputs as well. This gives each input its own space in the mix.

As an example, if there are two electric guitars, maybe give one a mid-cut and allow the other to have a more mid-heavy tone. In this case, it’s normal for each input to sound a bit thin on its own, but everything should gel nicely when it all comes together.

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