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.
So, after mixing a version that the band was happy with I decided to mix the song while they went out to dinner. The first thing I did was make a copy of the 2-inch tape, and cut out the entire solo section, starting with the big tom fill.
Then I flew the howling feedback from the guitar solo throughout the second part of the song, but tucked it back so far that you did not hear it so much as feel it on the back of your neck. I then felt the illusion was maintained from the beginning of the song to the end.
When the band returned, I played it for them and half expected them to be angry with me for taking such a heavy razor blade to their music. The song ended and I turned to see the singer crying. She said that this was what she had written, and that I had captured the feeling she had when she wrote the song.
The guitar player shook my hand and said that he had to admit this version was better, even though he missed the solo. I picked up the piece of 2-inch tape that I had cut out off of the floor and gave it to him for future use.
Creating Space & Differentiation
Mixes can be crowded in many ways. The song arrangement can be crowded if there are too many elements playing similar parts that are different enough to cause musical clashes or smudges.
Spatial crowding can occur if there are too many parts clashing within the same areas of the stereo image. Frequency crowding can occur if there are clashing sounds with similar tones (such as a screeching sax and vocal).
It is important to create differentiation between different parts, especially in songs with crowded arrangements.
Spatial differentiation is achieved by placing instruments into different positions within the stereo image, or by having some parts moving rather than stay in one place.
Frequency differentiation can be achieved by EQing sounds to emphasize more of their differences rather than similarities. For example, both a kick drum and a bass will have very low sounds, but the kick will also have a sharp attack that will cut through the sound of the bass, and the bass will have a sustained roundness that will continue between kick hits.
Changing instrument volumes is an important process to consider when trying to create mixes with clarity, within which all of the instruments can be clearly heard and felt according to their functions.
Some mix engineers try to create differentiation by EQing each sound to fit into a narrow frequency range; this works, but results in mixes that are significantly less expressive than mixes that contain full sounding instruments that move forward or back in the stereo image, either taking over the image or creating space for other instruments to take over.