Tech Tip:Sculpting the mix

By Dennis Kambury

Whether you're using an inexpensive cassette multitrack or a high-end digital recording system, one thing remains the same--if you don't carve out a place for each instrument in your mix, the end result will lack clarity and definition. This week, we'll take a brief look at some of the ways you can keep your mixes free of mud. To illustrate our examples, we'll use a typical group consisting of guitar, bass, keyboard, drums, and a vocalist.

Space is the place
In a stereo mix, an easy way to carve out a niche is to use the pan knob. If you have everything panned straight up the middle, you may find each instrument is fighting for its share of air. The vocal can get buried and the mix gets dull. To open things up, I'll often leave the vocals and bass in the middle, spread the drums across 60°, the rhythm instruments across 120°, and give the effects the full 180° (see illustration). This not only makes the instruments and vocals clearer, it also results in a more interesting mix that will keep your listeners engaged.

For solos or instrumentals, you may not want to have the lead instrument on one side. If you simply pan it to the center, the mix becomes lopsided, and if you pan everything to the center, you're back in mud land. To get around this, try doubling your accompanying instrument, and then spread it across the stereo spectrum. This can be done by recording a second take of the rhythm part, or using effects such as digital delay (set around 30ms), chorus, or a "stereoizer." Pan the lead instrument straight up, sit back, and enjoy your mix.

Equality rules
It would be boring if all you ever had to do to make a mix work was to spread the sounds around in space. Fortunately, there's more to it than that! There will be times when you want sounds to overlap in space, but find that the result is muddy. EQ is an excellent solution in this case. Say, for example, that you want the rhythm guitar to back the vocal, and you want them both centered in the mix. To make room for the vocal track, use EQ to cut the midrange (2kHz-4kHz) 2 or 3 dB. Adjust the frequency range up or down, depending on the vocalist, the guitar, and, of course, how it sounds to you. Though the guitar by itself may sound a little strange with this setting, this creates a nice frequency pocket to lay in the vocals.

The eyes have it
One final tip for the week--spend some time mixing with your eyes closed. With all the visual niceties these days--on screen displays, graphic interfaces, and more--it's easy to get distracted and mix without really using your ears. Try turning off the video monitors, cover the LCD displays, or just close your eyes and mix. You'll be surprised at what you'll hear!