When I first started mixing I subscribed to the notion that I was recreating a space.
Realism was the priority. I wanted to close my eyes and be able to visualise the performers on a stage, and my relationship to them would determine their placement in my mix. There was a comfort in listening to music as though I was at a performance and I scoffed at notions like mixing drums to the drummer’s perspective (which admittedly, I still kind of do).
This is where all mixers should start, because a firm understanding of how a group of musicians should naturally sound is a great foundation. The problem is that the process can start to grow predictable. For me, the visualisations that I was aiming for were often the same and the spaces that I was putting my instruments in kept getting recreated. This coincided with my productions growing denser and the sound of popular music changing. With unlimited tracks in a DAW, and layers upon layers of sonic mass, it’s often difficult for me to still justify this realism. There is certainly a time and place for authenticity, however we shouldn’t be religiously bound to it. This kind of limitation may be honest, but it doesn’t necessarily lend itself to interesting productions.
We break free from the shackles of a singular space by combining spatial textures. They don’t have to sound real. You don’t have to be able to visualise them. There are no rules. Here are some ideas on how different spatial textures can be used:
• Highlight your focal elements – When you use a space that’s atypical to the rest of the song, it will stand out. This is a great way to draw focus to key elements like lead vocals, signature riffs, solos, etc.
• Accentuate parts of an arrangement – Just because your song is linear, it doesn’t mean that your mix has to be. Don’t be afraid to use different spaces on the same instrument in different parts of your arrangement. Make a chorus explode with delays, or elevate the intimacy of a bridge by making the vocal dry. Let the song dictate an instrument’s sound over time.
• If you use some glue, don’t use the whole bottle – Remember that kid in school who inevitably had macaroni stuck to hands after class because he couldn’t control himself with the Elmer’s? Using reverbs to help glue elements of your mix together is still necessary at times, but have some restraint.
• Don’t visualise, emotionalise – Try not to get too hung up on where to place the elements within your mix. A better tactic is to concentrate on how the placement of those elements makes you feel. Does the placement add impact? Does it sound intimate? Does it lose its feel and sound out of balance? How we react to an instrument changes with our relationship to it, and the space that the instrument is in helps define that relationship.
Armed with knowing when we can use these spatial textures, here are some ideas on how to create those different spaces:
• Play with your reverb chain – Since we are no longer bound by realism, why not try messing up your reverb? EQ, modulation effects, distortion, and pitch shifting are all great tools for this.
• Hi-fi versus lo-fi – Being the audiophiles that we are, it’s often difficult for us to accept that there’s a place for lo-fi audio as well. Mixing hi-fi and lo-fi spaces can work really well if you want to draw attention to an element of your mix.
• Reamp in a new space – Find a cool space (bathroom, church, hallway, etc.) and set up a speaker and a mic. Play back your recorded instrument through the speaker and record the space with the mic. Change the placement of the speaker and the mic to your taste. Finally, blend the new space in with the original recording.
• No space is a space – Sometimes not using any space works better than anything else. This is especially true when trying to create intimacy but it can also help tighten up your low end.
• Use your room mics – I often record with room mics. Using the natural space that an instrument was in when it was played can often make it feel more organic.
• Layer your spaces – There’s a bit of a mad scientist in all of us, so don’t hesitate to Frankenstein your spaces together. A tight plate with a spring tail? The early reflections from a room with a tape warble underneath it? An analog slap delay with a long digital delay trail? Go nuts.
• Panning – Rid yourself of the idea that an instrument is bound to its space. There are no rules, so if you feel your echoes should happen elsewhere, then let them.
When employing these techniques, as always, we have to be very careful that we keep our phase aligned. If your mix starts to sound hollow, it’s time to go on a phase hunt.
Despite everything that I’ve said here, there will always be productions that work better with a precedence on authenticity. In many cases though, our job as producers is not just to document music but rather to make music sound as great as it can. Hyperrealism is the new priority, which can leave realism feeling a bit dated.
Ryan McCambridge is an experienced producer, engineer, writer and audio educator from Toronto, Canada. He is the creator of the production blog Bit Crushing and the frontman of A Calmer Collision.
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