In the real world, sound happens in three dimensions. Our ears are incredible sensitive to the slightest change in position of a sound and as it reverberates and echoes around us, we can quickly and instinctively decode where the sound is coming from and how far away it is. When we work in the studio however, sound comes from two fixed sources placed in front of the listener. Adding depth and width to what is essentially a static sound is a challenging task and one that requires some scientific as well as creative thinking.
We’ve compiled ten ways to help you in your quest for immersive sound! There’s a lot more to depth than loud and quiet sounds so if you want to learn more about mixing, not just for depth but for clarity, richness, thickness and more, our online Art of Mixing module – part of our Mixing and Mastering Certificate – is the perfect course for you. It covers everything from dynamics, EQ and reverb, as well as looking at more creative aspects of mixing and the importance of vocals in the mix. Find out more about the course here.
Use Multiple Reverbs
Using multiple reverbs in a mix allows you to create a number of ‘acoustic spaces’ into which your sounds can be placed. Some sounds might only require one reverb treatment but others might benefit from being assigned to several reverbs for extra depth. A vocal line, for instance, might enjoy the grandeur of a long Hall reverb, the immediate bright ‘wash’ of a Plate treatment and the ‘retro’ quality of a Spring Reverb, all at once. Set these up on separate Auxiliary channels and, once you’ve got a reverb balance you like, try feeding the other sounds within your mix into these Auxiliaries too. Several carefully selected reverbs often create more richness and depth than one alone.
Send Delays To Reverbs
It’s easy to remember to send ‘dry’ sounds from your mix to Auxiliary Reverbs but remember that if you also send them to Auxiliary Delays, these echoes will be dry too. This combination of Auxiliary treatments can often produce a mismatch – a sound treated with a plush, wet reverb then giving way to a series of dry delay taps. A great way to add depth to these echoes is to make sure that they’re sent to the same reverb too. This is done by setting up a send from your Delay Auxiliary to your Reverb Auxiliary. Instantly, those delays will sound bedded in and much deeper in the mix.
Using stereo imaging plug-ins is a great way to create a wide-screen mix but do be careful with low frequency content when working with effects of this kind. Nearly always, the bass end of a mix sounds most focused when it’s narrow and central, so don’t be surprised if spreading low frequency content shifts your mix unpleasantly off-balance. Plug-ins like iZotope Ozone allow you to choose the amount of Stereo Spread for up to four independent bands, leaving you to make creative decisions about how much to add to the low mid-range, the upper mid-range and the treble bands, whilst leaving bass frequencies untouched.
Dip The Middle
If your EQ plug-in of choice features an option for mid/side processing, try taking some top end out of your sounds but assigning this ‘dip’ to only the ‘mid’ signal. This will create more room in the middle of your mix for centrally panned mix elements but it will also create a sense of width, as the upper frequency content in your sounds will be spread to the sides.
Take The Top Out Of Spatial Effects
Think about how sounds behave in large acoustic spaces. The further you are away from them, the quieter they are and the more they’re mixed with the natural reverb of that space. But because high frequencies use up more energy as they move through a space, so that energy disappears more quickly too, meaning that sounds are less bright if they have a long way to travel. If you want a Delay or Reverb treatment in your mix to sound ‘deeper’, try rolling off some top end.
Pan Your Reverbs
There’s a big difference between a mix with balanced space and one awash with too much reverb. In particular, if your mix elements are nicely panned to create a wide stereo image, it’s easy to undo your hard work by using a collection of loud, centrally panned reverbs which ‘pull’ the sounds feeding them back towards the middle. To combat this, try panning your Auxiliary reverbs to the same positions as your dry sounds; even if this means having to set up more Auxiliaries and duplicating settings to cater to a number of source sounds. The stereo picture of your mix will benefit hugely.
Stereo Delay tends to come in two flavours. On one hand, it can comprise two combined ‘mono delays’, panned left and right with independent controls including Delay Speed and Feedback Level. Alternatively, Stereo Delays feature a ‘Ping Pong’ approach where a single delay jumps from side to side, creating a wide stereo image. Ping-Pong Delay is often better for ‘stretching’ the stereo picture of your mix as the Delay taps never coincide to create the illusion of a centrally-panned sound. But, if your Delay plug-in allows for both approaches, experiment to see which works best.
Stereo Widening – Keep Listening!
We know that when our ears get tired, we like to give our mixes ‘a boost’ with increased volume and more treble. The next day, with fresh ears, it’s easy to be appalled by just how bright, tinny and squashed our mixes can sound. Stereo Spread effects can be just as seductive a tonic for tired ears, so be careful if you find yourself reaching for effects like this towards the end of a listening session. By all means add liberal amounts but listen again the following day to check you haven’t overcooked the width; there’s a thin line between a nice wide mix and one which sounds spread too far.
Arrangement Comes First
It’s so easy to think that the concept of ‘depth’ comes from a full, rich arrangement packed with instruments and effects. Yet, to appreciate just how effective a ‘deep’ mix can be, all you need are two elements that occupy different spatial depths. Listen to ‘Super Rich Kids’ by Frank Ocean, which demonstrates this point perfectly. Right at the beginning, an almost bone-dry percussion loop occupies the foreground, while the piano then arrives with huge space and distance around it. Pick great sounds, arrange them so that they can be heard clearly and then experiment with space and depth. Keep it sparse!
Sometimes the simplest tricks are the most effective. If you want to hear a sound within your mix disappear from front to back, set up an Auxiliary reverb and adjust its PreDelay value. This sets an audible ‘pause’ before the Reverb is generated by the sound feeding it; a moment’s silence before the reverb takes over. PreDelay allows you to create 3D effects, with the proximity of your dry sound then disappearing to the back of a hall, the bottom of a well or whatever other space you choose to design with your Reverb plug-in.