Finding Space Within Your Mix

With lock-down now in full effect in the UK and with other countries likely to follow suit soon if they haven’t already, now seems like a better time than any to start seriously upping your game in terms of mixing and recording.

What I mean by this, is simply being able to create a mix that makes you want to turn it up! This is the simplest way of defining a good mix as, if it’s too harsh or the low end is out of control, or the instruments are lost in a sea of reverb etc, the mix doesn’t make you instinctively turn the volume up to 11 and love every second of it!

So this week, we’re going to talk about exactly that, and how to find space within your mix for ALL it’s elements with 3 simple tools that are either very cheap, or sometimes free!

Let's dive in.

Track-spacer - The most slept on Dynamic EQ

This for new or struggling engineers is like finding the Holy Grail, hidden in plain sight all along! Track-spacer has been a frequently advertised and complemented plugin, but so many have slept on it due to not fully understanding its uses.

Simply put, it uses a side-chain input (external input from another track, to the track you're working on) and analyses the frequencies that are clashing. Upon doing this, it then works like a Dynamic EQ, but in reverse carving the problematic frequencies out of the side-chain input signal and boosting those same frequencies on the track you can’t get to shine in the mix.

This thing is literally witchcraft - but be careful! With great power comes great responsibility. In the default view, there's a very simple GUI to work with. Simply using high and low pass filters, you can adjust the range of frequencies that you want to affect (particularly useful if you don't want to duck say the entire bass line for the kick to shine through and avoid an obvious pumping effect).

Then adjust the amount you want to duck said frequencies, but this is where you need to be careful. It’s easy to just plough through the tracks doing this to every buss you have, but use it sparingly. If you dial in -8db reduction, I’d recommend halving that, and moving on to the rest of the mix. I say this, because more often than not a lot more elements will change bringing the track you’re wanting to push through further forward anyway.

If you commit to large subtracting moves early on, you’ll become used to them and it’s hard to come back from that without a lengthy break from mixing to ‘reset’ your ears only to find you’ve overdone it and spend more time than you’d have liked. If you still think it needs more, dial it in in small increments and rinse and repeat ‘til you’re happy*.

*This applies to all aspects of mixing as well, and done properly you’ll achieve a much more natural and cohesive mix without thinking too much about what you’re doing once it becomes second nature!*

Sidechain Compression

We’ve spoken briefly about this in a few blog posts now, but it’s integral to so many genre specific mixes that I must mention it.

Like the above, sidechain compression is similar to Dynamic EQ, but where Track-spacer replaces the reverse of what it ducks in the EQ, Sidechain compression either ducks the entire range of frequencies, or in the case of multiband compression, just the range or the width of the band you’re working with.

As we’ve shouted from the rooftops over and over again about multiband compression, I’d like to discuss either the full range or a high-passed range (Pro Tip - highpassing say 90hz and lower to avoid pumping will give you a much better result!) being compressed to make space for another instrument. Let's take a vocal track for example.

Now, most common among so many mixes I help on with new or struggling mixers is the vocals being lost in the mix, usually by the guitars. As guitars, especially heavy effects or distorted ones can be very bold in a mix, it’s normal to find you run into trouble - hell, it's a problem pro mixing engineers find a lot, but the difference is this very key way of creating space.

By adding a compressor transparent enough to seem natural like the LA2A or similar (Optical works best here I find), you can trigger the compression to only happen when the vocal sidechain input triggers it to, and in turn ducking the guitars to create space for your vocal to sit.

However, a couple of key things to mention here:

Only compress by about up to -2db. If you find you need to do more, revisit the EQ of your vocal or the guitars first, create a space or work with the space you know is there, (for example the upper high end of a vocal is usually uncontested for space by guitars that are low pass EQ’d at say 10Khz).

Engage the high-pass sidechain input (this is different from the actual external sidechain and is a common feature on most compressors) to avoid pumping, unwanted or an unnatural feel to the compression. Remember, transparency is key here.

Analyzers and why you need one

Possibly the most underrated tool is the analyser. As well as your ears (this is key, always trust your ears), this technique gives you a visual ability to discern what frequencies are the problematic ones and help identify them allowing you to use subtractive EQ.

This is especially useful if you’re still training your ears to be attuned to specific frequencies and ranges to help you identify them quicker and avoid sweeping too much with a sharp bell curve within your chosen EQ which can cause fatigue and damage to your hearing in some cases if you’re not careful.

My favourite to use is Fabfilter ProQ 3 which isn't free, but isn’t too expensive either. It’s a wise investment for several reasons, among which is the ability to process in Mid/Side, extremely surgical bell curves, but more importantly the analyser is incredibly sensitive and can freeze the input signal to show a real time held frequency curve which is extremely useful is you’re trying to match a stereo pair of mic’s and one is a little more bottom or top heavy in their recorded frequencies on a track.

It also automatically detects all other instances you have in your project allowing you to rename the plugins individually and compare them against each other. Any clashing frequencies are shown in a bright red and you can experiment with which track to adjust depending on your needs.

A lot of EQ’s will allow you to at least freeze the visual elements of the GUI and if you can’t afford Fabfilter ProQ 3, simply try and use your eyes and more importantly, ears to adjust as you see needed.