Focusing the Mix

By Don Muro

Digital recording makes it easy to dissect and process every element of music in ways unimaginable with analog recording.  Contemporary examples of musical genres such as mashups and remixes would be almost impossible to create without the power of digital editing. In this article I want to explain and demonstrate how the sound and feel of a mix can be dramatically altered simply by changing track volume levels and locations in a stereo mix.

Example 1 uses the following sounds: guitar, piano, clavinet, synth bass, drums and percussion.  Listen to Example 1 and notice how the guitar, piano, and clavinet are all playing in the same frequency range.  This sonic density might be desirable in some cases, but it's usually more effective to spread the sound either across the frequency spectrum or across the left/right speaker axis.

In Example 2 the clavinet is placed in the left speaker, the guitar is placed in the right speaker, and the piano remains in the center position.  Listen to Example 2 and notice how much easier it is to hear each part. (Note: since many readers will be playing in these Examples through computer speakers with limited separation, I have placed sounds in the extreme left and right positions so that the placement can be heard.)

I chose to leave the piano in the center because it is the most active of the three parts.  The right hand plays continuously while the left hand reinforces the chord progression beginning in measure 5. Example 3 has the clavinet in the left speaker, the guitar in the center, and the piano in the right speaker. Although this placement doesn't sound “wrong,” my ears perceive this mix as a little “right heavy,” especially when the piano chords enter in measure 5.  If you compare Examples 2 and 3, I think you'll agree that Example 2 sounds more balanced.

This balance can be changed, however, by adjusting the volume levels for each track.  Increasing a track’s volume level draws our attention and focuses our ears in much the same way that a zoomed close-up shot focuses our eyes. Listen to Example 2 again and then listen to Example 4. In Example 4 the mix is built around the drum track - the volumes of all other tracks have been lowered so that every nuance in the drum track can be heard. Our attention is now focused on the drum rhythms instead of on the pitched instruments. This balance gives the mix a strong rhythmic emphasis.

In Example 5 the focus is shifted to the piano.  The other instruments can still be heard, but the sonic spotlight is now on the piano. As you can hear, the sonic effect produced by this mix is quite different from Example 4.

In Example 6 the mix is built around to the guitar part, which is now placed in the center of the mix.  Earlier, I wrote that Example 3 sounded unbalanced, even though it used the same placement of sounds as this example.  In Example 3 all three parts (clavinet, guitar, and piano) were heard at the same volume level.  In Example 6, however, the guitar is much louder and now grabs our attention, even though the piano part is more active.  In addition, the loudness of the guitar track makes the entire mix sound brighter.

In Example 7 the opposite affect is produced.  The high end of the guitar is attenuated, making it easier to hear the “chiffy” clavinet sound which is now centered and heard at a louder level. The synth bass track volume has also been increased to give the mix a more electronic, edgy sound.

If you go back and listen to these examples again, you can hear how different each mix sounds. All of these variations (with the exception of the guitar EQ in Example 7) were produced by editing track volume levels and placement positions in the stereo mix.  In many cases, a mix that doesn’t work can be improved simply by adjusting these two parameters.

You can create a great class project by giving students a multi-track song file and asking them to produce their own arrangements by working with only track volume levels and stereo placement. The listening skills of every student are sure to improve after hands-on experience with these basic mixing techniques.


©2007 Don Muro

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