Improving Your Mix Without 'Mixing' It (Production Tip #2)

Imagine you are a few months into tinkering with production. You've learned the very basics of your production software - maybe you've learned enough to sequence (arrange) some drum beats, chop up audio samples, and play around with synthesizers. While producers at every level are always learning and facing obstacles, being a beginner producer is particularly frustrating because can see how a track might be produced, but have absolutely how to achieve a "professional sound".

Even though gains in production skills happen very gradually, we are all eager to learn quickly. In the situation just mentioned, you might get impatient and google something like "how to make your track sound professional". There are plenty of articles on this, and many of them will mention something like "how to achieve a good mix" or "tips for mixing your track". These articles can be a source of great information, or at least exposure to new terms and concepts...but when a beginner producer dwells too hard on this information, it can create an endless pit of despair and frustration. I'll explain why - let's first quickly talk about what the hell a "mix" is.

According to the Wikipedia article on audio mixing, mixing is the "process by which multiple sounds are combined into one or more channels" to achieve the best possible sound. This mainly involves adjusting the gain (volume) of each track, using panoramic positioning (sending things to the left or right in the headphones), using effects to subtly alter the position of a particular track such as reverb, and a multitude of other techniques. Generally, mixing is the process by which you get a track from the recorded parts to the finished product. "Mastering" is also a term you might have heard regarding the process of finishing a track, and for the sake of this blog post, it's not really important.

But here's the thing about learning how to mix: it is yet another skill that develops over time as the ear is more well trained. Producers and audio engineers study this skill academically, train as apprentices in this skill, and hone this skill over the course of lifelong careers. The more time you put into making music in general, you will gradually get better. However, I discovered something that can be applied to production, even as a beginner, and significantly improve the track's quality of sound: good instrumentation.

 What happens to beginner producers who try to learn the art of mixing overnight. 

What happens to beginner producers who try to learn the art of mixing overnight. 

In a nutshell, instrumentation is the process by which you choose the parts and layers that build up a song. Think of any successful band...what are the instruments that you usually hear at any given time? A basic band set up usually contains drums (kick, snare, cymbals, toms), bass guitar, lead guitar, rhythm guitar, and vocals. A slightly bigger, or alternate set-up might contain synthesizers (check out Sound Tribe Sector 9), back-up vocals, and maybe even an auxiliary percussionist. 

It's easy to forget about these basic foundations of a good sounding ensemble in a post-Scary-Monsters-and-Nice-Sprites electronic music world. Those crazy growls and bass noises you hear, even in the bro-iest of bro-step, can still fit into this 'instrumentation' concept. By using the minimum amount of instruments, while still filling up the full spectrum of frequencies, you can achieve the foundation for a good mix. The image below gives you an idea of where certain instruments/sounds fit into the frequency range.

 Courtesy of FutureMusic. 

Courtesy of FutureMusic. 

Here's a great exercise to get really good at instrumentation: Listen to music. A lot of it. Your favorite songs, and even some of your least favorite (as long as they are well produced). Listen to music of all genres, including electronic music. Here's the important part...listen actively. Take notes on what instruments and sounds you are hearing in each section of the song. This will develop the intuition you need to select instruments for your tracks. 

You'll need to also incorporate some basic techniques, such as EQing. A sub bass won't sound good unless you throw a low-pass filter (only allow the low frequencies) on it, and a hi-hat won't sound good unless you throw a high-pass (only allow the high frequencies) filter on it. Beginning to play around with different cutoff frequencies on these filters is a great way to begin to understand 'mixing'.

Next time you open a new project, before you get bummed out that you can't mix as well as a professionally trained engineer, think about how you can use instruments and sounds that take on the role of each instrument in your favorite band. You will start to hear more and more clarity in your music. 

As always, please email me at kaptainmusic@gmail.com with any thoughts, questions, or criticisms. 

Making Things WIDE (Production Tip #1 + My First Post!)

REVISION: Got some feedback on this post and decided to add this note on 12/28/15. Here was the feedback: "Better to make the original signal mono, then send it to 2 channels both with a delay on them and have them panned hard left and right with the phase flipped on one. That way you have the same information on your L and R channel and no phase issues and it will cancel out when summed to mono." You might run into phase interference issues if you only do what I did. Use an Ableton "Utility" effect on each of the panned tracks to make the individual signals mono. 

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Hey ya'll, so...this is my first blog post. The online music production community has given me so much over the past 5 years - I thought it was time to start to give back a little bit. I've decided to add this blog to my site to make some posts about production tricks I've picked up over the past few years. The goal of the production posts is to give you some background on things, but mainly give you some straightforward info and inspire you to do more research on your own. Maybe I'll make some posts about other stuff - we'll see. 

DISCLAIMER: I (currently) use Ableton Live 9, so all of the specific references to DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) features are in Ableton-speak. However, most commonly used production software products have extremely similar features. They might have different names, though. So - if, for instance, you are a FL Studio guy or gal, and I reference, let's say 'Auto-Filter' in Ableton, just Google 'Auto-Filter Ableton equivalent in FL Studio', or whatever.

Okay - now to the main event. Today we are talking about Stereo Width..."Kaptain, explain it like I'm 5 years old", you say. Alright - imagine you have one speaker sitting right in front of you, and you are listening to your favorite Avicii song. Imagine all of the sound is coming out of that speaker. Your left ear and right ear will hear the same thing. This is a mono signal. The sound might have a lot of dynamic range and fill up the frequency spectrum well, but it's lacking something...

Now imagine you have two speakers: one is kind of to the left in front of you, and the other kind of to the right. If we sent duplicate audio signals to each speaker simultaneously, you'd be hearing the song in mono...kind of. You'd be hearing two mono signals, but since they are physically placed to your right and left, you'd start to get a 'stereo' effect. But can we do a little bit better? Yes. 

Most people listen to music on their phones on common earplug headphones. These audio systems, while fairly simple, are designed to deliver sound in STEREO. In production software like Ableton, you have full control over what sounds/what portion of the sound goes to each ear. You can send all of the snare drum sound, for instance, 100% to the left...or maybe 25% to the left. You can even isolate certain frequencies of a sound and pan them in different directions. Basically, you can do just about anything with panning. Experimenting with this idea (which you should do too) led me to understanding that we as human's perceive things as 'wide' when we hear a similar sound, separately, in each ear. So...that's basically what I'm going to show you today. It's super easy. 

Start with the synth or sound you want to make wider. I just recorded a random, basic Massive preset into an Audio track in Ableton. You could just use the MIDI track itself with a VST on it, but I like to bounce things into audio tracks as soon as I don't need the software synth, because it's CPU intensive...also audio is just way easier to manipulate. This isn't really important to the concept of stereo width, but just a habit I've developed. (A good habit, in my opinion.) Here's the sound we are starting with:

 Picture of the waveform...nothing special here. 

Picture of the waveform...nothing special here. 

Okay, so it's not the worst sounding thing in the world...but it's pretty bland. I'd describe it as 2-Dimensional. It has some slight depth but sort of just travels in a straight line. We want this sound to surround us and almost physically stimulate our ears. We want to feel the buzz, not just hear it. 

We can make it sound wider by tricking the ears. We can duplicate this sound into two audio tracks, make each track a mono signal, pan each track to the left and right, and add some slight track delay to one (or both) of the tracks to make the signals distinguishable from the other. The key is to make them distinguishable in a very sub-perceptual way. We don't want the signal in the left ear to come in like 3 seconds after the right ear. I'm talking milliseconds...so that our brain doesn't explicitly perceive the delay and instead combines the two signals into one perceived signal. Here are the steps:

 Step 1: Duplicate the audio track, and decrease the volume of each track since the combined sound would be too loud. It will pretty much sound identical to the first audio clip.

Step 1: Duplicate the audio track, and decrease the volume of each track since the combined sound would be too loud. It will pretty much sound identical to the first audio clip.

 Step 2: Pan one of the tracks almost all the way to the right, and the other almost all the way to the left. 

Step 2: Pan one of the tracks almost all the way to the right, and the other almost all the way to the left. 

After Step 2, things sound very slightly different, but still not at all that 'wide' sound we are trying to achieve. But we panned it, right? Well, yes, but our ears can't yet distinguish those panned sounds yet. Onto the next step:

 Step 3: Click the 'D' in the bottom right corner. This will show you the Track Delay controls next to each track. (Track Delay controls is the box that just appeared next to each track with '0.00' ms.

Step 3: Click the 'D' in the bottom right corner. This will show you the Track Delay controls next to each track. (Track Delay controls is the box that just appeared next to each track with '0.00' ms.

 Step 4: Add just a few milliseconds of track delay to one of the duplicated tracks. 

Step 4: Add just a few milliseconds of track delay to one of the duplicated tracks. 

Alright, now that sounds pretty different. All we did was duplicate some audio, pan each track to each side, and add a few milliseconds of track delay to one of them. I wouldn't call this a perfectly polished sound, but we've added so much dimension to the sound with only a few clicks. Play around with panning and track delay (maybe throw negative track delay on the other track)...and see what sounds you create. You will find that each millisecond of track delay added or subtracted affects the relative phasing between the left and right tracks, and creates entirely different sounds. Add some effects to each separate track, or better yet: group the two tracks, bounce the Group to a new audio track, and manipulate that new, wide audio signal further. Have fun with it. 

Stereo Width is probably one of the main things you are hearing when you go 'holy shit this track is so well produced...it's so full...sounds so meaty', while listening to one of your favorite tracks. As with any other new production trick...1. experiment experiment experiment 2. overusing it can be a bad thing. But once you figure out how to incorporate it in your music, it can have a lot of power and bring things closer to that 'professional sound'. 

Hopefully you got some use out of this. Remember - there are endless ways to achieve the sound you are looking for. Google is your friend (especially when I say something and maybe don't explain it as well as I should). Maybe you'll find a better sounding, easier way to do exactly what I did in this tutorial. You should let me know if you do - or if you have any input at all. Also, I could write pages and pages getting super in depth into all of this - but I want to keep it simple, and give you room to do some research and discover on your own. 

Always feel free to email me at kaptainmusic@gmail.com with questions!