3D Mixing and the Art of Equalization

Here is a reply of mine to a person who asked about sound sculpting during a mix.

Regarding sound sculpting, let me tell you about a very common mistake that beginners make during mixing (and sometimes tracking):

An all too common practice during mixing is to solo up each sound all by itself and then get it sounding great that way. However, when you add all the other instruments in, espcially on a song with a lot of things happening at once, you’ll often find that after all your work on the individual tracks everything sounds like crap when played all together!

One thing that contributes to this quite a bit is the overuse of additive EQ. To the untrained ear (and even the trained ear), anything louder or brighter usually sounds better to us. So, when people solo things up and start boosting EQ in various bands, this makes the track louder which instantly sounds better to us. Thus, the tendancy for inexperienced engineers is to end up with a LOT of boost EQ across all frequencies on many tracks. When you add all those tracks together, there is simply too much frequency content competing for the same space in the mix, and everything sounds muddy and undefined, or like a big incoherrent wall of sound.

The secret when you are getting started is to listen to the tracks all together BEFORE you make any adjustments to the EQ of any tracks. Also, try EQing the tracks while the other tracks are up as well so that you can find the appropriate EQ that will work within the context of the mix.

A lot of things that sound great all by themselves, will sound horrible within a mix. Likewise, something that fits perfectly into the overall mix might sound horrible when solo’d. Bass guitar is a very good example. If you make the bass guitar sound very warm and full all by itself, chances are it will just sound boomy and will be lost in the overall mix for a typical rock band type project.

So, how do you make everything work together? Think of your mix 3 dimensionally. Left to right stereo spread is the horizontal plane (x), the entire frequency spectrum is the vertical plane (y), and front to back is your depth (or z plane). You work in the X plane with the stereo pan positioning, the Y plane with equalization, and the Z plane with time based effects such as reverb and delay and the wet/dry balance of those effected tracks.  The trick in a busy mix is to try to give every important sound/instrument its own little space in the mix so that it can be clearly heard but still blend in well with everything else.

I’ll just talk about the frequency plane for now. The key is to figure out which frequency range is most important for each instrument and to REMOVE any non-important frequencies that are competing with the important frequency range of other instruments. It also helps to kind of map out your frequency range and figure out which instrument will be the primary instrument for each frequency range. You don’t want two different important elements competing for the same space. The low end is usually the most difficult, and you usually need to decide if you want the bass or the kick drum to primarily occupy the low frequency range. Sometimes you can get them both working together, but more often than not you will need to choose just one for the low subs and remove the low subs from the other. In addition, you would most likely roll off all low frequency content from anything other than bass and drums, such as keyboards, vocals, guitar, etc… There are always exceptions though. For instance, in a lot of heavy metal music, the guitars have a lot of low end beef to them and the bass guitar sometimes will be playing the exact same part and just filling out that low end a little more. In those cases, you’ll find that there is rarely any low subs in the kick drum, instead they make the kick drums very “clicky” with a lot of top end to make them cut through the wall of guitars, and there isn’t much low end at all on the kick drums.

Basically, the first thing you should try to do is to CUT frequencies out of instruments to make them fit better in the mix before you ever try adding frequencies.

After a lot of practice and learning what works well for each type of instrument in various types of music, you’ll soon know exactly how you want each instrument to sound from the start so that it will fit in well with the mix… then, you can start to record the instruments with that in mind to begin with. For instance, with acoustic guitars I’ll record it will a big full sound for a solo guitar piece or folk song type of tune… but, if it is going to be in a big rock type of song with lots of other instruments, I’ll record the acoustic guitar in a way that picks up a lot of high-end strumming string noise so that it can cut through.


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