Thursday, February 14, 2013

Mix Depth: An Orchestra Conductor's Perspective

While we are cruising around the idea of spaciousness, let's discuss the idea of mix depth. To describe the semi-abstract world of mix engineering, I'm going to use a very real world example. For the guitarists reading this, set aside the guitar for a minute. No worries though; you can bring this back to guitar music and apply these concepts to many different areas.

Imagine a symphony orchestra from the conductor's point of view. This type of group can be around 100 players and requires (as I'm sure you can imagine) a sizable room in which to rehearse, and even more so to perform in. Each section extends row by row, further away from the conductor and eventually ends with the percussion section towards the back of the room (or in a performance setting, back of the stage). Due to the fact that every player in the room or on the stage, is sitting in a different spot with varying distances in relation to the conductor, the actual time it takes for the sound to travel between the two is going to vary greatly. The further away a player is from the conductor, the greater the delay in sound travel. So far, we have only discussed the physical delay between the players and the conductor. Now, there is reverb to take into consideration and depending on the size of the room and where you are standing, it will very widely. These factors create the very distinct depth that is associated with a symphony orchestra. We could spend a lot of time talking about that, however, I would like to just touch on it for the time being and head back to applying these concepts to a mix.

Stick yourself back in your mix chair, and imagine the conductor's position and his viewpoint. Now, considering we are in an artificial environment, there are lots of sneaky things one can do to establish depth in a mix. We are going to look at two of them. Remember the delay from the player to the conductor? You can add a small amount of delay to a track (or several) in order to distinguish them in the mix. Now when I say 'add delay,' I am talking about 20-30 ms. This is very specific to application though. It will all depend on what you are doing and how far back you want the track to sound (you don't want it to be out of time unless that is the vibe you're going for). Sound travels at roughly 1 ft. per ms so we are talking about mimicking sound traveling around 30 ft. If you have strings in your song, then this technique is crucial for a sense of both depth and realism (remember the orchestral imagery). This leads me to my second topic, reverb.

Reverb can be severely overused if you aren't careful so try to use it sparingly in the beginning. The use of this effect will place your mix (or elements thereof) in an environment. Be it a bathroom, a church, or a horse stall, it will be an environment that will have it's own characteristics which will in turn effect your mix a certain way. This is another topic that could become very drawn out so I will cut to the chase for this post. Depending on what I'm doing, I usually set up a reverb bus (normal bus with a reverb loaded into an effects send) and route whatever tracks I desire to it. As long as you use a 'send' on each track, you can control the send level to the reverb. To start establishing depth, only put a little (or no reverb) on the tracks that you want in the front of the mix. The tracks that you want further back, add a bit more reverb. The more tracks you have, the more you can (and should) layer to establish depth. So to wrap it up . . . based upon how deep you want your tracks to sound, and where you want to place your tracks in the mix, you can utilize delay and reverb to establish a sense of depth. Please feel free to comment or ask questions! This post was probably a little too short to explain certain aspects of depth so if there is something you want explained in a more detailed fashion, please feel free to ask away!