How to Create Depth in a Mix

March 6, 2008 Mixing

This post focuses on the topic of creating a sense of depth in mixes.

It’s not too hard to make things sound big.  It’s not too hard to make things sound wide.  But it is very hard to do both while also creating a sense of depth.  There are a myriad of tools available to the mix engineer to accomplish this, but there are three in particular that, when used properly, can create mixes that you can ‘walk into’.

Reverb

Reverb is short for reverberation and is used to describe any effect that produces the sound of resonance in a space, whether real or imagined.  Back in the days before multitracking recording, engineers would place their performers in relation to the recording device.  To reduce the sound of a particularly loud instrument, such as a drum kit, the performer would have to be pulled back from the recording device.  This meant that the recording device recorded fewer of the direct soundwaves and more of the room’s reflections from the instrument.  This, even as technology has evolved to allow more flexibility than that, has influenced our expectations for what an instrument should sound like in terms of depth.  These rules have been challenged, of course, but generally speaking, ‘room’  sound is the classic way of making things sound distant.  This can be achieved with old-school way with room microphones or by artificial reverb devices.

Recently, reverb has become a bit of a dirty word as the trend for the past five years or so in pop music has been to extremely dry sounding recordings.  This is largely to contrast with the very wet sounds of the 80s and 90s, which seems to be coming back into vogue for some genres.

Reverbs are described by their ‘size, which refers to the size of the room.  The larger the room, the longer the sound will resound in the space.  Also common in reverbs are high and low frequency trims, allowing the reverb to be brighter or darker.  Darker reverbs blend better and tend to sound deeper, potentially more realistic, whereas brighter reverbs stand out more and are more dramatic. Finally, most artificial verbs have a ‘mix’ option, which determines how much of the original signal is included in the output.  I recommend using reverb on aux buses or effects sends rather than inserts.  In this case, use 100% mix and dial in the send to taste.

One important strategy when using reverbs to create depth is not to simply put the same reverb on everything.  This will not create depth but will instead simply blur the sound.  Depth is create by contrast of spaces: small, big, and dry.  I usually use two to three reverbs in a mix: a dark medium room, a small bright room, and a large hall or ‘cathedral’.   The rooms are useful for adding body to sounds that are recorded very dry and for assisting blend.  I would use the medium room for things like drums and the small room for guitars or perhaps vocals.  The hall is used to dramatically set sounds apart from each other and to make them seem ‘special’.  This works especially well when you automate the reverb send or return to add contrast.

More reverb will make things sound distant, whereas less or none will make them seem closer, obviously.  The use of different spaces helps to ‘place’ the sounds and provide several tiers of depth while keeping things diverse.

More detail about reverb will be posted in a separate post.

Delay

Delay is basically an echo.  This differs from reverb in that it usually is a repetition of the sound rather than a resonance.  There are many options for delays.  Analog delays tend to be a little less hi-fi than digital delays.  Modulation adds a warble to the sound.  Feedback changes the way the delay echos after its initial echo.  Again, like reverb, delays can be trimmed on the high or lows to provide different tonal characteristics.  One benefit of using delays is that they don’t take up as much space as reverbs. They also can provide more dramatic stereo separation when panned a bit.  I like using delays on male vocals to avoid things getting too sludgy.  They’re also very cool on instruments with a lot of sustain such as synths or legato guitar parts.  Delays will help elements seem more ‘involved’ in the mix by making their tones interact on more depth levels and by keeping the listener attentive to the sound.

Equalization

Probably one of the best and most overlooked ways to create depth in a mix is to equalize effectively.  Darker sounds sound more distant, whereas brighter sounds sound more present.  Increasing or decreasing the 5-10k range will dramatically make elements come forward or backwards in the mix without the blurring and messiness of reverbs or delays.  Use this as your first step and add effects to make things ‘special’.

Making these tools work as well as possible takes a long time to master and everyone has their own preferences and tricks to do so.  Take some time to experiment and soon you’ll come up with your own ideas.

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11 Comments

  1. James U says:

    Really cool and simple. But how do u mix the piano to make the lead vocal sound as if he is sitting on the piano? thanks in advance.

  2. Jazzy says:

    Great article, def gonna pass it on.

  3. Karl-André Tvedt says:

    How can you call this a guide to create depth in a mix? Even tho its for newbeginners, the notion of depth created by mere fx is wrong. Fact is that u can controll depth by using fx and equalization, but depth is originally created by micplasment and panning.. If people mix, they should learn how to record it as well.. Probably the biggest mistake a sound tech does is to just sit in the control room and not listen to whats happening in the studio/ or at the microphone where its recorded.

    Sorry if it sounds a bit agitated, but i was looking forward to an artical about creating depth in a mix..

    cheers from

    Karl-André
    Soundtechnician and musician

  4. Dan Connor says:

    The article is about how to create depth in a mix, which is generally at the point in production where additional tracking is not possible. Of course depth in the tracking creates depth in a mix, that’s not disputed. Besides, I do spend some time in the guide discussing how traditional means of mic placement is fundamental. However, if you hand me a multitrack session recorded entirely with close-range overdubbing I can create a mix with great depth and complexity simply by following techniques like I’ve described here. And that’s pretty common these days, indeed, like it or not. So it’s important to have that knowledge as a mix engineer.

  5. Karl-André says:

    :) I think people that read the comments will have a increased understanding of what depth is.. I wholeheartedly agree with you, but its a paradox that adding increase the artificial impression of a mix. Also dependent on genere etc. But come to think of it, the recorders and mixers are more often the same person nowadays.. I feel sometimes, that the increase in quality tends to push away the need for knowledge, especially for the newbeginners.

    Peace from Norway :)

  6. Miaaa says:

    i need to make a mix of songs. i want them to sort of mix into each other, before the next one plays … so that you can hear part of the next song while the first one is still playing. any help with that??

  7. Dan Connor says:

    For quick and simple solution – a lot of commercial burning software can do something like this. What you’re looking for is ‘crossfade’. I’d do a google search for something along the lines of “burn audio cd crossfade”. If you’re really looking to go fancy, almost all audio mastering software can create crossfades with ease and then save that out to a cue sheet and audio image. I use Wavelab to do that.

  8. Johnny Rawk says:

    so in short, a combination of microphone placement, Equalization, Panning, Reverbs, and other full bodied effects, Plus the addition of one’s own artistic skill after gaining the knowledge of how to apply these effects, is how you create depth in song.

    and you really need to read the comments to figure that out.

    Great article though, it really did help explain thoes three aspects of depth creation.

  9. Chris Jackson says:

    I don’t understand how panning can give the impression of depth. With microphone placement, its giving the impression of depth by balancing the volume between the direct sound of the instrument and the early/late reflections of the space the instruments in. Thats the same purpose of a reverb fx isn’t it?

  10. Dan Connor says:

    Chris – you can achieve a lot of depth simply through panning and volume alone. A sound source panned between 100% and 50% with reduced volume will sound further away from the listener than a sound source panned hard center, left, or right. Pop a song into mono and you’ll note that the song sounds much flatter than its stereo counterpart. You are correct about early reflections vs. direct signal and reverb provides a notion of depth, but panning either source appropriately will change the way the the depth information introduced by the reflections is leveraged in the context of the recording.

  11. jordan says:

    depth is related to space which is what panning does. It creates a space where you perceive the instruments you are listening to. Spreading them out in the right way gives them room to breath and doesn’t cramp them into one zone. Thats why we love stereo . It gives us CHOICE. If you really want to learn about space and DEPTH then read an article on surround sound mixing. ;)

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