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 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 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.
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.