Working with Ambience and Creating Depth
In this short e-book I take a closer look at another of my favourite subjects: working with ambience and the art of creating depth in a mix. The concept of depth is very important when trying to create mixes which have a 3-dimensional feel (rather than flat mixes, which are just taking place between left and right).
This relates to moving sounds back and forward in the sound field, and gives you the sensation that some sounds are further away, while others are closer to the listener. By achieving a great depth you will therefore also create mixes that sound bigger, more exciting and more expensive.
When talking about creating depth, the first words that come to mind are probably “reverb” or “ambience”. However, as you will see in this book, there are many other ways of achieving similar results. Even when trying to create a dry and very intimate mix, it is important to make sure that it has some level of depth and spaciousness (even though this can be very subtle). I will be discussing some of the techniques I use daily, in order to create depth and more 3-dimensional sounding mixes.
Before moving on to more specific tips, I think it’s important to underline that achieving good depth in a mix is all about contrasts.
Many mix engineers try to make every element in a mix as clear and bright as possible, and always “in your face”. But by doing that, everything will be competing for attention at the front of the mix, and the result will be a very 2-dimensional sounding track.
The most important thing to remember when mixing is to always aim to create contrast, by allowing some sounds to be less bright, less wet, and less loud. At the end of the day, it is the contrast between bright and dark, wet and dry that creates the sense of depth and size. In the same way, one sound has to be quiet in order for another sound to be perceived as loud.
Therefore, an EQ can be just as useful as a reverb, when trying to achieve a sense of depth and space. As a rule, the less bright a sound is, the further back in the mix it will appear. Rolling off some low-end can move it even further back in the mix. I often do this with backing vocals when trying to make them appear as if the backing singers are behind the lead singer.
Keep this advice in mind the next time you are working on a mix, and you will start to see all the possibilities there are.
The importance of having a vision
Just as I mentioned in my first book, “The Art of Compression”, before reaching for any piece of equipment or plugin one must always have a clear vision in mind. What is it you are trying to achieve? And (in relation to the subject of this book) in what kind of acoustic space should this song take place?
When working with live instruments, and especially if the whole band were recorded together in a great space, this is a lot more straightforward. There will already be a lot of natural ambience in the recording, and I often simply try to reinforce what is already in there. In this case it might be a question of how much of the original room acoustics should be featured in the mix.
However, there are situations when one is given a song to mix that is supposed to sound atmospheric, but that was recorded in a very dry space. In those cases, as a mix engineer, one must design the space from scratch. The same relates to electronic/programmed music, which has no natural ambience to begin with.
There are other cases when the producer wants a song to sound very dry and intimate, but still have some depth and sense of space. In these situations one needs to be more inventive, and to look for ways to create a more subtle and “invisible” ambience. This is a situation when it’s useful to know alternative methods, in order to push sounds backwards and create a sense of spaciousness. I will talk more about this in chapter 5.
When mixing, I always try to figure out what the song, recording and production is about, and what kind of environment it should take place in (unless it’s already obvious from the recording). I always try to carefully place the song and its elements into a chosen space, one that suits and benefits the song. I might start by asking myself questions such as:
1. Should this song take place in a big or small room?
2. Is it a warm or a cold room?
3. Should the mix be wet or is it calling for a dry sound?
4. Does the song require a natural sound or a more artificial or surreal ambience?
5. Which elements of the song should be at the back of the mix, and which do I want to be closer to the listener?
TO READ MORE ABOUT AMBIENCE/DEPTH, CHECK OUT MY E-BOOK, THE ART OF CREATING DEPTH IN A MIX
Note: You don’t need a Kindle to read it, as it can be read on any device.