Mixing is primarily about balance, and a big part of the overall balance of a mix comes from its “dimensionality”. The concept of mix dimensionality can be both straightforward and difficult to get right, and so I want to share some winning strategies in this article to help you make your mixes more dimensional.
What is mix dimensionality, and how do I make my mixes more dimensional? Mix dimensionality is based on the 3 dimensions of height, width and depth and creating a sense of space in the mix. To make our mixes more dimensional, we need to focus on creating contrast in the height (frequency content), width (stereo content) and depth (perceived depth) within the mix.
Of course, there's a lot more to unpack from that simplified answer, and I'll do just that in this article.
I have a video where I go into detail about the concepts and tactics of creating dimensional mixes. You can check it out here if you're interested:
The Mix Dimension Of Height
Height refers to the frequency content of a track or mix. It’s in the language (low-end refers to the bass, and high-end refers to the treble). The contrast and balance of frequencies within this range give us the dimension of height in a mix. Filling out the frequency spectrum will generally yield better results than not.
Naturally, low frequencies travel through the floor/ground while midrange and high frequencies are rapidly absorbed. Most frequencies travel just fine through the air, so the dimension of height is a bit of a stretch, though it's worth considering in this way.
The Mix Dimension Of Width
Width refers to the difference between the left and right channels, which largely coincides with the differences in sound arriving at our left and right ears. Width is created by panning tracks and using stereo effects, including time-based effects (delay and reverb).
We can naturally detect the direction of a sound from left to right (and all around us) by the differences in timing in which a sound source reaches each of our ears. If a sound source hits our left ear first, even by the slightest time difference, we'll perceive that sound as coming from the left. The same goes for the righthand side.
Note that our sense of directionality breaks down at lower frequencies as the wavelengths become longer than the distance between our ears. We tend to perceive low-end energy as being omnidirectional. It's important to keep this in mind when mixing and to keep low-end elements in mono, generally speaking.
The dimension of width in the mix taps into our auditory systems' automatic response to place sound sources around us.
The Mix Dimension Of Depth
Depth refers to the perceived distance between the listener and the sound source (track) in a mix. In the real world, we can approximate the distance between our location and the location of the sound source intuitively. Depth is created by altering levels and high-end frequency content, transient shaping, and time-based effects (delay and reverb).
We can naturally tell, with some degree of accuracy, how far we are from a sound source, even if that sound source is loud or quiet.
Of course, the perceived level is a major factor in our perception of depth. In fact, sound waves follow the inverse square rule, which states the intensity of sound decreases by about 6 dB (6.02 dB) for every doubling of distance from the sound source.
However, the overall frequency content, the echoes and reverberation, and the transient information are all calculated by our auditory system to give us a sense of how far a sound source should be.
The Importance Of Contrast In The Mix
Now that we understand the concepts of height, width and depth, it's important to understand the key to producing them within a mix. That key is contrast.
In terms of height, we can't have a tall mix without top-end and bottom-end.
In terms of width, we can't have a wide mix without a strong centre image.
In terms of depth, we can't have a deep mix without close elements and distant elements.
Everything is in reference to everything else, so keep the idea of contrast in mind when crafting dimensional mixes.
And now, with the concepts out of the way, let's get to the strategies for creating dimensional mixes.
Strategies For Taller Mixes
Let's consider a few strategies for achieving more height in our mixes.
I should start by stating that we're focusing on stereo mixes here. We can get more physical height in surround sound formats that include height speakers (such as 5.1.2 or 7.1.2). However, with stereo mixes that don't have distinct channels for height, we're more so concerned with the overall frequency content of the mix.
The best way to get a “tall” mix is to have a good balance across the frequency spectrum.
The first strategy for height in a mix comes from the production. We need tracks with information in the bottom end, the top end, and everything in between if we want height in our mix. Without that, it will be difficult to do anything in the mix.
Assuming we have the raw tracks with the potential for height, we need to consider the separation between elements as the primary mixing technique for maximizing height.
Nowhere is this more important than in the low-end. If we want a clean, powerful low-end, we need to reduce or even eliminate low-end energy from most of our tracks. If there's no musical information down there, it's generally best to get rid of it.
In high-pass filtering out low-end noise and rumble will make more room for the tracks with musical low-end information that's actually important for the track.
The same can be said about midrange and high-end frequencies, though to a lesser extent. Be wary of frequency masking in the mix, use EQ properly, and you'll get decent results in terms of the height dimension.
Honing in on contrast, we can automate the overall height in different sections of the mix. As a simple example, we can band-pass the mix bus for the verses of the song and either automate the band-pass filter off or automate its bandwidth to expand for the choruses. Doing so will give us contrast between the verses (which are “shorter”) and the choruses, making the choruses seem like they have more height.
Of course, we don't have to be so dramatic with our automation. Simple high-shelf and low-shelf boosts or cuts applied to different tracks in different sections can yield nice, dynamic changes in height throughout the song.
Strategies For Wider Mixes
Before we get into the strategies for wider mixes, I want to mention the idea of phase correlation and phase correlation meters.
Your digital audio workstation should come with a stock phase correlation meter that you can insert of your mix bus to better understand the phase relationship between the left and right stereo channels of the mix.
A phase correlation meter's scale spans continuously from -1 to +1 (or from 180º to 0º).
At +1, we have 100% correlation between the channels (they are exactly the same).
At 0, we have the “widest permissible left/right divergence” or the widest permissible stereo image.
At -1, our left and right channels are completely out of phase and will completely cancel each other out.
As we might infer from the information above, having the mix bus correlation meter moving between 0 and 1 is ideal. Smaller variations mean smaller differences in width.
So in order to get a wide mix, we want differences between the left and right channels while still retaining a strong centre/mono image. This backs up my point on contrast being key.
With that out of the way, let's consider a few strategies for improving the sense of width in our mixes.
First and foremost, we need to create differences between the left and right stereo channels. This is done primarily with panning and stereo effects. Don't be afraid to pan things out, and remember that contrast is key.
And speaking of contrast, the LCR panning strategy is popular for a reason. LCR stands for Left Right Centre. It's a panning strategy where we either pan elements hard left (left channel only), centre (both channels equally), or hard right (right channel only). This gives us maximum contrast and also gives us a strong centre image for improved mono compatibility.
Of course, we don't have to use strict LCR panning, though I believe it's a good basis for most panning decisions, especially if we're looking to get a wide mix with good contrast.
In addition to panning the tracks within the mix and utilizing stereo effects (notably reverb and delay), we can also opt to use the following:
- Doubler effects, which effectively combine panning, delay and detuning to yield a widening/doubling effect.
- The Haas effect, which utilizes stereo delay with delay times under 40 ms to widen the sound without causing a perceptible delay/echo effect.
- Stereo widening plugins that widen or narrow stereo tracks (or the mix bus) — we can also opt for parallel stereo widening if direct widening is too much.
Furthermore, we can utilize mid-side processing on many modern plugins. Mid-side processing (or mid-side matrices) effectively converts left-right stereo information into mid-side information; that is, it splits the audio into what's common between the left and right (the mid channel) and what's different between the left and right (the side channel).
By processing the side channel, we can effectively process the perceived width. By automating any processing on the side channel, we can modulate the width of the track and mix.
And speaking of automation, we can automate the perceived width of the mix bus and individual tracks or subgroups throughout the mix to offer even more contrast between different sections.
This all helps to give a greater sense of width and space in the mix.
Strategies For Deeper Mixes
The dimension of depth is perhaps the most intuitive yet the most difficult to explain objectively. Rather than being technically about the frequency content or the stereo content (like height and width, respectively), It's ultimately about our perception.
We naturally have a sense of depth in real acoustic environments and in mixes. Let's discuss a few strategies for improving the sense of depth in our mixes.
The primary tool for depth in a mix is the fader. Having certain tracks louder and others quieter will give us that contrast. All else being equal, the louder elements will sound closer, and the quieter elements will sound further from the listener.
Beyond that, reverb is an incredibly powerful tool for width. It can really help place elements within the spatial dimensions of the mix.
The more reverb there is on a signal, the further it will sound. We can adjust the wet/dry mix or the track and effects return balance to adjust how much reverb effect there is on a track relative to that track's level.
But beyond adding reverb to push elements back, we can also use it to set certain tracks against a space. What I mean by that is that we can have drier, closer elements and use still use reverb to give a sense of space behind the element and between the element and the listener. The trick here it to dial in the size of the reverb correctly and also to hone the pre-delay and initial reflections to keep the initial transients relatively dry.
Speaking of transients, we can dull the transients of a track with fast-acting compression (fast attack settings) or with transient shapers to help reduce the sense of proximity, thereby pushing a track further from the listener. Conversely, we can enhance the transients of a signal to help bring it closer to the listener.
Finally, we have the aforementioned option of adjusting the high-frequency content. Once again, we will hear less of the top end of a sound source as we move further from it, so attenuating the top end of a track can have the effect of pushing it back in the mix while boosting the top end can make it sound closer.
As always, to enhance the contrast throughout the song, we can always automate the parameters mentioned above (the relative levels, the amount of reverb and reverb parameters, the transients and the top-end EQ).
Why do my mixes sound thin? The top 8 reasons your mixes sound thin are:
- Lack Of Low-End Frequencies
- Insufficient Arrangement
- Phase Issues
- Poor EQ Choices
- Not Using Compression
- Not Using Saturation/Distortion
- Not Using Time-Based Effects
- Overly Wide Stereo Image
For more information, check out my article 8 Reasons Your Audio Mixes Sound Thin & How To Fix Them.
Why do my mixes sound muffled? The top 8 reasons your mixes sound muffled are:
- Lack Of High-End Frequencies
- Build-Up Of Low And/Or Midrange Frequencies
- Poor EQ Choices
- Overly Competitive Arrangement
- Too Much Limiting
- Too Much Distortion
- Over-Represented Time-Based Effects
To learn more, check out my article 8 Reasons Your Audio Mixes Sound Muffled & How To Fix Them.