Great mixes have dimensionality, mimicking the three dimensions of the real world: height, width and depth (and time if you consider the fourth dimension). The dimension of height may be a bit more difficult to conceptualize in our mixes compared to width and depth, but it's certainly worth understanding and striving for.
What is mix height, and how can I increase it? Height refers to the frequency content of a track or mix. The contrast and balance of frequencies within the audible range give us the dimension of height in a mix. The sense of height can be enhanced in the following ways:
- Contrasting elements
- Filling out the frequency spectrum
- Reducing frequency masking
- Automating height between sections
In this article, we'll discuss height in the mix in more detail and consider several strategies for improving this dimension.
What Is Height In A Mix?
It's important to note that I'm 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 (and related speakers) for height.
Surround sound formats can certainly have a physical sense of height if the playback system is adequate to produce such channels accurately. But again, we're concerned with the overall frequency content of the mix when discussing height in this article.
So then, the dimension of height in a stereo mix refers to the frequency content. 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.
The universally accepted range of human hearing spans from 20 to 20,000 Hertz. While we're relatively insensitive to the extremes, our mixes can often benefit from filling this range for maximal “height”.
That stated, having less energy in the extreme low end can help make our mixes louder by improving headroom in the mix. Furthermore, we naturally lose our high-end sensitivity as we age, and some digitally compressed audio files even reduce high-end information to reduce file size.
So in order to have sufficient height, we must have contrast between the low-end and the high-end. Another way to describe height, then, is the bandwidth of the mix. The wider the range of frequencies, the “taller” the mix. Conversely, narrower frequency bands, even if they're made of high frequencies, are considered “shorter”.
Enhance Mix Height With Contrasting Elements
As I just wrote, the dimension of height (like all other dimensions in the mix) comes from contrast. The “high” frequency content of a mix has to be relative to the “low” frequency content, even if these relations and distinctions are taken for granted.
It's the same with width and depth: we can't have wide elements without narrow elements, just like we can't have distant elements without close elements.
And so the best way to enhance the height of the mix is to have low-end, midrange and high-end elements within the mix.
Consider the fullness of a choir, complete with soprano, alto, tenor, and bass voices. Not only is there a homogenous chorus of voices, but there are also low (bass), mid (tenor and alto) and high (soprano) voices. Of course, it's the low fundamentals that make up our “low-end”, the main harmonics that make up the bulk of our “midrange,” and the upper harmonics that make up our “top-end”, but the idea translates nonetheless.
The same can be envisioned in an orchestra. The large drums, bass and contrabass instruments provide low-end fundamentals. The midrange instruments provide a lot of midrange harmonics, and the cymbals and high-end instruments offer some high-end information.
In modern pop music, the low end is often provided by the kick drum, bass guitar or bass synth, while the high end is generally provided by cymbals, the upper harmonics of high-end instruments, and the “airiness” of the recording (particularly on vocals). The midrange, of which our auditory system is naturally the most sensitive, is provided by the majority of the sound sources (both fundamental and additional harmonics).
If we can balance the contrasting elements appropriately, we can surely achieve a full and tall mix.
Enhance Mix Height With Arrangement
Piggybacking on the previous strategy of including contrasting elements within the mix, we should also use them appropriately in our arrangements in order to achieve a greater sense of height.
Remember that height (and other mix dimensions) is about contrast. Not only should we have contrast elements, but we can also enhance the perceived sense of height by arranging those elements.
If we can arrange some parts with less low and/or high end, for example, we can make other parts sound fuller and taller when the low and/or high end is brought back in.
We'll get to automation shortly, but this arrangement trick can be used to great effect in creating contrast in the height of the mix.
A great example of this, which I really enjoy, is in the verses of Sum 41's “We're All To Blame”, where the first bar has a restricted bandwidth (primarily vocals, toms and guitar), and the second bar has a wider bandwidth (full drum kit, bass, additional guitar and vocals). This pattern repeats throughout the verse sections of the song. The contrast between these two alternating bars modulates the height (and overall energy) of the mix, making it that much more dynamic and sonically interesting. You can check out that section of the song here.
Enhance Mix Height By Filling Out The Frequency Spectrum
I touched on this earlier, but it bears repeating in its own section. If we want a sonically tall mix, it's important to utilize as much of the audible frequency range as is necessary.
The catch here is that the extreme low-end and high-end can often be rolled off for the benefit of the mix. We have a hard time hearing these frequencies anyway, and in many cases, they only serve to muddy the mix and eat up headroom.
So rather than striving to fill the entire audible range from 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz, we should aim (if we want a tall, full mix) to use as much as is necessary to achieve the result we want.
Enhance Mix Height By Reducing Frequency Masking
Frequency masking is a psychoacoustic phenomenon where two or more sounds with similar frequency content obscure each other when they happen simultaneously.
The similar sound sources effectively “mask” each other, and our ears have difficulty perceiving them as distinct sound sources.
When there is significant masking happening in a mix, the individual elements become difficult to hear. While this doesn't necessarily affect the frequency content of the mix (which is a primary driver of perceived height), it does reduce height by way of muddying the individual elements that make up the low, mids and highs.
Since harmonics are so important to the tone and timbre of instruments, any masking of the harmonic content of an audio signal or sound wave can reduce its clarity. It's also why two instruments in seemingly different ranges can mask each other (their harmonics may overlap even if their fundamental frequencies do not).
So then, to maintain clarity and help enhance the perceived height of the mix, be wary of frequency masking.
I also have a video dedicated to frequency masking that you can watch below:
Enhance Mix Height By Automating Height Between Sections
Much like using arrangement to our advantage to produce contrasting height between different sections in the mix, we can also use automation to achieve similar results.
Automating a high-pass filter's cutoff/corner frequency upward over time is a common technique in electronic dance music. The high-pass filter is then bypassed or instantaneously dropped back down at the “drop” section to give a perceived sense of power, fullness and height as the drop begins.
“A great subtle example of this is in Bingo Player's “Rattle”, where along with the arrangement differences, the low-end of the snare drum is automated out in the build-up starting at 1:08. You can listen for yourself here.”A great subtle example of this is in Bingo Player's “Rattle”, where, along with the arrangement differences, the low-end of the snare drum is automated out in the build-up starting at 1:08. You can listen for yourself here.
This technique can be used subtly to great effect, even in non-electronic genres. If we want our chorus to sound bigger/taller, we can automate an EQ on different elements or the entire mix bus so that there's more low-end and/or high-end in the chorus than the sections surrounding it (especially the section right before).
I've written an ebook dedicated entirely to mixing with automation as part of my “Mixing With Series”. If you'd like to learn everything you need to know about automation, you can check out ‘Mixing With Automation' here!
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What is depth in a mix, and how do I increase it? Depth refers to the perceived distance between the listener and a sound source (track) of a mix. The mix, as a whole, has a depth dimension dependent on the differences between the furthest and closest elements and the density of elements between such perceived points. The sense of depth can be enhanced in the following ways:
- Contrasting levels and effects
- EQing the high-end
- Transient shaping
- Recording techniques
For more information on mix depth, check out my article Mixing: What Is Depth In A Mix & How To Increase Depth.
What is width in a mix, and how do I increase it? Width refers to the perceived locational and directional differences of sound sources (tracks) within the mix. The stereo mix, as a whole, has a width dimension dependent on the differences between the left and right channels. The sense of width can be enhanced in the following ways:
- Contrasting panning and effects
- Haas effect
- Stereo widening effects
- Recording techniques
For more information on mix width, check out my article Mixing: What Is Width In A Mix & How To Increase Width.