Clarity is ultimately about separation, and in many cases, it's about sculpting the frequency content of our tracks and then not overdoing processing that has the potential to reduce the clarity within our mix. It's simple, but it doesn't necessarily mean it's easy. However, with these tips, I hope I can help you craft clearer, more professional-sounding mixes.
Here are 10 tips for greater clarity in your mixes:
- Get the balance right
- Keep spatial effects relatively quiet
- Reduce frequency masking
- Use panning for separation
- Clean up the low end
- Pay special attention to the “muddy” low-mid frequencies
- Maintain transients (don't over-compress)
- Add presence with saturation
- Boost a little bit of brilliance or air
- Consider sidechain compression
In this article, I'll dive deeper into each of these tips and explain how to achieve better clarity in your mixes.
1. Get The Balance Right
Everything in mixing starts and ends with balancing. I'd argue that simple level balancing makes up more than 80% of the mix. If want clarity in our mixes, we need a proper balance throughout the song.
What elements need to be heard above others? Balance them a bit louder and pan them to the centre.
Think of how vocals are mixed in modern music production (and even in pre-electrical recordings before 1925). Vocals are typically the most important element, and it's no wonder they're mixed above the other elements to be clearly heard throughout the mix.
If we're having difficulty hearing an important track/element within the mix, the simplest way to make it clearer is to bring its level up a bit. Conversely, if we hear significant masking, we can bring the levels of less-important tracks down to make room for what needs more clarity.
Additionally, we have stereo balancing, where we can achieve some amount of separation by panning elements across the stereo panorama — more on this in Tip 4.
This may seem overly simplistic, but it's the truth. Furthermore, we should spend a good amount of time getting the best initial or “rough” mix possible with faders and pan pots, focusing on clarity, power and emotion, before moving on with our processing. Again, it's the most important part of mixing.
I actually wrote an entire ebook going into great detail on the importance of faders and pan pots. The ebook is aptly named ‘Mixing With Faders And Pan Pots‘, and it's part of my Mixing With Series.
If you'd like to learn more about mixing, I have a free Mixing Guidebook that goes through the most important parts of mixing workflow to help you make the right decisions at the right times and craft better mixes with greater consistency. Sign up for my newsletter below, and I'll send you your copy right away!
2. Keep Spatial Effects Relatively Quiet
Delay and reverb are important effects for creating a sense of space and dimensionality in a mix. Creating a sense of space within the mix is part of the greater mix balance and also helps to enhance separation and clarity when done correctly.
We can place elements in the perceived field of depth, width and, in some instances, height, with delay and reverb.
For more information on mix dimensionality, check out my article How To Make Your Mixes More Dimensional (3 D’s Of Mixing).
However, if you've even been a bit heavy-handed on these time-based effects, you'll know how easy it is to wash out elements within the mix. Too much delay (in level, delay time, feedback/regeneration/repeats, etc.) will distract from the original dry sound. Similarly, too much reverb (in level, reverb time, decay, initial reflections, etc.) will wash out the original dry sound.
So the easiest way to avoid cluttering the mix unnecessarily with time-based effects is to mix them low. The way I like to think about spatial effects, in most cases, is that they should be felt without being heard. It's a fine line, but balancing them appropriately can give us that sense of space for different elements within the mix without drawing attention to the time-based effects or cluttering the mix.
Note that I advise in nearly every situation to set up the time-based effects on effects return channels.
You can learn more about this routing technique in my article Mixing/Recording: What Are Auxiliary Tracks, Sends & Returns?
Beyond adjusting levels, there are a few strategies I'd like to share to help mix spatial effects for a better sense of space without worsening clarity.
The first is to reduce the build-up in the low-end and low-mid frequencies, which are competitive even before we add delay and reverb. One of the benefits of setting up these spatial effects on return channels is that we can then EQ them independently from the dry source(s). Spend some time to carve out frequencies in the low-end and low-mids to make room for the dry tracks. I write about this more in Tip 5 and Tip 6.
Similarly, we can reduce the top-end, but this is more so to create a sense of distance than it is to necessarily add clarity.
The second is to use what I call “dynamic delay” or “dynamic reverb”, which combines delay or reverb with sidechain compression. We set up the delay or reverb on its own return channel and then insert a compressor afterward with its sidechain insert set to the dry track being sent to the return channel.
This is a common process I use for vocals, which allows the dry vocal to duck the delay/reverb when it's present to give the vocal more clarity, and then between vocal lines, the delay/reverb can swell up and fill the space with a sense of depth and width.
The third is panning mono delay and reverbs, which can help to solidify an already-panned track's position if panned to the same direction. We can also opt to pan the delay/reverb to the opposite side to create more space.
But to recap the point I'm trying to make: don't mix your time-based effects too high if their role is creating space in the mix. If you have the habit of doing this, stopping will make a massive improvement in the clarity of your mix.
Note that I'm writing specifically about time-based effects for creating a sense of space. All bets are off when it comes to using delay and reverb as effects.
As part of my Mixing With Series, I also have dedicated ebooks on delay and reverb, named ‘Mixing With Delay‘ and ‘Mixing With Reverb‘.
3. Reduce Frequency Masking
This tip is more generalized, and we'll get more specific in Tip 5 and Tip 6, but I think harping on frequency masking separately will not only help set the stage for future discussion but also offer some additional insight beyond focusing on the low-end and low-mid frequency ranges.
Frequency masking happens when two or more sounds compete for certain frequency bands and become ill-defined within those bands. They effectively “mask” each other, and our ears have difficulty perceiving them as distinct sound sources.
Frequency masking desensitizes our hearing and causes us to lose separation and balance in the mix. In other words, it reduces the clarity of our mix.
Here are a few common clashing elements to be aware of:
- Kick drum and bass.
- Bass guitar and guitar.
- Guitars and pianos (both acoustic and electric).
- Vocals and everything else.
- Background vocals and pads.
If you’re having trouble identifying frequency masking across the greater context of the mix, try starting with these elements.
It’s critical to note that frequency masking is practically impossible to eliminate. There will always be overlap in the frequency content of our tracks — that's ultimately what mixing is. However, if we're losing clarity between multiple tracks when they're all sounding simultaneously, we can check for frequency masking and help improve the clarity of such elements.
In general, it’s better to cut frequencies from a less-important track (or tracks) in the “masked” range than to boost those of the more-important track. The former reduces competition (removes masking), while the latter increases competition. Either strategy will push the important element out, but the latter has a higher risk of overloading the frequency range in question.
4. Use Panning For Separation
Stereo mixes have been the standard for quite some time now, and while Dolby Atmos seems to be taking strides in “market share” within the modern music industry, we know that we'll be working primarily with multi-channel mixes.
And with multi-channel formats, we have the ability to alter the waveforms from one channel to the next. Our primary tool for doing so is the pan pot, which allows us to pan tracks around the stereo (or surround sound) panorama. For the sake of simplicity, let's focus on stereo mixes.
Stereo mixes, having two channels, offer us the ability to separate elements across the left-to-right spectrum. For example, it's not uncommon to pan guitar tracks hard left and hard right to help separate the different guitar takes from each other and from the centre elements (often the kick, snare, bass and vocal).
By altering the directionality of tracks within the mix, we can add more clarity to our elements with the added bonus of greater perceived width.
Of course, it's important to maintain a strong centre image for width and mono compatibility, so we shouldn't go too far in separating our elements with panning, but panning for separation is certainly one of the techniques we can use to enhance the clarity of our mixes.
To learn more about the intricacies of panning and mono compatibility, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• What Is Panning In Mixing And Music Production?
• Mixing: What Is Mono Compatibility & Why Is It Important?
• What Does Summing To Mono Mean? (Audio & Mixing)
5. Clean Up The Low End
Cleaning up the low-end will do much more than just help with the clarity of the mix, but let's focus on the clarity benefits in this article.
Cleaning up the low-end means removing unnecessary low-end information from tracks that don't provide anything musical in the sub-bass and bass regions. This is typically done with high-pass filters, though low-shelf and bell-type cuts can do the job as well.
In removing noise from the low-end, we can make more room for the tracks that actually have musical information in the sub-bass and bass. This helps to clarify the mix's low end, making it that much more powerful.
The issue is largely due to the long waveforms of low frequencies. Because they're so long, phase issues are much more noticeable. Any noise will not only interfere due to frequency masking (see Tip 3) but also because of the intermittent destructive and constructive phase relationships between the noise and the actual musical low-end information.
So don't be afraid to high-pass filter tracks that don't benefit the bass response of the mix.
I put together a video discussing the importance of high-pass filters that you can check out here:
As an additional tip, before we move on, it's highly beneficial to keep most (if not all) the bass frequencies in mono (panned to the centre) to keep strong phase relationships between the left and right stereo channels in the low end. This can help improve the overall clarity of the mix as well.
6. Pay Special Attention To The “Muddy” Low-Mid Frequencies
Another frequency range that requires special attention when it comes to mix clarity is the low-midrange, generally from about 200-500 Hz.
So many instruments have significant energy in this range, particularly in their fundamental frequencies and first few (most important) harmonics. As energy builds up in this range across many different tracks, we get an increasingly “muddy” mix. If you've even heard that term thrown around, this is the issue it's referring to.
This is a specific example of frequency masking I want to touch on in this article. However, while frequency masking, in many cases, will have between a few tracks in a defined frequency range, when it comes to the low mids, we're often contending with the majority of our tracks.
So then, to enhance the clarity of our mix, we'll often have to cut energy from this range (loosely from 200-500 Hz) in order to make room for tracks of higher importance.
A lot of energy is to be had in this mix, so I try to keep energy in the more driving tracks (guitar and bass, most often) while perhaps cutting from other tracks. Note that we may be able to cut a bit more aggressively (if need be) from our percussion tracks in this range, especially if there are resonances to be taken down anyway.
7. Maintain Transients (Don't Over-Compress)
Transients are the short-lived, harmonically-rich amplitude peaks that happen at the beginning of sounds. They're largely what define the tone/timbre of a sound and also play a major role in the dynamics of an audio track.
Transients are sometimes referred to as the “attack” of a sound and are particularly important on percussion instruments (tuned and untuned).
So, in other words, transients are important for the clarity of a sound and should therefore be maintained throughout the mix for improved clarity.
Preserving transients means not using processing that minimizes their energy, or at least not to the point where the processing diminishes the clarity of the track and mix as a whole.
Compression is perhaps the biggest culprit of transient dulling, especially if the attack time is fast. Fast attack times mean that the compressor will reduce the gain quickly after the incoming signal surpasses a set threshold. Since transients have a lot of energy, they're the most likely to trigger the compressor. If the compressor is set to compress very quickly, it will reduce the energy during the transient, thereby dulling it.
That stated, we can also use compression to enhance the perceived dynamics of our transients by lengthening the attack time. If we can make the compressor lag between the time its threshold is surpassed (by the initial transient energy) and the time it reaches its full gain reduction (to some point noticeable point after the initial transient energy), then we can give the sense of sharper, more dynamic transients.
If you're interested, I discuss compressor attack time in much more detail in my article Dynamic Range Compression: Attack & Release Controls.
Other ways we can preserve or even enhance transients are to boost a bit of the mid and upper-midrange frequencies (to push the harmonic information of the transients upward) and to utilize transient shapers, which can either increase or decrease the dynamics of the transients.
8. Add Presence With Saturation
Speaking of harmonics, we can also enhance the clarity of certain elements within the mix with saturation.
Saturation generates harmonics in an audio signal and can therefore be used to help bring up the perceived presence of a signal (by introducing more midrange frequencies).
Note that we need to remain aware of frequency masking and that saturation is often best used on sources that are either already at the front of the mix and need extra clarification or on tracks that don't have much midrange information to begin with and are, therefore, hard to hear in the mix (kick drum and bass elements are commonly saturated for the latter reason).
9. Boost A Little Bit Of Brilliance Or Air
Some tracks (particularly lead vocals) can use a bit of extra top-end “brilliance” or “air” to help them stand out in the mix. This is a small boost in the 10-14 kHz range that doesn't necessarily add to the important harmonics of the track but does help to brighten up the sound in the mix.
It can help make certain elements sound closer to the listener and, in that way, can add clarity and separation to those elements in the mix.
Be careful when boosting the top end though, especially during longer mixing sessions. The high frequencies are the first to be reduced in perceivable level as our auditory systems fatigue, so we can all too easily fall into the trap of boosting more and more top-end as we mix for longer and longer, only to have an unbalances, overly bright and harsh mix at the end of it.
10. Consider Sidechain Compression
Sidechain compression is a style of compression that utilizes a signal other than the input signal to control the gain reduction. Technically, all compressors have a sidechain signal path that is used to control the gain reduction circuit (real or virtual). This sidechain is typically taken from the input of the compressor, but in “sidechain compression”, we take it as a completely independent signal.
In simpler words, sidechain compression allows one signal to control the gain reduction or “ducking” of another signal.
This technique comes in handy for improving the clarity of the mix because it allows us to automatically and dynamically balance the levels of certain tracks (those being compressed) whenever tracks that demand greater clarity are present (those chosen as the signals to drive the compressors).
I mentioned this briefly when discussing dynamic reverb and delay in Tip 2, where we can sidechain compress delay and reverb returns to reduce their level when a vocal (or other track) that is feeding them is present.
But we can use sidechain compression on many other tracks within the mix. A popular example is sidechaining the sub-bass and bass elements to the kick drum in electronic dance music. In this case, the bass and kick both fight for real estate in the low frequencies, so we can use sidechain compression to duck the bass track(s) whenever the kick sounds. That way, the transient and the low-end energy of the kick can be more clearly heard against the reduced level of the bass track(s).
I go into immense detail in regard to sidechain compression in my article The Complete Guide To Sidechain Compression In Audio.
Does mastering make a mix better? Mastering is the final stage of music production, dedicated to enhancing the loudness, fidelity and translation to various playback formats and systems. However, mastering cannot fix a bad mix and can't solve mix-level issues such as the balance of track levels, dimensionality or emotional impact.
How do you balance frequencies in a mix? The frequency balance in a mix should come primarily from the song arrangement. The instrument/vocal choices should complement each other and be recorded at the highest quality possible. When mixing, use EQ and, in some cases, saturation/distortion to alter the frequency balance to suit the song.