6 Simple Ways to Achieve Separation in Your Mix Downs

6 Simple Ways to Achieve Separation in Your Mix Downs
Mo Volans on Jan 26th 2011 with 11 comments
Tutorial Details

* Difficulty: Beginner
* Time: 30 minutes
* Requirements: Any DAW

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Creating a full, rounded and involving mix can be pretty challenging and one of the hardest bits is placing each instrument in it’s own defined space. Once you move past more than three or four elements there is always a danger of things becoming muddy. This is why we need to create separation.

Ensuring that our instruments are clearly defined is not quite as hard as you may think. Like anything else in music production it really comes down to technique and experience. Let’s take a look at a list of ten things that should help you when completing your mixes.
Step 1: Sound Selection

The mixing process really starts as early as the sound selection process. Get things right at this early stage in your project and you could save yourself a huge amount of work later in the mixing process.

The trick is to choose sounds that compliment each other in both timbre and frequency. For example using a large number of instruments that share the same low frequency can create a very confused mix with little definition. Solving this problem would be an up hill struggle.

Selecting the right sounds in Reason 5

Above all keep your mix down in mind when you are selecting the instruments you plan to use in your mix. Most of the time all it takes is to remain conscious of the fact that decisions you make here will have a knock on effect when creating separation between your sounds later.
Step 2: Groove Inspection

Just as important as the sounds you use is the construction of your project’s groove. This is something else to consider during the writing process. If possible try to place key sounds that share similar frequencies in their own ‘space’ in the groove.

Thinking about your sequences carefully can really help during the mixing process

An perfect example of this is the offbeat bass line, with each bass hit sitting perfectly in between a 4/4 kick drum part. With no clashing low frequency parts this is one of the easiest combinations to mix and perfect separation is extremely easy to achieve.

Of course this is a pretty extreme example of perfect groove construction and not many people use this sort of ‘black and white’ programming but it should give you a clear idea of what can work and why. With this in mind you should be able to apply the theory to your own grooves.
Step 3: Kill the Lows

If you follow the simple techniques in the first few steps then you should already be making progress and your grooves may already be sounding pretty good. Add a bit of processing in the right places and things will only get better. One of these processes that is vital to a clean mix is high pass processing.

Pretty much every DAW ships with an EQ capable of cutting lows

I find that removing the low end frequencies from sounds that predominantly live in the higher frequency ranges allow them to breathe and gives the key low frequency sounds their own space as well. You shouldn’t get too zealous here, be careful not too over filter sounds as remove too much and they’ll become coloured and thin.
Step 4: Think About Your Sound Stage

Moving away from frequency related issues for a second, let’s think about our stereo sound stage. Simple panning is one of the most powerful tools at our disposal for creating wide mixes with plenty of separation, so it should be one of the first things you turn to at mix down.

You can start by panning instruments in similar frequency areas. Percussion, guitar and vocal parts are all at the top of the list and can be spread across the stereo stage to create width and definition. Once you have made these initial changes more subtle pan edits can be made to the critical parts in your mix. In only a short time you should be able to make your mix sound more open and natural.

Panning is added at the start of a project in Logic.
Step 5: Less Is More

Once you are a good way into your project you may find that you are still experiencing a ‘fuzzy’ mix, with a lack of definition. One of the main causes of this is simple over crowding.

Try to be ruthless here and ask yourself if everything you are using really needs to be in the project. Try playing back the project with anything less than crucial playing.

Somebody once said to me “If it doesn’t sound good with 10 parts, it certainly wont sound any better with 20.” This really couldn’t be more accurate, if your project isn’t sounding right adding a load of new parts is rarely the answer. Usually less really is more, try listening to your favourite track, the likelihood is it’s not over loaded with elements.

This Logic project contains only a few parts
Step 6: Distance and Depth

Finally let’s think about your mix in a three dimensional sense. We’ve briefly looked at separation of frequencies and how to use panning to give your material width but you can also use reverb to move your instruments backward in the mix, essentially making things sound more distant.

Depending on the size of reverb that is chosen various sounds can be put at varying distances. This contrast between spaces adds further separation to each of the sounds treated.

Logic’s Space designer includes a huge number of varied reverb patches

A good example would be a vocal mix. The lead vocal could be processed with a room or plate reverb, while the backing vocals are treated with a larger hall reverb. Finally any ad libs or effects could be passed through a contrasting gated verb. Combine this montage with some panning and filters and you should have a nicely defined vocal spread.

Most DAWs feature studio quality reverbs now, Reason’s RV7000 is a great example

Obviously this is just a basic guide to just a few key techniques for mastering the art of mixing. Hopefully this will get some of you beginners on the right track and help you tackle your mixes. Any questions or suggestions, leave a comment and thanks for reading!