14 Ways to Achieve Mixing Clarity

This is an interesting topic to explore and when I first decided to write an article on mixing clarity, I realized just how broad this subject was.  Not only that but mixing clarity really is subjective; it could mean one thing to one person and something completely different to someone else.

So instead of trying to cover every angle that I thought was important, I decided to enlist the help of some friends of Modern Mixing, who happen to be very talented Mix Engineers.  I simply just asked them to give me their thought on how they perceive mixing clarity and then I would add their thoughts to the article, where appropriate.

Mixing Clarity is Song Dependent

I don’t mean that one song will be muddy and the next will be super clean, what I’m saying is that how you approach each mix, to achieve clarity, will be different.

Some songs are just meant to be left natural like classical or jazz, while other styles need to be mixed more aggressive like Pop or Rock.  So if you’re mixing John Mayor or your mixing Linkin Park, how do you get them both to sound clear given that they are polar opposites in sonic texture?

Arrangement and Sound Selection

Sometimes as engineers we have to be magicians and create sounds that didn’t exist before but nothing ever replaces a production that has been well crafted through sound selection and arrangement.

If the producer spends enough time making sure that the instruments are not fighting each other (or the vocalist) than it makes it that much easier to achieve clarity in a mix.  At that point we can focus more on balance and emotional impact and focus less on repairing and playing with the arrangement.

On the technical side we have obvious things like being able to hear every instrument in the mix.  To be fully honest, this kind of clarity really starts before I ever get the record to mix.  Most of the clarity comes from the arrangement and the sound selection.

In a well done arrangement you can take any two instruments and one of two things will apply.  Either a) the two instruments are doing highly related and supplemental things (for musicality), yet are different enough so as not to step on the toes of one another, or b) the two instruments are doing the same thing and can be considered one sound (even if octaves apart). It’s one of those ‘all or nothing’ kind of games. What you want to avoid is two instruments doing sort of the same thing, but not quite.  When this happens you get what people typically refer to as “clutter.”

Chris Carter (Producer/Mixing Engineer)
Psychology of a Mix Engineer: Chris Carter (Interview)

The Balance of the Mix

Without a doubt I think that the balance of the mix can often be overlooked when it comes to getting clarity.  Now the balance doesn’t just have to stop at faders and pan pots because every little processing decision will alter the balance.

I think that if you muster up a good balance at the start and then work at making little adjustments as you go along, to fine tune the balance, then you are on your way to achieving clarity in your mixes.

From that point it’s about finding the congestion and removing it or maybe adding a little bite to a sound to help it cut.  If the balance is there (or close), it just makes the decision making a lot easier.

I feel you have to start from the ground up.  Checking your phase relationships (mainly in your percussive and rhythmic tracks) is a good starting point.  Even programmed drums can have phase issues that should be addressed from the start.  getting a good balance from the start will also help.  A view of the whole picture of the song can help place things and ensure that everything comes out nicely.

Ghislain Brind’Amour (Mixing Engineer)
Psychology of a Mix Engineer: Ghislain Brind’Amour (Interview)

Removing and Gating Excess Noise

It’s really surprising at how many sessions I will get where all the recorded parts haven’t been edited.  So when ever the singer isn’t singing or the guitar isn’t playing all you hear is a bunch of bleed from the headphones and rumbling noise in the background.

Get rid of all that unnecessary noise when you can.  Be anal about it because it all adds up at the end and could be the main reason why the track sounds muddy or unclear.

Another potential problem is that if you have a lot of headphone bleed and it is all over the record and its multiplied with numerous tracks, then you could potentially be introducing phasing at some point.  This is especially true if there is a slight delay in the recording set up.  Phasing is bad (in most cases) and will always thin out a sound, especially drums.

Tuning The Drums

Realistically we want everything in the record to be in tune, especially the vocals but I think the drums are the thing that are the most overlooked.

You would be surprised how a slight pitch correction on a kick drum can literally make it pop out of a mix.  Sometimes a dull kick isn’t actually a dull kick, it’s just not tuned properly.

Also tuning the snare up a bit can pull it into a higher frequency range and make it stand out more so you don’t have to resort to EQ or maybe compression. I mean I wouldn’t do it, just because, I would make sure I think it’s a tuning issue before doing anything because EQ may actually be the better decision.

How do we know when it’s in tune?

That’s a good question and is not really that easy to answer.  I mean I guess you could put it into some pitch correction software but I would prefer to trust my ears.  Just grab a plug-in that will let you manually adjust pitch and then start bumping it up or down.  Once you feel the kick or snare come to life and pull through the arrangement, then that’s probably a good indication that it’s in tune.

High Pass and Low Pass Filters

So another concept for creating clarity would be the use of HP/LP Filters.  Just be careful with the filtering because it is easy to overdo it.  You can also read my article on why I don’t think it’s a good idea to HP everything or this article I wrote on why I think less is more in mixing.

This concept is pretty simple; you take a high pass filter and remove the low frequencies of a sound that don’t really need to be there.  On the other side of the spectrum you can use a low pass filter to take out the higher frequencies of a sound that either doesn’t need it or has too much of it.

If the arrangement and sound selection are good, you really don’t need to use much filtering but it really can help clean things up and result in tighter mixes.

The only time where a lot of filtering might be necessary is when everything has be recorded live off the floor and there might be a lot of unnecessary low end rumble (or noise) in each track.  High passing everything in this case would be a good idea but only when used sparingly because you can really alter the tone of each track and end up with a thin sounding record.

One thing I’m not a fan of is running around EQing the snot out of everything trying to make it all fit.  There are certainly situations where I will need to do that, but rather than simple EQ, I’m more apt to use brute force HPFs or LPFs and it’s anything but subtle – I use HPFs and LPFs primarily to change the sound rather than to “make stuff fit” because I believe making things fit with subtle EQ works only marginally at best.  We aren’t talking about HPFing a synth at 150Hz to make room for the bass line.  If that were the case, I could probably get things to fit another way.  We’re talking a HPF at 800Hz or something radical.

Chris Carter (Producer/Mixing Engineer)
Psychology of a Mix Engineer: Chris Carter (Interview)

Subtractive Equalization

I’m a pretty big fan of subtractive EQ and use it quite a bit.  The amount I use would really depend on the record and how good the sounds are that I get.  That said there is always some form of subtractive  EQ.

The following are a few reasons to use subtractive EQ

Resonance – This is most noticeable when something has been recorded live.  It sounds like a frequency is ringing and almost won’t go away.

Mud – Sometimes this can be confused with resonance but it’s not.  I hear this as a build of frequencies in a specific range that take away from it’s clarity.  For vocals it could be 200-400 and it effectively makes them sound cloudy and unclear.

Making Room – Sometimes you need to use subtractive EQ to take out frequencies on one instrument so that another instrument has room to be heard.

Once the balance is close I believe you can start thinking about offending/conflicting frequencies (Eq’s and compressors can help, but don’t underestimate the power of the fader and the pan pot!) . from there addressing the songs dynamics can help keep things clear. a combination of compression and automation can help you at this point.

Ghislain Brind’Amour (Mixing Engineer)
Psychology of a Mix Engineer: Ghislain Brind’Amour (Interview)

Additive EQ

Another more common approach to equalization is additive, meaning you take a particular frequency band and boost to bring up more of those frequencies.  This is not only used for clarity but also to add energy to a sound.

Additive EQ takes a long time to get right and even then it’s still a learning experience as every equalizer sounds different.  A 3 dB boost on one EQ will sound much different than a 3 dB boost on another EQ.

With instruments like Pianos and guitars, sometimes a little 1-5k boost can really make the instrument cut through, especially in a dense mix.

I also like to add a bit of EQ on the MixBuss when the mix is done or while its getting close to being finished.  It really depends on the EQ you use but I find with the SonEQ Pro I can boost a generous amount around 8-12k and it doesn’t sound harsh or ruin the mix, it just takes what you have and makes it better.   Maybe with an SSL style EQ, the same boost applied to the MixBuss, could potentially destroy the mix.

Like anything else, additive EQ can be abused; every instrument doesn’t need an EQ boost.  I prefer to listen and if something is screaming for some EQ, then I will apply it but I really try to focus on the balance as much as possible.

Most people do the obvious and add more 10k here or more 12k there.  But, if you’re not careful, pretty soon the whole mix is going over the high end cliff.  I always use a combination.  Sometimes I use EQ, exciters, multi-band compression with a little make up and sometimes even placement in the stereo field will bring clarity to a specific element. It just all depends on the sounds in the song.  What I can definitely say is, I rather have mastering add high end to my mix than take it away.  After years of doing this you’ll find that balance that is just bright enough and ready for your mastering engineer.  Allow them to add that last sheen and gloss to your mix!

Lu Diaz (Grammy Award Winning Producer/Mixing Engineer)
Psychology of a Mix Engineer: Lu Diaz (Interview)

Processing Your FX Returns

So you’ve loaded up your favorite reverb or delay but it just seems to be cluttering up your mix instead of making it more musical.  This is a good time to start thinking about processing your fx returns.

A little compression can go a long way in making sure that a delay or reverb remains “in check” so that it is more consistent and easier to place in the mix.

If you are working in a dense mix that’s a bit dark in nature, equalizing your reverb return can be useful if your reverb is also a bit dark.  High passing or rolling out some of the low frequencies can help to thin out the reverb and place it better in context with the balance.

The possibilities are limitless but those are some easy examples to start with. Just use your imagination and try some new creative ways while processing your FX.

Addressing your Fx returns (reverb. delays, chorus etc…) and tailoring them to your track will also help keep things clear.  Sometimes presets on something like a reverb will work, but from my experience you usually need to go a little further with the sound design of your fx.  Eq, compression, saturation, or even some other time based effect (sometimes all of them together!) can help you get the fx to really fit in with the song.

Ghislain Brind’Amour (Mixing Engineer)
Psychology of a Mix Engineer: Ghislain Brind’Amour (Interview)

Distortion or Saturation

Often times when we hear the word “Distortion” we think dirty so how can it be added to the mix to make it sound clear?

Well when using subtle amounts of distortion we are adding something to the sound that didn’t exist before and therefore altering its timbre.  If we can alter it enough where it’s not sounding overcooked then we can bring out some more of the midrange in the sound.

The midrange of the frequency spectrum is where our ears are the most sensitive.  So if a sound can be focused more into the midrange than our ear will be able to hear it better in the mix.

Saturation and/or distortion is a great start in helping to separate a kick drum and bass guitar.

Now bringing forward the midrange is not the only thing that distortion or saturation will do but it is a start in knowing how it can add clarity.  It will also add a bit of compression (leveling the peaks) meaning it can be placed easier in the mix.  It can also help in making something sound a bit more full or thick – tube and tape style saturation come to mind here.

So don’t be afraid to overdrive those analog plug-ins, I do it all the time and it sounds great!

Sample Replacement or Layering Samples

We can try our best to use what we have been given but there are times when we just can’t make a miracle happen.  At this point we can take advantage of sample replacement.

Maybe we need a kick to push the speakers, so instead of boosting a tonne of low end on the flimsy kick we were given, why not just layer one underneath and we can have the best of both worlds?

Another reason why you may want to replace or layer samples is because the kick or snare just isn’t cutting through in the mid range.  Maybe you were given a kick drum that is pure sub and will never be able to have a proper mid range click.  You could replace it or just layer in a kick that has a mid range click.  It is important to make sure the kick that’s used also fits the vibe of the song.

There are also times when replacing samples is the only option because the original sounds don’t work as well in the arrangement, or the because original sounds aren’t high quality.  Having better sounds can make the world of a difference in how clear a mix sounds.

I’ve even layered real live played guitars underneath fake VST gutairs because I wanted to get a live and natural feel.  I could have replace it but I didn’t want to alter the original sound too much, just enhance it.  What I wanted was some of the noise, the slides and also the subtle uneven movements between notes.

One thing I try and avoid is sample replacement.  That’s kind of like the aforementioned middle finger to the producer who chose that sound for a reason.  So I only replace sounds if it’s absolutely necessary.  Even then, I will usually try and blend a new sound with the old one so as to keep most of the original sonics.  This can work for kicks and snares, but generally doesn’t work so well for other instruments like guitar, piano, etc.  When it comes to those more troublesome instruments, I do my best to find a way to make the less than ideal sound work in my favor.  Sometimes this means putting the sound in a different context by using a more unorthodox effects approach.

Chris Carter (Producer/Mixing Engineer)
Psychology of a Mix Engineer: Chris Carter (Interview)

Clipping Your Way to Clarity

This happens less than the other techniques but it does happen from time to time.  This is more for transient driven instruments like drums, percussion and sometimes acoustic guitar.

I would really just take a plug-in that I know will digitally clip on the output and then hammer it.  You will notice how much more your kick or snare will smack.  This needs to be done with caution and might even be more useful when used in Parallel.

Transient Designers

These little buggers are not often talked about but in the right context, they can really be a useful tool in achieving clarity.  You can do a lot of similar techniques with compressors but they always sound slightly different.

One psycho-acoustic phenomena that happens with transients is when they are enhanced, the sound will appear to be closer.  Same thing applies if the transients are dulled the sound will appear to be further back.  This is not a 100% sure fire method but it’s definitely a good starting point.

So there are a few things we can do with transient designers and it’s up to us to determine when and where we are going to use them.  We can use it to get more attack, get less attack, get more sustain or shorten the sustain.

Just with those four ideas alone, we can do a lot to many different type of sounds.  I will just give you one example:

Let’s say you are given a kick that is a bit tubby and has a long sustain.  You can hear the sustain audibly getting in the way of the track by lasting too long.  At this point to try and relieve some of the tubbiness we could try to add some attack.  Sometimes that alone will correct the sustain portion of the kick but if it doesn’t than we could also pull down the sustain to make the kick a little shorter.

Hopefully when we are done we will be left with a kick that is punchier and fits the rhythm a lot better.  This way the kick is not trampling all over the rest of the instruments or drum sounds.

Emotional Clarity

I left this one until the end but that’s not to say that it is the least important.  Often times when we look at clarity in our mixes we assume it’s something technical (and often it might be) but in order for the mix to translate to the listener, the song needs to be conveyed clearly.

It’s not just about hearing the words but truly feeling the emotion and what the singer is saying. It is the job of the mix engineer to either enhance that feeling or just not screw it up.  At that point the song becomes much more clear to the listener.

Buried beneath all those sounds and waveforms are real people who put their heart, soul, blood, sweat, etc. into the record.

Some of this is obvious, like with lyrics.  But much of it becomes more subtle.  With every mix I really make a concerted effort to get rid of all my preconceived notions and just listen to the thing and let it tell me what it feels.  I want to be in the mind of the singer or the character of the storyline and feel their desperation, angst, love, intimacy, whatever emotion they are trying to convey in that record.  And more than anything else, I let that guide all of my mix decisions, even at the expense of technical factors – because at the end of the day, it’s the emotion of the record that moves the consumer…

…If the emotion of the record is not communicated with clarity, then there really is no reason for someone to want to buy the record.  It is my job as a mixer to try and understand the emotion of the record and not just preserve it, but enhance it with maximum clarity for the consumer.

Chris Carter (Producer/Mixing Engineer)
Psychology of a Mix Engineer: Chris Carter (Interview)

Conclusion

So you can see how mixing clarity is a HUGE conservation and can be quite subjective.  But learning little techniques here and there will all add up in the end and help get the clarity your mixes deserve.

I tried to make this article as content rich as I possibly could but I’m sure there are many more techniques that could be added to this list.  All in all there is no one specific way to get from point A to point B.  What’s more important is that you get there.

Hopefully this article on mixing clairty sparked some fresh ideas and inspired other engineers to go back and grind out another mix.

  • Phuzion1

    Someone being negative below. Pointless. I was expecting to read the same old bullshit mixing advice. This however is an artice that I agreed with every single bit of. I think the saturation advice is good and I saturate everything. If only in tiny bits, it does good when all combined, Transients again excellent but I would mention also to match it with compression. I love to boost transients, compress tails, gate the ends off and then replace the gated ends with very subtle reverb to soften the gate. It tears my RAM up but especially good for snares and kicks, trans, comp, gate, rev, saturate, does great things. Another thing that can rip a baseline up in the mix and sounds like heavy saturation a little is to forget about the compressor and just smash it with a limiter. I rarely compress bass, I like the aggression a limiter can give it. I also like to transient boost afterwards so after I have crushed the sound a bit throw the transient back up to give a good attack/pluck. Anyway I’m going on with myself. Great article, impressive.

  • Monte Emerson

    I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that this article could be written better. While I think that your intentions are well, I am not convinced that you understand the subject material well enough to articulate it. Fixing your use of homonyms would be a good start. however.. more particularly I am refering to your section on filtering and EQ. It just seems to me like you are regurgitating stuff that you’ve read. From experience using Highpass and lowpass filters, along with Tilt filters and EQ, I find that the reason mud is apperrent in some mixes is because of the same phenominon that is created during micing up a sound with the sound source too close to the mic. this is called the proximity effect. When you have a lot of information that finds it’s way into your low mids, which is typical of music, because we play chords, we play drums, and other things that fill that space. you can roll off the lows with melodic instruments with a high pass filter to reduce its impression against other instruments or sounds. The high pass filter simply places the sound farther back in the mix. If I had a band that I placed every player really close together, you’d get this mud just because of how close everything is together. In physics, sound tends to bandpass filter with distance, and that is what you get when you overlay a lowpass anf highpass filter over eachother. To clarify and underscore my point, EQ and Filtering is a part of setting your staging, not just changing the color of your sound but placing each element in a virtual space.

  • Many thanks for this great article!

  • John

    wow nice writeup, this is classy advice. Not what i was expecting

  • Jon

    good stuff. I’ve been recording and mixing for decades but only recently have been using subtle distortion here and there. And the last point is probably the most important, getting the emotion to be heard.

  • Such a nice article 🙂 Great collection of little tips.