Cerating Mixing Depth

13 Advanced Concepts for Creating Depth in a Mix

The concept of creating depth always seems to stem from the use of effects, you know, using delays, reverbs and things of those nature.

So why is that when we try to use these effects processors, our mixes sound flat and washy but not three dimensional like we are lead to believe?

In this article, I am going to explain why your mixes aren’t sounding three dimensional and provide you with some ideas to set you on the right path.

Also, in this article I’m actually going to show you that depth goes beyond the use of just effects. In fact, the subject of creating depth is linked to so many different aspects of the mixing process that it’s no wonder why it’s so hard to explain.

Nonetheless I will attempt to scratch the surface in this article.

Creating Depth Comes Mostly From Instinct

The first point that has to be made is that a three dimensional mix shouldn’t be at the forefront of your mixing decisions.  The purpose of any great mixing engineer is not to try and create width, height and depth (or any other technical mixing term for that matter). Instead the goal is to create a very pleasing and emotional listening experience so that the song can be properly communicated to the listener.  As a by-product of these efforts, you will get all of those nice things like width, depth and height.  It just sort of happens along the way.

This is exactly why most engineers can’t explain how they achieve depth because it’s not something they are necessarily trying to create. They’ve developed their ears so well over a certain period of time that they just understand what sounds great and they will naturally obtain the depth most amateurs strive for..

It’s more second nature for them and not so much of an analytical approach.  Inf fact, if it weren’t for Modern Mixing I probably wouldn’t have thought so hard about the subjects that I talk about.

Oh well…

Make Your Life Easy and Not Difficult

I use to work as an electrical apprentice and I would always do things the “hard way”.  An example is when I was installing light fixtures, I would climb on counters or step on plaster buckets – anything to avoid lugging the ladder around.

Eventually one of my foreman’s saw what I was doing and told me that while I was avoiding one chore I was also making the actual job much harder then it had to be.  His exact words were “Work Comfortably”.  Oddly that has stuck with me ever since.

So my way of passing this knowledge along to you is through the exact same bit of advice.  If you want to hear depth then you need to get your basic room set up in order to accommodate that.

Basically a good pair of monitors and some acoustic treatment.  I won’t talk about it much in this article because I’ve already talked about it here, here, here and here.  It’s also mentioned quite a bit in my interviews with other professional mixing engineers.

Remember, a room with bare walls and $200 speakers is hardly going to let you hear depth.  If you can’t hear it, than it’s not likely you will be able to create it.

Also, I’m not saying you can’t get a mix using headphones, it’s just extremely rare.  Put the odds in your favor and “Work Comfortably”

Loud VS. Deep

What I really mean is: how loud you want your record versus how deep do you want your record?

Truthfully, I would never put “loud” and “depth” in the same sentence, when talking about mixing.

Wait, I just did…

Anyhow, it’s important to remember that the louder you make the record, the more dynamics you are going to lose (obviously) and the less deep it’s going to sound.  Genres like Pop and Hip Hop are perfect examples where loud and up front seem to be more desirable then deep and open.

Can you still get a mix to sound 3D even though louder and upfront is more of the desired sound?

Yes of course.

It’s just important to know that you are going to loose some of that sense of depth. What’s more likely to happen is you will get a trade off, you loose a bit of depth for a little loudness.

Start With a Great Sound

The most obvious answer to getting sounds to come out front would be to leave them dry. That’s a good start but it’s a pretty simplistic approach and can really only happen under the best circumstance. Really what you need to do is listen to the sound and determine what it actually needs.

When you get a great capture (recording), on great equipment, from a great artist, in a well-treated room and the recording is technically “perfect”, you could leave it “dry” and it would have a TON of dimension to it and it would sound forward in the mix.

The reason is because the high quality gear does a great job of making the mid range focused but does so in a pleasing way, thus it cuts through the mix. Also a properly treated environment will inhibit ambiance in the recording giving your ears some ques on room and space which helps with depth.

On the other hand if the vocal performance is a disaster and was recorded on a $100 setup, in a poorly treated room, then you are going to need to do a lot of work just to get it sit in the speakers and not sound cheap. This seems to be the case a lot more these days.

Remember that a terrible recording is almost never going to have the dimension you want, right out of the box. You are going to need to use some cleaver ingenuity to get it to sound half decent, at best. So step up your recording game, if you can control that part of the record making process.

Why Balancing Will Lead You to Deeper Mixes

I know this subject is getting beat to death at this point but it really is important for a good musical experience as well as creating depth.

This is something most people don’t think about because it just seems like it’s the thing to do. You know “Mixing is all about the balance.”  It’s taken as a necessary step for the mixing process but not so much about what it can do for your mix.

How does it create depth?

Balance alone will not create depth as it is only one part of the process but it allows you to designate space in the record for where each part is going to live. You do this all while listening to each instrument in it’s natural form (no processing).

Now that you feel like you have a vibe going and everything is where it sort of needs to be, you can already hear some of the depth taking place. You’ll hear that maybe the vocals sound a bit up front, the strings are sounding like there in the back and so on.

This will give you a realistic picture of where everything needs to live in it’s natural form.   From there it’s about either enhancing that depth or completely changing it all together.

Try to Visualize the Sound

I’m a big visualizer and I can literally see the sound in front of me as I mix.  I don’t just hear it but I can also see it.  So by visualizing the sound in the speakers, it allows me to place it wherever I want.

You know how people say don’t mix with your eyes, mix with your ears?

I completely agree that you shouldn’t be looking at the screen but what I do is I use my ears and my eyes to create the three dimensional space that I see in front of me.  It’s almost like my ears give me the clues to where the sound is and then my eyes to create the picture.  This helps me build the landscape that I am trying to create.   Try it out if you haven’t done it already.

Try not to get hung up on this though.  Remember the musicality of your mixes come first, way before any concept.

Visualizing the sound is similar to watching a 3D Movie

So you know how when you go see a 3D movie you can see into the screen, as well, things come out of the screen – almost as if they were right in the room with you?

That’s EXACTLY how I hear the sound in the speakers and I wanted to share that with you.

Some sounds are going to be out in the back and kind of create a landscape while others are going to up front and in the room with me.

3d-Speaker

If you take a look at the drawing you can see that all the circles represent the sounds that are inside of a mix and the black box would represent the speakers.

You can see that some of the sounds are in front of the speaker, while other sounds are in the back. Of course, there are other sounds in between.

Sonic Contrast

One thing that you need to understand as an engineer (and even more so as a producer) is that contrasting your sounds is one of the best ways to help create depth in your mixes.

This is mostly done through sound selection. But it’s important to note that it’s not just about choosing good sounds, it’s about choosing sounds that play nicely with each other.

Basically a crappy sounding drum loop might actually fit better in a mix then a clean and perfectly recorded one.

You get the idea…

You are trying to create a vibe through sound selection but also choose the sounds that fit the best together.  In doing so the depth kind of just happens on it’s own.

Here’s a few ways to think about mixing depth in regards to contrast but they can stretch well beyond this:

  • Punch – Mostly in drums and vocals. I prefer when these two things cut and punch is the word I use to describe that.
  • Muddy – It’s okay to have a sound or two that takes up the lower register, even if it’s not the bass or kick drum. Just make sure all your sounds don’t live down there and make sure they compliment the bass and drums and aren’t fighting them for attention.
  • Sharp/Focused – Generally these are going to be the sounds that you really want heard by the listener. These tend to be the things that get the most attention.
  • Blurry/Fuzzy – It’s almost always perceived that having a blurry sound isn’t very good in a mix but I disagree. Remember if it contrasts nicely against other things in the mix than there is nothing wrong with it. A blurry string section against a crystal clear vocal can do wonders for depth. Think photography (foreground and background)
  • Wet/Dry – The most obvious in creating depth but if something is dry it is always going to sound more forward.

Make Things Mono to Make Things Wide

This makes absolutely no sense right?

Stick with me…

One concept that has been brought to the mixing world by Dave Pensado (I think) is the concept of stereo sounds actually being “big mono”.  What it means is that instead of having a sound that is clearly coming from the left or right channel, you have something that takes up a big portion of the speakers, including the phantom center.

If you have enough of these big mono sounds in your mix, it’s going to sound like a big washy mess of sounds with no clear direction from anywhere.

Now I am not the kind of engineer who thinks that all “big mono” sounds are bad, I like how some sounds fill the speakers up.  Sometimes it does a good job of filling those empty spaces.  I usually like how certain bed tracks sounds when they fill up the speakers.  A good example is a pad.

But in a lot of scenarios you are going to get your hands on song with too much “big mono”.  You can tackle this problem in a few ways:

  1. You can use some type of stereo processing to make it wider and maybe eliminate the centre channel as much as you can (harmonizers, stereo wideners, doublers)
  2. You could spereate the stereo file and then treat the left channel differently then the right channel.  If you make them different enough you should be able to remove the phantom image. (Think different uses of compression, EQ or even distortion)
  3. You could separate the stereo file, use one channel and throw away the other.   So now you have a mono sound that you can place appropriately in the mix.  It helps to focus things.  This is something that Ali Stanton does a lot as you will read in my interview with him.

Of course I am giving you a highly condensed explanation and using only 3 examples but if you understand the concept then the sky is the limit as to what you can do.  This concept of “big mono” and removing it from your mixes can do wonders for separation, clarity and most importantly depth!

Distortion/Saturation/Clipping/Tape Emulation

I lumped all of these into the same category because they all do similar things. Yes they all sound different but they are definitely related in what they do.

I find that this can be one the best things you can do to your sounds as far as creating depth. This is still one of those things that’s hard to explain and needs to be experienced first hand.

By driving a sound with a little bit of distortion/saturation, it will gives it just enough life to help it pull through a dense record. Thus, you are creating an illusion of depth. Instead of the sound blending in sonically, you are placing it in front of sounds that may be a little duller and less present.

Also remember that you don’t necessarily need a “saturation unit” to add some grit to your sounds. Almost all plugins these days come with some type of Analog style input/output built into it, which means you can drive it one way or the other and hear all those beautiful harmonics being added to your sound.

Any time you add and sort of harmonics to your sounds, they are going to start to get a little more focused in the mid range. The more you sharpen and focus a sound, the more you will get it to stand out in the mix.

I like to use these techniques especially when mixing vocals, drums and pianos. Experiment though and see what works for you.

Also keep in mind that clipping, whether it’s analog or digital, can be very helpful in getting things to cut and add some dimension to your record.

Frequency Manipulation

It’s no secret that an equalizer is the most commonly used tool to create clarity and separation in a mix. The problem is that it is extremely over used and abused. So instead of clear mixes, you end up with a nasty mess of phasy and harsh sounds.

You want to avoid that as much as you can, so as you’re building your mix, try and focus on getting rid of the things that you don’t like first, before you start adding anything.

By cleaning up any weird resonate peaks, you can get a much more stable sound that will fit better in the record and as a result help with our perception of depth. If something is constantly ringing, especially in the lower register, it’s going to skew our perception of how close or far the sound is as well as trigger weird resonant bursts in any effects (reverbs/delays).

Try NOT to take everything you hear as fact…

One thing that I tend to hear a lot in the topic of creating depth is:

“In order to put something in the back of the mix, you should cut the lows and cut the highs and visa versa for something you want to sound up front.”

This will work to some extent and in theory and in the real world I think that’s generally how sound works, but since music is an art form and not “reality” I’ve found that those perceptions are only partly true.

I almost never cut the high out of sounds I want in the back, unless they have a ton of highs that I need to get rid of.  A big reason is because I’m usually adding some mids and higs to things I want to sit up front (ie Vocals and Drums).  This automatically makes other things sound dull and means that you might not have to cut the highs from those other instruments.

What I’m trying to say is that it mostly comes down to listening.  If you set up your listening environment properly then you can make these judgment calls and not have to take everything you read/hear as fact.

Trust nobody but your ears!

Everything Doesn’t Have to Be Pristine

This is one of the biggest misconceptions about mixing that I read on a constant basis. It really is troubling to be honest with you. The statement sounds something like this:

“Your goal as an engineer is to make sure that every frequency can be heard properly”

That’s complete nonsense. That is not the goal of an engineer and it really is no wonder why so many people are out there looking for “freqeuncy charts” – I know I was at one point.

The goal of an engineer is to make sure the song is being conveyed to the listener in the most efficient way possible. In doing so, there are going to be a lot of sounds and frequencies that aren’t going to be crystal clear but they are there to help support the rhythm, the feel, the body or even the emotion of the song.

I think a better way to phrase that statement is to say that everything important should be heard while everything else supports that.

So in essence if you truly want depth in your mixes, you really have to let go of the notion that everything needs to be crisp and that everything needs EQ.

Some things won’t need EQ and will be a little fuzzy or unclear but that’s okay because that fuzzy instrument is going to make the vocals (for example) sound crystal clear.  Again, this goes back to the concept of contrast.

Give Your Mixes the Dynamics They Deserve

Dynamics are not only a useful tool for conveying emotion to the listener (which is the MOST important thing), they also have this way of helping create the illusion of depth in a mix.

It’s funny because this is truly the one thing that would make most amateur mixes sound much more dimensional.

People are still smashing their mixes through amateur mastering practices and are completely ridding their songs of depth and dimension for a little extra volume.

Your ears need dynamics to fully interpret the data they are receiving so that they can tell you how deep, tall, or wide something is. The more you restrict those dynamics, the more you are going to restrict the dimension of the song.

Of course there are some top mastering guys who can get a mix really loud but still maintain dynamics but they are the 1% that know what they are doing. For most of us home studio owners, it’s a better idea to pull back a little on the mastering and let the track breath. I guarantee you will hear much more depth.

This is the exact reason why I am finding myself mixing with less Mix Buss processing these days because all it does is restrict my dynamic range.  Of course I do like to use buss processing inside of the mix for Drums, Vocals, Guitars etc.  Definitely helps shape the record.

I’m not saying you can’t mix really well with mix buss processing, I’m just saying that I am doing it a lot less.  I usually will add something on closer to the end to hear what the mastering is going to do to the mix and then make adjustments if I have to.  I’ll even leave my “mastering” on and print. 😛

Effect Your Way to a Deeper Mix

And finally we have the effects portion of this article.

So how come I didn’t put this one first if it is so important?

Well it is important, and extremely so but it’s like trying to put the cart before the horse or like trying to build a house with out the foundation. If your mix doesn’t already have some type of definition to it, effects are only going to add to the disaster – not give it depth.

But if everything sounds very nice and musical with out any effects, then you better watch out because when you do add a hint of reverb or delay you are going to hear the magic of 3D come to life.

The first person I ever heard talk about reverb being a front-to-back panner was Dave Pensado and basically that is exactly how I hear it. But I also use reverb a lot of times for vibe and feel not just as a front-to-back panner.

With that in mind, you need to decide what is going to need space in your mix and then also how much space it needs. For instance a drum kit might not need a hall reverb and would probably benefit more from a room sound. Or maybe your drums don’t need anything at all.

Another thing to keep in mind is that less is always more. Sometimes a tiny amount can be just enough to put an aura around a sound and give it a little separation from other things in your mix. You don’t necessarily need to drench everything.

A tiny amount (like 2-3%) on a few different things (not everything), can really give your mix a sense of space that you have never heard before. That is of course assuming that a number of the previous steps in this article are being followed.

So Go Forth and Create Depth!

Again, if your mix is not balanced properly and it sounds like a frequency nightmare, chances are that adding in effects is only going to add more fuel to the fire.

Let me know how this article has helped you and don’t be shy, share the ways you like to create depth.

  • Dan Flynn

    Fantastic article. Most just skim the surface. This one really gives you lots of ideas.

  • Craig Allen

    SO Helpful!!!

  • tunde godwin (Hitunesmix)

    thanks justin for this wonderful insights, this piece has really change my mix…

  • Walterpinoyroad

    Very informative. Thanks alot Justin!

  • Joe Malinovsky

    Thanks Justin. Another helpful on target article for the faithful! Amen!

  • Many thanks.

  • Thank You for the great information. Very helpful and insightful.

    • ModernMixing

      You’re very welcome!

  • Bunmi

    Wow well said ! Another master piece Justin.Thank You

    • Justin Smith

      Thanks Bunmi

  • Every point you made rings true. With clarity as the foundation, I will work to create an artist musical canvas with contrast of focus and controlled blurriness to create a multidimensional masterpiece. Thank You for your thought provoking article on creating depth in a mix.

    • Justin Smith

      Thank you for reading it!!! Cheers.

  • PETER LEON

    Thank You….Extremely useful tips….Keep going….

  • Thank you for sharing this and explaining it so beautifully i can tell it will help my mixes

    • Justin Smith

      You are Welcome!

  • Gaurav Vaid

    Lovely article! Great concepts

    • Justin Smith

      Thank You!

  • always informative ! appreciate all the mixing tips you provide…

    -Jak

    • Justin Smith

      No Problem Jak. Thanks for reaching out.

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