The Rule of Thirds and How it Applies to Mixing

The concept of The Rule of Thirds, in regards to photography, states that your points of interest should line up with one of the horizontal or vertical lines.  Now if you really think about this concept and compare it to music it seems kind of silly.  That being said we can still use some of the ideas from this concept and apply it with good results.

Applying The Rule of Thirds

In this post I am explaining how I interpret The Rule of Thirds when it comes to music and should therefore not be taken as the end all be all – It definitely shouldn’t be taken too literally.   My advice is to take the original concept and see how you think you can relate it to mixing music.  I’ll give an example; there are some theories about this concept in regards to front, middle and back, but I personally don’t subscribe to that.   That doesn’t make those theories wrong and my theories right, it just makes for a good conversation.

The No Fly Zone

The Rule of Thirds

So when I’m Mixing I’m picturing every sound I hear in front of me.  Some sounds are sharper and are easier to pin point while other are a little more blurred.  Some sounds are up, some are down, some are left and some are right.  If you refer to the tic tac toe board to the left, I drew a red circle in the centre.  Now that circle kind of represents a NO FLY ZONE so to speak.  The general concept is that everything should be cleared from there.  I’m not saying that no sounds will ever be in that space, but were trying to create an illusion that the sounds will be higher and also lower in the mix.  Almost every mix that I’ve studied has, for the most part, sounds around that red circle but not in it.

Move Everything Out of the Middle

Clearing Out The MiddleThere 4 things that occupy the centre are usually the kick, the snare, the bass and of course the vocal.  So in the second example here the blue shading represents all sounds put together.  A side note, I wasn’t accepted into art school, shocking I know. Next I used orange for the bass, green for the kick, red for the vocal and yellow for the snare.  I also added brown and yellow on the sides which can represent a couple important instruments in the mix (ie guitar, piano, etc).  The green is in there twice, how come?.  Well this is because when I hear the kick drum it takes up 2 spaces.  One in the upper mids, chilling out with the vocals and the snare and the other part in the low register with the bass.  Normally I picture the bass in a similar fashion with a nice low mid presence and an extreme low presence, I just didn’t represent it in the picture.  So in order to achieve the height there is a variety of things you can do but I mostly view it in frequency.  The hole in the middle, to me, is anywhere from about 250 Hz up to about 600 Hz.  So once all the sounds are blended and you start using subtractive EQ to clean the mud in the vocals (if there is any), they start to move up, COOL!.  And adding some top end doesn’t hurt.  I’ve also noticed that effects like Reverb and delay help in achieving height in a mix.  But a little bit definitely does go a long way.  The next easy way to get the stuff out of that centre space is to pan, which is pretty obvious for most people.  But panning alone isn’t enough, those instruments still need to be shaped.  The best way to hear if your panned instruments need shaping is to reference the mix in mono.  Make sure that the balance is good in mono and that the No Fly Zone is represented well and doesn’t sound cluttered.

Keep an Ear Open

So next time when your mixing and checking out some reference mixes, listen to see if you can hear what I’m talking about.  See if you can notice the height and hear how there is a hole in that middle space in the song.  Good Luck!

YouTube Video Source: The Rule of Thirds