Most of the time the simplest answer is best. Need more midrange? Grab an EQ, boost the midrange. Need to control the source more? Volume automation or compression. Easy. But sometimes we face strange challenges - like how to get more bass in the kick without running out of headroom, or how to make something sound bright that doesn't have anything above 7k except hiss. Well, where there's a will there's a way.
Sometimes the way is just a little less predictable. So with that said, here are 7 counter intuitive mixing techniques pros regularly use to solve unconventional problems.
Low Passing A Sound To Make It Brighter
What? How can using a low pass filter make something brighter? Well, let's say you have a distorted guitar. It's power goes up to about 5-6Khz, but after that it's just noise. A treble boost will bring that noise out, clog up your mix, make the guitar harsh. Instead, use a low-pass filter with a very steep slope. This does two things - first it cuts out the noise and distortion. Second, it actually accentuates the tone at the corner frequency - so while you might be attenuating everything above say 6k (for example), you're actually boosting the 6k region. This happens because the EQ generates resonance right at the corner of the pass band - and it's actually pretty clean and clear!
Adding Mid Range To Get More Bass
When we want to hear more bass in a bass, or kick drum, or other low endy element, the obvious solution is to gain the low end up. However, sometimes what we really want to do is just draw more attention to the bass element. We can do this by adding midrange in - pulling up the thud of a kick or the gnarly overtones in a bass. This pulls our ear to the element, telling us that there's more of it there in it's entirety - even if it's only just more midrange. This can be very valuable when you don't have much headroom, or there's something else competing for attention in the low end.
Using Compression To Make Something More Dynamic
But wait, doesn't a compressor restrict dynamic range? No, it doesn't. It attenuates a signal that exceeds an amplitude threshold. In most cases that will restrict the dynamic range. However, if the attack is long enough, and the threshold is low enough, a compressor can actually exaggerate the attack. This happens because the compressor allows the front of the signal to pass almost unaltered, but still pulls down the sustain of the signal, making the attack more prominent relative to the sustain. This can be very useful when trying to bring life to an already over compressed signal (over compressed... compress it some more!) - or for getting some serious snap into a dull drum sound.
Sharpening Transients Before A Limiter On The Master Buss
If you are using a brick wall limiter on your master buss, chances are you are doing so to make something loud. And to do that you want the maximum amount of headroom available. So why on earth would you use a transient designer in front of a limiter. Wouldn't exaggerating the attacks run out your headroom faster? Well, yes and no. Technically yes, but remember that these things aren't perfectly mathematical. Sharpening the transients can do two things - first you can legitimately get more transient through the limiter and still retain loudness just because a transient designer is a boosting in a different way than the limiter is cutting. Second, the limiter is pulling down everything in the mix. That means while your kick hits harder for that 10ms, your bass gets attenuated for that 10ms as well. The attacks will poke out clearer in the mix, thus exaggerating the dynamic perception. Warning: sometimes this sounds like crap, so use it when it works, don't use it when it doesn't.
Using Distortion To Make Something Sound Cleaner
Now that really doesn't make sense. In what way could distortion possibly make something sound "cleaner"? If we define clean by clarity of tone rather than by purity of the original sound, we can use harmonic distortion to make something sound more "polished." Light amounts of harmonic distortion will exaggerate the overtones in a source. Our brain uses these harmonics to tell us what exactly we are hearing. It's kind of like saying we are going to make this clarinet more "clarinet-y" by emphasizing its partials.
Using Reverb To Make Something Sound Closer
Remember that reverb is used to create a sense of space. Without reverb, it's hard to define the front to back relationship of elements in a mix. Contrasting elements that are wet with room sound to elements that are almost entirely dry can actually create a more "in your face effect" than simply leaving a sound 100% dry. The key to doing this is to keep your forward elements sent to a reverb that is 1) Primarily Early Reflections and (2) Has a high pre-delay. The other effect of using this kind of an "ambiance" reverb is that it reinforces the tone of the dry signal a little, which often makes it pop a bit forward as well.
Mixing Quietly To Get A Louder Record
Not that I feel loudness is absolutely paramount to a successful mix, but in todays climate of iPods, noise ridden listening environments, and DJ controlled play lists, it's important that the record lives within the same general vicinity of apparent loudness. Or to say it another way, the record shouldn't sound out of place amongst the other records being played shoulder to shoulder with it. Getting a mix to sound loud without losing tone, dimension, or punch can be very daunting - especially when the references of todays mixes are as loud as they are. So I'll say two things - first - trends are showing that the loudness wars are easing off in pretty much every genre except EDM - so aim to make your mix maybe a little quieter than your references. You'll have a much easier time getting the mix to hang together. Second, mix your record at low monitoring levels. The reason this works is because it forces you to create energy and excitement when loudness is not an option. This will force you to be more selective about EQ and compression settings, as well as general levels and imaging. When all said is done you'll find that a record that creates the impression of a big sound at low levels will sound absolutely huge when it's cranked.
Now it's your turn! Drop a couple of your own unexpected / counter intuitive mixing techniques in the comments.
This article is sponsored by Quiztones frequency ear training apps for Mac OS X & iOS. Quiztones is a frequency ear trainer for amateur and professional audio engineers, producers, and musicians. Quiztones is brought to you by Audiofile Engineering and is available as a mac app or mobile version for ipad or iphone via the App Store.