If you have been mixing for any length of time you’ve probably heard that there are three dimensions in music: width, height, and depth. If you can use up all 3 of these dimension than your songs will have clarity, depth and space in your mix. Width would be achieved by panning things left and right or in between. Height would be achieved with volume; loud is up and quiet is down.
Then there is this third dimension, which is referred to as depth and is generally perceived by how wet or dry a signal is. By adding more delay or reverb to a sound, you are effectively placing it farther back in the mix. Leaving it dry is keeping it upfront in the listeners face. But let me tell you that reverb is not the only thing that helps to create depth in a mix. Did you know that EQ can also be used to create depth?
It’s All Just A Big Illusion
Mixing really is just a big smoke and mirrors show and our job as mixing engineers is to use the tools we have to try and fool the listener into hearing something intentional. We want the final product to sound like a real band playing in a room with each musicians parts being heard. This can be difficult as there aren’t any visual cues like real concert.
During a live performance I can quickly check out the band to see who is playing what and how intense they are. This really does help tell me where to focus my attention during the live mix. But during a recorded performance I need to create the space and depth so that the consumer can have a similar experience. We would then reach for an effect like reverb, to push an instrument back so that something else can remain forward in the mix (ie Vocals).
You Don’t Actually Need Reverb
Here’s something to take into consideration: When a sound is close to us in the real world, it tends to sound brighter and clearer. On the flip side, sound that is further away tends to sound less focused or duller, if you will. A simpler way to put it is that sound that is farther away tends to have less high frequency information and sounds that are closer have more. This is something that we can use to advantage in our mixes.
If you are going for an effect that pushes a sound back in the mix, instead of reaching for a reverb plugin, why not try rolling off some high end frequency information? By rolling off more of the high end, the instrument will sound less present and up front. As a result the unaffected tracks without a low pass filter, will sound closer and more in your face.
Every Track Can’t Be The Main Focus
If every track is pushing for attention ad wants to be upfront then we can’t assume that the mix will sound balanced and clear. Our ears won’t know where to focus as they will be bombarded with sound. A good mix truly is one where everything has it’s own space either through the use of reverb or EQ. So don’t be afraid to try new tactics to push sounds back in the mix.