There are two ways that we hear sound: the direct sound i.e. when our ear is close to the sound source. Secondly, we hear sound within a three dimensional space. As mix engineers, we create this three-dimensional illusion between the speakers by placing the sound at different points across three planes of space – height, width and depth- using panning, frequency and balance.
Height: up and down
The frequency gives the illusion of height within the mix and the tool use to manipulate frequency is the EQ. For this reason it is wise to have an understanding of frequency, so you will know which instrument should be low and which should be high in the mix.
Generally low frequencies appear low in the mix and high frequencies appear high. Could be the reason why the tweeter is on top and the woofer is at the bottom whenever speakers are stocked. This makes sense because no matter how much you cut the high frequencies from the cymbals and boost the low frequencies you will never get that rumbling energy as you would get with the bass.
Width – left to right
This is the simplest to achieve, by spreading each instrument in the mix at different points across the stereo field using the pan-pot and that’s it.
The further right or further left you pan the sound the wider the mix will sound. Keep in mind though that there is stereo width plug-ins out there that can give you this illusion without panning
Depth – front to back
This is where you paint the illusion that an instrument is either further back in the mix or right up front sticking you in the face. A lead instrument such as a lead vocal tends to stick out front in the mix, while instruments such as the background vocal (duh) lingers in the background.
There are two ways to achieve this front to back illusion when mixing. The first and simplest way is with the volume fader. When you turn down the channel fader the particular instrument on that channel with sound further back in the mix. The lower the volume is, the more distant the instrument will sound.
The way to achieve this front to back illusion is to use the compressor/limiter and EQ or the reverb and delay. You can use the compressor and the limiter to raise the volume of the sound, which trick the ears that the sound is out front in the mix. You achieve this effect with the EQ by boosting frequency in the presence range. Using a long delay and/or reverb will make it seem as if the sound is further away from the listener.
Remember that we are talking about the place between the speakers and that space is limited. The more instrument section you have in the mix, the harder you will have to work to place them so that different element isn’t fighting for attention, frequency and space across the panning spectrum.
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