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Tips on Clarifying your
Pretend you are
in the audience. Where's the keyboard player? Always on the right.
Or extreme left and right if there are two of them. The Drummer?
Dead center. The Guitarists are usually at 10 and 2 o'clock, and the vocalist
is dead center, in front of the drummer. Of course you have seen that
a million and a half times. So set up your classic rock mix with that
as a guide. Center the kick and snare, let the cymbals go a little to
the side. If their is a conga player, put them on the left end.
Use the pan controls to bring a focus to the perspective from the audience.
Front and Back
It may seem obvious, but we need to say it anyway. Instruments that we perceive to be closer are louder and have more of a direct, rather than reflected, sound. The elements of the mix that are important are up front and we hear them most clearly. Those in the back may have more early reflections infused into the main sound of the instrument. In your mix, you might create a reverb just for these early reflections that is separate from the main, hall reverb. Why is that? Consider being at a concert hall. The loud elements may bounce off the back wall and ceiling even though they are up front. Yet the softer instruments in the back may be imbued with reflections but very little of the sound energy may actually bounce off the back wall. Using 2 reverbs helps in this situation.
Creating a "longer" reverb.
An old trick is to first run signals through a digital delay, then to the reverb. We used to have to do this because digital reverb times were shorter than they are today, but the trick still works. In fact, it has been done on so many recordings that it is a bit of a standard. Its just the thing for ambient type soundcapes and may be used to mask imperfect vocal performances, as the delay tends to help mask off pitch notes.
Advanced Texture Mix Tip
Ever wonder why some mixes just jump out at you? It seems like the sound is deep and wide and almost 3 dimensional. There's a number of ways to achieve that, some good, some bad. The most dramatic is reversing the phase on one channel of a stereo mix. Sound just leaps out, but there is a problem. Sum to mono and the whole image disappears, what we know as phase cancellation. Another way to do this is with a combination of a delay and pan controls. You hard pan the mix left and right and add a tiny, infinitesimal delay to one channel. I mean really tiny or the mix will get lopsided. Our ears, conditioned by thousands of years warding off wild animals, can appreciate subtle shifts in the direction a sound comes from. As you add the delay, listen for the sound to "open up". It will if you do this right. Just another thing you can do with simple pan controls.
Panning the Orchestra
There is no absolute way to create a sonic image of an orchestra, but it does make sense to follow a classic seating chart which helps create a balanced, uniform sonic image. Note in the example below, how frequency ranges of the instruments (i.e., how bassy, mid range or treble-like the instruments are) tend to avoid conflict. The Bass Drum is far from the double basses. Also note how they reinforce each other. The Cellos and Violas can play one part distinctly on the right while the violins play a different part of the left. When they all play together there is a pleasing wash of sound, sometimes called a "pad" in electronic lingo. Note that the woodwinds, perhaps the most melodic of the orchestra, are centered. As you go to the right, the sound goes from soft to hard, from sweetness to bratty trumpets and tubby tubas. As you go left, it gets more delicate, with soft horns, piano or harp. In the back, you have your short and louds, like Piatti (cymbal) Snare, Bass Drum and Timpani. In the front, you have the long and softs, the strings.
To pan your MIDI orchestra, 0 should be far left and 127 is far right. You rarely want to set any instrument to an extreme value. For example, Harp, might be set to 20, French Horn to 40, Flute to 60, Oboe to 70 and double basses to 110. The Front strings might be at 40 and the Celli at 89. Don't read these numbers as absolutes, they are just an estimate. Every piece of gear sounds a little different. While all synths have 128 theoretical pan values, many of these values do not do anything to the sound. Some only change the actual sonic position every 3, 7, 15 values, some even 31 values. So experiment, move things around "a little" and hopefully the sounds will fall into their pocket.
Less is Often More
Effects should be used minimally. If a stereo effect is so great that you can no longer pinpoint the instrument, you used too much. Another tip here is doubling and detuning. You can make any instrument dramatically wide, yet centered, by putting the same instrument far right (127) and far left (0) and slightly detuning them by about 5-7 cents. This is a great technique for "wall of sound" like mixes that has strings that appear to "float" on the mix. Use it sparingly though, as hard panned doubles can easily take up sonic space where other instruments need to go.
Its good advice to work up a mix without any effects and apply them sparingly in the final stages. After your ears become accustomed to hearing the "in your face" mix, you will notice that as you add effects the mix will become darker, muddier, and less defined. Again that is a sign that you are going overboard.
A Final Point
What i have hoped to show in this article is simply that conservative settings often play a role in strengthening a mix. You rarely have to pan anything 100%, you rarely have to max any one fader or effects send out. Just little bits of signal going to alternate audio paths goes along way towards giving you a breathtaking sonic image.
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"Life itself is the most wonderful fairy tale"
Hans Christian Anderson (1805-1875)