On Musical Perspective, Depth, And Enchantment In A Mix

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While I’m not a visual listener (and definitely not a synesthetic one), I do think about mixes as a landscape that unfolds over time, as you, the listener, ride through it on your the vehicle (bicycle, scooter, car) that is your hearing, your perception, your taste. You notice so many things as the landscape wizzes by. In the foreground, the lines on the pavement and the small trees that line road are a blur of activity. In the distance, rolling hills and forests pass more slowly. And far on the horizon motionless mountains meet the still sky. The whole scene is bathed in sunlight, but it’s late in the day and there are a few scattered clouds about, so the light is changing slowly but subtly, bright over here but casting shadows there. When you look around you from the perspective of your moving self through the landscape that is the music, you notice various musical things happening on different timescales. Each rate of happening here provides you with a perspective on what is happening over there. Taken together, the passing road, rolling hills, motionless sky, and play of light create a sense of ever-changing depth in the visual mix you experience as you move through it.

With this image of the mix as a landscape in mind, your most impactful production technique is to exercise as much control as possible on as many sound qualities that you can perceive in the mix as it unfolds over time. The goal is not control for control’s sake, but control for the sake of creating enchantment. Enchantment in a mix can happen in many ways, but its most essential form is a mix that conjures that sense of 3D depth you experienced in the landscape as you moved through it. At minimum you need to create a perspective whereby some sounds are up front and some at the back, some in the center and some off to the sides, some sounding quite clear and present while others more indistinct and faded. A surprising amount of this perspective can be created simply through careful adjustments to the volume, EQ, and panning of parts so that they inhabit the stereo field that is the space between the Left and Right sides of the speakers (or those little earbuds you may be wearing right now). 

You can make more subtle adjustments to the mix’s perspective through more elaborate means. In general, “bright” sounds are sounds with a lot of high frequency content and percussive onsets (e.g. a high bell sound). These sounds tend to sound both thinner and physically closer to the listener. “Dull” sounds are sounds with more low frequency content and less pronounced onsets (e.g. a low pad sound). These sounds tend to sound thicker and further away from the listener. Most (though not all) mixes have some combination of such bright/thin and dull/warm sounds to “fill out” the sonic frequency spectrum in a pleasing way. Your subtle adjustments can play with the typical sound profiles of sounds so that they morph and appear to take on new identities and spatial locations in the mix. 

In addition to a sound’s timbre, its inherent pulsations further shapes our sense of the mix’s perceived depth. Consider a simple (if maybe dated) example of a rock band, whose drummer plays a 4/4 rhythm with backbeats on 2 and four, and subdivides the quarter note pulses with 8th note hits on the hi hat. The band’s bass player fills in the beats with the same 8th note thrumming, while the guitar player doubles the time feel with 16th note strums. On top of this, the singer sings long phrases with quarter, half note, and whole note rhythms. All of the musicians take their rhythmic cues from one another, fitting in their parts so that everything subdivides everything else, or at least syncs up somehow. It all makes for a pleasing composite musical textures because the band has at least three different rates of pulsation going on. Their song has some pulsational depth—even before we consider the chords, the melodies, the lyrics, and so on. But an even more interesting example of pulsation is the electronic music producer whose music moves well beyond such syncing relationships so that the music’s multiple parts relate to a common pulse (or not) in elaborate and ever-changing ways. This is achieved by using sequences or loops of different lengths, or through effects that impart oscillation to otherwise static sounds. If done well, these multiple rates of pulsation sound less like a locked clock and more like a flowing landscape, less like a marching band and more like a field of hocketting crickets making “interesting rhythms of astonishing complexity” (David Rothenberg, Bug Music, p. 76).

Finally, in addition to adjusting timbres and pulsations, the producer can use effects such as reverb, delay (echo), and compression to shape how we hear a sound’s presence and its distance from us. Any element in the mix can sound bone dry or drenched wet in reverb, or buoyant and weightless through delay. It can sound heavy and flat, or, when compressed just so, energized to the point that it sounds like it’s ripping apart the speaker cones (or those earbuds you’re wearing). So: using even the most conventional of sound-shaping tools, the producer has many ways to shape the music into a landscape we might like to move through to experience its depths and its enchantments.  

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