Trompe-L’Oreille: Notes On An Enchanting Mix


Hieronymus Bosch, The Conjurer (c. 1496 and 1525).

An enchanting mix is a sleight of the producer’s hand–a kind of conjuring trick–insofar that it creates the impression that you’re hearing more than you’re hearing, or that somehow the music extends beyond what you’re able to hear—as if it’s fooling your ears. But by what means does a mix sound enchanting, and what can the producer do to move a mix towards an enchanted state?

In his 1992 article “The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology”, anthropologist Alfred Gell explains how the power of art derives from the magic the artist has managed, somehow, to exert or compress within the work in the form of symbolic processes which in turn provoke a strong reaction in us. “The peculiar power of works of art” says Gell, “resides in the symbolic processes they provoke in the beholder, and these have sui generis characteristics which are independent of the objects themselves” (48). Gell uses the example of John F. Peto’s 1894 painting, “Old Time Letter Rack” to illustrate the conversion process he’s talking about. For Gell, the “magic exerted over the beholder by this picture is a reflection of the magic which is exerted inside the picture, the technical miracle which achieves the transubstantiation” (49). Here is Peto’s painting:


I learned that “Old Time Letter Rack” is an example of a trompe-l’oeil (“fool the eye”) painting, a style that uses realistic imagery to create an optical illusion that what is depicted exists not in two, but three dimensions. The style has existed since antiquity, where it was first used in murals in Greek and Roman times. The concept was applied to ceiling paintings in 16th Jesuit century churches, flourished in the work of 17th century Dutch painters, and later, among Spanish and American artists. The (excellently titled) 1874 painting, “Escaping Criticism”, by Pere Borrell del Caso, is a vivid example of a trompe-l’oeil whose subject matter literally jumps out at you:


I’ve been thinking about Gell’s work and also the concept of trompe-l’oeil as they pertain to music production, and specifically, mixing music. Although I’ve mixed my own music for years, I’ve only recently dived deeper into its complexities and realized how difficult it is. What makes mixing difficult is that not only the puzzle-like aspect of balancing many different sounds and making each of them appropriately audible, but also creating a sense of what Gell calls “the magic which is exerted” so that the music appears to move beyond the recording’s frame.  

Conventional wisdom on mixing is helpful here. It advises the producer to think of music in not one, but four dimensions. The first dimension is the left to right, stereo field. (Yes, there is surround sound, but let’s stay in stereo.) Sounds can be placed anywhere along this field, from the far left to the far right, or anywhere in between. Sounds can also move around. While you might keep a snare drum or lead vocal in the middle of the field, other percussion or background voices can move around the sides, for example. The second dimension of the mix is its top to bottom frequency spectrum. High frequency sounds like cymbals we hear as located high up or on top of the mix. Low frequency sounds like kick drum and sub bass we hear as located down below. And mid range sounds like marimba or guitar sit somewhere in the middle. Each of these sound types with their different frequency ranges occupy a different stratum of the mix’s overall frequency spectrum. The third dimension of a mix is its front to back aspect. Sounds that have sharp attacks and crisp timbres generally sound in closer proximity to the listener than sounds with slow attacks and mellower timbres, which sound further away. Adding reverb to a sound can also make it sound further away, while reverb-free dry sounds sound up close and personal. The final dimension of a mix is its sense of motion over time. Any sound can move about the stereo field, any sound can move (to some degree) about the frequency spectrum, and any sound can move from a far back depth to an up close one, and vice versa. These movements imbue the mix with a sense of 4D motion, independent from whatever rhythmic motion is already happening through beats, interaction of parts, pulsations of effects, and so on. That’s a lot of moving parts!

One of the essential tasks of the electronic music producer is to devise ways to put this conventional mixing wisdom into action with the goal of making the music more enchanting, so that you hear and feel things that aren’t obviously audible, and come away with an impression that seems more than the sum of its parts. Think of it as a trompe l’oreille, or ear-fooling. While there are no formulae for how to arrive at this enchantment, I have found a few concepts popping up in my own work as I pursue the edges of perceptual magic:

Think about contrast. Bright sounds let you hear the dull sounds, low sounds let you hear the high ones, full textures let you hear the sparse ones, slow lets you hear fast, and so on. There’s probably a famous proverb about this, I just can’t think of one at the moment. 

Think about compensations. When one part comes up, something else should come down, or else everything will be coming up and competing with everything else for your attention, creating that situation once described by Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, who asked on behalf of all of us: “Can I have everything louder than everything else?” Even if it’s just for a brief passing moment done in a subtle way, have one musical thing foregrounded at a time. 

Think about musical lines. Each part can have its own arc over the piece—a journey it goes on that is its own. Even if the listener doesn’t consciously notice this line, perhaps it’s felt nevertheless? Who knows, maybe a good part of musical perception is our not fully conscious perceiving of such details.

Think about continuity and surprise. The way to make the music un-boring is through change, disruption, and surprise. Please don’t be boring. 

Think about efficiency. What is the least I can do in the mix to make the maximum emotional impact?

Think about accumulations. Trust that individual mix changes made over time will accumulate as layers and thereby have a composite power based on this layering.  

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