3 Mix Elements Every Engineer Uses to Create Depth

Whether you’re mixing for a local band or a major label, some things just don’t change. As the mix engineer, your tools are going to stay relatively similar, regardless of the session size or budget. While there are some obvious differences between a major studio’s outboard gear and the plugins on a laptop, we’ve only got a handful of processes that are used to create every single mix.

So, when it comes to creating 3-D space around a stereo (or even sometimes mono) image, it can be difficult to be innovative with your approach. Luckily, learning the ins & outs of these three types of processors will catapult you to the next level.

Best of all? They’re flexible enough to work in any situation where you need to add some space to a mix.

From Closets to Cathedrals

The first and most common tool used by engineers is reverb. Every recording has reverb on it in some way, shape or form. For those new to recording music, they usually don’t even realize that it’s on every session before they ever load a plugin.

Reverb is what create big, expensive sounds.

It’s the reason labels pay so much money for artists to record in expansive rooms with high ceilings and hundreds of thousands of dollars in treatment. A good natural reverb is something to remain in awe of, and capturing it at the source leaves its mark.

But for those of us that aren’t going to these big studios frequently (because of budget or preference), all hope is not lost.

Even the stock plugins for most DAWs today have amazing reverb options built right into them. Things like a short plate reverb on a vocal can effectively replace a double-tracked voice. A larger decay setting can make you sound like you’re at the bottom of a well, or a guitar solo ascend to new heights.

The best part about reverbs is that they’re always growing. As new spaces are captured, convolution reverbs (or IR loaders) can load that space onto any track as an insert. Taking reverbs a step further are brands like Eventide & Bricasti – both of which blur the lines between hardware and software reverbs.

You Can Say That Again

Delays are the other common tool used by engineers to create depth in nearly every mix, and can be an extremely effective way to push something into the spotlight.

Some artists use delays to modulate and tweak their track in an avant-garde way, but the delay has a much more featured role in modern music.

Short delays like a slapback act similarly to short plate reverbs at making a vocal sound front & center. Others, like ping pong delays move around the 3-D space of your mix, bouncing back and forth between ears as the name would entail.

The biggest trick to delays (when done properly) is the concept of a “delay throw” where you unmute the delay for a specific part of a song (such as a couple words or tail of a guitar solo). This trick can be gimmicky when done too often or too obviously.

When done correctly, delays can be subtle and non-distracting – keeping the listeners’ interest on a subconscious level.

The Often Forgotten Secret

With the rise of specific mix techniques from some pros, the concept of LCR mixing has incorrectly taken a vital piece of mixing away from engineers.

For those who don’t know, LCR is a mix approach suggesting that all elements of a mix should exist in the Left, Center, or Right. Engineers will hard pan all audio to create separation. Here’s why it’s crap:

No element of a mix is going to be completely flat, which is why everything you hear has its own “space” even in mono. If everything did collapse down, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy it as a cohesive piece of art.

Imagine for a minute that you’re listening to a band with a guitarist, bassist, and drummer. Together, they sound great, but place them 50 yards apart from each other on a football field and they’d sound incoherent.

Now line a marching band across that same field and think about how the result changes. You’ve got more people filling out the space between the “end zones” which was otherwise wasted and hurting the song.

Taking Width a Step Further

Treatment of mono sources has always been a hot topic of discussion, usually disputed by those that don’t understand how a mono source can have width.

For JST, we put just as much emphasis on our mono elements as the stereo ones, because we understand they’re both needed to form a complete picture of a mix.

It’s the reason we’ve developed plugins like SideWidener specifically for mono sources – they deserve their own space in the mix as much as the stereo elements. More importantly, they can bring your lead parts into focus as much as delay and reverb, earning panning a space with the big boys on this list.

Don’t get caught in the hype of fad mixing techniques when there’s so much space between your headphones.

How Do You 3-D Mix?

For the clear majority of us, we’re working in stereo, not 5.1 surround sound. How are you placing elements of your mixes where you want them, and how do they interact with each other spatially?

Let us know over on the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum, where thousands of like-minded engineers are having these discussions every day.