Trying to fit dozens and sometimes hundreds of tracks in between two speakers can be exhausting. It's easy to spend hours and hours trying to find new ways to get them all to fit together just right. Your mix is really just an audio version of Tetris.
But when the pieces do fit together in the right way, your mix becomes something more than just the sum of a bunch of different instruments playing at the same time. Each one has its own space and style. There's room build around everything, and while everything is glued together into one solid song, you'll have just the right amount of separation to prevent muddiness and masking in your mix.
Walking the line between the two realms is a tightrope walk. Too much separation and your mix doesn't sound full or complete. Too little separation and everything sits on top of one another. Let's take a look at the two biggest ways you can create separation without sacrificing a cohesive, full mix.
EQ Cuts & Boosts
If you're really interested in this topic, we've got a full guide into how additive and subtractive EQ work and how both can contribute to your mix. Today, I want to specifically focus on how one of the most powerful tools in your DAW can help you carve out a space for each instrument.
When it comes to using EQ in your mix, there are only two directions you can go – up or down. You either choose a lower frequency or a higher one. You turn up your Q or you turn it down to cover a wider or narrower frequency range. You turn the gain up to raise the level of a frequency or your turn it down to lower it (or remove that frequency altogether).
As you work on EQing a track, it’s important to keep balance in mind. Often, to create separation, there’s a balance that can be found by cutting out of one instrument what you’re boosting in another. Sometimes you won’t even need to boost, just cut.
For example, most engineers will find the fundamental frequency of their kick drum and cut that frequency out of their bass guitar track and other bass-heavy instruments. This helps create separation around the kick, carving out a space that it can claim as its own. If the cut alone doesn’t create enough separation, going in and boosting that frequency on the kick track can help it stand out a bit more.
EQ cuts can also be applied using hi-pass and low-pass filters. These filters remove the highest and lowest frequencies from a track and can be dialed in so that they’re not affecting the overall sound of that instrument, just cleaning up the noise surrounding it. In incredibly dense sessions, these filters can pushed even further to start cutting out a noticeable amount of frequencies from a track. In isolation, this can sound like you’re ruining the track, but in the context of the mix, you can really just push an instrument into its own space using this approach.
Instruments are delicate, so cutting out large amounts of mid-range from any of them may cause issues if you’re not careful. A more cautious approach would be to try cutting narrow bands with EQ to create separation before any type of extreme filtering is applied. As you get more comfortable with these techniques, you’ll be able to work quickly and efficiently – intuitively deciding what’s best for your particular situation.
Compressing For Separation
Compression is the glue that holds everything together in our mixes. It’s used everywhere from individual instruments to the final mix bus where everything gets printed down. Compression has always had the ability to create consistency in the levels of a mix, but were you aware that it can be used for separation too?
By compressing individual instruments that have already been EQ’d using the techniques above, those EQ decisions can become clearer and more pronounced with compression. By compressing an already treated signal, all of the garbage low end and unnecessary high end have been removed from what you’re feeding the compressor. It can act more efficiently on the frequencies you cared enough about the feature without other frequencies interfering.
The same goes for aux groups of similar instruments. One of the coolest tricks with compression can actually be done on a vocal or guitar bus where each individual track has been given its own space using EQ already. Let’s say you’ve got a guitar that’s focused around 2.5k, another around 5k, and a fuzzy, upper guitar part around 7k.
All of these have their featured spaces to fill, and when you apply compression, they combine to make that compression work consistently across the entire frequency range! That means as a group, when one part passes the threshold, the compressor starts acting on all of them together. You get a smooth, consistent sound across all of the guitar tracks while they each maintain their space in the mix. How cool is that?
Whether you’re looking to control the dynamics of your drums and their transients or you’d rather improve your guitar tone, knowing how common audio processors work is a must. If you don’t know the techniques and take the time to get familiar with them, you’ll waste hours chasing one problem after another in the studio without ever really feeling like you’ve accomplished something.
The JST VIP section of our site has the absolute best resources for engineers, producers, mixers & musicians looking to get more comfortable in their DAWs. Our guides and tutorials don’t just tell you how to get the tone you’re after – we give you real world examples and teach you how to think critically about the mixes you’re working on.