Have you ever heard of the LCR approach to mixing? LCR is the concept that a professional mix can be achieved using just 3 positions: Left, Center & Right.
There are some big name engineers that buy into this mix technique, and while I don’t disagree with it for a quick mix or a way to find balance before fine-tuning a song, I don’t think it’s the ideal solution for a pro-level mix.
What You’re Missing
With LCR mixing, you’re automatically limiting your options in a session – and not in the “committing your plugins” kind of way. Depending on the complexity of a song, you could easily be looking at a hundred tracks or more. Do you really want to limit every single one of those tracks to 3 positions in your sonic field?
For most DAWs, you’ve got 127 unique positions that a mono track can occupy. Imagine lining 127 musicians up side-by-side on a stage. Pretty big stage, huh?
Now break all of those musicians up in three single-file lines on the left, right & middle of the stage. This is exactly what’s happening to your mix when you go with the LCR approach. Don’t waste the complexity and space you can give a sound by spreading your musicians (or in our case, tracks) throughout the space.
When looking at the way you’re mixing, you’ve got plenty of other elements than mono instrumentation. Whether they’re room mics, multi-channel instruments, or time-based effects – there are plenty of stereo tracks involved in every mix too.
Limiting yourself to LCR collapses these stereo elements to very wide or very narrow elements. At best, you end up with a lot of widened content in your song, but that usually comes at the cost of semi-isolated center tracks (they can stick out like a sore thumb).
At worst, you’ll end up with a jumbled mess of audio fighting for space to be heard. Those wide-panned tracks will potentially lose their center – especially if you’re using a spatial widener that doesn’t take the center into account.
How To Improve On The LCR Method
As I said in the beginning, there’s nothing wrong with starting off with an LCR approach. It doesn’t make sense to keep your overheads centered. Your time-based effects will almost always be panned hard left & hard right when you first load them up. Use left, center & right to your advantage as a way to quickly set up your mix. Then branch out (technically, in) by reducing the spread on some of your tracks.
Experiment with bringing your reverbs & delays in a bit – especially if they’re unique to a center-panned instrument like a snare or lead vocal. By narrowing your reverb, you can create a unique space around those elements while simultaneously “gluing” the center to the wider-panned elements.
If that glue still isn’t cutting it, try a center-focused spatial widener like SideWidener to spread out a vocal without losing the center.
The denser your mix becomes, the more you should realize on your own that LCR just won’t cut it. Maybe you can get away with it on an acoustic track, but by the time you’re adding in your 3rd or 4th distorted electric guitar, you should be asking yourself “Where am I going to put this?”
Pushing The Envelope
In super dense mixes (and even some not so dense ones) left and right might not be wide enough for you. A spatial widener can step in to save the day once again, as long as you know how to use it. If you’re using an older spatial widener, you can actually push your tracks “too wide”. For mono tracks, this means an awkward sounding “centerless” track.
Similarly, stereo tracks that are further widened can have some weird reactions. Pushing a stereo track too far can result in not only a harder-to-hear, distant sound, but could vanish completely from a mix when folded to mono. The latter can be bad enough that it’ll ruin any mix played back on a phone or single speaker.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with looking for additional space in a mix, especially when parts keep getting added to an in progress mix. Just think of each session as a “work in progress” and your spatial widener is the easiest way to adapt to each new element.
Break Some BoundariesYou shouldn’t be limited by your DAW – it’s something that enables you to be as creative as you want, and sometimes you just need a bit extra to push your session there. Similarly, you shouldn’t limit yourself to a specific technique because you heard it was the “right” way to do something.
The only “right” approach is the one that works for you and enables you to achieve the sound you want. Everything else should be taken as a recommendation, not a rule.