Mixes without a lot of elements don’t have to sound empty or bland.
I’ve hear from a few engineers going into acoustic sessions (or sessions with minimal production) that there’s not enough to work with. I call them out nearly every single time.
Some of the best and biggest mixes consist of a voice and a single instrument. A good engineer knows how to take those two elements and make them sound good. A great engineer reshapes the space around them, turning the ambience around the tracks into its own instrument.
Starting with the Space Around Your Vocals
First and foremost, if your song doesn’t have a lot going on around the vocal, you better be 100% sure that vocal can stand on its own in the spotlight. We’re talking full vocal production – editing, tuning & timing.
Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean you need perfection. Subtleties are what make a performance notable, we’re not making robots this time around.
What I mean is, your vocal needs to be set up to play back smoothly in your mix. Tuning should be generally accurate. Pocketing (especially with minimal instrumentation) is a must.
Once you’ve got a cleaned-up take, you can start adding space as you see fit. Add some vocal throws to your production. Find a reverb that compliments the singer’s voice. Experiment with the space around your vocal, then you can build the rest of your mix around it.
In a sparse mix, your vocal needs to shine.
Adding Ambiance to Your Instrumentation
A clean vocal is just the start – the real ambiance comes from the space around your instrumentation. You can take the raw elements of your mix and turn them into full-bodied soundscapes. Imagine turning a piano into a lush pad or taking the deep, rich tones of an acoustic guitar and filling the space of your mix with them.
The easiest way to do this is with a multi-head tape delay like SOAR. Using a tape delay, you can achieve unique, ambient tones that have to potential to fill out your space much like adding layered textures would. The best part is that they’ll still sound natural and less processed, making them great for songs you don’t want to sound too overproduced.
Check out Fluff using this exact technique on In the Studio with JST:
Using a multi-head delay for anything other than a standard echo can seem daunting, but if you focus on a few key elements, it’s really not that hard to get some usable sounds quickly and easily.
Use the Mix Knob
Using the Mix knob is one of the quickest ways to audition a plugin without setting up a bunch of bussing. The mix knob allows you to find a balance between your source audio and the processed audio. If you’d like, think of the mix knob as a compact way of parallel processing your sound.
In this case, we’re not going to want the Mix set to 100% Wet, because we wouldn’t hear the original instrument. When you’re looking for something subtle & natural, 20% is a good starting point and 50% or more is creeping into “too much”.
Find a level where your delay level meshes nicely with the source and leave it there. Once your level is out of the way, you can focus on the creative part.
When it comes to multi-head delays, more repeats mean more complexity. The nature of a multi-head delay (with multiple/varying repeat times) lends itself to more depth and texture than a standard fixed delay. If you’re looking to create the lushest possible sound, setting the repeats to 100% will certainly get you there.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, too many repeats can be distracting if not timed correctly. If you find your delay going in and out of time, think about reducing the number of repeats or using the tap tempo feature to dial it in just right with the song.
Feedback in a delay can make or break your sound. Another potential cause of clutter or complexity (depending how you look at it) is the repeat of your delay feeding back into its input.
There are some very spacey, warbled tones that can be found this way if that’s what you’re going for.
If it’s not, it’s as easy as flipping a switch off to remove feedback from the equation.
Tape Delayer's Anonymous
I know I’m certainly guilty of using tape delay whenever possible, and filling out space in my mix is one of the most common uses. A great delay can reshape the room around a mix without cluing the listener into what’s happening. It’s the “secret sauce” for transforming a mix, no matter how many tracks are in it.
It’s no wonder that they’re the Swiss Army knife of creating something huge where there was only an instrument or two to start.
Are you using a tape delay in your mixes? If so, let us know how, when & why over in the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum. It’s filled with thousands of like-minded producers and engineers looking for new techniques, just like you & me.