Welcome to Day 25 of 31 Days to Better Recordings.

If you hang around recording circles for very long, you’ll inevitably hear someone talking about “carving out a place in the mix for each instrument.”

Sounds really smart and artsy, right?

But what does it MEAN?! That’s a fair question.

When you’re mixing a song, whether you’re dealing with a few tracks or several dozen, you are assigned with the task of somehow combining all of those tracks into a pretty, cohesive, smooth-sounding mix.

Consider baking a cake. Just because you throw flour, eggs, sugar, etc. into a bowl doesn’t mean you’re going to end up with a cake. You’ve got to know what proportions to use, or you’ll end up with something gross.

It’s the same way with mixing. Just because the song has drums, bass, guitar, and vocals does NOT mean it’s going to automatically sound good. You’ve got to find a way to combine ALL of this information in such a way that emphasizes each part without creating overwhelm.

It’s not as easy as it sounds. If you simply turn up all the tracks and click “Bounce,” you’ll likely have a mix that sounds like a train wreck. You’ve got to learn how to make each instrument sit in the mix and blend with all of the other instruments.

I sang in a few choirs in college. One of the most difficult (and also most rewarding) duties of a choral director is to make this group of individual vocalists sound like one cohesive voice. Everyone can’t just belt out the notes as loudly as possible. They need to blend together.

As a mix engineer, you’re “blending” together several sounds. Your job is to give each sound a “space” in the mix, place where it can be heard and yet still blend in with the rest of the tracks.

That’s what we mean when we say “carve out a place in the mix for each instrument.”

3 Ways to Carve Space:

1. EQ

I talk about this a LOT in Understanding EQ. EQ is a tool that, when used properly, can remove unnecessary frequencies from your tracks, in order to make room for the other instruments. For example, I’ll do an EQ cut in the guitars around 250-500 Hz to make room for the lead vocal, which sits in that range.

2. Panning

You’d be amazed what a little panning can do. When you’re mixing, close your eyes and imagine you’re listening to the band playing live at a gig. Where is the drummer? Where are the guitarists? Pan the various instruments to unique places in the stereo field, and you’ll find that your mixes will open up and sound less cluttered.

3. Volume

Simply adjusting the fader levels of each track can be a huge way to create space. Don’t have the B3 cranked as loud as the lead vocals. 🙂

When in doubt, turn something down. Can’t hear the lead vocal? Try turning down the guitars and bass a little bit, RATHER than turning UP the lead vocal. The idea here is to remove unwanted elements, NOT to add new things.

Day 25 Challenge

Have a mix that’s giving you fits? Try one of the 3 suggestions above and tell us if it helps. Sometimes the simplest changes can be the most helpful.

  • Arjun Ramesh

    I’m hoping to revisit the mix session I did a couple of days ago and this will help. I’ll give it a shot. Thanks.

  • Al

    “The idea here is to remove unwanted elements, NOT to add new things.”
    Amen to that.

    Great post as always.
    Thanks joe.

  • In addition to this very interesting and important article by Joe, I recommend the workshop by David Gibson “The Art Of Mixing”. You can find this workshop on youtube.

    Cheers & Rock On!

  • angel

    Hi,

    one more tip:

    if something doesn´t fit in the mix after trying hard, check if it sounds better without that element. Simply don´t use the b3 just because you recorded it and it took you much time or it sounds amazing alone or the riff is fantastic.

    Angel

  • Preshan

    I definitely am quite extreme with panning in my mixes, and I think this is the first step to giving instruments their own place in the mix.

    I try to use EQ only where necessary, usually to cut unwanted frequencies, but sometimes to boost a frequency band in an instrument to give it a bit more presence and definition in the context of a mix.

    I know the standard method for making room for vocals would be to make a cut in all the instruments in the frequency band that the vocals occupy most. I’ve found that this doesn’t automatically sound good though, and is a bit more theoretical than realistic. The way I have learnt to do it is, for example, solo the acoustic guitar and the vocal together, make a cut (or boost) in the acoustic guitar, and listening carefully to ONLY the vocal, sweep the frequency of the cut in the guitar. When you try this it actually feels like you’re directly EQ’ing the vocal. You can find the spot where the vocals jump out nicely but the guitar still sounds great, and you know that that instrument won’t get in the way of the vocals now. With this method, you’re using your ears to decide, not just making guesses.

  • Frank Adrian

    Note that this is also something that you can work with the band about during pre-production – make sure that when they play in the studio, the instruments have already carved out the space they need and allowed space for the vocalist – it will improve their live sound, too.

    That being said, I’ll almost always cut guitars in the 250-500Hz range. Not only do guitars sound boxy there, they tend to “mid up” (as opposed to “mud up”) there. I’ll still boost the vocals a dB or two in that range, though, mainly because it usually adds some nice depth to them.

    Another thing that you can do to make some space is to effect the guitar sound – putting it through a phaser or flanger will change the frequency spectrum enough that it might move out of the way of other things. Plus, having very distinct guitar sounds is usually better for a more interesting mix. Oddly, a lot of bands don’t use extremely different sounding guitars (and frankly, it makes them sound less interesting). But we’re making records here, not trying to reproduce a tonally boring live show (see previous comment on pre-production).

    One other thing to do, if you’re using EQ to carve space is to use as wide a filter bandwidth as you can. Wide, subtle EQ shifts sound better than narrow, extreme ones. If you have to use a narrow EQ, use a wider, less intense EQ with a second narrow EQ on top of it to create a “Mexican hat” shaped filter that sounds a bit more natural (not much more, but…).

    Finally, the preferred amount of EQ (assuming that you’ve done a good job at recording) is none. As such, use volume and panning first and save EQ for a last resort.

    • Mark B.

      “Finally, the preferred amount of EQ (assuming that you’ve done a good job at recording) is none. As such, use volume and panning first and save EQ for a last resort….”

      yes! well that’s another major hurdle i have to jump–being patient enough not to rush the recording part. (>.<)

  • Mark B.

    great tip about the 250 – 500 cut on guitar to make room for vox. i had a little “uh, duh!!!” moment there. this is actually a topic i have trouble with. i need to start thinking in terms of how to carve out eq space more. i’ll practice when i mix the x-mas album!

  • Matt

    Fantastic post, Joe!!!!!!! As you mentioned in an earlier post, one of the things that may be overlooked is Cutting rather than boosting EQ. Again, great post, great information!!