Listening to a song isn’t merely a physical experience, it’s borderline spiritual. Whether or not you subscribe to such ideas, there’s no doubt that music can have intense emotional effects on the listener. And there seems to be a correlation between the sound quality of a song and how effective it can be. If you’ve ever listened to a song through broken or low-quality speakers, you probably already know this. Even your favorite song can sound cheap and innate in this setting. In its proper setting, however, it might take you to another dimension entirely. One way to achieve this outcome in your own songs is to provide greater depth in your mix.
As producers and musicians, we obviously can’t control how our song will sound in every setting. No amount of mastering and mixing will do the song justice if it’s played through a tin can. However, we want to always imagine our music being played in the best possible scenario when mixing. These are the situations with the potential to really pull on some heartstrings and make a lasting impression. So how can we achieve greater depth in our mixes? Here are a few thoughts.
Understand the space of a song
While we can’t see music the way we can see physical space, our ears can hear the space and our brains will fill in the rest. The stereo field allows for this space to be heard and felt. Before you can achieve greater depth in your mix, it’s key to be aware of this idea.
Like physical objects, we can think of a song as having three dimensions: height, width, and depth. Here we’ll mostly focus on the depth of the mix, but here’s a primer on the other two dimensions. Height refers to the low and high frequencies of a mix, or EQ. Low bass tones are «down» and high treble sounds are «up.» Width, as you might imagine, is perpendicular to the height. So rather than up and down, it deals with left and right. In other words, width refers to the stereo space and how mix elements are panned. The wider the stereo field, the greater the width of the song.
Depth in a mix, just as in physical space, is the forward and backward plane. Depth is undoubtedly more difficult to notice and achieve in a mix then height and width. The subtlety of depth in a mix is perhaps what makes some songs really stand out where others fall flat. It takes a very keen ear to get it right.
Know the elements of depth
So now that we know where the depth of a mix lies, we need to examine how to pronounce it. One aspect of depth is simply volume. This makes perfect sense. The louder a song is, the closer it seems, while the quieter it is, the further away it sounds. When a song fades in it feels like it’s coming right at you; When a song fades out, it feels like it’s leaving the station. The same goes, of course, for any instrument in the mix. The vocal track, for instance, will seem to come forward if it slowly fades in.
Another way of channeling depth is to add reverb. Reverb is a way of conveying the depth of a room. Of course, recording in a wide open room with reflective aspects will create natural reverb. But reverb can be artificially introduced via plugins as well. The more saturated or «wet» the reverb, the further a note will decay, indicating a deeper room. There are several types of reverb, like chamber, hall, room, and more. Each differs in decay time, tone, and «size.»
Brightness and warmth also play a part in the field of depth of a mix. Here we might also use the term «timbre,» or «tone color.» In essence, the brighter the tone, the closer it seems; the warmer a tone, the further away. One way of thinking of brightness and warmth in terms of depth is to think of sharpness and dullness. A sharp (bright) wind is one that hits you directly while a dull (warm) wind is softer and more vague. Higher, brighter frequencies will be the sharper, more focused edge of the song while lower, warmer frequencies will be the duller and more faded. You’ll feel the former more intensely than the latter.
Contrast is key for greater depth in your mix
A mix can’t have any real depth if every aspect is sitting in a similar place. A painting that’s filled with colors of similar shades and lines moving in one direction will appear flat. This might be intentional, and it’s true that not every song needs depth to be effective. Some songs lend themselves to less depth, like some songs in the hardcore, punk, and grunge genres. The lack of depth in these tracks is an artistic statement all its own.
But if depth is what you’re going for then contrast matters. This means the song must have opposing aspects. In an image, darker shades will make lighter shades appear even lighter and vice versa. In a song, when mixing with EQ, higher frequencies will allow room for lower frequencies to stand out. Likewise, the further a track is panned, the wider the space becomes. So when it comes to achieving greater depth in your mix, remember that some aspects of the song will have to sound far away so others can sound closer. The larger this contrast, the deeper the mix will go.
We want to listen to and create music that takes us on a journey. Most songs with this quality have a major sense of depth to them not only in terms of their lyrics but in the mix itself. So if we want a better mix we should aspire to achieve this depth, too. By understanding the song as a spatial object we can begin to do this. Remember that providing contrast between these elements of space is the key to achieving greater depth in your mix.