Space and Architecture in Mixing

written by Ozcan Ertek

In our last article we talked about the role of architectural structures in our daily lives and we mentioned their connection with our perception of music and sound.

“In our daily lives, we perceive and experience architectural structures, which are very much connected with the space. Our daily experience of space is concerned with energy and its release. We move through space, as we carry out our daily tasks. Our mental vision of space allows us to interact with the objects and move through our surrounding. We witness environmental phenomena.”

We use this environmental phenomena in music very effectively, both when we make and when we perceive music! Actually sound engineers and producers get benefit from this perception of space in every chain of the production process, especially mixing!

What is a mix? How do we perceive and use space in a mix? 

When we mix, we apply sonic illusions to parts of music. Like colouring or shading improves visuals, our mixing practice lets us craft an illusion that can give far more depth than the raw recording. A mix is also a sonic presentation of emotions, creative ideas and performance. (Roey Izhaki – Mixing Audio)

Before we can explain the mixing process, we can mention that the most important resource of all is space. When making a record, all individual instruments are recorded separately, each to its own track. The very first recordings were all done mono, captured with just one microphone, so in order to create a balance between individual instruments, sound engineers had to move the musicians (rather the recording of the musician) throughout the room (space),for example a solo part, would step up towards a microphone, this type of movement is something that can be mimicked in the studio by the engineer in a variety of ways. In modern times, most people listen to music via two speakers or headphones and as such engineers work toward a stereo image!

If we think about a band or a track that needs mixing, what elements do we have to work with? Let’s say we have a drum kit, a bass, two guitars, a keyboard and a small brass section. When we are recording this band, we need to place microphones in front of every instrument. Every microphone is transmitting a mono signal which being fed into the mixing console where we take care of the levels and record to tape or digital.

Once recording is finished we normally have eight separate tracks. From here the mix phase starts . We basically feed the whole band/instruments to the listener via two speakers however when different instruments are combined they compete for space, due to masking, but by moving elements around in the stereo image, we can make every individual instrument perceivable to the listener.

Basically we space every musical element/instrument that we have between the left and right speakers. At this point, we can start to visualise a three dimensional space between the speakers, known as the stereo image. This is the basic idea of space in the mix, by using imaginary X, Y and Z axis, we can mix and make every sounds audible for the audience according to their importance.

In this sense we can begin to visualise our whole mix in 3d-space. Trying to visualise sounds in this manner makes the concept of placing the mix into a 3d environment as a concept much more understandable.

Z Axis – Riding Volume Faders 

We can move instruments forward and back by changing the volume, by fader riding. This is basically moving the sound over the z axis. The louder a sound is in the mix, the more it will mask other sounds. Therefore, louder sounds are larger. A guitar that is extremely loud will tend to mask the other sounds a lot more than if it were soft. A bass guitar, already large, will hide other sounds even more when turned up loud.

X Axis – Panning 

With the pan of each channel, we can move them from left and right between our speakers, which is the x axis. When we are panning sounds the middle, it means that they come just as loud of the left speaker as out of the right speaker. We than talk about panning sounds into the phantom-image, because on a stereo-mix we don’t have any speakers in the center.

Y Axis – Using Frequencies 

We can place instruments over the vertical axis with the means of manipulating frequencies. Assuming that the bass is low on the axis and the treble is high. Therefore, high- frequency sounds appear to be placed higher than the low-frequency instruments, which will appear to be placed lower in the space.

Next, we will take a look at how we can illustrate some general mix concepts by using the audiences view and perception.