Thursday, May 14, 2009

Blend, Separation and Clarity: An Introduction

As an audio engineer, or even just a music lover, I'm sure you've noticed how some mixes seem to have this magical quality; where the overall sound is tightly integrated, balanced, clean and transparent, yet each element has its own character and can be perceived on its own. In contrast, lower quality mixes sound busy, muddled and confusing. It's not always easy to point out what the specific differences are between the good and the bad. I'd like to talk about some principles that you can use in your effort to continually improve your mixes. This will be a series of mini-posts, each discussing different aspects of this topic.

In my experience, probably the key overarching concept to keep in mind is blend vs. separation. One primary task as an engineer or producer (or for that matter, as an arranger) is to make good choices as to which elements you want "stuck together", and which you want separated. A classic example of elements you might want stuck together would be a kick drum and a bass guitar. Because a typical rhythm section beat might have these two elements playing in lock-step on nearly every 1 and 3 of nearly every bar, we would typically want those elements to be perceived as stuck together rather than separated. In other words, we would want their sonic characteristics to blend in such a way as to be perceived as a single element within the overall mix presentation.

In contrast, an example of elements you might want separated would be a distorted electric guitar and an acoustic guitar. They have completely different natural sonic profiles, and in most cases would be intended to provide distinctly different flavors in the overall mix; perhaps a meaty solidity contributed by the distorted electric guitar, plus a light clean gloss contributed by the strumming acoustic. In either case, you have a range of tools at your disposal to either blend or separate the elements as desired. In the upcoming posts, I'll work through a handful of theses tools and approaches.

By the way, it's important to remember that for this series, as well as in nearly all discussions about audio production, we are talking about principles, not laws. For me, one of the continually satisfying aspects of audio production is that, like music, it is a combination of art and technique. The technology can be sophisticated, and yet in the end, the human ear, guided by passion and inspiration, is required to produce great work. As a result, while I have found these principles to be invaluable, there will be times when doing something that completely violates one or more of these principles is the perfect choice. You should always feel the freedom to apply or ignore the "rules" as needed. In other words, caveat emptor, YMMV, etc.

Watch for more coming soon!


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