These are all steps I take in my personal mixes to achieve mix clarity, but let me know in the comments if you have some useful tips as well.
High-pass filters are so rudimentary that we often forget just how useful they can be - in short, I’ll find any signal that’s contributing to a muddy or unclear sound, and introduce a high-pass filter to right below the fundamental. This reduces unnecessary and unmusical low frequencies.
Stick to 6dB/octave to 12dB/octave slopes to avoid aggressive changes to the phase of these filters.
Let’s listen to these filters being applied and notice how the mix starts sounding clearer already.
Another simple but useful technique I use is to insert a compressor on the bass and side-chain the kick so that the bass is compressed whenever the kick is present. If you’re dealing with a full drum track and can’t access just the kick, isolate triggering to the lows.
In the next chapter we’ll look at a more complex version of this, but let’s take a listen to this method first.
In modern music, usually with 808s, it’s difficult to isolate attenuation to just the transient - we could use super short attack and release times but this doesn’t always work and can cause unwanted distortion. Instead, we can create a ghost kick with a short transient, and side-chain that instead.
This ghost kick should match the original kick’s performance, but instead of a sample or signal with a long sustain, we use a short sample to ensure that only the transient of the kick attenuates the bass.
Let’s listen and notice how the bass is attenuated less, but the important aspect of the kick still cuts through.
For this step I send all of my instruments that aren’t drums, bass, or vocals, to a single bus - then I insert a compressor on this bus. Next, I side-chain the lead vocal, and subtly attenuate this instrumental so that the vocal sits on top of these competing frequencies.
This results in a more balanced relationship between the instruments and vocal and ultimately makes the mix sound clearer.
Let’s take a listen.
Similar to chapter 1 we can use EQs and a simple filter to achieve mix clarity - simply reduce 250Hz by a couple of dB with a bell filter on your instruments. This works well on guitar, vocals, synths, strings, pianos, drum overheads, and other instruments with low mids.
Attenuating this frequency reduces masking to high frequencies, which results in a clearer mix.
Let’s take a listen.
3.5kHz, give or take 1kHz in either direction, is responsible for our perception of clarity - last chapter we reduce 250Hz. to less masking on this range, but we can also boost it to increase the effect. I like to use a dynamic EQ for this and amplify the range slightly.
With certain processors like the Pro Q 3 or this Shade EQ, you could side chain a competing signal and have the range boosted whenever that signal’s present, but let’s take a listen to a regular dynamic band at 3.5kHz.
Using identical saturation settings on various instruments can cause cohesion, but it can also cause a mix to lack clarity since we’re generating harmonics at the same frequencies for everything. That said let’s use different saturators on different signals to keep it varied and give everything space.
This will balance out the frequency response and give everything a distinct timbre. Let’s listen and notice how each affected signal sounds a little clearer.
If I change the output of all of my busses, excluding the vocal, to a single bus, then I’m able to process the collective instrumentation and the vocal separately. This comes in handy when I clarify the vocal or have it sound slightly separate from the rest of the mix.
I’ll insert soothe 2, a resonance reducer, on my vocal and side chain this collective bus. This will attenuate any aggressive overlap between the 2, then I’ll compensate for the gain reduction via the output.
Let’s listen and notice how when we reduce aggressive overlapping frequencies, our mix sounds clearer.
On the same instrumental bus that I created last chapter I’ll insert a mid-side EQ and do some overall tone-shaping to increase clarity. On the mid image, I can subtly amplify 3.5kHz, and dip a little of 250Hz - then I’ll boost a little of 250Hz on the side image.
Although mix air is a little different than clarity, we can still boost this with a high shelf on the side, and it should add a small amount of clarity too.
Let’s listen to how these changes create a clearer overall mix.
Last up, I occasionally like to send all of my tracks or buses to a collective parallel auxiliary track, on which I’ve inserted a reverb. I’ll make sure that the reflections have a higher frequency, and I’ll keep the reverb shorter, usually around 1 second.
Then I’ll blend the effect in with the auxiliary tracks channel fader. Let’s listen to how this high-frequency reverb creates a cohesive, but clear sound.