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Using the Emotion of the Song as a Mix Tool

“It's part of a trilogy, a musical trilogy I'm working on in D minor, which is the saddest of all keys, I find,” says Nigel Tufnel in “Spinal Tap.” ”People weep instantly when they hear it, and I don't know why.”

And while that may not be exactly true -- or get to the joke that’s coming next in the movie -- it does point out the importance of emotion in music. Most artists would likely argue that music is emotion, but occasionally this gets forgotten in the mix phase of recording.

Portrait of a man showing emotion.

When it comes to getting a great mix, you usually come at it from one of two sides: the producer or the engineer. And even if you are performing both roles on a recording, you still have to separate the two sides of your job (though there certainly can be some overlap between the two).

From the producer side, you typically focus on the song itself, as well as the performance of the song. So while this could range from helping arrange the song with the artists to ensuring you get the best take with the best lineup of instruments, your job is to make songs being recorded the absolute best they can be. On the engineering side, you want to make sure the sounds you are getting not only sound great from a sonic point of view, but also that it sounds great in context of the song.

But there’s another aspect of the song that’s not mentioned as often when discussing the secrets to a great mix: the emotion of the song. To an extent this goes back to the producer’s role in getting the best performance of the song, but this also can carry over into the actual mixing process once you’ve got all the recording you’ll be doing.

Here are some tips that may help you bring out the emotion and feeling in a song through the mix.

1. Determine What the Feeling Is

This may sound too simplistic, but too often even the best engineers will find themselves diving into the sounds of the individual tracks without paying enough attention to the actual song itself. This can prevent them from honing in on what the feeling is the artist wants to convey.

Theoretically the answer is simple: listen to the song, find out what the artist wants to convey and then mix accordingly. But this is easier said than done, and often overlooks the subtleties you need to consider. For example, if you have a sad song, it might seem obvious to pick out the “sad” sounding instrument and make it the focal point of the mix.

For example, if there is a slow, descending minor key piano riff, this may be the obvious choice to bring out in the mix, when in fact it the song would be better served to mix this part relatively low to provide a subtle, yet haunting undertone to the song.

2. Use Effects to Benefit the Emotion, Not Just the Sound

Even before getting around to setting the level, you’ll probably want to look at the effects you’ll want to use on a sound. Going back to that piano riff example from the previous section, adding a bit of reverb to the sound can make it sound even more forlorning, like a piano being played in a large, empty, lonely room. Even though a ton of reverb may not otherwise be the first thing you would think of for the sound, it can convey the desire emotion very effectively.

3. Make Sure the Vocals Convey the Emotion

This might also sound like something that doesn’t even need mentioning -- but the emotional presence of the vocal is often overlooked in search of a “perfect” take. In any song with vocals, the singer’s voice is going to be the focal point of the song, and if it does not sound like it is in line with the mood of the words or other music, it is going to stick out as ineffective.

So while you’ll always want to get the “best” take possible, usually meaning on pitch and with a good audio sound, don’t necessarily disregard an emotionally charged take just because a note or two may be slightly off.

As with all things in recording and mixing, there is no formula to this process, but it is important to remember to pay attention to the emotional intention of the song and ensure the sound of the recording caters to that intention. Going for just the “perfect” sound often can result in a “stale” recording.

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