Well, if you crave an IMAX-style audio experience you’ll have to jettison conventional methods and start screwing up your mixes big time. After all, drama is often achieved by introducing an antagonist, and, depending on the style and vibe of your music, that adversary can evoke anyone from Scooby-Doo to Hannibal Lecter. Let’s explore four options for transforming a mix from a static, onedimensional “sound portrait” into a thrilling animated soundscape of wonder and delight.
When stereo appeared on pop records in the ’60s, the “new” listening experience was often boldly presented with extreme left/right mixes, such as vocals on one side and instruments on the other. Panning got pretty nutty in the psychedelic era, and, after that, many mixes seemed to settle into faux concert perspectives where sonic elements were somewhat evenly distributed across the stereo field. An animated mix, however, has no patience for balance or subtlety. It is like a loud, boisterous guest at a dinner party who is constantly calling attention to himself. So to animate your stereo spectrum, you should experiment with jagged perspective shifts that snap a listener’s head around. Take some cues from early singles by the Beatles, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and just about any band from the Nuggets anthology. Always pan hard right or hard left, or ping-pong from one side to the other. Put selected instruments solely on one channel or the other. Splitting layered guitars right and left is almost a cliché these days, but are you brave enough to put the electrics on one side and the acoustics on the other? Never employ stereo background vocals, just toss ’em over to the left or right. Getting the idea? Your mix elements should stand out boldly and demand that you notice them. When the listener doesn’t know what to expect, then you’ve truly animated your music.
Messing with spatial relationships is also critical to animating a mix. A compelling balance of things moving front and back is as valuable as shifting a listener’s focus left and right. This may be painful for reverb and delay hounds, but in order to intensify your track’s dimensional interest, you’ll have to leave some mix elements totally dry. Of course, you’ll also get to bathe some elements in ambience, as well. (Feel better?) Thinking in cinematic terms, your dry sounds will be foreground elements, and your wet sounds will become background elements. It’s critical, therefore, that you resist all instincts to make nice with reverb, and let one or two broadly ambient environments define your mix. There’s nothing wrong with a big, juicy wash of reverb, but it won’t animate your sound stage. Here are a few ideas to experiment with as you develop your own dimensional sleight-of-hand:
• Leave the kick, snare, and toms dry, but add a medium reverb to the overheads.
• Leave rhythm guitars dry, but add reverb to solos and/or riffs. • Try putting pre-fader “ghost-style” reverbs on a selected instrument. This is where the source sound is not audible— just the reverb effect.
• Fade a slapback echo behind the lead vocal, and put gallons of reverb on group background vocals, but fade them way back in the mix.
As I mentioned earlier, many artists and producers destroy every last drip of dynamic range in order to make their tracks sound as loud as possible through various playback systems. (Metallica’s Death Magnetic anyone?) Again, there is nothing wrong about wanting your tunes to explode out of car speakers, earbuds, and boom boxes, but the absence of soft sounds and loud sounds will make your mixes appear one-dimensional. Digital media offers a wide dynamic range, but it may take some gravitas to embrace it, as the softer elements of your mix will definitely not do any leaping out of your speakers. However, an animated mix presents numerous perceptual dips, drops, rises, and zigzags—just like a roller coaster—so you must fearlessly seek a near-orchestral approach to dynamic range. For example, consider making a breakdown a break down, where you don’t simply pare away the density of the instrumental mix, but you also diminish the volume levels in a musical way. In addition, don’t be afraid to allow the song to rise to a crescendo from a soft intro, or drop to silence after a huge chorus and then have the track almost immediately crash back even louder. Drama is your goal, and the more dramatic you can get, the more your mixes will come alive. Get off that compression carousel!
This is perhaps more of an arrangement technique than a mix strategy, but be sure to insert minute musical, tonal, or textural elements that only happen once in a section. As with the spatial, ambient, and dynamic applications previously discussed, these “little surprises” are tremendously helpful for seducing a listener’s attention. The surprise could be as subtle as, say, an E-Bow line following the chord progression for just four bars, or a long delay that hits the vocal on the last line of a chorus, or a piano motif that drops into the first phrase of the bridge and then disappears. And, of course, if you really want to animate these surprises, impose extreme stereo, panning, ambient, and/or dynamic effects upon them.