Much of this post is inspired from Matthew Weiss’s article “How to Create Width, Height, and Depth in a Mix.”
We all live in a 3-dimensional world where everything has a height, width, and depth. From a piece of paper to the wings of a butterfly, everything can be measured in 3 dimensions.
However, when it comes to art, expression is usually limited to only 2 dimensions. Photographers and filmmakers only have the screen to express their work, which has only a height and a width. In this case, it is their job to supply us with the illusion of depth, and this is how extremely professional photos or scenes can captivate us in mysterious ways.
The exact same logic applies to music production. Except that we start with just one dimension, width, which is created by the panning of different elements to create a stereo image. So let’s begin with width.
As a mixer, we achieve width through smart panning decisions. When executed well, we can craft a song that seems like it’s hitting you from all directions, and that should be the goal with each and every mix (unless of course you are going for a very narrow sound. There are no hard and fast rules in mixing.)
There are typically two schools of thought on the subject. Some believe that it is best to pan everything either hard left, dead center, or hard right. This LCR panning technique is used by many famous mixers, including Chris Lord-Alge and Graham Cochrane. Others believe that the space in between center and hard right or left can be utilized. And even still, others switch methods depending on the song.
So when we pan a rhythm guitar part hard left, and a contrasting piano part hard right, the whole mix gets wider!
Now for the height of the mix, which is recognized by the frequency spectrum. The lowest and highest frequencies determine the floor and ceiling respectively. We can make a mix “taller” by making the lows just a little lower and the highs just a littler higher.
This might be the trickiest dimension to master, as it requires a well-tuned ear that lots of experience in critical listening, but it can do wonders for your mix if you get it right.
You need to be able to “layer” your elements from bottom to top, all the while making sure that nothing gets in the way of anything else. So, for example, the instrument frequency ranges in a song might go something like this:
- Kick Drum
- Bass Guitar
- Low Synth Pad
- Floor Tom
- Electric Guitar
- High Tom
- Acoustic Guitar
But any of these elements could switch depending on the song. Remember, there are no rules in mixing. Maybe the Electric Guitar has this really cool thing going on between 2 and 4k, where much of the vocal content would sit.
The key is to know where the meat of your instruments are in terms of frequency, then do everything in your power to allow each one enough room to breathe and coexist together. If you can create contrast between the piano and guitar, even though they’re in similar frequency space, good job!
Depth literally puts your mix in a space, and that is carried out through the following factors.
- Volume. This is the simplest, but most overlooked tool. If you want it to sound closer, make it louder.
- Reverbs and Delays. The longer and wetter a delay or reverb is on a signal, the farther away it is going to sound. Use this to your advantage to put things at the very back of your mix.
- Contrast between Dry and Wet Signals. When I first heard what a great sounding reverb could do for a signal, I just smothered everything in it. Rookie Mistake. The key is to create a contrast between dry and wet signals. The best producers know what to make wet and what to keep dry.
So there you have it. The 3 dimensions of a mix. The next time you’re mixing a record, think of your mix as living inside this “box.” Challenge yourself to push the edges of that box as far as it’ll go by making the mix taller, wider, and deeper. In the end, you’ll end up with a mix that is much more balanced and dynamic.
While I’ve been doing this for years, I’m still learning more every day about mixing with 3 dimensions in mind. And I want to keep learning! If you have any tips about mixing with height, width, and depth, please leave a comment. I know everyone else reading will appreciate it.