Today, I want to explain a very simple but very powerful visualization technique that will help you create more cohesive productions.
I call this the “3D Puzzle Box Technique” and it has changed the way I approach both recording and mixing.
On Episode 12 of the DIY Recording Guys podcast, Ben and I discuss how to “record with the final product in mind”.
This is a broad topic but much of our discussion was focused on how to craft tones that will work for your vision of the finished song.
Towards the end of the episode (at around 46:30 if you want to skip ahead) I mentioned a music production technique that I have found incredibly helpful for crafting arrangements and tones.
It came to me suddenly when I realized that I could think about arranging the parts of a song with a visual analogy.
Don’t roll your eyes at me.
I know I overuse analogies but I really do find them helpful for explaining abstract concepts – like audio production!
Before we put both feet firmly into it, I do want to mention the mother of all audio production disclaimers:
We are still dealing with audio. As such, our ears are always commanders-in-chief. They have final veto on ALL decisions we make. If it looks good but sounds bad, it’s bad. Simple as that.
Good song productions across various genres have many similarities.
We can look to these similarities to help us determine what the characteristics of a good production are.
For example, strong productions will have balance across the audible frequency spectrum (i.e., no frequencies are unnaturally over or under-represented). A listener will be able to clearly identify the various tracks (i.e., you can focus on any one instrument and hear it clearly). The dynamics will be controlled (i.e., you won't have to turn the volume up during the verse and then down during the chorus to have good volume balance).
And so on…
Since this is a visualization technique and since we’re focusing on recording (rather than mixing), I’m going to ignore dynamics for now.
We will of course have to control volume and dynamics but, as long as our recording levels were reasonable, we will be able to do this in the mix; so let’s boil a good production down to three other important characteristics:
Pretend you (little silhouetted figure) have an empty box in front of you.
Your song, a slamming rock tune, has a bunch of parts that you and your band are arranging and recording.
You have a full drum kit, a bass guitar, two rhythm guitars and a long-haired, mega-pipe vocal track.
Hey! here they are:
…and this is kind of what they might sound like if you just recorded them all and pressed play. The kick drum is obstructing the bass, the guitars are a buried, muddy mess, etc.
To get a good-sounding, easy-to-mix production that has the three characteristics of a well-recorded song described above, your job is to fit all of your tracks into the box such that each part has its own place and such that you use a large amount of the box's total volume.
That’s it. If you do that, it will be easy to get your song to sound clear, tall, deep and wide.
OK, so how do we move stuff around the box?
Let’s start by talking about the box and what its dimensions represent for audio
The easiest one to picture is the Left/Right axis below our mysterious musician.
Tracks all the way against the left wall of our cube will be heard coming only out of the left speaker. Tracks in the middle of the cube will appear to be directly in the center of the stereo field.
Your controls for moving audio along this axis: panning and stereo effects
The vertical axis (shown on the left) will be our frequency spectrum. At the bottom we have 20Hz - theoretically the lowest frequency that the human ear can hear. The bottom of our cube is where the kick drum thud you feel in your chest lives – or you could choose to have sub frequencies from the bass guitar down there and have the kick drum a little further up in the box – either way, you don’t want to put two things in the same place.
As we move up the vertical axis we get into the lows and low mids where bass guitars usually find their main home and so on until we get to the top where we find 20,000 Hz or 20 kHz - the theoretical highest frequency the human ear can hear. This upper range is often referred to as “air” in the context of mixing. It’s that shimmer you can hear in the cymbals.
Your controls for moving audio along this axis: tone shaping and equalization.
For example, when working on bass and guitar tones, we can make things brighter and darker by adjusting the tone knobs on our instruments and by playing with pre-amp EQ sections on our amps. Turning the bass on the guitar amp up all the way may sound great when the guitar is playing by itself but it means that the guitar part is extending lower into our box and that we may have nowhere to put the bass guitar.
The front to back axis of our cube will be how close or far away the sound seems to the listener. Tracks we place at the front of the box will appear to be coming from right in front of our faces. Tracks we place in the back of the box will seem like they’re coming from far away.
Your controls for moving audio along this axis: Reverbs, delays, volume and EQ.
For example, if you have 5 guitars in your arrangement, you may not want to put all of the guitars in the front of the box. You may instead want to take one of the lead guitar parts, turn up your reverb level on your amp and turn down the bass and treble on your amp so that the part feels really atmospheric and far away.
This will give it a unique place in the box and keep the rest of the guitars happy in front of the box.
One more example: let’s say you want to have a hi-hat, a shaker and a tambourine in your song. All of these elements are a bit “trebly” – which means they naturally live somewhere close to the top of our box.
Where are you going to put all of them? You wouldn’t want them taking up the same space in the box and, in this case, doing the visual exercise tells us that we may have a problem on our hands.
If you’ve ever researched mixing, you’ve almost certainly heard people recommending frequently checking your mix in mono. This is because when you mix in mono, you’ve taken the Left to Right axis out of the box. Now all you have is a narrow hallway instead of a wide room. This means that to get “separation” for your tracks, you need to work harder. You can’t just move something to the side of the box to give it a space. Instead, you need to make space using the vertical axis (frequency).
Let’s see how this would look for our track.
Visually speaking, we’ve carved out the low section of the frequency spectrum for our kick drum and we’ve cut some of those low frequencies out of the bass guitar so that they’re not fighting each other.
Now we can “see” both the kick and the bass and they’ll work together to give us a big low end. Further up we have the guitars. We’ve removed some low frequency content from the guitars to separate them from the bass.
Dead center, up front, we have our vocal track which has also lost much of its unnecessary low frequency content. And so on.
Now, in the same podcast episode, we also talked about how most instruments actually take up much more of the frequency spectrum than we think. You can try this experiment on any one of your tracks. Use a low pass or high pass filter to carve away most of the audible frequency spectrum. You may be surprised that you can still hear the kick drum up at 10kHz and that you can still hear cymbals down at 200Hz.
I'm saying this so that we don't take the box analogy TOO literally. Still, it gives us a nice starting point to focus our productions.
If we have good separation in mono, getting good separation in stereo is "a walk in the cake". That's the expression, right?
Once we are thinking in stereo, we can move the guitars, cymbals and toms out to the sides.
You can see that we’re starting to fill our box and this should mean that our production will start to sound full and wide.
Now for the front to back.
A little trickier to display this dimension on a flat screen but hopefully you can see what we're going for.
The point of this technique is not to show where I think things should go in a rock mix.
The point is that when you start planning your production, close your eyes, visualize your box and decide where each of your tracks feels like it should be in the box. If you have an empty space in the box, think about what you can put there to fill it up.
Also, if you're unsure where to start, listen to some of your favorite songs think about where those elements are placed.
For more, check out Episode 12 of the DIY Recording Guys podcast, or reach out to me directly.