In order to build a powerful and evocative sound-world for your music, through which to lead the listener on a well defined journey, it is essential to master an understanding of the 'soundstage'.
Once you have an awareness of how to create and control it, you can build incredible emotional experiences for the listener as the sonic landscape changes and erupts around them.
So too can the demand for EQ, compression, spatial and all other processing decisions become more apparent, as you shape and construct this acoustic environment - in to whatever you can envision.
The term is fundamentally used to describe the visualisation of an imagined auditory 'space' in which the music lives. It is something we already intuitively do in any real-world environment. Go with this for a second - picture standing on a busy street, with your eyes closed. Your attention is immediately captured by the loudest, or most unique source of sound, perhaps car after car passing by. You are aware of the much closer sound of people walking past, their regular footsteps and the rise and fall of conversations. In the distance a train pulls over a bridge while a plane engine drones overhead.
We can picture this three dimensional space in our minds eye, with sound sources moving on a horizontal plane from one side to another, reverberant sources in the distance, drier sounds up close, all in one dynamic environment. This is your 'soundstage'; and exactly the same concept described in interpreting a piece of music and its balances.
THE SOUNDSTAGE IN MUSIC
We can build an intricately detailed auditory space to interpret music. You may likely find you do it intuitively. If you can, as an example check out this mix, 'Reckoner' by Radiohead.
Immediately, to our right, are reverbed drums laying down a steady groove with occasional dotted shuffles. To the left is a crunchy tambourine, its high frequencies up on a steady 1/16 rhythm, before a guitar joins below it with a lower regular dotted rhythm. In the distance we hear the instruments' reverb painting out the rest of our space (The interplay between the two sides of our soundstage from the outset is hugely euphonic - they are almost completely separated in space, are unique texturally and exist within their own individual rhythms - but occasionally land together synergistically. This correlation through rhythm is the essence of how 'grooves' are built, which we'll be investigating further in a future post.)
Quite significantly, this mixing strategy has left a gap in the middle of the soundstage, spatially and harmonically. Enter our foreground element, the lead vocal and, later with the piano, central support from the bass below. A wide, stereo piano finds its own place on both sides of the soundstage as the first significant 'stereo' instrument, the harmonies filling out the midrange and tying everything together while the bass fills out the bottom frequencies of the mix. Notice how every element has entered in its own place, performing its own synergistic function. Now that the soundstage is 'full', there's only one place to go.
The moment the relentless percussion drops away (2:25) creates huge expectation, opening the soundstage up to the forthcoming build of harmonies, and revealing the creeping intimacy of the stereo backing vocals. The soundstage begins to fill again as many independent melodies weave together into a complex tapestry of harmony. Notice the individual harmonic groups - the backing vocals and strings. Much like the footsteps in our earlier example, when focusing elsewhere they may perceptually become one homogenous 'part', but equally upon focus you will notice individual voices and melodies traveling in their own directions.
You might find different tones conjure different textures, colours or gradations of warmth, like 'glassy' pianos and 'soft' vocals. The more descriptive detail you can breathe into this perception of the soundstage when interpreting music, the better you can experience and manage the balances.
With our hands at the controls, we can decide which sounds live together, which stand on their own, which live in a state of juxtaposed tension, and craft hugely imaginative balances of sonic architecture. Modulating these balances over time through arrangement and automation of a mixes dimensions establishes a journey and narrative, creating an experience filled with meaning.
THE DIMENSIONS OF SOUND
This is a general framework for perceiving the dimensional soundstage - as we'll see in the later creative parts of this series, they are in fact all related, and changing one can easily alter your perception of another.
- This one's the hardest to describe but it should be intuitive. If you can picture a single moment in the soundstage, and connect its movement to another moment, here is your passage of time. (The nature of time continues to puzzle physicists and philosophers alike, with lifetimes spent wondering what that duration of research even was).
Every sound can be described through properties of all four, and cannot exist without a property of each one. You might have the loudest, bass-iest note imaginable, but with no duration you've got nothing to hear. Or perhaps infinite duration of all possible frequencies and spatial positions, but again - with no volume, you'll never know.
And here's why visualising the soundstage is so important: it's an intuitive and incredibly powerful way of processing all of these details at once. And by its merit, fully experiencing the musical journey in its totality.
When you have a firm grasp of these dimensions, and can think of ways to make a sound travel through them using the musical/audio processing tools available, you can begin creating entirely new and dynamic sonic experiences. You can see the 'space' for a new harmonic layer, or where a channel overlaps too much with another, and have complete artistic control over the separation and power of the music you're creating.
Now that we know what it is, in Part 2 we will delve further in to the fun stuff: describing the creative compositional and processing tools available to build and redesign the acoustic landscape, as well as some of their unique psychoacoustic effects.
In Part 3, armed with perspective and knowledge of the tools, we will take a detailed look at some professional mixes and explain how they work in this dimensional frame for emotive sonic impact.