Understanding The Soundstage: Part 2


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We're about to show you how space, balance and contrast can lead to truly powerful music.

If you want to build an exciting and fully immersive mix for your music to shine in, it's critical to know what to reach for when you want to position and control your elements.

So here's the mix-building powerhouse: a breakdown of all the essential creative tools you need to shape and redesign the soundstage.

With an understanding of how these tools work - in relation to how they affect the different dimensions of your mix - you'll be able to build any sound-world you can imagine.

In Part 1 we introduced the idea of the soundstage along with an overview of how we experience it, so head back there if you need to freshen up.



You already know when something sounds 'huge'. Or 'powerful'. Or 'beautiful'. We've got ears and an imagination, all that is required is putting them to use. More low end? Wider stereo image? Make space for another instrument? Once you know what you want, all you have to do is put it there.

Here's how:

Faders - Understanding the Soundstage

1. Space. Horizontal

To change where a sound sits in space, we can use:

  • Panning
  • Stereo Imaging, M/S processing
  • Reverb
  • Phase/Mod FX (ie chorus, flangers, phasers)
  • Delay
  • Physical position, Direction, Mic setup/placement


2. Frequency. Vertical

To layer and balance sounds from top to bottom, we can use:

  • EQ
  • Pitch/Frequency modulation
  • Distortion/Saturation
  • Instrumentation, Harmony, Inversion, Transposition, Mic type


3. Volume. Front to back

To affect the presentation of depth and 'closeness', reach for:

  • Gain
  • Compression
  • Envelopes
  • Transient Shaping
  • Distortion/Saturation
  • EQ
  • Dynamics, Accentuation, Articulation, Voicing, Physical position, Mic type


4. Time.

To place sounds around each other in time, we can use:

  • Envelopes
  • Delay
  • Sidechaining
  • Reverb
  • Rate
  • Timestretching
  • Rhythm, Tempo, Length

The art of using these tools to build a powerful and engaging mix is simple: create coherent separation and synergy between your tracks.

In whichever way you like. An instrument jamming at the front, a channel supporting at the back, wide splashes of drum overheads at the top and sides - whatever works for you and generates the feeling you want to create.

Which tracks belong to a group? Which don't? How can they coexist in the mix, in a way that accents their individual qualities, but also highlights their harmonious relationship?

There are many tried and tested answers to these questions, and you can hear them in the clichés of any genre. Often for good reason - pleasing balances of harmonics, proven objective engineering principals, and a desire to speak the same musical language are amongst them. Those who dare to provide more creative functional answers however will go on to create some of the most ear-catching and successful music of tomorrow. (An effective strategy used time and again across the history of music is to recombine the functional tropes of several genres, generating novelty from familiarity.)

Combined with the same strategy of contrasts in your arrangement and songwriting, you'll create incredibly detailed and enjoyable musical experiences.

Individual lines, groups and sequences moving in their own clearly expressive ways, in their own clearly expressive mix positions, their coming together and moving apart describing a symphonic story of tension and feeling.

Each of the tools available to us has innumerous ways to be used in itself, and can create as much contrast or conformity between your instruments as you like. For example, you might use the same delay setting on several instruments to tie them together in space, or very different settings to spread them apart. You may equalise and compress channels to stand side by side in the mix, or use wildly different compression/EQ settings to bring one to the front while pushing the other to the back.

There's an enormous breadth of creative control within every technique, and when you expand this capacity to your entire box of mix-shaping tools, the full scope of possibilities is huge.


Faders 2 - Understanding the Soundstage


Every sound that enters your brain is understood through characteristics in these four dimensions - a position in Space, a balance of Frequencies, a Volume, and a duration of these characteristics over Time.

The balance of these properties in a sound tells your brain what is happening in relation to you - for example, if something is getting quieter, perhaps it's moving further away from where you are. If a pitch is rising or falling, perhaps something is accelerating past you.

In the real-world environment it is the correlation of changes in a combination of these four characteristics that creates a clear perception of an event. Often when a sound source moves away from you, it not only gets quieter but it also loses high frequencies - as they have a shorter wavelength and more easily disperse. The noise might also seem to become more reverberant as reflections audibly bounce off surfaces between it and you, while the delay between the dry signal and its' echoes might get shorter.

How an instrument or sound presents and moves in relation to you has a huge effect on the emotional presentation - a distant vocal reverberating endlessly will conjure very different feelings to an up-close and personal dry performance. The same vocal moving between the two might make for an incredibly expressive musical experience.

Understanding how these characteristics are related, and how we can shape them, is therefore essential in creating realistic and expressive musical events.

Balancing and separating your different instruments in contrasting ways monopolises on this effect, creating rich, spacious, emotionally engaging experiences that can be easily interpreted. It also sets the groundwork for loudness and clarity in the mix, as by this very principal you avoid too much overlap in the soundstage.


Divider - Understanding the Soundstage



Faders 3 - Understanding the Soundstage

One of the simplest and most useful lessons to take away here, is that we can use our experience of sound in the environment to show us how we can shape it.

You already know when something sounds 'big', or 'close' - you just need to pause and think about what those characteristics are, and how you can apply them to an element in your mix using the tools available.

This could be with processing, recording, or indeed with composition and arrangement - if a chord isn't sitting where you want it, you may well find an inversion or revoicing delivers the right impact.

Once you know how to shape the environment, you can ultimately shape the emotional impact of the music that lives within it. 

Now that we're up to speed on the soundstage, and understand what can be used to carve and shape it's dimensions, in Part 3 it's time to look at some big musical moments - and explain exactly how they work..


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