Getting Wide Mixes Without Mixing

Mixes should take advantage of the three dimensions it can live in: depth, height, and width. Today we're going to talk about an easy way to create building blocks for a wide mix from the get-go.

First, let's determine what makes something not wide. Let's agree that hearing something in mono is the antithesis of stereo, or something that possesses width. Mono means that we perceive the sound coming from one singular place. Even in a stereo setting, essentially using two speakers, we can simulate mono by playing the same material from both speakers at the exact same time. This gives us our illusive phantom center, or the notion that sound is coming from directly in between the speakers.

We observe this phenomena literally with our own ears. Since we have two ears that are apart from each other, each ear can perceive sound around us at different times and volumes, thus giving our brains a conceptual space to put those sounds in. For instance, listening to music with one earbud in clearly tells our brain that sound is only coming from our right side.

Given this, we can determine that if two things sound the same and reach our ears at the same time, we will likely think they are one. On the flip side, if two things sound tonally different and reach our ears at different times, we think they're separate and unique instances.

Now, let's put that knowledge to use.

Let's say I've written two distinct electric guitar parts for a song. They occupy similar parts of the neck on a guitar, but are nonetheless different. I'd love to help them have the most amount of separation possible. Apart from simply panning guitar part A right and guitar part B left, a few things can be done to ensure they stand on their own.

First, let's reiterate a point from above: two sources sound distinct when they sound different than each other. I know this feels like a "well, gee thanks, I already knew that" kind of point, but stay with me. Here are a few examples in guitar world that you can take and apply elsewhere:

Let's say I play part A on a tele. For part B, find a Les Paul. What if I played part A through a Fender Deluxe? Time to pull out an AC30 or a Marshall. You put a 57 on the Deluxe? Try a 421 or a Royer on the AC30. You get my point.

Some of you may be saying "yea that's all well and good, but I don't have a whole lot of gear to throw around and switch out." I say even better! As long as you change something about part B, you're headed in the right direction.

Try changing pickups, your mic placement, where you put your amp in the room, even the type of pick you play. All of these different variables add up to creating distinct anomalies that separate parts A and B.

Here's the last key to this process: When doing a new part, start on the far end of the spectrum and work towards the middle. Translation: Change EVERYTHING first, then work towards the original if things are too out of wack. I'd pretend like your first settings for the Tele part don't exist anymore! You used a tape delay and a clean boost on the first part? Try a spring reverb with some overdrive.

Point being, I'd automatically defer to a different piece of equipment when starting to record or process a new part. After all, isn't variety the spice of life?

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for continuity in a mix. Some things can so disjunct and removed from one another that they become distracting. There absolutely needs to be a unifying element in every production (but they don't always have to be your guitar tones).

We're all chasing how to give our mixes glue and separation all at the same time. It's a fun paradox to wrestle with.

Try this technique in mixing, too. If you've got your Slate VCC going on your drums, try out the Neve. Once you're happy with that, don't touch the Neve again, especially with your bass. It feels like you're limiting your options, you're exactly right. That's the point! It feels counterintuitive, but limiting your options and opting for something different can ultimately give your music more vibe, separation, and character.

Give this a try in your productions and let me know how this goes. Also, how else have you achieved the elusive element of width in your productions?

Michael Curtis

A mastering engineer and composer who loves helping you sound awesome.