Creating 3D Space In A Mix | Depth, Width & Height

Written By Kyle Mathias  |  Mixing 

If you are searching for ways to bring more depth and dimension to your mixes, you’ve come to the right place. In this post, we will take a look at a few simple techniques that can be used to make your mixes more immersive and spacious.

In addition to improving your mixing skills, learning about how these techniques work will teach you a lot about acoustics and how humans perceive sounds – so go ahead and grab a notebook and settle in.

First, I want to let you know that this video was inspired by a video series that was introduced to me in college, called The Art Of Mixing with David Gibson.

The video seemed a little outdated even back then, but the techniques and tips shared in that series are still relevant today. Anyway, the first chapter of that video series introduces imaging – the idea that a mix is like a painter’s canvas.

What Is Imaging In A Mix?

The concept of imaging refers to adding spatial elements to a mix so that an image is created for the listener.

Using the techniques I’ll show you in this post, a mixing engineer can manipulate the positioning of each instrument on the “canvas” and ultimately create a 3-dimensional experience.

Width

First, let’s talk about width in a mix.

When it comes to positioning the components of your mix in a stereo setup with two speakers, the two speakers usually mark the boundaries of your canvas from left to right.

Of course, these concepts also apply to mixing in surround formats like 5.1 or Dolby Atmos, but for the sake of simplicity let’s stick to stereo for now.

Panning

The primary tool used for positioning an instrument from left to right is panning. A pan knob controls how a signal will be distributed between the left and right speaker.

If I set the pan knob all of the way to the right, my voice will only come out of your right speaker and if I set it all of the way to the left, my voice will only come out of your left speaker.

If I set the pan knob to the center, my voice will come out of both speakers evenly, which will create a phantom image as if my voice was originating from between the speakers, which I find fascinating.

Delay

In addition to panning, we can also create space using delay.

Think about it… A sound originating on your right side will reach your right ear first before reaching your left ear at a slight delay. So, we can play upon this phenomenon (called the Haas Effect) by adding a slight delay to the signal in one speaker.

Now, even if the signal is the same level in both speakers, the listener will localize the sound to the side that reaches their ear first.

Height

You also have some control over the perceived height of an instrument, although this is more difficult to control. Humans are much better equipped to localize sounds from left to right than top to bottom, because our ears are on the sides of our head.

It’s much easier to control the height of each source when mixing in a format that has height speakers, like 5.1.2. In a system with height speakers, the same concept that we saw in panning left to right is used, just from top to bottom instead.

In stereo, you can sometimes place an instrument lower on the canvas by embellishing the low frequencies or higher on the canvas by emphasizing the high frequencies. I think this is mostly based on the fact that low frequencies can travel through the floor while high frequencies cannot.

Depth

The third dimension of your mix is depth – the positioning of the instrument from front to back.

This is where it gets interesting, because there are so many different ways to manipulate the depth of a mix.

Level

The simplest way to adjust the placement of an instrument from front to back is to increase or decrease the level of that instrument. This makes sense because sounds typically become quieter the further away from the source you get.

So, if I increase the level of my voice using a fader, it seems to bring me closer to you as the listener and turning it down moves me further away.

Reverb

You can also add depth using reverb – and more importantly the relative level of direct sound to reverberant sound.

If the dry signal of my voice is much louder than the reverb, it will add depth to the virtual space, but my voice will still seem upfront in the mix. As the reverb signal increases in relation to the dry signal, it seems to push me back in the mix.

In a real-world indoor situation, the direct-to-indirect sound ratio will decrease as the source moves further away, until it starts to widen in the opposite direction once it crosses the critical distance.

EQ

As sounds move further away, they typically start to lose some high-mid and high-frequency energy.

A sound source very close to you will sound defined and articulate, while a source further away might start to sound dull in comparison.

Using this to our advantage, we can roll off some of the higher frequencies to push an instrument back in the mix or boost some of the higher frequencies to add presence.

Ear Training For Audio Engineers

If you want to improve your mixes, a good place to spend your time and energy is with ear training. Check out this post about ear training for audio engineers and download the free ear training guide.


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