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When I compare my mixes to professional ones, mine sound claustrophobic.  If I'm listening on headphones it always sounds as if everything is too close to my head no matter how much reverb or delay, panning  or anything I use to try to create dimension.  It sounds as if my listening environment is within a small pup tent and I'd like it to sound as if I'm in a much larger room.  When I listen to pro mixes it seems as if there's plenty of room for everything to spread out as if my listening area is a much larger room.  Instruments that are panned left or right are better defined than on my mixes.  I've been wondering why this happens.  I use almost all virtual instruments but my vocals are just as claustrophobic than any of the instruments (in fact, more so).  What could cause this?  Could it be sampling rate or resolution?  Pros probably use 96.0 where in mine that would be impossible to do due to computer limits.  (I mostly use 44.1)  Or is it something in the mix I'm doing wrong?  (Plug ins?)  Or is it just the nature of pro audio vs amateur?  I'd appreciate any suggestions.

😀John B.

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Posted (edited)

I'd say it has absolutely nothing to do with sample rates and it's really down to the skill of the mix engineer.

What sort of instrumentation are you using?

Edited by Bristol_Jonesey
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Posted (edited)

Be careful with the effects in your softsynths.  Many of the presets are designed to sell the product to someone who is soloing it in a well spaced listening environment, and often the reverb etc. is designed to make that particular instrument sound huge. If you play a few of these scary monster sounds at the same time, you often get a result that is totally confusing as to the placement of the source. You will probably do better by pretty much recording each instrument dry (disable the effects in the synth patch) to its own track, and then trying to put it in space within the mix. Otherwise you end up with the effect of a bunch of waves of different sizes  crashing into each other and creating a chaotic  choppy mess, when what you want is a spaced series of distinct breakers rolling ashore so you can see the direction they come from. 

The issue with vocals is similar, in that modern recording technique tends to see reverb/delay as a method to improve the sound of the voice, or a substitute for vocal technique. If you are using a space-defining effect as a way to fatten up the voice, especially if you are doing it while tracking, then you are potentially bringing in a false cue to the location.  

Edited by slartabartfast
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Your best bet for getting relevant and useful advice would be to let us hear one of your mixes. If you can post a link to one of your tracks where you feel this way, you would get much more accurate feedback from the group.

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Too much compression can give this effect. Also not enough cleanup in the low mids can quickly take up the most space.

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Bristol Jonesey-My instruments are all listed in my sig.

What I get from this is that the culprits are the virtual instruments.  I guess that means I'm stuck with the results because I can't afford the real expensive sample libraries.

Thanks

🙂JB

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45 minutes ago, Johnbee58 said:

Bristol Jonesey-My instruments are all listed in my sig.

What I get from this is that the culprits are the virtual instruments.  I guess that means I'm stuck with the results because I can't afford the real expensive sample libraries.

Thanks

🙂JB

It has nothing to do with the quality of the instruments. You'll have the same "claustrophobic" results if you had the most expensive sample libraries known to man. You just need to learn modern mixing techniques. Also, picking the right sounds helps a lot. That's all.

 

Here is a great series of videos to get you started:

https://youtu.be/fEHf57RoC4s

Also check out:

https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=dave+pensado+mixing

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John, as one who's heard several of your mixes, I'd say you're closer than you may think.  As important as anything, your mixing environment is the key factor in a do-it-yourself situation.  Is your room treated, or do you have software for equalizing your monitors to your room (such as ARC 2 or Sonarworks)?  What kind of headphones do you use?  It's not about your VIs or samples, because a good engineer can make do with simple tools.  If you posted your last two songs from the song forum here, people would see that you put up some pretty good mixes.  Lately I've been using software to widen my mixes in a subtle way, such as Izotope's stereo image or CWs channel tools to give my mixes a little extra width.  Caution must be taken, as they can be abused, but if used correctly, they can enhance even the best stereo spread.  I've noticed that the mixes you've done over the last few years keep getting better, and that's due to experience.  

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Posted (edited)

I would suggest that the combination of arraignment, instrumentation choice and finally band limiting where the instruments sit in relation to each other - which point back to arraignment and instrument choice. One thing I am learning is that a nice full frequency spectrum sound on more than 1 or 2 instruments has a more negative effect. 

Edited by RBH
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You clearly haven't spent enough money on plugins, JB! 😁

 

As was suggested above, that claustrophobic effect has nothing to do with sample rates or plugins, but rather almost always comes down to one or more of the following:

1. Too much spackle between the cracks, with reverb and compression being the main offenders. Gotta leave little holes between the notes/hits.

2. Using a lot of thick synth tones and layers of distorted guitars that have been manipulated to sound wide on their own. It's counter-intuitive, but mono tracks make for the widest mixes, while lots of wide-stereo tracks actually dilute the overall sense of panorama.

3. Lack of contrast. Equality is fine as a social ideal, but it has no place in a mix. Trying to make every element equally loud, equally full-spectrum, equally dry or wet or equally broad - will add up to a wall of mush. Not everything needs reverb, not everything needs to sound great in solo, and not everything needs to be full-spectrum. 

4. And of course, you can easily undo a good mix with bad mastering.  Mastering should always be icing, never remedial.

 

I've got a whole bunch of old mixes that suffer horribly from exactly the syndrome you describe. How I wish I could go back and re-do them! Sadly, all I can do is analyze them and swear to be less timid in the future. If it's to be panned left, then dammit, why not 100% left? 

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John, some things that I have "learned" from professional mixes are:

  • Always cut the low end of your reverb instances and not too hesitantly!
  • Cut cut cut the low ends of most of your tracks (except the bass OR the bassdrum). For me it was like a wonder when I had noticed the first time that to take away the low end of an instrument makes it often louder and clearer in the mix!!!
  • To create space do not only add extensive reverb to some tracks (as I did some time ago), but rather set some tracks to the front left and right side (so like in a semicircle arrangement). A space perception has to do with the DIFFERENCE in distance that you hear. I always had thought that there was nearly no reverb on the vocals on Beatles albums, but then I found out it is the contrary. They gave a lot of reverb to the lead vocals, but always set some instruments on the left and right side near the listener (nearly with no reverb) that really crop out the vocals and give the illusion of space.
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Thanks for all the above suggestions.

Somebody above wanted to hear an example.  Here's on of the best:

https://johnbowen.bandcamp.com/track/the-twilight-side-of-morning

In my opinion, everything is wrong with this mix.  As you can hear, in the last verse I have string ensemble, but then, a few months after I did the first mix, I bought NI Strummed Acoustic Guitar and added it.  Even though I tried to adjust everything, it still sounds like the strings and guitar are competing with each other and both are  losing terribly.  This is a prime example of the "claustrophobic" effect in my original complaint.  Also, I think the vocal track sucks.  Last year I submitted it to Recording magazine for Marty Peters to have a listen.  He said it doesn't sound all that bad to him, but I might want to try another microphone other than the Avantone CV 12 I used on the track.  I think you can access this link without a subscription.  If you can, have a listen.  The notable thing here is that I presented the song to the mag prior to adding the acoustic guitar. https://recordingmag.com/readers-tracks/john-bowen-twilight-side-of-morning/ 

So you can hear a before and after mix.

Thanks again.  Hoping to hear your views on these mixes.

😀JB

 

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John,

My advice would be to turn off all effects like reverb and chorus until you get a good mix. Don't compress things that don't need it. Don't feel like every instrument needs to be loud to be heard. Lastly, use EQ to carve out space for the various instruments. If you find two instruments that are competing, decide whether they are meant to reinforce each other and arrange the panning to support that. If they are fighting unnecessarily, cut one.

Once you've got a good (dry) mix you can setup a short and long reverb bus and use sends to add reverb to the tracks that need it (not everything does). Reverb does not add space, and panning does not make an instrument sound closer or farther. Mostly, that is what EQ and compression do.

Dan

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Personally, I found the track sounded fine for the most part, but I do get what you're saying.

Firstly, I found your vocal sound could be improved by:

  • 4db cut at 6.8K (Q at around 5)  to remove the sibilance 
  • 3db cut at 2.2K (Q at around 11) to remove some of the harshness
  • 1.5db boost at 250Hz (Q at 1.3) to add a bit of weight to the vocals.

(the above using ProChannel Gloss EQ on Hybrid)

As far as the rest of the mix goes, I think @marled had the right advice.

There is a huge build up of low frequencies when all the instruments come in. 

Try high passing everything apart from either the bass or the kick drum. So, solo each track and keep moving the high pass frequency up until you can just hear it making an effect. Then back it off. It should sound like you've not made a change, but in fact it'll clean up your mix considerably.

The next thing is to look at your low mids. One of the biggest problem frequencies in most mixes is around 300Hz, which in your case (IMO) is the sweet spot for your vocal. Try dipping out around 300Hz a dB or so in some of the other tracks to give space for your vocal here. You may even find you can turn the whole vocal down a bit as a result.

Finally, as a general rule you should take a step back and look at what frequencies are dominant in each of your tracks.

If more than one instrument is dominant in the same frequency, decide which instrument is going to take preference, and cut that frequency in the other track. Take no notice at this stage what it sounds like in solo.

In most cases things like organs, pianos and guitars will dominate more than one frequency. You should use a bit of give & take here, so if you decide the organ is dominant in one of the frequencies, let the piano or guitar be dominant in the other. Try swapping it about to see what sounds best.

Really all you've got left then is balancing the tracks, which should be a lot easier when you've not got tracks fighting each other for dominance in the same frequency space. 

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Hey, John, good to see you. I always enjoyed the discussions that resulted from your questions at TOP.

I heartily second what @slartabartfast, @bitflipper and @marled have said, especially regarding the importance of recording your virtual instruments as "dry" as their controls will allow and adding reverb in Cakewalk with the reverb plug-in of your choice.

Also, it is not down to sample rate or the price of your virtual instruments.

I'll share a personal tip with you. When I got back into home recording in a big way half a dozen years ago, I was at first knocked flat by all the choices and how much was available, how you can slap 12 plug-ins on each track if you want, etc. Then I brushed up on my mixing theory and practice and settled down.

The way I see it is with a mix I'm painting a picture or creating a diorama, and reverb is the room the diorama sits in. So I rarely put a reverb plug-in on an individual track. I do it like the engineers did 50 years ago when they had "echo chambers" or a single plate or spring and put my favorite reverb plug-in (at the moment Waves TrueVerb, there, I get a bingo point, but I also like the freeware OrilRiver) on a bus and use sends so that everything that gets reverb goes to that one Reverb bus.

This has the effect of making everything sound as if it's happening in one sonic space. The point of reverb (unless it's being used as an obvious effect) is to make sounds seem as if they are in natural acoustic spaces, and I want everything to sound as if it's in the same acoustic space.

In the case of your piano ballad, which, BTW, I liked the song and the second mix, I especially wanted it to sound like your voice and your piano were in the same virtual room. So that if I closed my eyes, I could "see" you singing and playing. Because your voice is the lead instrument, and you are doing a good job of keeping it in front, and then your piano is your main backing instrument, and we're used to seeing singer pianists. The rest of the band can then be arranged around behind you, sonically, but singing John and his piano should stay up front. Like Elton or Billy when the band comes in, they stay up front and center.

When I mix, I close my eyes from time to time to "see" what the "band" (who are all me overdubbed) "look like" in the mix. I usually try to spread the drummer out, then the bass player a little to the right, keys to the left a bit, and my lead vocal and one guitar in the center and relatively dry to provide a focal point of "Erik singing and playing guitar."

Reverb is, to me, essential, but it can also fill up the acoustic space like nothing else. One rule of thumb I have is that if I can hear the reverb, there may be too much of it. Not always true, but if I hear it, I will back off the sends and see if the mix sounds better. After all, in real life how often do we actually consciously perceive room reverb vs. just feeling it?

It's good to be careful with putting reverb plug-ins on individual tracks because it can make mix elements sound like they are happening in different acoustic spaces. It's not a no-no, it's just good to be careful that it doesn't mess with the image.

Usually the reverb that comes built in to virtual instruments doesn't sound as natural as an external dedicated plug-in either, so I look for a way to mute it as soon as I can. Similar with big wide patches on synths. They sound great solo'd, but eat up too much room in a mix.

My friend and local studio owner and sometime client Myles Boisen has written a couple of good articles on this topic that I will leave you with:

https://www.emusician.com/how-to/space-is-the-place-part-1

https://www.emusician.com/how-to/space-is-the-place-part-2

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WOW! This is a lot of advice.  It'll take me a while to go through everything here, but I appreciate you all giving me your suggestions.

😀JB

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I'm sure you use SPAN. Using Ctrl + Mouse you can sweep and listen to freq's. Use wheel to change Q while sweeping.

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If I was given this to mix, in the beginning:

  • A little more reverb on the vocal
  • Lower piano level
  • Organ way lower
  • Bass part sparser

Overall, what you’re hearing is too many parts competing for space, and there’s not enough variation of instruments weaving in and out. It's mostly an arrangement issue. Drop the bass out at 2:00, organ down, hand percussion (tambourine, shaker, etc.) to maintain the beat. Then at 2:15, have those drums pump!! Give them some serious limiting, boost the level, and a reverb splash to lead into the next section. Bring the bass back in for the next section.

Then decide which other instruments you want to have predominate in this section. A harmony vocal would be cool...at 2:30 start dialing back the instruments, to reduce the density. The change at 3:00 is most welcome, but again, drop out the bass and use hand percussion until the drums come back in.

At 3:17, I’d lose the synth figure which is almost anti-majestic, and use a sustained choir sound, which would add majesty. The TTS-1 is fine for that, it’s actually quite good.

At 4:00, you’re getting the right idea - you’ve pulled back, and emphasized the voice.

Less is more. Just ask Miles Davis :)

Finally, for the vocal, do the phrase-by-phrase normalization technique I’ve talked about numerous times. You’ll love how your voice sounds, especially after you limit it.

So...If you get a chance, listen to my latest single: 

 

You’ll hear the kind of contrasts I’m talking about. The intro has power chords, keyboards, heavy drums, etc. But the first verse starting at 0:20 is only voice, guitar, bass, and drum toms. Very basic, but that’s all that’s needed. At 0:48, keyboards and more vocals creep in. Then the power hits at 1:07 with the Chicago blues harp solo.

But here’s the most important part: at 1:22, note how after that excess of distorted guitar, blues harp, and heavy drums, it dials back to only vocal, acoustic guitar, and tambourine way in the background. This essentially "reboots" the song, so I can build it back for impact, which happens at 1:50 with the extended section and DJ-style FX break.

At 2:00 the song returns to full instrumentation, but to take it up another notch, it’s not about adding more instruments or changing levels, but going from 2- to 3-part harmonies. Then at 2:23, EVERYTHING drops out except the vocal + harmonies – an old country trick applied to rock.

Then from there to the end, it’s back to Chicago blues harp, a more animated bass, louder drums, etc. on the way out.

One exercise you might find helpful – when doing a final mix, I’ll mute tracks. If the music doesn’t sound worse, I leave it out.

If you remember only one thing from all this verbiage, it’s this:

The fewer parts that are playing, the more importance the remaining parts assume.

Hope this helps! You're well on your way.

 

 

 

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This happens to all of us once in a while. We mature as engineers and realize we need improvement. Every few months I go through similar growing pains and I've been mixing for years.

Just strip it down, restart from square one and remove all FX and EQ and go back to work. Try not to use too many built in VST-I FX, Choose track FX instead.

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Mr. Anderton-I'm honored.  The guru of home recording (I bought one of your books way back in 1988 in my tape days) took the time to listen to my little song.  Thanks so much for your suggestions, Sir.🤩

The above is not meant to minimize the efforts from all here who offered feedback.  You're all appreciated and I will look over this wealth of information, for sure.

😀JB

 

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