Author Topic: What are the tips and secrets of mixing ambient music?  (Read 15077 times)

triksterb

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What are the tips and secrets of mixing ambient music?
« on: January 10, 2010, 07:53:11 PM »
I've been reading some mixing articles lately, and they all offer the same information about how to make a mix where all of the instruments stand out and it forms a clear piece where you can hear every instrument clearly.  It's all very good information, but these articles focus mainly on rock and electronic music; genres where melodies and rhythm are very important to be able to hear clearly.

Clearly ambient music is much different than those genres.  It focuses on atmosphere and textures, and usually uses a lot of reverb and delay.  Instead of having bass guitar and drums which can be easily EQed to fit, ambient uses drones and textures which have to complement each other a little bit without sounding like mud.  So I guess my question is, are the principles of mixing genres such as rock and electronic music the same for ambient or are they wildly different?  What are some great mixing tips for ambient?

One mixing tip I learned a while back was from Robert Rich on his website.  I don't remember exactly, but he wrote that when doing a mixdown, he would have 2 reverb tracks, and he would pan them behind and detune both of them a little, and this would create a fuller sound.  If you know any other cool tricks like this, please share them.

ffcal

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Re: What are the tips and secrets of mixing ambient music?
« Reply #1 on: January 10, 2010, 08:39:10 PM »
One piece of advice I would give is not to use the same reverb setting on all of your tracks.  It will help differentiate the back-to-front depth of your tracks, and make the overall effect less muddy.  Also, I would make sure not to overdo the midrange frequencies, as they can also make a mix very muddy in a hurry.

Forrest

Paul Vnuk (Ma Ja Le)

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Re: What are the tips and secrets of mixing ambient music?
« Reply #2 on: January 10, 2010, 09:59:26 PM »
I agree with both Robert and Forrest.

I typically run 1 - 4 reverbs on a mix, think of them as rooms, spaces or different worlds and you decide which elements will enter into and live in which one.

Also be very aware of your wet dry mix and play with it, things out of the verb will come forward and closer.

And actually I think you are wise to seek out articles on mixing in any genre, it will give you great perspective and knowledge of the big picture. Remember a good mix engineer is a good mix engineer.

I may vary my considerations from client to client and artist to artist, but not my over all approach and working method. I use the same EQ's, Compressors, delays and verbs all the time.

Think in terms of foreground, background, points of interrest, implied sounds, tricks of the ear rather than melody or lead lines, ect. What lives where and how will you get it to do so.

Good luck,

Paul
"I liken good ambient to good poetry ... enjoyable, often powerful, and usually unpopular" APK

Blackinfinity

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Re: What are the tips and secrets of mixing ambient music?
« Reply #3 on: January 10, 2010, 10:14:43 PM »
This was written in Robert Rich blog... quite interesting... I really wish..to read more about his mixing techniques..
You can read more http://robertrich.com/gear-talk/ @

Probably too much information to squeeze into a short answer, but I’ll try to summarize. (1) I find the quality of a reverb often matters more than the length or quantity. I typically mix with two reverbs, a short and a long. lengths differ from piece to piece. Often a choose a plate-style setting for my short, so it doesn’t muddy up the transients. I use the long setting more as a part of the sound design itself. Anything more unusual gets recorded along with the sound of a specific track if necessary. (2) Regarding ney and other flutes - or anything in the vocal range for that matter - I find that any reverb that sits directly on top of the sound tends to muddy it up. Often I use only panned delays, sometimes with a tiny bit of +- pitch shift, and if there’s any reverb on the sound it’s only on the echo returns. that keeps the lead voice clearer. (3) Either use less reverb or use better reverb. EQ’ing the reverb return also helps, reducing a few dB around 200 Hz or so. Depends on the reverb. If you want to create that effect with everything in a cloud, start with a very bright source timbre through a Lexicon PCM70 set to long hall at 20 sec., and use 100% reverb with no dry sound. I tend to opt for more variation, personally, but the Lexicon works great as a homogenizer. I prefer the clarity of the Sony reverbs. To distinguish sustaining lead sounds from the reverb wash, try the delay trick I mentioned above.
« Last Edit: January 10, 2010, 10:16:44 PM by Blackinfinity »

triksterb

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Re: What are the tips and secrets of mixing ambient music?
« Reply #4 on: January 10, 2010, 10:53:58 PM »
Thanks for the tips everybody!

ffcal: I definitely agree about the midrange frequencies.  There's always one particular frequency that appears in any mix I make that just takes over the entire mix and kind of hurts my ears (my ears are more sensitive to more higher frequencies), and I always have to put on an eq and tone it down a bit, but not too much.

Paul Vnuk:  I'm glad that it's a good thing to read any article I can, since this kind of thing is something I'd like to do someday.  That is also a cool idea to visualize rooms; I'll have to try that.

Blackinfinity:  Yep, that was the article I found, but looks like it was delay instead of reverb.  Nevertheless, a great technique.

Ok, so I have a couple more questions.  For any other genre, monitors are important since they represent the sound accurately and you can tweak it since more than likely the music will be heard through loudspeakers, car speakers, etc.  However, since ambient is about the detail in the music and is more likely to be heard through headphones instead of in someone's car, is it better to do most of the mixing in headphones or are monitors still better?  Since ambient can be a lot about panning sounds in the stereo spectrum, it might be easier to hear it through headphones and then maybe do a little eqing with monitors on.  How do you all mix; monitors or headphones?   

Paul Vnuk (Ma Ja Le)

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Re: What are the tips and secrets of mixing ambient music?
« Reply #5 on: January 10, 2010, 11:17:56 PM »
Well just my take,

Never assume a listeners environment.

I know plenty of folks who listen to ambient music driving in their car. I also know a lot who listen in the office cubicles on small computer speakers. I for one hate the headphone listening experience.

That aside, headphones are indeed great for stereo placement and checking your mixes, but I would never advise mixing on them for an end product. Get the best set of revealing monitors which you budget will allow.

If you get a great mix on a good set of speakers which you know well, that mix should translate anywhere.

« Last Edit: January 10, 2010, 11:22:38 PM by Paul Vnuk (Ma Ja Le) »
"I liken good ambient to good poetry ... enjoyable, often powerful, and usually unpopular" APK

triksterb

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Re: What are the tips and secrets of mixing ambient music?
« Reply #6 on: January 11, 2010, 01:24:36 AM »
Well, I do have Sennheiser HD280 headphones which I know well, and Tascam VL S21 monitors which I bought a couple years ago and never really used, but I did set it up yesterday to start learning how to listen to monitors.  They are probably not the best, but for now, it should be ok.  I do know it will take quite some time to really learn them, but that's fine; not everything in life can be easy.

Paul Vnuk (Ma Ja Le)

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Re: What are the tips and secrets of mixing ambient music?
« Reply #7 on: January 11, 2010, 01:54:20 AM »
The best thing you can do is pick out some of your favorite and best sounding CDs and listen, listen, listen and then try and match what you hear, I know it sounds simple  ;D

You will get there, you seem to have a really great attitude about all of this and a very inquisitive mind, a good combination to be sure.

Paul
"I liken good ambient to good poetry ... enjoyable, often powerful, and usually unpopular" APK

triksterb

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Re: What are the tips and secrets of mixing ambient music?
« Reply #8 on: January 11, 2010, 02:25:53 AM »
Thanks!  Yeah, I don't want to be one of those people that just throw their music up on myspace or whatever without making it sound good.  I have done so much research the past few months on mixing and mastering, and I think I'm finally starting to grasp how to use my tools effectively.  I hope to at least release something this year, and have it sound great.  I've been working on some pieces for about 4 years now, and they are finally starting to sound good.  I have also compared myself to some of my favorite artists, and I am getting closer to having a good mix like they do.

As a side note, about a year ago, I was listening to the Sleepbot Environmental Broadcast, and one of your pieces came up.  I though it was really great, but I forgot the title afterwards.  It was about an hour long, and sounded like a field recording of a city, and throughout, there would be little washes of sound, but it focused mainly on the sounds of the city.  Does this remind you of one of your albums or am I thinking of someone else?

jkn

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Re: What are the tips and secrets of mixing ambient music?
« Reply #9 on: January 11, 2010, 06:16:18 AM »
That album of Paul's you're probably thinking of is available on Hypnos called "Silence Speaks in Shadow".   It is an excellent album.

http://hypnos.com/mm5/merchant.mvc?Screen=PROD&Store_Code=HOS&Product_Code=hyp2134&Category_Code=
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LNerell

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Re: What are the tips and secrets of mixing ambient music?
« Reply #10 on: January 11, 2010, 11:08:38 AM »
Ok, so I have a couple more questions.  For any other genre, monitors are important since they represent the sound accurately and you can tweak it since more than likely the music will be heard through loudspeakers, car speakers, etc.  However, since ambient is about the detail in the music and is more likely to be heard through headphones instead of in someone's car, is it better to do most of the mixing in headphones or are monitors still better?  Since ambient can be a lot about panning sounds in the stereo spectrum, it might be easier to hear it through headphones and then maybe do a little eqing with monitors on.  How do you all mix; monitors or headphones?   

Detail is important and that is why you want to get the best monitors you can afford for mixing. I never mix on headphones as they exaggerate the stereo field too much, I might check out a mix afterwards to see how it translates to  headphones or maybe do a spot check while in the process, but never use them for the entire mix.

As for reverb, I tend to use all four that I own, because they all sound different. EQ is important, I usually roll everything off at 80 hz and below to remove some of the mud and maybe some of the hi-mids a bit.
Take care.

- Loren Nerell

jkn

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Re: What are the tips and secrets of mixing ambient music?
« Reply #11 on: January 11, 2010, 12:48:43 PM »
I tend to think of each track in a song in terms of where it's at in the mix, both in the stereo field and in frequency terms.  If it doesn't need low end - I definitely roll it off as that helps cut the mud.   Some creative EQ'ing on one track can open space for a different track in the mix.   

I mix/master on monitors - listen on phones at times - and always burn off a copy to listen on various speakers (car, boombox, etc...).   

As multiple people have mentioned - I don't use the same reverb across an entire song... I use reverb on specific tracks and try to vary.  I also try to pull back on reverb where it's not needed.   

Since I tend to record a lot of individual tracks as live more or less "planned improv" - and with effects - this can be tricky at times.  :-)
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triksterb

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Re: What are the tips and secrets of mixing ambient music?
« Reply #12 on: January 11, 2010, 01:36:31 PM »
jkn:  Yesss, that was it! Thank you, I'm gonna order it soon.  I definitely think that I overuse the reverb, so in the future I will have to put more thought into how reverb appears in the mix. 

LNerell:  I've never thought of equing the reverbs, which sounds like it could help a lot.  I'm also starting to agree about the headphones, they tend to have too much going on in the stereo spectrum.

Ok, I have a couple more questions:

1.  Reverb.  When I started making music, reverb was my favorite effect to use on everything.  So what I would do is set the decay time to over 10 seconds.  Naturally, this sounded bad after a bit.  So nowadays, I usually set the decay time to around 1-3 seconds.  However, maybe this is still too long.  What decay times do you usually use on your reverbs?

2.  Stereo spectrum.  When using monitors, how do you know to pan certain sounds to the back?  For example, in Live the Utility plugin can set the audio from 0% (mono) to 200% (waaay in the back), and in headphones, you can hear a difference.  I usually set certain sounds to about 120-140%, and that pushes them back in the mix.  Today I listened to some pieces with Utility on them through my monitors, and I couldn't really hear a difference.  Since the monitors are in front of you, you can't really "hear behind you," so you can't really tell if it's back in the mix or not.  Is this what headphones would be great for, or is it a case of me needing to learn how my monitors handle this kind of thing?

jkn

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Re: What are the tips and secrets of mixing ambient music?
« Reply #13 on: January 11, 2010, 02:07:15 PM »
Reverb changes drastically depending on what I'm doing, what the sound is, what the track is...  I've had long reverbs and short reverbs in the same song.   

Phones will definitely 'fool you' if you let them.   It's been mentioned earlier - they're good for a check but not good for extended mixing/mastering.  I used to mix on headphones before I could afford to buy monitors - the first thing I always did was automatically turn the bass lower than I wanted to hear on the headphones... because I knew as soon as I got it onto normal stereo speakers... the bass would be booming through.   

I think Paul or Loren said it earlier.

Listen.

I can't recommend that enough.

Listen.

Listen to your favorite albums on the same setup you're mixing your albums on.   Once you're ears get accustomed to the music you like and respect sounds like on your system - it'll be easier for you to make your music sound from mix/master point of view as good as those other albums.

Listen.

Listen.

Listen.

:-)
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APK

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Re: What are the tips and secrets of mixing ambient music?
« Reply #14 on: January 11, 2010, 02:24:54 PM »
A few things come to mind:

Listening works ... but only if you have a good ear for it, and some idea (afterwards) of why someone else's album sounds better than yours.

I like mixing on headphones (good headphones) for the detail and spacial perspective it gives. Of course, it has to sound good on my monitors too.

Putting reverb all over the place, on everything, sounds like a recipe for gloop. Unless gloopy ambient is what you are after, it is dangerous.

So much great music is great because of the contrasts it offers, which may be subtle contrasts. And blending everything together defeats this.

Put reverb on some things, but keep some other things crisp and clean.

Add subtle interest ... little sounds in the high end of the spectrum.

An interesting, and often useful trick is to slow a piece down. Sometimes it can improve things in not so obvious ways. But try different speeds.

Sometimes a boring part with a nice timbre can become more interesting reversed.

Delay is a slow reverb, and can be less muddy.

Duplicate takes, add different effects to each one, bring them in as needed.
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Sunbreak Music

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Re: What are the tips and secrets of mixing ambient music?
« Reply #15 on: January 11, 2010, 02:31:20 PM »
2.  Stereo spectrum.  When using monitors, how do you know to pan certain sounds to the back?  For example, in Live the Utility plugin can set the audio from 0% (mono) to 200% (waaay in the back), and in headphones, you can hear a difference.  I usually set certain sounds to about 120-140%, and that pushes them back in the mix.  Today I listened to some pieces with Utility on them through my monitors, and I couldn't really hear a difference.  Since the monitors are in front of you, you can't really "hear behind you," so you can't really tell if it's back in the mix or not.  Is this what headphones would be great for, or is it a case of me needing to learn how my monitors handle this kind of thing?

Playing with the stereo spread does little other than affect translation.  You're not pushing things back in the mix, you're inducing phase cancellation that kills the center image (and generally leaves the worst sounding parts behind).  I've never found a "widener" that sounds good past 110%, and most fall apart way before that.
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triksterb

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Re: What are the tips and secrets of mixing ambient music?
« Reply #16 on: January 11, 2010, 03:51:36 PM »
Alright, so the consensus is to listen to other people's music and try to get mine to sound as good as, say, Robert Rich's Somnium which is my personal favorite album.  I can do that, since I pretty much know that album inside out (the hour length version, not the 7 hour version).  I think what I will do for future music is instead of applying reverb right away, I will hold on until most of the piece is finished, and then apply reverb and delays where needed.

All of my questions were pretty much prompted by this youtube video of making drums have more space
which strikes me as important since it's very subtle, but after you set up the reverb and sends, you'll wonder how you ever did it without using this technique.  I'll have to work on future tracks with this in mind. 

Thanks for all the help everybody!  I'll be sure to work with all of this information in mind.  I don't have any more questions for now, but if you have a new tip, please feel free to share it.  Maybe in a few days, I'll put up some pieces and get some constructive criticism if that's ok here.

Wayne Higgins

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Re: What are the tips and secrets of mixing ambient music?
« Reply #17 on: January 12, 2010, 07:11:20 AM »
Reverb? ???
So, I'm a "Sr Member", huh?  In June it's SENIOR DISCOUNT TIME!!!
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jkn

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Re: What are the tips and secrets of mixing ambient music?
« Reply #18 on: January 12, 2010, 07:27:18 AM »
This is totally not a "mixing" thing - but more on the recording/writing side:

One 'trick' I've used several times is to take a copy of a take that I like - and then I'd mess with it - either feed it back out to hardware or change it in software.  Then layer that copy back into the song - moving it slightly in panning or volume - or only bring it in in spots to thicken and add interest.

I totally abused this technique on one song - taking one single track and then making many copies - changing the EQ and other bits on each of these copies and then putting them all together into a song (more on the microsound side of the fence).   Humoroulsy - I remember sending this track out on a demo to a label and I then lost my copy.   Yippeee.  I rather liked the minimalist nature of the track - but that's what happens.  Things break, things get lost.

...

I also like controlled feedback loops... where I'll take a synth or drum machine or whatever into a channel on the mixer - and then go out to a delay through the fx loop - that return of that fx will be to a new channel - which in turn can then feedback into the original effect or feed out a 2nd fx loop - which the 2nd fx loop returns back to a new channel...  some very interesting and fun sounds can develop from multiple feedback loops crossing over into each other.   

Of course - you can let it hit a screeching ear and speaker piercing howl quite quickly - so the "controlled" part of the phrase "controlled feedback" is really key!   :-)

John
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Scott M2

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Re: What are the tips and secrets of mixing ambient music?
« Reply #19 on: January 12, 2010, 08:23:56 AM »
I agree with using different reverbs for different tracks to help create layers, depth or character
but a final global reverb can also be useful for unifying disparate tracks to place them in the same landscape.