3 Easy Ways To Create More Separation In Your Mixes

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Do your mixes sound like a mushy, muddy mess?

Hey, this is Jason from Behind The Speakers, and in this video you’re going to learn three easy ways to add more separation to your mixes.

But before we dive in, I also put together a free cheatsheet that summarizes everything we’ll be covering in this video, and also includes some additional tips and tricks that will add even more separation to your mixes. Click the link in the description below or up there in the video to download this free cheatsheet right now.

Now before we dive in to some actual techniques that you can apply to improve the separation in your mixes, I want to share an analogy with you that I think will be really helpful in understanding what you’re really trying to do when it comes to creating separation in your mixes.

So imagine you have a dresser and that dresser has three individual drawers in it, and you have a whole bunch of clothes – shirts, socks, boxers, pants – that you’re trying to fit into that dresser.

Now there are a couple of ways that you could fit all of the clothes into the dresser, right? The easiest and quickest way would just be to kind of stuff everything into one drawer, right? Maybe you have to get going in a couple minutes and you only have a minute, and you’re trying to just clean everything really quickly – like I did in high school – and so you just stuff everything into the top drawer. Well what you find is that very quickly that drawer fills up, right? Suddenly there are socks flying out the side and you don’t have any room left for half of your clothes.

But if you were smarter and you took a little bit more time, you would say okay, I have all these different clothes, how do I distribute them among these different drawers so that everything fits, right? So maybe you decide to put the socks and the boxers in the top drawer, your shirts are all in the middle drawer, and then you have your pants in the bottom. And so you’ve taken the time to evenly distribute all of your different clothes among these drawers and suddenly everything fits.

Now this analogy is a great way to think about mixing. And you can think about the frequency spectrum as a dresser. So we have different drawers within the frequency spectrum, right? So you can imagine that the low end for example is maybe that bottom drawer of the dresser, and the midrange is the mid dresser drawer, and the top end is the top one. And so we have these different drawers into which we can put the different tracks in our mix. And so whenever you have too many things in one drawer of the frequency spectrum, too many tracks competing for space in that specific area, that’s when you have a lack of clarity. That’s when there’s no separation. You feel like things are competing and everything’s just kind of combining in a muddy, mushy mess.

But if you take the time to distribute the different tracks among the different drawers of the frequency spectrum, that’s when separation is created. That’s when you can hear everything clearly and suddenly things aren’t competing anymore. So the basic kind of idea is that we want to distribute the tracks among the different areas or “drawers” of the frequency spectrum. And if you can take this kind of mindset, or approach when it comes to mixing, you’re going to find that the clarity of your mixes is just going to increase tremendously. You’re going to have a lot more separation, and your tracks and mixes are just going to sound a whole lot better.

So how do you do this? Well now I want to go into some actual techniques that you can apply to increase this separation in your mixes using this kind of general approach of the kind of different drawers idea.

Okay so the first and the easiest way to create more separation in your mixes is to take advantage of proper panning. So whenever you have two tracks that are competing in your mix, maybe a vocal and a guitar for example, instead of having them come from the same direction, maybe they’re panned right to the same spot in your mix or maybe they’re just coming right down the center of the mix, use panning to pan one to one side and one to the other, or at least pan them as far away from each other as possible. And so by having them separated in the stereo image, you’re going to create a lot more clarity and separation between those tracks, and suddenly you’re going to find that you hear them a lot more clearly.

Now the way I like to think of this going back to the dresser drawer analogy, is if you stuff a bunch of boxers and socks let’s say in that top drawer, and then you push all the socks to one side and the boxers to another, suddenly you have more room, right? So that’s kind of the easiest way to create more clarity and separation in your mixes.

Now one caveat here is that you don’t want to rely on this technique too much, because what can often happen is, you know, if you exclusively rely on panning to create separation and clarity, your mix is going to sound great in stereo. And if you’re right in front of the speakers or you’re listening on headphones it’s going to sound great, but what happens when you step back ten feet or twenty feet from your speakers, right? And suddenly you’re not hearing that beautiful meticulously crafted stereo image and everything kind of combines back to mono, right?

So the downside to relying exclusively on panning to create separation and clarity is that your mix often won’t translate very well to environments where your listeners are listening in some degree of mono, so whether that’s down the supermarket aisle when they’re hearing it out of one speaker, or in a living room where one speaker’s in one room and one is in the other, where you’re not really hearing that stereo image, this can create some challenges, right? So your mix often won’t translate as well if you’re relying too heavily on panning to create a sense of separation in your mixes. So just be conscious of this. And keep in mind that, you know, if you’re using panning too much as a crutch to solve these competing tracks and create more clarity, oftentimes your mixes are not going to sound that great in many other environments.

Now the second way to create more separation in your mixes is to use a technique that I call the mute button method. Now oftentimes if you’re mixing a session where there’s a lot of tracks competing, it’s really difficult to figure out which track or tracks are causing the problem. And if you don’t know where the problem is, it’s pretty difficult to figure out how to solve it, right? So this technique allows you and helps you quickly identify the problem track or the problem tracks in your mix, and then you know exactly where you need to focus to improve this sense of separation. So let’s jump into my DAW and I’ll show you exactly how I apply this technique.

Okay so we’re here in Pro Tools. I have a track called “Out Now” by Leah Capelle, and I want to show you how to apply the mute button method to enhance the sense of separation and clarity in your mixes. So this mix here is sounding okay to me, but there’s just a sense of muddiness or kind of murkiness, and I’m feeling like there’s not a ton of separation. But I’m not quite sure where the problem is because there’s so many tracks in this mix. So let’s take a listen to this verse and then we’ll dive into the mute button method and I’ll show you how to apply this to enhance the sense of clarity in your mixes.

♪ They’re going out now ♪

♪ I would love him better ♪

♪ But they’re going out now ♪

So again, it’s not a bad sounding mix. But there’s so much going on and I’m feeling like there’s just something getting in the way of that sense of separation that I’m looking for. But I’m not quite sure where the problem is because you can see there’s just a million different tracks here. We got probably a dozen guitars, harmonies, a ton of stuff. So when you’re dealing with a situation like this, particularly when you’re dealing with a lot of tracks, and you’re not quite sure where the problem is, you can use this technique – the mute button method – to quickly identify the source of the problem so that you can fix it and get that clarity and separation that you’re looking for.

So essentially what you’re going to do, in this case I’m going to move over to the mixer view in Pro Tools because it’s a little bit easier to apply this technique there, and I’m going to go through the tracks in this mix one-by-one and mute them. And I’m going to listen to the mix and I’m going to ask myself is the problem solved? Do I hear more clarity or separation, or is it still there? Now if the problem is still there, then I know that that track was not causing the problem, right? So I can unmute it, and then I can move on to the next track and mute it and ask myself the same question.

So I’m going to start right here. I’m just going to move backwards, we’ll start with the piano and I’m going to take a listen to the entire mix. Now it’s important that you listen to the entire mix, not solo’ing individual groups of tracks, but listening to how everything is working together. And I’m going to mute and unmute these tracks until I hear that the mix suddenly opens up.

♪ They’re going out now ♪

♪ I would love him better ♪

♪ But they’re going out now ♪

♪ Thanks to my stupid mouth ♪

♪ They’re going out now ♪

♪ I wish he’d just forget her ♪

♪ But they’re going out now ♪

Now that’s interesting. So right when I muted this guitar edge track, I suddenly felt like the mix just opened up a little bit. It felt like there was more clarity and separation. So take a listen again. I’m going to play the whole mix, and I’m going to mute and unmute this track, and listen for that sense of separation and clarity.

♪ They’re going out now ♪

♪ I would love him better ♪

♪ But they’re going out now ♪

♪ Thanks to my stupid mouth ♪

♪ They’re going out now ♪

♪ I wish he’d just forget her ♪

♪ But they’re going out – ♪

See when that track is muted, I can suddenly hear everything clearly. It feels like there’s a sense of separation, right? So now we know where the source of the problem is, and we can start to address that problem on that individual track instead of hunting around and trying to kind of EQ a million different things to make the problem go away or EQ the mix buss. We identified the source of the problem, right?

So there’s a couple ways we could address this. So the easiest thing we could do is actually just turn down this track. So that’s what I’m going to try first, because that’s the simplest solution. So I’m going to play the entire mix, and turn down this track until I feel like there’s more clarity.

♪ They’re going out now ♪

♪ I would love him better ♪

♪ But they’re going out now ♪

♪ Thanks to my stupid mouth ♪

So I have some automation there, which means I have to turn that off if I want to turn this down. But I’m feeling like when I turn this down I’m missing the sense of the actual part that’s being played right? There’s a melodic component to this track that actually contributes something to the mix and I feel like I’m losing it when I turn that track down even though I’m getting more clarity. It feels like there’s just some kind of mud in the lower midrange that kind of goes away when I turn it down, and I like that. But I’m not loving the tradeoff of losing that melody.

So instead of just fixing this problem with volume, what I’m going to do is I’m going to add an EQ to this track and see if I can turn down that kind of muddy area in the lower midrange and get, you know, a little bit more clarity out of this track while retaining that melodic component so we don’t lose that by turning things down. So I’m going to play the entire mix.

Now it’s important when I’m making these EQ decisions, again I’m not solo’ing individual tracks. I’m listening to how this track fits into the context of the rest of the mix because all that matters is how this track sounds with all the other tracks in the mix. So don’t solo, keep things in context, and I’m going to cut out some of that muddiness and see if I can clear things up while retaining the melodic component of the track that’s really contributing something to this mix. So let’s take a listen.

♪ They’re going out now ♪

♪ I would love him – ♪

So the first thing I’m doing here is boosting, and then I’m sweeping around to try to find the spot where that muddiness really jumps out to me, and it seems to be right around 230 or so. So take a listen again.

♪ They’re going out now ♪

♪ I would love him – ♪

So you can hear obviously when we have that boosted it just sounds like the muddiness is out of control, and we can actually see on the spectrum analyzer because this EQ – this Fab Filter Pro Q2 – has that spectrum analyzer built in. We can see that there are a couple bumps around that specific area. So that’s a pretty good indication that that area is what’s causing the problem. So now that I’ve identified the source of the problem, I’m going to dip it out while the mix is playing until I feel like the mix clears up.

♪ They’re going out now ♪

♪ I would love him better ♪

♪ But they’re going out now ♪

♪ Thanks to my – ♪

That sounds pretty good to me. So let’s take a listen – I’m going to flip this in and out of bypass, and I want you to pay attention to the clarity and the sense of separation in the mix itself. So first let’s listen to it on bypass, and then I’ll flip it in and out.

♪ They’re going out now ♪

♪ I would love him better ♪

♪ But they’re going out now ♪

♪ Thanks to my stupid mouth ♪

♪ They’re going out now ♪

♪ I wish he’d just forget her ♪

♪ But they’re going out now ♪

So suddenly when we’ve taken out that excess lower midrange energy on this track, there’s just a sense of separation between all the different elements in our mix, right? We can hear things much more clearly because we don’t have that big hump in this lower midrange on this track that’s kind of obscuring the rest of the tracks in our mix.

Now once we’ve taken out this energy, I actually feel like we might be able to turn this track up a little bit and get a little bit more of that sense of melody that the track is contributing. So we can actually boost it in volume because we’ve controlled this kind of lower midrange area that’s really muddy in the mix itself.

So again, the concept of the mute button method is going through each of the individual tracks in our mix, muting and unmoving them until we feel like the problem disappears, and then we know we’ve found the source of the problem – it’s on that individual track that we muted last – and then we can adjust that problem by either turning down the fader or adding something like EQ, or you know, addressing that problem and solving it on the individual track that we’ve identified. It’s just a really quick way to find and fix problems in your mix, and it’s a great way to add separation and clarity to the mix itself.

The third way to create more separation in your mixes is to mix in mono. Now this might seem somewhat counterintuitive based on the first point that I shared, right? So if you’re listening in mono and you don’t have that stereo image to create more separation by panning things to one side or the other side, then it would seem like it’s a little bit harder to create separation. And that’s the point.

So when you’re only listening out of one speaker and you don’t have the advantage of that stereo image, you end up having to work a lot harder to create separation by using EQ, and using tonal differences to, again, slot tracks or kind of move tracks into the different drawers of the frequency spectrum. Instead of just relying on panning and kind of calling it a day, you’re forced to work a lot harder.

And so what ends up happening is if you do a fair amount of your mix in mono, suddenly you’ll find that when you flip things out to stereo, everything’s so much clearer, right? Because you’ve done a lot of the hard work. You’ve carved tracks up a little bit more than you might’ve done if you were listening to stereo and you just panned one thing off to one side and one to the other and then you’re done, right?

So what ends up happening when you mix in mono and do a lot of your EQ’ing and these decisions in mono, your mix sounds better in stereo and it also translates a lot better to other environments where your listeners might be listening in some degree of mono. So your mix is still going to sound good in the supermarket aisle or on an iPhone with one speaker, all these different environments where your listeners are not really hearing that beautiful stereo image.

So I think this is a wonderful technique. I highly recommend it. You don’t want to do the entire mix in mono. It’s still obviously important you’re making a stereo mix at the end of the day, so you want to pay attention to stereo. But spending a decent amount of time mixing in mono can really help enhance the separation and clarity in your mixes.

Now if you want to dive deeper, I’ve put together that free cheatsheet that includes some additional tips and tricks that will add even more separation to your mixes. Click the link in the description below or up there in the video to download your free cheatsheet now.

Now before you go, leave a comment below this video and let me know – which of these three techniques are you going to try in your next mix? I’d love to hear from you, I read every comment and reply to as many as I can. So again leave your response in the comments section below.

Thanks for watching, and you can check out more mixing tips like these right here on my YouTube channel, or at BehindTheSpeakers.com.

About Jason Moss

Jason is an LA-based mixer and the founder of Behind The Speakers. He's a graduate of New York University's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. His how-to articles have been featured in leading industry publications by Berklee, TuneCore, SonicScoop, The Pro Audio Files, and Disc Makers.