A Triangular Approach To MixingJanuary 2, 2009 6:00 am Home Recording
I can still remember the very first time I heard music through stereo headphones. It was (ahem) 1960 or so, and I was in the home of neighborhood buddy Kevin Ritchie. (When I say “neighborhood,” I mean that Kevin, a doctor’s son, lived on the street where the rich people lived, just around the corner from my neighborhood.) Kevin put on his dad’s favorite record by twangy guitarist Duane Eddy, put his dad’s headphones on my head, and said “Listen to this.”
Wow! I don’t think I had even heard stereo through speakers before that moment, except the time my high-tech cousin George made me lie face-down on his bed to listen to a taped comedy program that he played through his stereo headboard. That twangy guitar music sounded incredible in the headphones - it was the coolest thing I had ever heard! Of course, I immediately developed Stereo Envy, since my own Bozo the Clown record player was a mono unit.
These days, much if not most listening to pop & rock music takes place via headphones (or, agh, earbuds), so it is more important than ever to give special thought to the left-to-right stereo image you are creating inside your listener’s head as you mix. One method I use when mixing for headphone listening is the Triangular Approach, which attempts to produce a pleasing, non-jarring stereo image that will not distract from the music.
Three Sides Now
In this approach, I think of the mix as a triangle, kind of like this:
The two key aspects of a triangular mix are these:
- It is symmetrical
- It gets narrower toward the extreme left and right
If you picture the height of the triangle at any given position as representing the volume or intensity of the sound in that “area” of the stereo image, you can see that (a) the levels are balanced between left and right for a given offset from the center, and (b) the further out to the left or right a sound is, the less intense it is. That’s basically it!
Pots and Pans
The symmetry requirement ensures that the headphone listener hears a balanced stereo image rather than one that “tilts” to the left or right, which is both noticeable and annoying in headphones. In practice, this means that if you have a rhythm guitar and you pan it half way to the left, you have to have another guitar (or a slightly delayed version of the first one) panned half way to the right. The other guitar can be playing the same part or a different one; it’s the sonic balance that matters. You could also balance the guitar with a keyboard part in the opposite position, since both are midrange instruments.
The “narrower at the edges” requirement means that loud, major instruments and vocals will be panned fairly close to the center, with the extreme left and right areas reserved for distant tambourines, stereo effect return signals, or other less intense components of the mix. Of course, these things have to be balanced too. If you put even a quiet tambourine in the far left region, you have to put another one in the far right region.
In a submix for stereo drums, applying these rules would find most of the kit panned half-left to half-right, with only accent cymbals and low-level percussion sounds occupying the extreme left and right areas.
Obviously, these “rules” are flexible and your judgment has to be applied to the situation at hand. But as a general organizing principle for mixing, keeping the Triangular Approach in mind can keep you from making “creative” but disturbing decisions in mixes that are destined to be heard through headphones.Tags: mixing -->