July 12, 2022 by Nick Messitte

4 Unlikely Mixing Techniques

Learn four unconventional mixing techniques that are often overlooked or avoided. When used in the right way, however, they can bring your mix to the next level.

For those who love to solve puzzles, mixing presents a great opportunity to experiment with creative techniques. Yes, some things like basic gain staging work every time. But as every mix is unique, sometimes you find yourself breaking conventions to save the day. Indeed, breaking the rules is part of a professional mixing technique. 

So, with that in mind, I’d like to share four hidden mixing techniques that shouldn’t work, but sometimes do. I’ll provide a few examples of unlikely mixing choices in popular music, with the hope that you might want to explore them further on your own. 

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1. Keeping glitches, breaths, and artifacts in the mix

Yes, we edit to cover mistakes—but sometimes crackles, glitches, and off-kilter bleats of noise can give songs an extra dose of character. A decade ago, this eccentric style of mixing could only be pulled off in smaller, niche genres, but intentional “mistakes” are increasingly acceptable in top pop and hip hop mixes

Consider that you can make a voice sound closer and more intimate by using  product-popover-icons-rx.png RX  Mouth De-click in an unusual way. The module is meant to take out mouth noises that we often do not want, but we can also use RX Mouth De-click as an enhancer.

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Take the following example:

Notice three things in this example: the Mouth De-click plug-in is set to “Output clicks only,” which means the de-clicker emphasized the consonants—and I also automated the de-clicker out when it was too much. 

This technique won’t work on every song, but it can provide a sense of intimacy, spookiness, or immediacy in the right mix.

Another area to experiment with is breaths. Conventional mixing techniques dictate that breaths should be kept in the least distracting way possible. Most of the time, this is the right advice. But if you have a particularly breathy mix, or feel the vocal is missing something, try bringing up gasps and wheezes in a tasteful way. This is a hidden mixing technique that’s worked for everyone from Imagine Dragons to Billie Eilish to Taylor Swift. The breath becomes an instrument in the right hands—or lungs. 

Just be sure not to consider trends a free pass to be lazy. Instead, look at the emotion of the song, and ask yourself what best serves the production. 

2. Make vocals unintelligible in certain parts

In most mixes, if your vocal slips out of the normal bounds of intelligibility, you want to diagnose the issue—is it due to frequency masking? Under-compression? A poor recording? 

There are, however, cases where it is perfectly suitable to have a vocal that is blurred or otherwise difficult to discern as part of a spoken language. Thom Yorke’s slurred vocal style is certainly the driving force behind Radiohead’s popularity. Recently, Porcupine Tree have made a comeback with their new single Harridan—and that vocal is almost completely unintelligible in the verses.

You may not want your music to be defined this way, but burying a word or phrase here and there can have a powerful effect at the right moment. During a dreamy section, allow the vocals to slip out of focus to help emphasize a weightless feeling. The same can be said about music with a darker mood—filter off some highs for a muffled effect or distort them to provide an unsettling tone that matches the instrumental. 

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3. Put reverb directly on a whole submix—often before compression

Back in the day, iZotope  product-popover-icons-ozone.png Ozone  had a reverb module that people loved to make fun of. Reverb on a mastering suite? Who would ever do that? Why would anyone process an entire mix with reverb?

The truth is this can be exactly what the doctor ordered—and that reverb is why Ozone 5 lives on my computer to this very day (what can I say? It has a unique sound!) 

Indeed, many are the conversations I have with my peers about the hidden mixing technique of applying reverb directly to mix buses. You just need to follow a few rules and considerations:

  • Know when to use this mixing technique (not every track needs this!)
  • Don’t overdo it (a blend of 2 to 3 percent is pretty much all you need)
  • Try to make it part of pushing into compression. 

As an example, let’s see what happens if we slap reverb to the entirety of this mix:

Audio Loop

Observe what happens when I take this mix to the land of reverberation:

By the end of my tinkering, there is this subtle, three-dimensional thing that’s happening—and I quite like it.

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Now check out what happens if I use some mix bus compression after the reverb:

Now, there’s a density to the drums that wasn’t there before—and what’s more interesting, their stereo image seems to be more centered, yet we haven’t lost the depth of what’s happening on the sides.

To be clear: do not always do this—and don’t feel you have to do this on the whole mix bus. Try your instrument submix, or just your drums. It can add depth in its own unique way.

4. Leave your vocals dry

You probably hear the line “vocals are the most important part of a mix” pretty often. While every element in a mix should be treated with care, vocals get special attention because they occupy the frequency range where our ears are most closely drawn. 

We’re trained to be sensitive to vocal sounds—slight changes in intonation let us know whether the person we’re speaking to is happy, upset, or angry. The sound of a person’s voice also gives us cues about their age and whether the language they are speaking is their first language. 

So, naturally, we spend a lot of time on the vocal mix, being sure every plug-in is adjusted to the right decimal point. In our attempt to make vocals the most interesting thing in the mix, we often go overboard with processing. But what if the best vocal sound meant using little to no effects at all? 

If your mix already has a number of elements with reverb and delay, it can make sense to leave a vocal dry and upfront. You will most certainly need a little EQ and compression, maybe a splash of reverb, but they should all be used in the name of clarity and not flair. This selective approach is common in hip-hop, where vocal delivery is paramount.

Start using unlikely mixing techniques in your session

There are plenty of conventional mixing methods to help you craft a great tune. When you’re getting started, it will serve you well to follow them. But with time, when faced with an unlikely mix issue, you should feel confident to take an out-of-the-box approach to meet the needs of the day—really outlandish stuff, like setting a flanger to 100%, or slapping a reverb right on the main outs.

These hidden mixing techniques may not do the trick on every mix, but when they do, they can take an already great song to higher heights. 

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