Last year, fellow iZotope writer Nick Messite wrote about four unconventional mastering treatments that shouldn’t have worked but did. Mixing presents an equal, if not greater, opportunity to experiment with techniques and tricks that fall outside of the norm. The methods I’m going to share may not work in every mix, but when they do, it seems like no other choice would have done a better job.
So, here are four mixing techniques that shouldn’t have worked but did. 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.
Earlier this year I wrote about the types of noise you encounter in a mix and how to remove them. As a final thought, I touched on when it actually makes sense to keep—or even enhance—noise in a recording. Strategically placed crackles, glitches, and off-kilter edits can give songs an extra dose of character and make for a special moment that encourages repeat listens. 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.
Bon Iver’s 22, A Million album is a showcase of this rough-and-ready approach. Splatters of noise, drops to silence, and shoddy editing all feature in opener “22 (OVER S∞∞N)”. And in “715 - CRΣΣKS” you hear vocal artifacts (similar to those generated by VocalSynth) lingering after lyrics.
Another area to experiment with here is breaths. It's generally agreed that breaths should be kept in the mix and only the awkward ones should be removed. 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. Everyone from Imagine Dragons to FKA Twigs to T-Swift has found a unique way to emphasize breaths in their music, making them as much of an instrument as anything else.
Just be sure not to consider this trend a free pass to put less effort into mixing or audio repair. Instead, see it as an opportunity to use typically unfashionable sounds in a very fashionable way.
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. Elizabeth Fraiser of Cocteau Twins has a similar reputation for unintelligible lyrics.
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.
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 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.
We engineers might use a dozen different effects across a mix. But we also work hard to make sure none of them draw too much attention—it can feel tacky and unprofessional. This largely comes down to the devastating effect over-processing can have on a mix. Too much reverb and delay will rob a mix of its contours and produce a clambering mess. Pumping sidechain easily becomes overwhelming, and thoughtless distortion can wreak havoc on the frequency balance.
There are exceptions, of course. And for this point, we’re using modulation effects (phasers, flangers, chorus) as an example. In certain mixes—particlarily those referencing the excess of the 80s—the frequency swirling produced by these plug-ins doesn’t seem kitsch, but rather, part of the sonic world the song lives in.
Tame Impala regularly goes overboard with flanging to trigger moments of psychedelia. Jai Paul uses them in a similar fashion on drums, vocals, and synths. But this kind of processing is not limited to the world of indie rock. Childish Gambino, Tyler, The Creator, and Travis Scott are known to employ oodles of modulation effects across their tracks to support their pitch-corrected vocals.
There are plenty of conventional mixing methods to help you craft a great tune, time after time. 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 help remedy the issue. The kinds of remedies you would otherwise be embarrassed to use within the presence of mixers more experienced than you—like setting a flanger to 100% or throwing timing off on purpose. They may not do the trick on every mix, but when they do, they can take an already great song to higher heights.