Who doesn't love pad sounds? They can fill up the mix, glue elements together, and support vocals and strings in the mid and low ranges. But, for all this goodness, they can be a pain to mix. Many VST companies design pads extra wide and with lots of delay and reverb that can muddy the mix. Pads also tend to have a broad frequency range that overlap with a number of other elements. In this article, we’ll look at tips for overcoming these issues and more.
1. Assess the function
There are a number of scenarios where pads crop up in songs. In an ambient recording, it might be the lead (or only) instrument, complete with whooshing white noise oscillators, bleeps, and chirps that develop over time. In hip-hop and R&B, pads typically sit further back in the mix, supporting vocals, plucked instruments, and other melodic elements.
Pads can serve a musical function in electronic music, but they can just as easily be a non-musical element that provides atmosphere. In the latter case, listeners may not even notice the pad as an isolated instrument, but if the sound were muted, the mix would sound less exciting.
All this to say, the approach you take to mixing pads largely depends on the role they take in the song. For example, you might want to roll off the highs on a low-key atmospheric pad tucked into a hip-hop track, but emphasize these same frequencies in a cinematic piece. These are generalizations, but you should get the idea.
2. Clean the mud
Like I mentioned at the top of this article, most pads are full frequency range instruments, from low to high. When listening to the solo’d pad, this fullness will sound great. But in the context of the mix, you will often encounter clashes with instruments that share similar frequencies, particularly in the low end. This makes it difficult for the drums and bass to cut through and provide impact. As a result of excessive low end, there may be some nasty distortion too.
The simple solution is to use a high-pass filter to limit the reach of pads. As you pull up the cutoff, listen carefully. Ideally, you want to stop short of thinning the pad, but still allow important low end elements to come through with clarity.
Use this same kind of thinking when it comes to the reverbs and delays you add to pads or your implementation of any reverbs or delays built into the synth itself. Most effects plug-ins come with a filtering option, so be sure to cut to around 100 Hz to avoid buildups. Since reverb and delay effects often create additional frequency competition, the high pass frequency can be set a bit higher on the reverb and delay signal than on the original, dry pad.
3. Don’t forget the mids or highs
Mid-range instruments, like synths and guitars, and those in a higher register, like vocals and cymbals, can also clash with your pads.
Proper gain staging is the first step to reduce these unpleasant clashes. I suggest you try Mix Assistant in Neutron 3—which will automatically adjust levels based on instrument group and focus elements chosen by you—to get a good starting point for your mix.
To get band-specific control over frequency buildups that persist after Mix Assistant, try a dynamic EQ paired with sidechain (also available in Neutron 3). Here’s a possible masking scenario—you’ll need one instance of Neutron on the pad and another on your masked instrument to pull it off:
Imagine the bottom of a snare isn’t hitting hard enough because the pad is getting in the way. A static EQ cut might work, but this move affects your pad regardless of whether the snare is in the mix, which isn’t always ideal. Instead, set a dynamic node corresponding to the body of the snare (300–500 Hz) on the pad track with sidechain enabled. This way, whenever the snare is played, those problematic frequencies on the pad will drop in level, creating room at just the right time. Be sure to set an appropriate release time for this EQ node—too long a release time can result in a “pumping” effect that may interrupt the ambient effect of your pad.
For vocal and pad collisions, I suggest the Unmasking tool in Nectar 3. With one instance of Nectar on your vocal and another of your pad (or alternatively, Neutron or Relay), the Unmasking tool in Nectar will listen to the pad and carve away at the interfering frequencies, creating a pocket for your vocal to shine.
Learn more about unmasking in Nectar in this video:
4. Use pads to play with energy
Take advantage of filters and effects that play nicely with pads to shift the energy of your mix, and ultimately the song itself. I find dance music does this best.
In many tunes, the intro will start with muted pads that slowly become brighter and build toward a high energy point, then drop out or get filtered dark, allowing the kick and bass and vocals to take the reigns. Listen to “Line of Sight” by ODESZA to get the idea.
All this to say: your song doesn’t need to be at full energy all the time, and pads are a great instrument to help cool things off and prepare listeners for something exciting to come.
In a bridge, for example, swap out your gnarly synth or guitar for the same notes on a pad to create a more relaxed sound, or at least push those same instruments into the background and let the pad be the main focus. This will give listeners a break while introducing a new sound that keeps their ears interested. You might want to add some subtle movement with modulation effects too (try Mobius Filter). When you bring the full mix back, listeners will feel a big, exciting change of energy.
5. Use mono for clarity
Since pads can take up a lot of stereo space, folding them down to mono and panning them to one side can help to improve clarity in a busy mix. If your pad is overshadowing the vocal or keyboards, give this a shot. Be advised that folding a stereo signal down to mono can sometimes result in undesirable phasing issues, so you might be better advised to narrow the signal via a stereo imaging tool, like the new Ozone Imager.
While there’s nothing wrong with an asymmetrical mix, you might want to introduce something on the other side to balance things out. One additional idea to maintain balance is to add a reverb plug-in with a medium-sized pre-delay and pan the reverb to the opposite side of the mix.
After reading the tips in this article, you now have plenty of strategies for dealing with blurry synth pads that distract and confuse. The fix can be as simple as an EQ cut, but more involved moves like folding to mono, then panning and adding effects might be just the ticket.