March 23, 2022 by Nick Messitte

What Is Frequency Masking?

Learn what audio frequency masking is and how to recognize it, know which instruments often clash, and discover solutions for dealing with the problem.

Picture this if you will: you’re working on a mix, and you realize two instruments are clashing, covering each other up, and competing for the same sonic space. This is a telltale sign of auditory masking—also known as frequency masking. 

In this article, we’re going to show you how to recognize frequency masking, show you which instruments often clash, and give you solutions for dealing with the problem. We’ll be using iZotope  product-popover-icons-neutron.png Neutron  and  product-popover-icons-visual-mixer.png Visual Mixer  to illustrate these examples.

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This article references a previous version of Neutron. Learn about product-popover-icons-neutron.pngNeutron 4 and its powerful features including Assistant View, Target Library, Unmask, and more by clicking here.

What is frequency masking? 

Frequency masking is an auditory phenomenon that occurs when two similar sounds play at the same time, or in the same general location. One masks the other, confusing your perception of either sound. 

One could imagine frequency masking being quite useful to prehistoric humans: simply wait for the rain to fall and your prey won’t hear your footsteps in the forest. In mixing music, frequency masking can be either encouraged or problematic (but not bad) depending on its context:

Encouraged masking: when two sources blend there is likely some overlap in a frequency range, and therefore some amount of masking happens. This is similar to the use of distortion in mixing.

Problematic masking: when two sources blend, but their frequencies tend to obscure rather than compliment each other. This can be frustrating because it is difficult to listen, analyze, and understand where tracks compete across an entire mix.

When masking is problematic, it can lead to an unprofessional sound. 

Luckily the condition is treatable! For one thing, you’ll find the same sort of instruments tend to clash over and over again, despite the music or genre. 

Common instruments that encounter masking

Kick and bass: like two protagonists of any good romantic comedy, these two love to clash at first. One usually masks the other in a mix. 

You might listen to them in solo and find they sound big, full, and loud—but play them together and one might get lost. Here’s an audio example of what frequency masking can sound like between the kick and bass, and what it sounds like after they are unmasked:  

Kick and Bass Before & After Unmasking

Notice how after the instruments are unmasked, the kick is more pronounced while the bass maintains its space. 

You’re likely to run into issues with kick and bass masking each other a fair amount, as they both compete for the low end of the mix. But that doesn’t mean you can just ignore the high-mids: both instruments have attack ranges, and these can conflict as well.

Here are some other classic pairings:

Here’s a frequency chart to visualize where these instruments are on the frequency spectrum. 

iZotope Carnegie Chart

iZotope Carnegie Chart

How to unmask your mix

There are a few techniques that can be used to unmask your mix. We'll review some below, and for even more ways to create space for elements in your mix, take a look at how to unmask your mix with Neutron

Complementary equalization

Complementary equalization is a simple process of identifying which frequencies collide between the kick and bass, and then boosting those frequencies slightly in the kick, while making a complimentary cut to those same frequencies in the bass. 

You can actually adjust instruments with this method in one solitary instance of Neutron, like so:

Complementary unmasking with Neutron

Complementary unmasking with Neutron

Kick and Bass Unmasked with Neutron

As noted earlier, this sounds markedly better than our initial example.

Sidechain compression

Another way to unmask instruments is with sidechain compression, which means in simplest terms, we can duck one instrument’s volume when the other plays. 

Let’s take our kick and bass again. Bass parts are often sustained, whereas each kick drum impact is going to be quick and percussive. Because the bass is constant, our ear may naturally gravitate towards that, masking the kick drum in return. Here sidechain compression comes to our aid. 

We put Neutron Pro on our bass, instantiate a compressor in wideband, and sidechain it to the kick:

Sidechain routing and ducking in Neutron Pro

Sidechain routing and ducking in Neutron Pro

Unmasking with Sidechain Compression

Now the bass only ducks when the kick hits. 

Dynamic EQ or multiband compression 

Dynamic EQ or multiband compression apply the same concepts as above, but we’re only ducking the masked frequency when the kick hits. You can do this with Neutron Pro’s compressor, like so:

Multiband compression ducking

Multiband compression ducking

Or, you can use a dynamic EQ with Neutron, shown here: 

Dynamic EQ ducking

Dynamic EQ ducking

Both get you to a place like this:

Unmasking with Dynamic EQ or Multiband EQ

Use panning to your advantage

The kick and the bass generally play up the middle, but not every instrument does. Take a high-hat pattern and an acoustic guitar.

They’re presented on their own, but they will clash in the mix. However, if we pan the instruments to different places of the sonic spectrum with a tool like Visual Mixer, they won’t clash as much.

Acoustic Guitar and Hi-Hat

Before & After Panning

Tackle frequency masking in your mix

Remember that balance is key in all things related to mixing. It’s always a good idea to assess, assess, and reassess the balance of your mix to make sure everything is prioritized the way you want it to be. A great way to do this is to break down the mix to its most simple elements. 

For a rock mix, this might just be the kick, bass, hi-hat, and lead vocal. Getting that balance just right, and then layering in other elements with that core balance in mind, can help you keep everything sounding as good as it can. 

It’s a philosophical approach, but no less valid. Remember that mixing is about balance, and issues around masking will gradually solve themselves. 

Ready to try this for yourself? Explore  product-popover-icons-neutron.png Neutron  to eliminate your frequency masking issues. 

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