The Importance of Contrast in a Mix

A guide to mixing music - Part 77

Today I'll close the brief parenthesis I opened last week. And I'll do that tackling a notion that is crucial when it comes to mixing, namely...

Sonic contrast

If you have been following this series since the beginning, you probably remember that story on contrast I wrote about when discussing equalization. Back then I explained it with an analogy that is very easy to understand: something black will seem even more so if surrounded by white. And well, the same applies to sound. Regardless of whether you are working on the frequency, dynamic or spatial aspect of an element, you should always bear in mind that whatever you are doing is only part of a bigger picture. The instruments as single elements don't have any importance themselves ─ what really matters is the overall result. Consequently, every element of the mix is defined and must find its place in the sonic puzzle depending on its relationship to the rest of the elements. That's why the notion of contrast is so important.

I'm truly sorry if you think I'm going over the top with this, but trust me, I wouldn't insist so much if the topic wasn't that important. And, incidentally, the lack of sonic contrast is one of the main flaws of amateur mixes. In fact, it's not uncommon for budding engineers to discover a trick that works wonders to make an element sound "in your face" for them to try to apply it to all other tracks of the mix. The result? A nice sonic mush with the added collateral damage that the first instrument you applied the trick to now sounds tiny. The beauty of the idea of contrast is that it allows you to highlight even more the "in your face" aspect of the element at the root of everything.

Just a couple more analogies before giving you some advice on how to deal with this. Shadows are born from light. Beauty as such has no meaning without ugliness. What would be of good without evil?...In short, contrast is everywhere. It's contrast that conditions our perception of things by making use of a mechanism to compare things to a standard. And funny enough, the standard itself depends on the comparison to exist. But let's not digress here...

Coming back to sound, I'd summarize this article as follows: Regardless of the goals, in terms of sound, you have for a given element of the mix, you should always try to systematically re-balance it by doing the opposite to one or more instruments. Thus, a track will automatically seem brighter if the rest is muffled, or it will sound rounder if the elements surrounding it have an edge to them, etc.

Regarding work with space, this could only lead to one possible conclusion: If you want to get an "in your face" sound, you will need to work on the depth of some of the elements. I know it might seem counterproductive at first, but give it a try and I'm sure you'll end up agreeing with me!

Join me next time to resume our adventures into the art of mixing!