Producing is kind of like a musical puzzle. When all of the pieces fit into place, you can clearly hear the whole picture. But when two instruments are trying to occupy the same space, it can be difficult to tell what’s going on.
In order to deliver a clear, detailed mix, you need to make sure there are no conflicting frequencies. In this blog, you’ll learn how to reduce conflicting frequencies using instrument selection, volume balance, EQ, panning and compression.
Build the Song As You Go
Good sound starts at the source. That’s why it’s crucial to make sure your tracks are as balanced as possible from the beginning.
One great way to make sure your tracks don’t have any conflicting frequencies is to build the song as you go. Start by selecting an instrument and recording something interesting. It doesn’t matter if it’s a drum beat, a bass groove, a chord progression or even a vocal melody—just capture something that inspires you.
Then, as you continue building your track, only use sounds that occupy a different part of the frequency range. For instance, if you start with a bass groove, try adding something more high-pitched, like a synth pad. If all of your tracks are sitting in the same range, it will be difficult to hear any of them clearly.
There are also other factors to consider, such as rhythm, timbre, energy, stereo width and volume. If you start with a mono bass groove with lots of low end, a complex rhythm, a dark timbre, upbeat energy—as outlined in green in the graph below—you should add a synth pad with different characteristics (outlined in blue) to ensure you can hear them both clearly.
How to Reduce Conflicting Frequencies
The process for reducing conflicting frequencies is more or less the same for every set of tracks. Let's take a quick look at each of the steps, then talk about some examples.
STEP 1—Choose the Right Instrument
Start by recording your instrument of choice. As you add the next track, use the chart above to find an instrument that complements what you’ve already recorded.
STEP 2—Level Balance
Volume level can be a powerful tool for creating separation between instruments. Louder instruments sound closer to the listener, while quieter instruments sound further away.
Next, use EQ to enhance the fundamental frequency of the instrument and carve out space for the opposing instrument’s fundamental frequency—just make sure they’re in two different ranges.
Use the pan knob to create separation between the tracks. The most drastic options are panning one track hard left and the other hard right, or making one track mono and the other wide stereo.
STEP 5—Side-Chain Compression
If you’re still having issues with conflicting frequencies, side-chain compression can be a great tool for drawing focus to one instrument. To set up side-chain compression, send the track you want to highlight to a new aux bus. Then add a compressor to the conflicting track and set the key input to the new aux bus you just created. Adjust the threshold so that any time the key track plays, the compressor will squeeze the conflicting track to make room.
Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s take a look at some common ways to use these techniques.
Kick + Bass
One issue that many productions suffer from is conflicting kick and bass. These two fundamental instruments reside in the low-end, making it difficult to carve out space for both.
As outlined in Step 1, it’s important to choose sounds that complement each other. Depending on the genre, most songs feature audible frequencies all the way down to 20 Hz.
To start with, you need to make sure that no other channels in your mix are emitting unwanted low-end so your kick and bass elements can sound powerful and clear.
Use the BASS SPACE meter in LEVELS (pictured below) to help determine which channels are emitting excess low-end and in your mix. To use BASS SPACE first mute your kick and bass elements within your DAW. Whilst monitoring your track, the frequency bars will jump into the upper red half of the circle if there is too much low-end energy. If this is the case you need to identify which channels are outputting the excess low frequencies. Mute the individual channels one at a time until the bars drop into the green to find the culprit and then use a high pass filter to clean up this excess low-end rumble to maximise the clarity and power of your track. Be careful to not remove the material you actually want to hear in your mix.
After cleaning up any unnecessary low-end, determine whether the kick or bass will occupy the lowest frequencies, then find a sound that sits just above that. For instance, the fundamental frequency of a bass guitar might sit around 40 Hz, while the kick sits at 120 Hz—or vice versa.
Use EQ to emphasize the fundamental frequency of each track by boosting the bass around 40 Hz and cutting around 120 Hz to make room for the kick—and vice versa on the kick drum.
The kick drum should be the louder of the two tracks since it typically plays less frequently and in short percussive bursts. This will help it cut through the mix over the bass.
Finally, follow the instructions outlined in Step 4 to side-chain the kick drum to the bass guitar so that every time the kick hits, the bass guitar ducks down to make room.
Guitars/Piano + Vocal
Another common cause of conflicting frequencies comes from rhythm instruments, such as guitar or piano, and vocals. Obviously the vocal should be the loudest element in the mix and the focal point of the song, but the chord progression needs to be present as well.
To help ensure both instruments can be heard clearly, follow the steps outlined above. Start by cutting the 3-5 kHz range on the guitar or piano track to make room for the vocals. Because our ears are so sensitive to this range, you may not need to boost any frequencies on the vocal at all.
Instead, boost the midrange frequencies to help the rhythm instruments stand out. Try around 1.5 kHz for a sharp, aggressive sound, or boost the low-mids to add power and “oomph.” You can also use a mid-side EQ to further enhance the separation by boosting each frequency range in a different part of the stereo spectrum.
Side-chain compression can be a very effective tool for making sure the vocal sits on top of the chord progression. Use the vocal as the key input and compress the guitar or piano track. This helps the vocal “float” on top of the music bed while keeping the music right up front when the vocals aren’t playing.
You could even take it one step further and use a dynamic EQ to duck the 3-5 kHz range of the guitars or piano while the vocal is playing. That way the fundamental frequency of the notes will still stay defined without interfering with the vocal.
Another area I often see conflicting frequencies is in the percussion section. Between the kick, snare, toms, cymbals and everything else, the drum kit can sound a bit busy at times.
Use the steps outlined above to carve out space for each instrument in the mix. Panning is especially useful here, and it’s not uncommon to pan the drum kit all around the stereo spectrum.
Dynamic EQ can be particularly useful here as well—especially when dealing with the occasional tom hit. It doesn’t make sense to carve up your drum kit to make room for a few toms that only play for two hits at the end of the chorus.
Instead, use a dynamic EQ to push down the low-mids in the rest of the kit and make room for the toms.
We outlined a few examples above, but these techniques can be applied to any tracks with conflicting frequencies. Use instrument selection, level balance, EQ, panning and side-chain compression to reduce conflicting frequencies in your next mix.