Sound waveThe easiest way to move a track “back” in a mix is to lower its volume. This works because in our everyday lives, sounds get quieter as they recede from us, so we’re accustomed to the effect.

But our brains also use other cues to determine distance. For example, human hearing excels at matching a sound with the echoes and reflections it causes, to localize its source. And we can apply this principle to add realism when creating the sound stage in a mix.

The Speed of Sound

Consider this picture, and the accompanying audio samples below.

Reverb - direct sound vs. reflections off rear wall

In the scenario illustrated above, sound from the guitar reaches the listener almost immediately, whereas the reflections off the rear wall make a 40-foot round trip, and therefore arrive 40ms later. (Sound travels approximately 1 foot per millisecond.) With the drum kit, on the other hand, the direct and reflected sounds arrive at almost the same time.

The series of events goes something like this:


Time Event
0ms - Guitar and drum both play
5ms - Guitar sound arrives at listener
20ms - Drum sound arrives at listener
25ms - Drum sound reflected off rear wall arrives at listener
40ms - Guitar sound reflected off rear wall arrives at listener

Our ears and brain are sensitive to these differences in sound arrival time, and use the information (along with other cues, like volume) to judge where a sound source is located in the space around us. Our brains know that sounds and reflections arriving together at our ears must have originated close to a wall, where sounds that arrive much before their reflections must be close to our ears.

Hear it in practice

Here are two short instrumental samples, both mixed from the same raw tracks, to illustrate how this can apply in a mix.

In the first sample, I’ve placed the drums closer by adding a delay between the direct drum sound and the reverb, so the reflections arrive 40ms later than the direct sound – which tricks our ears into hearing a 20ft distance between the drums and rear wall, as with the guitar in the above diagram:

In the second sample, I’ve simulated moving the drums further back by having the direct sound and reverb occur together, both 40ms later than the guitar.

Note that the levels are the same in each clip. I changed the delay times only, to illustrate the effect.

Issues

Caveat: The illustration above is grossly over-simplified. Sounds in a real room reflect off all the walls and surfaces, not just the rear wall. And our ears depend on much more than just timing differences to determine distance. But for the technique at hand, those complications generally aren’t important. The idea here is to trick listeners’ brains by exploiting a property of their sense of hearing, and whether there’s one wall or 4, human ears and brains interpret reverberant sounds the same. (If your listeners are mostly non-human, then all bets are off.)

Implementation: In Sonar, I configure sends (i.e. busses) with delay plugins for each delay time that I need, and I route tracks accordingly. But any platform that allows bussing or routing the signal can accomplish the same end result. So long as you can independently control the delay on the direct sound and on the reverb, you can manipulate the relationship between the two as described above.

Other levels: In practice, you’ll also reduce the level of the drum kit somewhat to make it sound more distant, and adjust the reverb level as required to make the effect more obvious.

Pre-delay

As an addendum: Most reverb units and plugins have a pre-delay setting for controlling the delay between the input sound and the reflections it generates. Pre-delay serves exactly the same function as placing a delay between the direct sound and the reverb. In essence, it “moves” the sound further from the simulated reflecting surface. So if your reverb unit or plugin supports pre-delay, you can accomplish much of the above technique without a separate delay plugin.

And remember this simple guideline when using reverbs for realistic 3d sound stages: To bring a sound forward in the mix, increase the pre-delay.

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