March 23, 2023
It’d be great if you could always count on two guitar players, a pianist, a whole horn section, four backup singers, bass, drums, and extra percussion, but the truth is it’s not easy to get that many musicians together at once. Sometimes you may have to make do with yourself and one other person. But that doesn’t mean the sound has to be empty or incomplete. Here, we’ll talk about filling out a sound with minimal instrumentation.
To imagine how to fill out your sound with only a few instruments, it helps not to think of it in terms of instruments but instead think of it in frequency ranges. A full sound contains a good balance of frequency ranges throughout the range of hearing – or close to it. This way, you can think about instruments in terms of the frequency space they inhabit. For example, the role of a bass guitar is generally to provide low frequencies. If you’re a guitarist accustomed to playing with a bassist, you’ll play the guitar in mid or high octaves and probably roll off some low end on the guitar EQ to make room for the bass. Without the bass, the guitar may need to play that role. It doesn’t necessarily mean the guitar has to completely change, it just means you may not cut as much low end, you may play in a different octave, or you may choose a guitar with a fuller range. For example, a solo show might work better with an acoustic than an electric, not just because of the intimate nature of the instrument, but because it tends to provide a wider frequency range.
Thinking in terms of frequency can free you up if you’re feeling stuck in “we need this particular instrument”, when in fact what you really need is “these particular frequencies”. This thinking helps in the studio as well as on stage. For example, in a full rock mix, a vocal track is typically high passed to as high as 100 or 150 Hz. In an a cappella mix, that vocal will need to fill up much more of the frequency spectrum, so we don’t need to high pass it that much, if at all.
One of the reasons we use multiple instruments in the first place is to provide a layered texture to the sound. In the modern world, you can do this with technology. If you’re a rock guitarist, for example, and you find yourself on stage with just the drummer and no bass, you can use pedals to split, double, and pitch shift your sound to fill in the low end as well as high frequencies. If you’re a keyboardist, you can build layered patches and split the keyboard to give yourself a complete sound that you can play on one instrument. Of course, if you have a full 88 keys, your instrument can fill out the spectrum anyway, so you can always just use the whole keyboard.
Even as a singer, if you find yourself alone and want to create rich, creative tapestries, you can use vocal effects pedals to provide lush ambiance, delays, or rich harmonies. No matter your instrument, you can use looper pedals to create rhythm tracks and counterpoint all day long ala Ed Sheeran, Robert Fripp, or Sarah Lipstate. Loopers aren’t just for guitarists!
Finally, remember that the notion of fullness is relative. At the end of the day, each song has a central element that plays the lead role. That may be the vocal but it very well could be something else. Remember to prioritize that element and you may find that you can live without much of what usually goes around it – at least this one time. Emphasize that element and do what you can to make it shine with whatever you have. Some of the best mixes and performances are minimal, largely because they don’t interfere with the most important element.
If you’re missing somebody from the band or you’re a solo or duo act, never fear – you can certainly create a full sound, and it may not even take that much effort.
February 02, 2024
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November 06, 2023
One of the most misunderstood things in mixing is bass – whether it’s getting the low end right in general, letting the bass guitar cut through without overpowering everything else, or just making the bass interesting and cool. It can be tricky to get it right, but there are plenty of tried-and-true tricks for getting there quickly. Let’s go over a few of those.
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"Make a joyful noise unto the Lord all of the earth; make a loud noise and rejoice and sing praises. Sing to the Lord with the harp and the voice of the psalm." - Psalm 98:4-5