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Creating Space Creatively

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From tight studio sounds to ringing halls, sound engineers have such creative room to the play with that often times many young engineers are left wondering what to do. To further the problem, many engineers don't understand how to properly use the tools given to them like pan, reverb, and delays. In this tutorial I will show you how to use the tools of the trade, how create different types of space, and some creative uses of space to add some flare to your mixes. So with that in mind, let's make a space!


Space Makers

Every job requires a tool and the more specific a tool we have for the job the easier our job will be. For creating space in the audio spectrum we have three primary tools to choose from, reverbs, delays, and pans. In this part of the tutorial I will cover the basic principles of each and what the common functions you will find on the effects processors. First we will take a look at the stereo field and pan.


Space Makers: Pan

Panning is by far the most basic form of creating space in a mix. Ironically, it can be one of the least understood. Often times pan is either over expressed with drastic left and right panning or it is hardly used at all and essentially creates a slightly off mono mix. While both of these scenarios can have their function, they should be used with a clear goal in mind. It is most often appropriate to pan instruments, vocals, etcs. from the perspective of the audience as if the act was on stage. In cases where you are mixing classical or jazz that only has a stereo pair of microphones then you MUST pan from the audiences perspective unless a very very very clear effect is in mind (generally speaking classical and jazz listeners are not too fond of such tricks).

While this is all well and good, how does pan actually effect our sense of space? Generally we listen to most audio and music in stereo because we hear in stereo (two ears anyone?). Pan works by changing the volume between two speakers (or ear buds if you prefer) so that one will contain more of that track than another. If one of the speakers is louder than the other one, our ears tell us that the instrument is coming from that side and not the other. But then how is it that we can hear an instrument in the space in between the speakers? This works because if we pan a track only partially too one side, some measurable amount of volume of it will come out of the other. Both ears then are receiving the same instrument but at different volumes and it cause our brain to shift focus appropriately. In addition, there is a timing delay from when a sound hits one ear and then the other which helps our perception of right and left.

In addition to the traditional pan you also have other more effect style plugins that play with the right and left perceptions; stereo enhancers. At the most basic level, a stereo enhancer works by creating very tiny delays which creates phases cancellations at different frequencies. This results in widening of the stereo field and making the space sound larger than before. However, this widening has its price by creating a large hole in the middle of the stereo field. In addition, if you were to sum the tracks down to mono after stereo enhancing you will find that the mix will sound awfully out of phase; this is especially problematic for broadcast and clubs which often resort to mono. Moral of the story is you can use stereo enhancers by try to avoid using them on the whole mix and don't abuse them.


Space Makers: Delays

Delays create for us a sense of space by repeating the same sound over a period of time at changing volumes. The most common occurrence of this in the real world is the echo. We generally associate echoes with large open space surrounded by reflective surfaces because the space is so wide that the echoes have enough time to be heard clearly without clashing and muddying each other up. Even so, you would be hard pressed to find a real location that would render more than three clear reflections before either dispersing or becoming a reverb. That being said, try not to use heavy amounts of delay if you are going for an ambience and space. Let's look at the basic controls of a delay unit and how they affect our sound...

Input- The most basic parameter in a delay unit, this controls the amount of the signal to drive the delay.

Input Pan- This controls where the original signal is to be placed in the stereo field, useful for doubling effects (which we will cover later)

Feedback- This parameter controls how loud the delay is and consequently how long it audibly will last in a basic delay plugin. This is usually accompanied by a set of options to control the type of delay; one of the most common styles is ping pong delay which bounces the delays back and forth from left to right.

Delay Pan- Not surprisingly this controls where in the stereo field the delays are to occur.

Wet/Dry Mix- The final piece of the unit is nearly always a small mixer that controls how much of the delay signal is mixed with the dry signal.

While there of course can be a plethora of other parameters such as filters, LFOs, and the like attached to a delay plugin, these above parameters provide the basic functionality.


Space Makers: Reverbs

The most well known space creating effects we as audio engineers have to work with, the reverb. Having taken many forms over the years, reverb remains crucial to defining a space in the audio spectrum. Originally reverb was not created by a plugin or piece of hardware, in fact it was created by mother nature herself! Large chambers would be built that were designed to reverberate in a very specific manner and by placing a speaker at one side and a microphone at another you now had a reverb track. In these chambers if you wanted more or less reverb you would simply put the microphone closer or further away from the speaker. After that was the rise of spring and plate reverbs which each have their own unique sound. Both of these types of reverbs work off the basis of a signal being put through either a metal plate or spring and being picked up on the other end. Plates tended to have a very smooth and lush sound that many people still covet to this day. Springs however have a very unique sound that, while not right for every situation, works in some particular circumstances. Reverb units built into guitar amps and pedals that are not digital are almost always spring and you can hear the slight "sproing" noise that it creates.

Finally we have graduated to digital reverbs which often blend a lot of reverbs we have to choose from. A basic digital reverb is simply a mathematical simulation of how frequencies behave in (a usually symmetrical) room; there are also models for plates, springs, and halls as well. The other purely digital reverb is the convolution reverb. Essentially a hi-tech version of a chamber reverb, a convolution takes an audio sample of a room and applies it to your incoming signal but it can usually be further manipulated beyond what a recorded chamber could. Convolutions can also be taken of springs and plates if a particular piece of hardware was considered to have a good sound. A more recent development in the design of reverb plugins has been the ability to actually craft your own room. These plugins either let you play with a set of room parameters or load an entire 3D model with absorption coefficients to create the reverb.

For the sake of accessibility, this tutorial will cover using a basic digital reverb plugin and no convolutions or room simulations. Before we finally move on to application of these tools, lets briefly cover the basic parameters found in a reverb plugin.

Decay- The length of time that the reverb will audibly last for

Pre Delay- This controls the amount of time between when the original signal occurs and when the reverb begins

Diffusion- The diffusion parameter will control how dense the reverb will sound. Less diffusion will result in a clearer set of "slapping" echoes while a denser diffusion will sound like traditional reverb

Dampening- Not all frequencies will bounce off a wall and dampening will emulate this. Higher frequencies will be more easily absorbed because they have less energy and the more that they dampened, the darker the reverb will sound

Size- Similar to diffusion, size will control how the reverb behaves and can cause either slap backs or smooth resonances depending on how it and the other properties are set


Space Makers: Proper Setup

Before we can start to play with our plugins we first need to have the proper setup. While it may be a common practice for some to place a reverb or delay directly in line with a track, DONT! Reverbs and delays require control to sound good and often times the wet/dry mixers that are in the plugin are less than adequate. Instead, use a bus/send to send the signal to a separate track and place your reverb or delay on this track and set its wet/dry mix to completely wet. This will make automating the reverb easier and will allow you to use more than one reverb by simply sending the original channel to an additional track. One final note, many of the modern day DAWs now operate at a 32 bit depth the entire way through the mixer (Pro Tools does not) and since most plugins are still have a bit depth of only 24, you will help preserve the integrity of your original signal by not putting a reverb or delay directly inline.

To help illustrate this setup here is an visual example...


For the rest of the tutorial I will use either a direct guitar signal that was amped in the DAW, a drum kit built out of very clean samples, or a piano sample library. The point of doing this is to help remove any room sound from the equation so you can really hear the artificial space we are creating. Keep in mind however that a little bit of room ambience is usually a good thing when tracking so there is some life to the tracks.


Make a Space

Now that we have covered the basics of what our tools can and cannot do, it is time to put them to work. As I said before I will be using either a direct guitar or drum samples to demonstrate the techniques used in this section. Also please keep in mind every plugin is going to work a little differently so I will not be able to accommodate every possible plugins layout, that being said I will try to be as general as I can in my descriptions. With that in mind lets make some space!


Make a Space: Tight Ambience

As I have said before a little bit of recorded ambience is a good thing (not large ringing halls unless its classical). However if you are working with samples or a direct instrument like a guitar or synthesizer then you need to create it. Ambiences are good for a tight sound that has just enough space to give it some breath but not risk muddying up the mix. Lets start with a drum kit to help illustrate this...

- Take either your dry loop or samples and send the whole kit (we will do individual samples later) to the track you will create the ambience on

- Next place a delay unit on the first insert and give it a very short delay so you hear more of a tight flutter than an audible delay

- On the next insert add your reverb plugin and set the diffusion for 100%, bring the decay down to about .75 seconds or to taste, the predelay for about 0-15ms (the delay can act as our predelay), bring down the dampening to somewhere between 2000hz and 5000hz, and make the size of the room fairly small; 10-30m should work

-Finally bring down the ambiences overall volume about 5db or so

Here is my original, with the delay only, and with the reverb added for your reference...

While it may be subtle, listen to the snare and kick in particular and how they have just a bit more breath to them; if you have toms present they will have a similar characteristic as well. This is simply a guideline however and can easily be modified to fit your tastes. I wanted something that sounded more like a wooden room, which is why I went for the slightly heavier dampening. If however you want say a concrete room I would then bring up the dampening and make the flutter in delay more pronounced since concrete will reflect more than it will absorb.


Make a Space: Controlled Reverb

Now that we have some basic ambience we can move onto creating some real reverberant spaces. For this lets examine the guitar since putting this much reverb on a whole drum kit can get potentially very muddy. Here are some guidelines to get you started...

- Like before place a delay plugin in first but this time lengthen the time on the delay to around 3 seconds and adjust the feedback so that you 3-4 repeats with the last one being barely audible

- On the next insert add your reverb plugin and set the diffusion for 100%, set the decay to around 1.3 seconds or so, the predelay should be from 0-5ms, bring down the dampening to somewhere near 4000hz, and make the size of the room larger this time; about 40-60m

-Once again bring down the reverbs volume but this time by only 3-4db or so from the tracks volume

Here is my original, with the delay only, and with the reverb added for your reference...

So what have we got? The larger delay sounds closer to an echo than delay effect which helps us perceive a larger room but by keeping it down just enough it stays out of the way of the guitars clarity. The reverb itself is so short because it is suppose to just tie together the delays and smear the space a little but not actually wash it out. I chose a brighter reverb this time to reflect something closer to a concrete room to contrast against the wood sound of the drums but that is merely preference.


Make a Space: Large Rooms

Now for the fun part, making massive rooms that we often use for effect. This kind of space works good on solos and vocals, especially when you automate the effect so it only hits on certain words. Lets create the effect itself and in the next section we can start to play around with its usage a little bit more.

- As always put a delay plugin in first and this time change the time on the delay to around 3.5 seconds and adjust the feedback so that you 5-6 repeats with the last one being barely audible

- On the next insert add your reverb plugin and set the diffusion for 100%, set the decay to around 2.1 seconds or so, the predelay should be from 15-20ms, bring down the dampening to somewhere near 4000hz, and make the size of the room larger this time; about 60-80m

-Once again bring down the reverbs volume but this time by only 2-3db or so from the tracks volume so the space is more audible

Here is my original, with the delay only, and with the reverb added for your reference...


Make a Space: Review

In this section we have created three general types of rooms that are
useful for just about any situation. The biggest trick with the space is to try and keep some semblance of continuity between your tracks so they remain cohesive. In this next section we are going to look at more ways to help blend and create space textures in our mix. But before we move on let's take a listen to the whole mix so far without the space and with the space...


Tweak a Space

This next section will be a collection of tips and tricks to help flesh out your mix spatially. Not all of these tricks will work in every scenario so some discretion is advised. With that in mind let's get creative!


Tweak a Space: A Better Drumset

Often times people approach drumset with preconceived notions of how they should be approached. However different styles call for different ways to mix. A hair metal drumset should sound large and wide but not as wide as an orchestra! A jazz kit by contrast will often be tight and drier. In our case we have a rock kit so let's try to really push what makes a good rock kit.

Keep in mind that this is not necessarily how you approach a metal kit!

- With your overhead microphones, instead of panning them out hard left and hard right, try pulling them in a little more to about 3 o'clock and 9 o'clock so the kit isn't a mile wide

- Next we should try and match the drumset to the solo a little better since the solo is so deep and spacey. However, we do not want to muddy up the whole kit by applying judicious amounts of reverb; instead apply the reverb to the snare. Some people would suggest adding it to the kick as well but I say DONT! The reason we do not want anything more than some ambience to the kick is because it will very quickly muddy up the low end. For a decent start to the snare simply just save the controlled verb as a preset and apply it to a secondary verb track strictly for the snare; DO NOT COPY THE DELAY. Next simply brighten up the verb by bringing up some of the dampening. You will obviously need to tweak yours as appropriate but these three rooms we made before are always good starting places.

One last panning note for the drumset, always pan in the manner of audience looking at the drummer, never pan from the drummers perspective


Tweak a Space: Thicker Space Through Fake Doubling

Often times we want a thick sound, particularly for something like guitar or vocals. Usually the best way to do this is to have the musician play it more than once as close as they possibly can. However as audio engineers we do not always have access to great players who can pull this off. So this is where this clever trick comes in handy.

- First we to send our guitar to another track and put a delay plugin on it. On this delay plugin we need to make a very tight delay that only delays once and pan it ever so slightly to the right

On your original track pan your signal a tad to the left

Finally send both of these tracks back to the reverb we had set up earlier

As you can hear the guitar and the space around it gets noticeably thicker and it feels like it is bigger than it actually it. Remember that the lack of space is still an aspect of space itself!


Tweak a Space: Super Wide

The last trick I have for you is how to make a instrument sound extra wide and have the impression that it is everywhere. For this trick to work however you need to be open to creative panning. Interested? I thought so...

- First turn up the volume on your large hall style reverb that we used for the solo guitar. Yes make it even more audibly loud; my solo guitar and its reverb are actually both at 0db

-Next pan the guitar to the left to about 9 or 10 o'clock and pan the reverb to the right to about 2 or 3 o'clock. If you play the track as it is you will notice that the guitar will sound very wide but we are not done yet

- For the final step automate your guitar and large reverbs pans so that they move back and forth across the stereo field in a fitting and creative fashion. This will really draw emphasis on them and how big it sounds. The only time they should cross is at the center.

Here is what I have come up with for mine...

Keep in mind that this is strictly for effect and does not sound anything close to real with that much drastic panning. However, it does give a great illusion of width. With that in mind, use it sparingly in a track so when it does happen it works really well! Finally, if you are working on a song that has say two guitars each being panned left and right, try placing the reverbs on the opposite side to make it sound a bit bigger


Conclusion

In this tutorial we have covered what the different kinds of tools we have to work with to manipulate space are and what they do. We have created three templates to work from and looked at various ways to increase spatial dimensions in a mix. This is by no means an exhaustive list of all the things you can do, but it covers enough ground that if you apply this knowledge creatively then you can handle any situation. Once again thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed reading!

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