Think Like a Donut

How can you tell if your multi-track recording is good? Simple – if you can hear everything, it's good. None of the elements should be competing for space and there should a pleasing balance between them. Next question: how do you create a pleasing balance between a dozen (or more) different instrument and vocal parts all playing at once? The answer: think like a donut.

Components in a mix compete with each other in many ways. They compete for musical space, volume, range, and frequency. In order to make room for everything we need holes…and lots of them. When you create and exploit holes in problem areas it becomes easier to craft a mix in which all the parts can be heard. So…think like a donut.

For the purpose of this discussion let's assume you’ve already written a good song, and that you’ve already made the “big” arrangement decisions. What we’re looking for now are ways to sweeten things up. Some are “small” arrangement or performance decisions, and others happen during recording and mixing. Let’s dig in…

Powdered Sugar
First rule of thumb: learn to “play where something isn’t”, both musically and rhythmically. Rather than slathering a bunch of parts on top of each other, look for ways to make musical space. Write parts with holes, and interlock them with each other like puzzles pieces.

When composing parts, keep range in mind. If there is already a horn part in a high range, don’t clog up that area with additional instruments. Instead, write new parts in a lower range. When multi-tracking guitars use different chord inversions or voicings on different tracks. Two complimenting guitar parts will almost always sound bigger and fuller than ten parts of the exact same thing tracked over and over. AC/DC has proven this to be true for the last 30 years.

While mixing, watch for competing frequencies. If you find your vocals are being drown out by your guitars, don't automatically reach for the volume faders. That quickly becomes a shouting match. Instead, use EQ to carve out a hole in the guitar’s upper mids that lets the vocals through. Similarly, if you find your bass guitar is smothering your kick drum, try EQ'ing a hole around 55-60 hz.

Vanilla Candy Sprinkle
Of constant concern in digital recording is overall volume. A common question is “Why don’t my mixes sound as loud as commercial mixes?” A large part of the answer is using a compressor or limiter to cap the volume spikes (usually from the snare and kick drum) that keep you from raising the song’s average volume. Beyond that, the answer is: you need more holes.

Here's why: In the real world there is no overhead limit. Each time you add an instrument to a group of other instruments, the volume simply increases. In the realm of digital recording, the opposite is true. There is an abrupt volume ceiling at 0db. Anything above that results in digital distortion. Thus the more simultaneous elements there are in a mix, the quieter it must be overall to avoid exceeding the 0db threshold.

Here is one example of how to use this principle. There is an old saying among bass players: If you want a song to groove, give the “two” and the “four” to the drummer. In other words, make a hole for the snare. In addition to magnifying the groove, giving the snare this extra space means that it does not require as much volume to cut through the mix. Less snare volume (in other words, fewer volume spikes) in turn allows you raise your recording's overall volume without distortion.

Maple Bars
Sometimes there is no way around it - parts have to be concurrent. Background vocals and doubled guitars are two great examples. Learn to think of these parts as a cohesive group, and make sure they mesh together tightly. Multi-tracked guitars should work together rhythmically and harmonically to create a cohesive single “guitar part”. Treat background vocals similarly. And remember: “tracks” does not equal “parts”. Two dozen tracks of Def Leopard style vocals should still sound like one “part” in the mix.

Also, (and this is important) make sure the bass guitar works cohesively with the kick drum. This is where the energy of a recording comes from. Together they should sound like one part.

We’ve only dunked a little into the myriad possibilities for using holes to improve a recording. There are thousands more. Experiment. Succeed. Fail. Learn. Think like a donut, and let your good taste be your guide.

*Photo by jordanpattern


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