Defying Physics and The Laws of Illusion


Most composition, mixing, and mastering can be boiled down to four techniques: moving sound in time, space, timbre, and tuning. We do this to achieve a balanced mix that appeals to the ear and translates to a broad array of sound systems. You can’t fight the physics of sound, so you must work within their limits. We may have unlimited tracks, but we don’t have unlimited bandwidth. You are creating an illusion for the ear, and certain techniques are more effective at providing this end result. Here are some ways to achieve this faster:


Nudge sounds and align phase. Two similar sounds cannot occupy the same space without masking each other. Huge differences can happen with a simple 1 msec shift. Rush the highs, grid the mids, and drag the lows. If your kick and clap are fighting, nudge the clap early. Experiment with different delay times and mono your mix to see what sticks. Look at the direction of a waveform’s phase, compare it to the clashing sound, and make sure they are aligned.

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Contrast through length: Pair a short kick with a longer sustained bass, and a long kick with a shorter bass. The length of your kick makes a huge difference, so make sure there’s a clear contrast. Experiment with different times to see what works best

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Adjust pre-delays: Sync your pre-delays to tempo and experiment with shorter or longer times, and think in terms of note divisions (1/16, 1/32).

Check plugin latency: Many plugins have unreported latency that mess with the timing, even though they aren’t engaged. Make sure to turn the delay compensation on/off to see the differences, and replace the offending plugin, if needed.

Arrangement is the mixdown: Use clever arrangement to highlight different layers, instead of piling it all together in one 8 bar section. Let the build be the build, let the drop be the drop. Rotate your elements and take advantage of the rule of three.

Create breathing room between big moments: Add 2 or 4 bars the to beginning of each breakdown, before a vocal comes in – or insert a bar of silence before a big drop. Make sure to adjust your timeline appropriately. I use a MIDI placeholder that says “8 bars” and repeat this to the end of the song.


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Reduce: Remove any redundant tracks occupying the same frequency range. These just take up bandwidth.

Sidechain: Use sidechains to duck competing sounds and add rhythmic interest

Gates: Use gates and manual waveform editing to remove parts you don’t need or can’t hear

Reverb: Use reverb to create depth through wetness, and perceived loudness.

Volume: don’t forget to use basic leveling to prioritize major elements and downplay supporting roles

Panning: Use autopanners to add movement and animation to the mix, temporarily opening up bandwidth. Pan contrasting elements on each side but make sure they are balanced.

Break the sustain: Use plugins like LFO Tool to chop legato or sustained chords into rhythmic elements. This adds more movement to a track and frees up bandwidth

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Make it loud: EQ with the Fletcher Munson curve in mind.. Use the 1-3k area to increase the perception of loudness for bigger leads.

Maximum emotion, minimal bandwidth – Use distortion to add texture, presence, and power through added harmonics.

Trigger finger: Add a click or high frequency envelope to leads to add interest and attention to leads. Think of high frequencies as triggers for the ear, before the “meat” of the sound is heard.

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Transpose your song for power. Your most powerful bass notes will be in the range of D# to G#. A through D will always be compromised because their low octaves won’t translate properly (their physical waveforms are too long – D#1 is 29 feet, C1 is over 35 feet), and their high octaves will sound weak. The difference one semitone makes can be enormous – the leap from D to D# made a major difference in a recent remix.

Transpose your song for vocal range. If you find your vocalist struggling to hit notes, transpose your MIDI up a few semitones. Have them sing the entire scale and see where they lose strength. Keep detailed notes on what the sweet spot is for different vocalists, so you can reference it for future sessions. Every vocalist has physical limits you need to work around, even with proper warmups.

Transpose existing parts. Tune everything to the fundamental, then try using fifths or thirds for toms, snares, and other elements. For example, in Gmin – try transposing your toms to D. You can tune everything from drums to reverb by transposing notes, or using sharp EQ boosts to a series of octaves. Try shifting up when possible to preserve the higher harmonics. The scale display in Autotune 8 is really useful for a showing the notes in a scale, and Mixed In Key provides a chart of perfect fifths useful for tuning.

Tuned EQ: Use plugins like HEQ or Fabfilter ProQ 2 w/ built-in piano keyboards to think of notes instead of frequencies. Use these to shape and enhance octaves, thirds, and fifths.

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Reference Chart: Most people are visual thinkers, so make sure to have a note/frequency/octave chart stored on your desktop and take advantage of useful features like Mixed In Key‘s built in keyboard (see below) to quickly determine scale degrees (great for tuning drums), Autotune 8 for scales, and Waves Tune for easy drag and listen intervals for harmonies.

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