Want to know how to create depth and space in your songs? Read this article to learn how to make your music sound huge.
I'll show you a few different ways to achieve that from the perspective of a music producer, based on what I learned over the years in my own productions and by studying the top audio engineers in this world.
What's a song with depth?
Nope, this is not about lyrics. Depth is an illusion!
Creating the illusion that some sounds are closer to the speakers and others are far away in the back. That's how your songs will sound huge.
I don't mean up and down, like the low frequencies of a bass and the high frequencies of a hi-hat.
What I mean is front and back.
Like a pop vocal almost talking in your ear as opposed to a warm keyboard sound way in the background.
And that's hard to notice when you're beginning to mix your songs, as we tend to mix either everything too dry and in your face or everything washed out in reverb at first.
It's not so obvious like panning, where you can just place the vocals in the center, a synthesizer sound on the left speaker, and a guitar on the right speaker to achieve width.
But that's only one dimension.
A song is a lot more interesting when we play with the other dimensions.
Why would you limit yourself and not use all the space available in the mix to help paint a landscape in your listeners minds?
Your songs would lose lots of opportunities to create contrast and impact.
How to create the illusion of depth in music
The illusion of depth can only be created because of contrast.
The only way for us to perceive a sound as placed far from the speaker is by also hearing sounds that seem closer.
So we need that reference point. We need a balance of close instruments and distant instruments to actually achieve depth.
Even though this is less intuitive, once you start noticing these subtleties you can easily apply the following tricks to create depth in your songs.
So whenever you're mixing, ask yourself: how close or far away do I want this sound to be from the listener?
Do I want proximity and intimacy, or do I want to place this in the background for texture?
Depth and space in the example song
In the example song (watch video above), listen to the in-your-face melody and some in-your-face chords.
They're fighting because they're in the same space. I purposely used the same synthesizer preset for both of them so they would really clash.
Then I played the same melody and chords but I changed 4 things on the chords to place them far away from you.
4 Mixing Moves to create Depth and Space
So what were the 4 things I changed to make these chords sound like they're coming from your neighbors house party instead of your own speakers?
How do you achieve this in your songs?
Intensity: lowering the volume
Number one and most obvious change was the intensity: I reduced the volume by 5 decibels.
If a dog barks in the distance, you hear it much quieter than you would if the dog were barking in front of you, right?
Distant sounds are perceived quieter, so use those faders.
Equalization: reducing high frequencies
The second way to place sounds in the background is by cutting some brightness.
I don't know if this situation ever happened in your life where you could hear a party with loud music going on a few blocks away from your house and you could only distinguish the bass and kick drum, but not the other elements of the songs.
Not trying to get too technical, but we hear less high end from distant sounds because the frequency of a wave is inversely proportional to its length.
So high frequencies don't travel as far as low frequencies like the bass.
Therefore, it makes sense that if you want to place some instruments in the back of your mix, distant from the listener, they shouldn't have too much energy in the high frequencies.
So you can scoop out some highs on your EQ with a shelf or a low pass filter to push those things further away in the mix.
If everything is too bright in your mix, then they're all up close and there's no depth.
Here's the EQ curve that solved that problem in our example.
As I decreased the high frequencies, it sounded like it was getting more and more distant from the speakers.
Ambience and reflections
Besides equalization and volume, there's also ambience and reflections. You can use effects like reverbs and delays.
And those will also create width, for instance ping pong delays bouncing from left to right and stereo reverbs.
But what I really want to focus on today is the front to back relationship.
And that's closely connected to a parameter in your reverb called Pre-delay, which means you can add a time gap between the dry sound and the reverb sound.
How pre-delay affects the depth and space of your mix
By setting up only a few miliseconds of pre-delay, you can make sure that the original, dry, unaffected sound of whatever instrument you're mixing will reach the listener before the reflections, the reverb sound.
There's a separation.
And that creates the sense of a large space, but the instrument still appears to be close to the listener because of that separation.
If you were to remove the pre-delay entirely, then there's no separation. You'll hear the instrument and the reflections at the same time.
And if the reverb is loud enough, it almost sounds like you're listening to the reflections only. That's what makes it sound like it's placed in the back of the speakers.
How to use pre-delay to mix pop music
When I'm mixing pop music, I usually want the vocals up front, "in your face", almost jumping out of the speakers.
That's why I make sure to set up a reverb with enough pre-delay where the dry vocals arrive sooner than the reverb.
It makes sense to set up a long pre-delay and keep the reverb quiet in comparison to the dry signal.
The longer the pre-delay, the more up front the vocals will sound, without losing the ambience effect.
But for an instrument that I just want to place in the background, like the synthesizer from our example, then I can use a louder reverb without any pre-delay.
That's what I did to that synth. Here's what its Reverb looks like:
Transient Shaping and Compression
The last thing I did to create depth and space was to shape the transients with compression to remove the attack, because sounds with strong transients also give us the impression of being closer.
On the other hand, istruments with smooth transients don't sound as close.
A compressor with fast attack is a good way to squeeze those transients and push things to the back of the speakers.
These are the extreme settings from the example:
The scope in Shaperbox will help you visualize it.
If you have trouble hearing transients, it's always good to have access to a scope like the one from VolumeShaper.
Before transient shaping:
After transient shaping:
Depth and space are all about contrast
Something has to be placed close so you can notice how far something else is.
You perceive it as far away because you're listening to the drums and melody up close.
And there's many ways to get creative with this effect to enhance your productions.
The easy way to create depth in your music is by asking yourself which sounds don't deserve the spotlight and should be placed in the background.
And you can achieve that by: decreasing the volume, cutting high frequencies, adding reflections like a reverb with no pre-delay or a very short pre-delay, and squeezing the transients.
It can be done to any instrument, vocal, effect or drum sound.
If that's not enough in your song, then look at the other instruments, and make sure they're the opposite of that, so you have contrast.
Also, if your song's arrangement is already very busy, you can use a delay instead of a reverb because it takes less space in the mix, so it won't get muddy and cluttered.
It's your turn to mix with depth and space
Make sure to use those 4 depth and space elements to make your music sound larger than life. And show me what you came up with!
If you have any questions, let me know in the comment section below.
As always, if your goal is to take your pop music production skills to the next level, you must check out the resources available on my website.