What are “fundamental frequencies”? And why are they important?
Great questions! Let me answer them. Here’s why you need to know about them in order to record a great song.
Pay attention to the instruments
You know how a bass sounds really low and a guitar solo can sound really high? It’s important to pay attention to these characteristics. Your production depends on it.
When choosing instruments and how you’ll play them, keep in mind their “fundamental frequencies” — the frequencies they most often emit.
If you’ve got drums, bass, piano, and guitar, you can’t have all of them playing in the lower register. Things will get muddy. The track will be too bassy. You need variety in the frequencies.
This is part of being or having a good producer — a huge part. Knowing what instruments fit together differentiates a good producer from a bad producer.
Mixing helps the balance
A song should sound good and professional even before the mix. Mixing just helps the instruments not step on each other’s toes. But if your instruments are wrestling with each other, mixing ain’t gonna do nothing.
Mixing helps balance the already balanced frequencies of the instruments. Even if you’ve done a great job at paying attention to the fundamental frequencies, there are nuanced frequencies mixing can help untangle.
So after you’ve produced a track with a full range of frequencies, mixing helps remove overlapping frequencies from each other. It helps make sure the frequencies span the whole spectrum.
4 basic tips for a wider, fuller mix
Alright, so you get the idea that your song needs a range of frequencies. You need low, mid, and high frequencies and everything in between.
But how do you end up with that fullness?
Hopefully, these mixing tips will help you cover more ground and end up with a wider and fuller song.
1. "Stratify" your song
There’s a tasty dish called strata. It involves layering bread, cheese, meat, and veggies over an eggs-milk mixture which you then refrigerate before baking. It’s delicious.
This is what you should do with your song. Add layers like a strata dish.
Jacob Collier taught me this (via his YouTube videos). Listen to any of his songs and you’ll hear multiple Jacobs singing.
So whatever instrument you’re recording, try adding a layer of it but pitch it up or down an octave. Or add a secondary harmony part. Or just another layer of the same part. Anything to add a layer with slightly different frequencies, thus giving the song more dynamics and fullness.
2. It’s okay to delay
I’ve recently discovered the power of delay — and how generous use of it can put your song in a big room.
You probably know what delay is, but just in case: it’s an effect that repeats what you’ve recorded at certain intervals. In other words, it can make something sound like it’s in a cave.
It helps fill the empty space. If you want to emphasize a certain instrument or frequency, delay can do that.
There’s not really a formula for how to use delay. It depends on the song, the instrument, and your preference. So it’s just something you have to play around with. But fortunately, it’s a fun effect to play with.
3. Pan It! At the Disco
Generous panning is another method that changed my music production world. Did you know you can pan up to 100%?! (Obviously, I knew you could do this, I just thought it was for super special circumstances).
This can really help spread out your frequencies. A basic rule is that you should pan higher frequencies further left and right. And the lower the frequency, the closer to the middle it should be. For example, you should almost always keep your bass instrument right up the middle.
But of course, you can break this rule if it fits.
4. Don’t get high
Sometimes, the high frequencies, if they’re too prominent, can mask the entire mix. This means that you may not be hearing all of the other frequencies as accurately as you could be.
So to help you hear every frequency possible, try nudging down the higher frequencies on one or more of the instruments. This allows the mid-range stuff to stand out a bit more, allowing you to hear a more balanced mix.
And there’s not really a specific way to do this, besides using a multi-band EQ. It just relies on your experimentation, curiosity, and ears.
Good And bad examples
Now let’s look at some examples of well-mixed and poorly mixed songs.
I already mentioned Collier. Well, he mixes his own music. And he’s pretty good at it.
Here’s his song “Hideaway” from his GRAMMY-winning album In My Room:
Do you hear how full it is? It’s wide and deep. It gets you in the gut but also has higher sounds dancing around. That’s how you mix a track.
How you don’t mix a track (or an album) is the way Metallica mixed their record …And Justice For All. Nothing against the band at all — they’re massively talented.
But apparently, there’s a story behind this. The band’s original bass player passed away, and when they brought in the new bassist, they decided to, let’s say, initiate him into the group.
During the mixing sessions, they insisted the bass be brought down until it was nearly inaudible.
Here’s the title track:
Do you hear how the song sounds terrible without the bass? It sounds like a high school garage band who decided to mix their own album even though they had no idea what they were doing. Just bad.
Here’s the mixing engineer telling the whole story:
I think you get the point here. Pay attention to the fundamental frequencies of the instruments in your track, balance them during the recording process, and use the mixing stage to balance it all out even more.
Caleb J. Murphy is a songwriter and producer based in Austin, TX., and the founder of Musician With A Day Job, a blog that helps part-time musicians succeed.