Know Sound Design: Mixing Pads

Enhancing your chord progressions without resorting to EQ
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Pads and chord stabs are essential components in all musical genres, whether they’re used subtly as reinforcement or as the main focus of a track. While some pads are heavily treated with lowpass filtering to help them blend into the background of a track, some mixes benefit from highlighting the pads. In the latter case, the pads’ note clusters, especially when using bright sawtooth waveforms, often result in a loss of valuable frequency space in a mix.

This month, we’ll look and listen to three different approaches for sculpting your pads so that they sit better in a mix (both in live performance and studio contexts), allowing the other tracks to breathe without losing the impact of clearly defined chordal elements.

Open Voicing. Music theory Ninjas use a trick that’s often overlooked by pop songwriters—open voicing. By distributing the notes of a chord over multiple octaves, the harmonic density of bright sawtooth chords—especially seventh chords in the octave around middle C—is minimized, allowing them to sit a bit higher in a mix. For example, you can open a seventh chord by transposing the 3rd and 7th up or down an octave. Pro Tip: This is also a great way to create convincing string passages when using orchestral sample libraries.

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Pro Tip: This is also a great way to create convincing string passages when using orchestral sample libraries.

Notch Filtering. A time-honored engineering trick for pads is to apply highpass filtering to chordal tracks in a mix, thus leaving room for instruments in the lower frequency ranges. An even more precise method for this technique is to use a 12dB notch filter (with minimal resonance) within your synth patch, then carefully adjust the frequency of the notch as you’re mixing the pad into the track. By doing this, you’re creating an EQ cut on each note individually, as opposed to attenuating a wider range of frequencies after the fact. This image shows Xfer Serum’s notch filter, which is excellent for this technique, thanks to its impressive “drive” and “fat” parameters. On the analog side, the Dave Smith Instruments OB-6 includes the Oberheim notch filter option, adding a touch of organic warmth to the approach.

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Reverb Sculpting. Most modern reverbs include parameters for low-frequency damping, which causes the lower frequencies in a reverb to decay faster than the high frequencies. By adjusting this parameter in an extreme manner, then finessing the high-frequency damping or integrated EQ to tame any shrillness, you can use a reverb as a complex stereo enhancement on the pad. From there, you can tailor the pad’s lower mid frequencies by simply adjusting the wet/dry balance to taste, leaving room for more midrange detail in your mix.

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