In music, everything is relative. In the same way that you can’t dictate an absolute volume for your music, since the listener will simply adjust the volume to their liking on the playback device, there is no absolute front to your mix, no absolute left or right, no absolute punchy kick drum, and no absolute huge drop.
In all of these examples, if taken to their extremes, their ‘absoluteness’ will not hold up. This is because of the simple and important fact that there is no point of reference.
If all our elements are all the way at the front of the mix, we will not perceive them as being in the front. If everything comes from the left speaker, the listener can simply turn their head to face that speaker and now, for them, that speaker will be front and center. If we hear a punchy kick drum, we can’t tell how punchy it is, until we compare it with a different kick drum.
The point is, in music, just like when mixing cocktails, everything is relative.
If we want a vocal that’s all the way at the front of the mix, we have to give it a point of reference that is located far, far away.
If we want a huge drop, we better make sure that the part leading up to it is quite in comparison.
If we want a track to sound extremely wide, we need to make sure that the elements in the middle are narrow in comparison.
And because there is natural limit of how far we can go (the brim of the glass), the balance between the two contrasting elements is of utmost importance.
Too much vodka is too much vodka. Getting the mixture just right, while staying within the confines of the glass, is what makes a fantastic drink. It tastes good, and gives you a good buzz.
So how do we know that we’ve added too much vodka? Or rather, when do we know that our kick drum is punchy enough, or has too much punch for that matter?
That’s where referencing other music comes in. A good reference track is a track we know well, which we’ve heard on many different speaker systems, and which we know translates in a certain way. It can tell us, for example, if our punchy kick is in the ball park, or if we’d like to make it slightly punchier. It can tell us where our upper, or lower limit lies. It can also tell us if our mix has enough definition, has too soft, or perhaps even too hard transients, or if our master bus processing is choking the entire mix. (Although I recommend staying away from master bus processing all together anyway)
So the next time we find our mix is lacking something, let’s think of mixing cocktails, load up a good reference track, figure out if our glass is already filled to the brim, and then decide if we can add, or if we should be taking away.
In music, everything is relative. It is through contrast that we can express strong emotion.