5 Ways to Cut Through the Mix

"Cutting through the mix" seems to be a nearly universal concern for guitarists, especially those in in rock bands where caveman drummers, tone-deaf bass players, and out-of-tune co-guitarists are all competing for chunks of the same sonic real estate at ear-bleeding volume. In a perfect world one's bandmates would make an effort to play more dynamically, making adjustments in their volume, tone, and technique to leave room for the other instruments in the mix, but this ain't jazz we're talkin' about - in a rock setting you sometimes need to stack the deck in your favor. There are a number of ways the wily guitarrista can set themselves up for mix-cutting success, and here we will present 5 simple ways to make sure you get heard in the densest of mixes.

1) MASTER YOUR MID-RANGE

As a guitarist the key to finding your place in the mix will ultimately come down to the mid-range. In pro audio terms the mid-range is generally considered to be roughly 400-5000 Hz; not only is this the range of frequencies that the human ear is most sensitive to, it also happens to be right where the bulk of your guitar sound lives. Thusly, manipulating mid-range frequencies effectively is crucial. This might be as simple as turning up the mids on your amp, or rolling back the bass and treble, depending on your amp's EQ capabilities. Fender amplifiers, in particular, tend to have a flatter or slightly scooped character and can often benefit from cranking the mid-range. If you're a metal player and your default tone settings are of the standard, heavily-scooped variety, a little mid bump on the amp (as sacrilegious as that might seem) can make a huge difference. If you also happen to be playing with massive amounts of gain through a gut-rumbling 4x12 cab the mid-range balance can get pretty far out of whack, leading to a tone that might sound monolithic and powerful on its own, but gets buried when the rest of the band comes in. Go ahead, tough guy, turn up those mids a little and see what happens. I dare you.

2) REIN IN YOUR GAIN

If you're a relative newcomer to guitar and you're playing in any kind of a rock band, I can say with some degree of certainty that you're using too much gain. It's OK, everybody did in the beginning. As fun and addictive as it is thrashing away with the fuzz or distortion dimed, it's also a splendid way to make sure you get buried in your own scuzz. Distortion can obscure the details of your tone, muffling your attack and muddying string definition. If you're accustomed to goo-gobs of gain and you're wondering why your parts are getting lost, this may be the culprit. Experiment with moderate distortion settings and see where it takes you.

3 Ways To Cut Through The Band Mix | Reverb Tone Report

3) DUH, USE YOUR BRIDGE PICKUP

This is one of those seemingly obvious things that often gets overlooked. A lot of guitarists, especially Strat and Tele players, gravitate towards the neck pickup. On those guitars in particular, the neck pickup is fat and warm sounding, while the bridge position can be like an ice pick to the forehead. This is another case where the unaccompanied sound is great, but once the band comes in you might as well be playing air guitar with a badminton racquet. Flick that pickup selector, dude - your bridge pickup has more output, more attack, more of everything to carve you out a nice, comfortable chunk of mix space. If you've been neglecting the bridge because you find the tone displeasing, experimenting with amp or pedal settings that flatter it ( mo' bass!) might yield some tonal revelations, or if that doesn't do the trick, consider replacing that sucker with an aftermarket model that has a little more junk in its trunk. Strats and Teles can be improved with single-coil sized humbuckers, or just hotter, fatter single-coils if you prefer that sound. Humbuckers come in a bazillion varieties to suit every possible need - shop around a bit and find one that plays well with your rig. Bottom line: you need to cut through a dense wall of rock, and the bridge pickup shall be your diamond-tipped drill bit!

4) CHANGE YOUR STRINGS

This is incredibly simple, but often ignored. Changing out your old, crusty strings regularly will add punch, liveliness, and definition to your tone in ways that nothing else can. Unfortunately many guitarists go months (or more...ugh) without changing them, either out of cheapness, laziness, or ignorance. There's no hard-and-fast rule about when you should swap strings, and a lot of it depends on how often you play, your environment, the chemistry of your sweat, etc., but a cursory inspection can often tell you whether or not the time has come. Corrosion is an obvious sign, as is tuning instability and an overall deadness of tone. If in doubt, swap 'em out! Your poor, neglected guitar will thank you.

Since you're changing strings anyway, take a moment to think about the gauge and makeup of your strings. Guitarists often stick slavishly to one brand or style, but if your tone is sucking with your old standby it might be time to mix it up. Moving to a heavier gauge string can add sustain, volume, and bass content, while a lighter gauge will be brighter and more defined. If you've been using nickel or nickel-plated steel, moving to a stainless steel set can enhance your pick attack and upper harmonic content. Experimenting with different string types is one of the simplest and cheapest ways to improve your tone and carve out your space in the mix.

5) PUT A PEDAL IN FRONT OF IT

If your amplifier is bare-bones in the EQ control department you might consider a pedal to help you accentuate your mid-range. A dedicated EQ pedal that lets you shape individual frequency bands is an obvious choice, but if you're playing an old-school non-master volume amp, a good drive or boost pedal might be ideal. Tube Screamer-based overdrive pedal designs (of which there are MANY) have a naturally occurring mid-hump, which is part of the reason they work so beautifully for solos, and they also tend to have a somewhat compressed drive character, which can help you stand out as well. Another good option is a boost pedal, which can add some gain and compression by making your tube amp (you ARE using a tube amp, right??) work a little harder. Treble booster type circuits, in particular, often provide the perfect mid-range punch and focus to an amp that sounds a bit anemic, flubby, or dull. There are a lot options in this area, so educating yourself and taking the time to find something that works well with your amp will likely pay off handsomely.

These are but a handful of the more simple, inexpensive steps a guitarist can take to get a leg-up on a seemingly impenetrable mix. As you may have noticed, the overarching theme is "Pay Attention To The Mid-Range". Guitars are at home in the mid-range, and as a guitar player the mid-range is your turf. You must defend it against any and all interlopers, whether they be ham-fisted fellow guitarists, drunken singers, or frustrated bassists. If these simple steps don't work it may be time for drastic measures - new speakers, guitar and amp swaps, firing your bass player, joining a jazz quartet, etc. Godspeed in your quest, friends. Stay mid-rangey.

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