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Mix a pop song – 5 – Adding in the Padding

Not all songs have a “pad” sound. Some songs work by placing all the responsibility on the lead instruments. However, a good “pad” sound adds body to the track and can also hide a multitude of sins in the playing of the other musical parts – it’s a simple and convenient way of making a track sound “full”.

A “pad” is a simple musical part playing a straight (often oversimplified) chord sequence in a middle to low register throughout the entire track. Usually performed on a guitar or keyboard, the choice of sound is normally warm and subtle. Pads are usually recorded in stereo – either as a result of the sound itself (e.g. keyboards), or by the use of effects during recording (stereo chorus on guitar), or – particularly in the case of guitars, by double-tracking in stereo with each of two takes panned left and right.

If present, the pad is absolutely key to the sound and feel of the song because normally every other instrument part was designed and played with the pad already in place. It really forms the “foundation stone” on which the rest of the track is built. From time to time as you mix, try muting it and see what happens. It feels like someone has literally pulled the rug from under your feet! (interestingly, a friend of mine labels pads as “carpet” on the track sheet). What remains of the song without the pad in place will sound “suspended” in space without visible (audible?) means of support, and probably will sound very strange.

The challenge in getting a good pad sound is making it warm, wide and full, but yet somehow transparent at the same time. You’ll need that transparency because it leaves space in the mix in which to place the other instruments. If the pad sounds in any way “stodgy”, it will get in the way of the other instruments that you intend to add to the mix later, so you need to get that “transparency” correct NOW before you add the other parts in.

The “pad” should feel like a warm blanket wrapped around the song. I don’t think that is a particularly over-the-top analogy – it is certainly how all “pad” parts sound to me. So thinking “warm blanket” may help you. The pad, in particular, should fill the sound stage without having a particularly defined character. If you give the pad too much character then it will distract from all the other goodies you are going to put into the mix later. Also, because pads generally play from the start of the song to the end, they can get boring if they stand out too much. They are there primarily for structural support for the song.

Stereo Pad Tips:

  • Check the pad on headphones. Many keyboard pads are often too wide for headphones and feel unpleasant and disorienting, so reduce the extremity of the stereo width, so that you feel there is at least something in the middle when listening on headphones.
  • Some tracks use a double-tracked part for stereo. This often happens on guitar-based tracks where you get two independent strummy-type parts which are designed to be placed left and right. Such parts can sound really nice, but they usually work best if they are NOT panned fully left/right, as the sound will be too wide, and you won’t get the full chorusy sound of the two guitars interacting together.
  • If you really want the two independent guitar parts to be panned hard left and hard right, then you can thicken them up with a simple technique. For the left hand guitar, add a totally wet, but simple chorus effect return panned 50% off centre to the right. Similarly, for the right hand guitar, add another totally wet, simple chorus effect return panned 50% off centre to the left. This often works, but is sometimes over-the-top. Swap the panpot positioning of the chorused counterparts with their direct-sound partners, and reduce the level of the chorused parts for a more subtle effect.
  • If you have just a single pad track in mono, it is usually worth spending some time with a high-quality chorus unit converting the mono sound to a wide all-embracing stereo one.
  • Specifically for pad parts, if you have two separate instruments playing “pad” type parts simultaneously, it is often more effective to leave them panned to the centre to act as one, and use high-quality chorus to create stereo wideness, rather than simply panning the two parts to different positions.
  • The pad should be stimulating both of your ears independently, but not so much as to leave a gaping whole in the middle. Reduce the stereo width if in doubt, and – as mentioned above – check on headphones.

Pad Sound Tips:

  • As you can tell, chorus is important to pad parts, but such chorus should most definitely not be a stereo swirly mess. Really take the time to experiment with the settings on your chorus unit to see how subtle you can get it. Keep delay times short, and modulation speeds low and you can get a chorus that really enhances the high frequency end of a track without it getting too, ..well.., “chorussy”!
  • Some instruments don’t suit chorus at all. Piano is a classic. Put chorus on a piano and it sounds out-of-tune at best, and plain old cheap honky-tonk at worst. Let your ears be the ruling judge of whether chorus is even required at all.
  • Sucking out a fair bit of 700-800 Hz (or thereabouts), and cutting back a bit of the low end, on pad-like sounds, with a fairly wide bandwidth EQ, softens them and gives them the transparent “hi-fi” sound which serves as a nice backdrop to the rest of the mix. It “restrains” the sound, dampening any aggression, and the fact that the high frequencies are allowed to rise up again, can add a silky sheen to both keyboards and guitars alike. Make sure it doesn’t swamp the bottom end of the mix if you do this.

Pad Sound Check:

You’ve now got drums, bass and pad in place. At this point, the song should sound amazing. Yup! even with just those three elements, it should really feel special. The backing track should sound “complete”. You should feel like simply adding the vocal would be enough. This should really be true of any instrument as you add it into the mix, so I won’t say it any more. Don’t forget to double-check the sound with all the remaining elements (from the rough mix) in place too, or you might have difficulty getting them to “conform” to the mix later.

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