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The Rule Of Thirds applied to mixing

In this old interview with Dave Pensado (via Waves) he briefly mentions that he uses the Rule Of Thirds when mixing, but he does not go into any detail of HOW it can be applied. Which leads to some interesting speculation of how the concept can be interpreted and applied.

In a recent thread on the Womb forums this topic was brought up and Geoff Duncan shared his interpretation of the Rule Of Thirds for mixing:

I saw this a while ago and gave it some thought, which ultimately led to some interesting ideas for my approach to mixing….which if anyone gives a toss I’ll now describe 🙂

1. Separation into thirds ‘horizontally’ – Panning

I decided to try a deliberate approach to panning into 3 zones (L – c – R) with an idea of focusing certain groups of instruments together in the ‘outside’ zones….I found that higher frequency sounds with smaller subsdivisions rhythmically on the outside gave a greater sense of width compared to putting the ‘thicker’ sounds out wide. (without any other ‘widening’ approaches like delays, modulation etc)

Also I found that concentrating on making three distinct zones work (as opposed to a continuous L-R soundfield) changed the way I approached it….which was kinda interesting.

(i suppose that is similar to deciding to mix in Mono, and seeing how it affects your mixing decisions…)

2. Separation into thirds ‘vertically’ (Frequencies, Low to High)

I have often read about shelving instruments from 200 or 300 up to clear out the low end, and in taking the rule of thirds approach I also tried shelving lows and highs from midrange instruments to see if it was useful….and it was certainly interesting in clearing out top end for hihats, cymbals and acoustic guitars, and creating space for ‘air’ in vocals….and obviously clearing out the low end is fairly common approach for reducing mud in the mix….

So in terms of rule of thirds, it was Lows – Mids – Highs, and trying to keep instruments into those zones….obviously not a rule of thumb (I like some top end sparkle on a kick for example) but this appoach can lend some cool sounds to the mix.

3. separation into thirds ‘z depth’ (or ‘front to back’)

Thinking about this, it was depth into the soundstage from the front to the back…I found a couple of ways of getting this effect.

– reverb / delay

Obviously this pushes things further from the listener, many different approaches are documented widely….

– reducing top end

The acoustic effect of moving further from a source can also be the diminished perception of top end….as those frequencies lose energy faster…so if it sounds a bit duller, it can sound further back in the soundfield

– compression

can pull things out the front, make them feel very immediate…


So in terms of creating a multidimensional mix, I found the inspiration from the idea of “Rule of thirds” to be quite interesting.

(disclaimer – I am not saying I came up with any of these ideas, merely that in being presented with the idea in the context of mixing, I collated them together and I found it yielded some interesting thoughts. For most readers here none of it is new, but in going thru the deliberate process of trying these ideas out I learned a lot so I definitely found it very useful….)

I’d be interested if anyone else has tried similar experiments 🙂


The image above demonstrates the Rule Of Thirds for visual art.

William Wittman adds his thoughts:

1) assigning everything Left, Right or Centre –

the way almost every truly great sounding record was made

2) ‘carving’ out frequency ranges on instruments into subgroups of all highs, all lows, or all ‘mids’ –

the way almost no decent sounding record is made

3) depth

too nebulous to form into a “rule.”

Great mixes often have a lot of apparent depth, but can just as easily be entirely dry or entirely (or almost so) wet.

And every combo in between.

Depth comes mostly from actual distance recorded into the sounds (with its true random phase elements) and from BALANCE.

I think this ‘rules of mixing’ thing is WAY over thinking it.

the rule of mixing is ‘balance everything and make it have the right emotional impact for the music’

it’s like saying good cooking is a balance of salty, sweet, acid, and texture.


but within that there’s an infinite amount of room for personal expression, and some great dishes will have NO discernible saltiness and others will have loads.

so it HELPS you to think of it that way then you go girl.

But I tend to think mostly you just learn to ask yourself “does this taste great? Am I proud of this”?

and that’s ALL

I think it’s a pretty cool concept, but I didn’t know how to apply it. Now that I’ve got a clue on how to approach it I’m definitely going to give it a shot.

What do YOU think of this concept? Is this something you’ve tried, are these the sort of things you think about while mixing?

Let me know in the comments.



  1. Frank Adrian
    Frank Adrian April 8, 2010

    I agree completely with the LCR rule. I’ve found my mixes sound a lot more spacious and the instruments better-defined (i.e., narrower in a spacial sense) since I’ve started panning hard right and left, rather than trying to spread things across the sound field.

    The rule of three sounds like a logical approach to depth, too. I haven’t tried it, but I will, although I have a feeling that distance is perceived logarithmically, rather than linearly, so one will need to adjust for that.

    As for frequency ranges I think a “rule of three” is a bit too simplistic. In the photo above, think of frequency as the color information being transmitted (as that is what color is – light of different frequencies). I don’t see a real balance in either quantity or in space with respect to this quality. The colors are not confined to certain spaces nor are they allocated in quantity in thirds. What you do see is “pleasing shapes” with interesting interplay of colors fading into one another and separation at hard boundaries. So, I think a “rule of three” for frequency is just a bit too simple – instead, listen and make interesting juxtapositions given the space and distance arrangements you’ve built previously.

  2. Randy Coppinger
    Randy Coppinger April 8, 2010

    I’ve seen hard panning L/C/R (into two channels) also called mixing to the Cardinal Points. It is very effective if not kind of extreme. Not sure I like this when applied to EQ, though I do appreciate the value of rolloffs. I don’t tend to think of the frequency spectrum as being “framed” the same way as panning or depth. I do like it when applied to depth and find that inspiring. If nothing else, nice to have interesting ways to think about mix composition.

  3. Jon
    Jon April 8, 2010

    I agree with you guys (I already do LCR) with regards to the frequency split into thirds. It doesn’t really make sense to me.

  4. Ben
    Ben April 11, 2010

    This may sound like a stupid question, but if you only pan things L, R or C, wouldn’t that ruin any sense of separation panoramically and potentially make things sound very busy?

  5. Jon
    Jon April 11, 2010

    Not a stupid question Ben. Try it, you might find you like it a lot.
    A lot of pro mixers prefer this as do I.

  6. Ben
    Ben April 11, 2010

    Thanks Jon, so what would you personally do with toms on a drum kit to get the toms rolling from L -R or R – L? I think where to position each tom is one of the things thats intriguing me the most?

  7. Shane
    Shane April 11, 2010

    Maybe he means 1) spectrum, 2) dynamics, 3) image.

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