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  • The Balancing Act - Mix Levels

    By Phil O'Keefe |

    Some tips for setting levels in your mixes


    By Phil O'Keefe


    Setting levels can be one of the most basic, and yet one of the most important aspects of dialing in a mix. There are several different approaches you can take, and no real "right or wrong" to setting levels, but here are some tips and suggestions to help get you going.




    One common approach to mixing is to start with the foundation - for a typical pop / dance or rock mix, that is normally the drums and bass - and then build up from there. Get that foundation working together cohesively and then add the other elements to it. Another approach that many people find useful is to start with the lead vocal or primary featured instrument; they'll work on getting it to sound great, and then build the mix by adding the additional parts "around" it. Some people prefer to start mixing as they're tracking, and will continually adjust the mix as they add each new part so that there is little left to do once they're finished recording, while others prefer to "zero the board" and start with a clean slate after they've finished tracking. If you find yourself getting stuck on a mix, trying a different approach than the one you normally use can sometimes help you break through the roadblock. With modern DAW software, you can save alternative versions of your song, each with a different version of the mix. As long as you're careful about giving each a unique name, and document what you're doing, don't be afraid to experiment with new approaches. If they don't work out, you can always go back to a previous version.




    There's more to levels than just your faders. The way you pan your parts can either make them stand out in the mix, or blend into other parts. If you pan a part hard to one side or the other, with nothing else panned near it, it will tend to "stick out", even when it is at a relatively modest level. Panning things in the same general place in the stereo spread will tend to cause parts to either blend together or fight against each other. If you want the parts to blend and form a "composite sound", then pan them to the same spot and set their levels roughly equally; however, if you have similar parts, such as two rhythm guitars or a guitar and a keyboard part that are playing in the same frequency range, and you want to differentiate them so that each can be clearly heard, panning them to opposite sides of the mix can help you achieve that.


    EQ can also effect mix levels. Brighter EQ settings can help a track "cut through" the mix and be more easily heard, and sometimes this will work better than giving it a big volume boost. However, resist the temptation to boost the highs on everything or you'll wind up with a strident mix that is fatiguing to listen to. Instead, try carving out frequency ranges for specific instruments to help them fit into the mix without conflicting with other instruments. For example, if you're boosting a bit at  80 Hz for more bottom thump on the kick drum, you may want to cut a bit from the bass at that same frequency, and boost it at a different one, such as  120 Hz or 50 Hz instead. This way you'll be able to hear each part more clearly. A high pass filter on midrange and high frequency instruments such as vocals, guitars and hand percussion can help clean up the subsonic gunk that doesn't add anything significant to the sound of those instruments while simultaneously leaving you with a cleaner and clear bottom end with more "room" for the kick and bass.


    Compression that is applied to individual instruments can help smooth out extreme dynamic fluctuations and thus make them easier to adjust in the mix, but if it's applied too heavily, it can kill the player's natural musical dynamics. Mix bus compression can also have an effect on mix levels... This is really a topic for a whole separate article, but for now I'll simply suggest going easy on the overall mix stereo compression, and let your mastering engineer have something to work with. Remember, they can always add more, but it's really tough to remove over-compression, and using too much on the stereo bus can fight against your mix level moves and adjustments.




    In general, lead vocals and soloists - the featured parts - will be what you'll want to highlight, and often this means having them up the highest in terms of volume. Remember that the "most important thing" in the mix can change from section to section, or even moment to moment, so don't shy away from using automation to "move the spotlight" around your mix by raising the level of the featured parts and attenuating the supporting elements a bit to make room for what you want to highlight. This can add considerable movement and interest compared to a "static" mix where all the relative levels remain unchanged throughout the song. For example, while the lead singer is doing their thing, you may want to lower the lead guitar a bit so it doesn't fight with the vocals, but raise it up for the solo and the fills between the vocal lines.


    Like your eyes, your ears can really only "focus" on one thing at a time. You may be aware of other things that are going on with peripheral parts, but your listeners can really only concentrate on the details of one thing at a time. In terms of mix levels, ask yourself "what's the most musically important thing happening in the song at this specific moment?" Whatever the answer to that question is, make sure you're highlighting and featuring that element. For example, your tambourine part may be important to you and to the percussionist, but if it is serving as a supporting instrument during the guitar solo, it usually shouldn't be competing level-wise with the guitar.


    Don't overlook the importance of contrast and perspective. In order for something to appear big and loud, you need something small and lower in level to provide a sense of scale and contrast to it. If you try to make everything in your mix big all of the time, then paradoxically, nothing will come across as big and loud. Have some sections of the song's mix that are lower in volume, or some parts within the mix that do not have their levels constantly slammed.


    Emotional impact is extremely important to good mixes. Don't be afraid to toss out the rulebook and do whatever drives home the emotion of the song and makes your mix feel right to you. Volume jumps, slow fades, fast crescendos and sudden mutes are all fair game - if it supports the song and emphasizes the emotional impact you're after, then you're on the right track. Use a control surface instead of your mouse and try "playing" the mix by riding the fader levels instead of trying to get every minute detail "perfect" - you may find it gives your mixes more humanity, variety and better overall feel.




    When mixing, it's a good idea to get the artist's or band's suggestions in terms of levels, but be aware of the tendency of players to overlook the big picture and to focus in on their own individual contributions. It can be difficult to step away and listen to the mix from a average listener's perspective when you played on the song. If you played all the parts yourself, you may want to hear everything way up front. Remember that some parts should be supportive, and other parts should be featured. While there is nothing wrong with wanting to be able to clearly hear everything in a mix, if you attempt to put everything up front all of the time, you're likely to wind up chasing your tail and end up with a cluttered and confused sounding mix.


    Don't be afraid to ask for suggestions on the Internet. Pro audio sites like the Harmony Central Studio Trenches and Recording forums can be very helpful for getting a second or third opinion on your mix levels from other engineers and musicians. But a word of caution here - they're just opinions, and not everyone will share your artistic vision, so take the suggestions that you find helpful and disregard the rest. However, if nearly everyone that replies tells you they feel the lead vocal is too buried in the mix, you might want to reconsider where you have things set.




    Where do you start in terms of relative levels? That will largely depend on the musical genre and artistic decisions. If you're doing dance music, you are probably going to want to emphasize that kick and bass and keep things pumping and bumping nearly all the time. On a hard rock mix, you might be emphasizing the guitars more than you would on a pop ballad. If you're really stuck for a general starting point, solo your drums and get them hitting about -18 dB on your stereo bus meters. Do the same for the bass. Solo out your rhythm guitars and keyboards, and get them to average at about -22 or so on the meters, and set your lead instruments and lead vocals so they are at about -15 dB on the stereo meters. Then open all the channels back up and listen. This should give you a "ballpark" mix that you can then fine tune and adjust by ear. Remember to watch for clipping and adjust everything lower if you find your stereo bus levels are going into the red.


    If you've been working on the mix for a while and feel like you are stuck, take a break and walk away from it for a bit. Take occasional ten minute "ear breaks" on long mixing sessions to keep from wearing yourself out. From time to time, you may need to take this idea a step further and set the song aside for a day or two; when you return to it, you should have fresh ears and a better perspective.




    Beware of volume creep! That's when your monitoring levels slowly increase to unsafe volumes over time without you realizing what is happening. Your ears will quickly acclimate to changes in playback volume, so keep a SPL meter nearby to check on your listening levels. The frequency response of our hearing is at its most accurate at moderate volume levels (around 85 dB SPL), and while listening back at high levels can be fun and exciting, it can also tire you out quickly and even damage your hearing if you listen too loud, so monitor at safe levels.


    Once you have a mix that you feel is in the ballpark, try listening to it on a variety of monitors and playback systems. I also like to get up and walk away from the mix position and listen from other areas, such as from the back of the control room, down the hallway, or even from an adjoining room with the doors left open; this can be helpful for giving you a different perspective on the mix levels than what you get while sitting right in front of the speakers. Once it sounds good in your car, on your home stereo, over your iPod, in the next room and in the studio, you're done!

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    Hi Phil.  Great article!  At the moment I'm really trying to get my head around starting levels when mixing so this article has been incredibly useful. I so have a few questions for you if that's OK?

    1. As a starting point you mention getting the drums to hit around -18dBFS on the stereo bus.  Is this -18dBFS peak or RMS? 
    2. Is the -18dBFS the combined level of all the drums or simply what each drum part (i.e. kick, snare, etc.) should be registering when soloed?

    I understand that these are simply starting levels but love the fact that you've suggested levels that are relative to each other.  This makes it easier to pick a part, i.e. drums, vocals, or bass, that will act as a level 'anchor, allowing everything else to be mixed in relation to it.

    Thanks again!


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