Top 13 Important Tips To Set Levels In A Mix
Getting your level right is the most important task as a mixing engineer. If your levels are not balanced, nothing else will work in your mix.
Setting the right levels for a mix is crucial. In this article, I am sharing thirteen essential tips and tricks that you should keep in mind and consider while setting levels in your mix. Make sure to read the article till the end because each tip and trick is important.
Important Tips To Set Levels In A Mix
Here are some essential tips and tricks that you should keep in mind and consider while setting levels in your mix.
- Level For A Reason
- Monitoring Setup and Room Matters
- Understand Human Hearing
- Normalise and Use The Utility Tool
- Listen In Mono
- Monitor At Different Sound Levels
- Use Different Output Monitoring
- Use Different Reference Tracks
- Find A Pocket
- Clean It Up
- Static vs Dynamic Levels
- Set Levels Over And Over
- Set Levels Against Pink Noise
Level For A Reason
Playing around with the faders will not help you achieve anything unless you have a clear goal. Understand your mix’s needs and level accordingly. Understand your music genre and level according to what the music demands.
Know what’s important for your mix. Give it a priority and keep it loud so that it gets the attention it deserves. Start levelling your mix with the section that has the highest energy. Start with the most critical element in that section first and then level other elements around it.
Monitoring Setup and Room Matters
Whether you are setting levels, EQ-ing, compressing, or doing any mixing-related job. Your room and monitoring setup matter the most. If you are mixing in an untreated room on some large studio monitors, stop wasting your time.
Even for setting the levels right, you require an acoustically treated room and a quality pair of monitors.
If you are ignoring your monitoring and room and hoping that someday magic will happen, you are just being ignorant and wasting your time.
Understand Human Hearing
The human mind can pay attention to only three sounds at any given time. Psychologists call it selective hearing - an action in which people focus their attention intentionally on a specific source of a sound or spoken words.
If you have more than three elements playing at any given time in your mix, give importance to what actually matters.
So if anything that is not important, like a clap pattern that is clashing with the hi-hats and not really making a difference, just lower the volume or mute it. Adding more than three loud elements at any given time will just contribute to cluttering your mix and might not serve the intended purpose.
In no way am I saying that you should only have three elements at a given time. Have more than three, but do not have them competing with your three main sounds.
Normalise and Use The Utility Tool
If your faders are not providing enough gain, use gain plugins, DAW features, or utility tools to add or reduce the gain to sound sources. Adding gain to poorly tracked sound can really help cut it through the mix.
I often find the utility tool of Ableton to be my friend. It enables me to add gain as well as make a track mono, inverse phase, alter balance, etc.
Just like every other aspect while mixing, normalise or add gain for a reason.
Listen In Mono
Mixing music in mono is a trick that professionals use to ensure that their songs are as good as they can be. Listening to your mix in mono will help you easily identify phasing and masking issues. Identify trouble areas before you spread them out. This will ensure that your mixes sound well in mono and have clarity when panned in stereo.
Listening in mono will also help you level different elements better before they are panned out and get more emphasised. You will need to set levels again once you pan, but listening in mono will help you identify the trouble areas and what needs more attention while rebalancing your mix.
Monitor At Different Sound Levels
Don't touch the faders, alter your monitor output volume. Every good mixing engineer ensures that their mixes translate well at all types of volume levels. Listen to your mix at different output levels.
At low levels(< 60dB), you will be able to better judge the mid-frequencies and high frequencies. At high volume levels (> 85dB), you will be able to better judge how the low end is behaving. At medium volume levels(70 - 80dB), your mix should sound smooth and translate well. Learn more about how to set levels in a mix here.
Adjust and make changes to your mix levels at different monitoring volumes.
Use Different Output Monitoring
Use several output references to judge your mix balance. A good mix translates well to all sizes of speakers and ambience.
Have at least two different references in your studio. I suggest having two different size studio monitor pairs, a headphone and a mono speaker without a bass port as your go-to monitoring setup. If you do not have such a monitoring setup, use a pair of good headphones in conjunction with your studio monitors.
Large size monitors will reproduce more bass as compared to the small size monitors. The small size monitors will emphasise the mids more than the large monitors. Use them as a reference and adjust the levels accordingly.
An old good budget alternative is the “car test”. Bounce your mixes and play them in your car to test how they translate. If it all sounds the way it sounded in the studio, bravo.
Use Different Reference Tracks
Having reference tracks to A/B your mix with is very helpful. It helps to set levels according to industry standards and also helps you to understand what is working for your mix and what is not.
Level matching to a mastered song during the mixing stage will be a blunder. Use more than one reference mix and try to match their levels during the mastering stage.
If you are in the mixing stage for your project, use plugins like Mastering The Mix Reference to reference your tracks.
Find A Pocket
At times, it becomes difficult to find the perfect level of balance for a sound. For such scenarios, try to find a pocket or a range of levels that works.
To find a range or pocket: Bring your faders down from max to a point where the element sounds well-balanced with others. Notice and mark the fader reading on the metres. Next, lower the same fader all the way down and bring it up to a level where it sounds good. Notice and mark the fader reading on the metres.
Now you have a range(pocket) in between which you will find a sweet spot. Play around within the range, and you will easily find a final sweet spot where the levels sit perfectly.
Clean It Up
If your sound has any low-end rumble, click or pops or noise issues. Clean them up before you set levels for your mix.
Click and pops are the worst enemies when it comes to setting levels. Even a single click or pop will eat up all the headroom of your channel and make it peak. Edit out any click and pops.
Use an EQ to remove unwanted frequencies and noise elements. This translates to a clean-sounding mix free of any noise or rumble issues. Clean mixes are far easier to level and work with.
Static vs Dynamic Levels
A single volume level never works for an entire song. This is very common. Use a dynamic volume leveller or automation to change levels according to different song parts and needs.
Emphasise different elements according to different song parts by altering the levels. This adds interest and also makes your mix sound polished. If any element level is causing trouble for a small section, lower it using automation.
Compressors are also a great way to deal with volume levels and make your mixes sound smooth.
Set Levels Over And Over
Every mix starts with setting volume levels and ends with setting levels. Setting the right levels is a job that needs to be revisited over and over. So do not go lazy on your mix after doing the initial rough level setting.
With even slight processing or change in your mix, the level might vary. Keep your ears open and be ready to alter level as and when required.
Set Levels Against Pink Noise
Level setting using pink noise is the most widely used level setting trick, and I saved it for the last.
Setting Levels against pink noise is a secret used by pros, and it always works. On a channel, add a pink noise generator or add pink noise using a wave file. Bring all the other channel’s faders down to zero. Play and loop the pink noise.
Now bring up the faders of the other channels one by one. Adjust the fader so that the sound is just audible against pink noise.
Once you set all the fader levels against pink noise, bravo. Level setting is done. It is always best to level against pink noise at last after all other mix processing jobs like EQ, compression, FX etc. are already done. Use it as a mix finisher.
These were important tips to set the right levels for your mix. If you have any suggestions or feedback, do share them in the comments sections.
Suggested Read: How To Set Volume Levels In A Mix
Suggested Read: ADSR Fundamentals In Music
Suggested Read: Right Monitor Size For Your Studio
Great! I learned new things. Can you share more information on how to select tracks for mixing?
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