How To Set Volume Levels In An Audio Mix

In this article, learn how to balance and level the volume of different elements, frequencies of a mix using volume adjustment and fader adjustment.

How To Set Volume Levels In A Mix To Achieve A Tonal Balance

There are two approaches to level volumes while mixing: -

  1. All Faders Up Approach: - In this approach, you start with channel faders at unity(0dbFS) for all channels. In this approach, you reduce the gain of channels faders of elements that are less significant concerning the most critical element of the mix.
    This approach works well if you have a mixing console and can quickly alter faders. This approach is also a better choice for experienced mix engineers.
  2. All Faders Down Approach: - In this approach, you start with all the channel faders down, and you start with introducing the most critical element of your mix first, Next, add in the second most element at a relative volume to the first critical element. You keep on adding elements one at a time by increasing their volume levels concerning previous elements.
    This approach works best for in the box mixing and is a great approach for those who are new to mixing.

Where To Start Levelling

It is important to start levelling with a proper approach that meets the needs of your project and mixing workflow. Here is how you should start levelling your mix

  1. Start with the highest energy section of your song/project. Mostly, the chorus of the song is the highest energy. This may vary for your song, choose the section with the highest energy. Loop this section of your mix and start levelling.
  2. Level the most important element of your mix first. Mostly vocals or drums & bass are the most important elements. This completely varies from song to song. For EDM music, synths and Low-end are critical. For rock music, guitars and vocals are critical. For commercial pop, vocals and drums are critical.
    You have to pick out the element of your song around which you want to If your track does not have any vocals, the most significant element is usually low-end information like kick and bass or an instrument that is acting as a lead, like a synth or a guitar.
  3. Levelling the most important element and working around it. For the First channel, leave at least -6dBFS Peak headroom and -18dBFS RMS. This ensures you will be able to add more energy and processing to different elements without clipping. Level the first fader and add in other channels around it.

Steps To Set Volume Balance In a Mix

  1. Mix-Prep: Organise the project before you start levelling. Having a good mix prep is important.
  2. Gain-Staging: - Check for any hot channels or loud channels. If anything requires normalising or additional gain, add that. (i.e. gain staging).
  3. Critical Part First: Loop the loudest section of the song (usually the final chorus).
  4. All Faders Down Approach: Bring all the faders down (to minus infinity dB).
  5. Add-In The First Channel: - Decide on the most important element of sound and set it channel faders so that there is a headroom of somewhere around -6dBFS. Starting with low end elements like kick and bass is a good option for beginners. if you are relatively experienced to mixing, you can also start with vocals and work around it.
  6. Balancing is All Relative: Bring in the 2nd most important channel fader and balance the volume relative to the first channel. Continue setting faders in this manner, bring channels up in order of importance and level balance them relative to previous elements.
  7. Trust Your Ears: - Listen while you balance. Once all the channels are up, spend at least 5-10 minutes listening to the most important part of the song that you balanced. Fine-tune and make any adjustments accordingly using faders only.
  8. Watchout For RMS: - RMS values can also help you understand if you have balanced the mix properly or not. Keep an eye on that. Low-end sound require more power so they will have a higher RMS. Mids will have a lower RMS compared to low-end and Highs will have the least RMS.
  9. Listen to the complete song: - Now check other sections of the song, and listen through the whole song while making adjustments to the faders.
  10. Cut Rather Than Adding: - If anything is overpowering the mix, try bringing the faders down for that element or section. Rather than adding volume, think about lowering elements and making them work.
  11. Dynamic Processing - At times it will be challenging to achieve the best volume level using a static fader. In such scenarios automate the fader or use dynamic processing. This should be your last resort.
  12. Monitor Using Different Output Levels and Reference Monitors: - Use different monitors/speakers/headphones as a reference. Also, alter the volume levels of the speakers and monitors using the volume knob. Make slight adjustments using channel faders if needed.
  13. Take Breaks - If your ears get fatigued easily, take small breaks. While taking a break leaving your studio or room is the best practice. This gives your ears and brain a new ambience and they recover quickly. Walking helps a lot.
  14. Levelling Is Critical: - Only move on to other mixing tasks when you are 100% satisfied with the initial mix levels. If your levels are not balanced, nothing else will work.
  15. Volume Levelling Is The First and Last Thing Of Every Mix: - Every mix starts with mix prep and levelling and every mix ends with levelling. Make sure you adjust levels as and when required. There is no hard and fast rule here.

Let The Faders Do The Work

Faders can do a lot more to your mix than any other processing like EQ, compression etc. If Faders are not translating your mix, nothing else will. Spend most time levelling the mix. Do not get amused by complex plugins and other mixing processes. Getting your levels right is critical.

A slight adjustment of a volume fader can do a lot more than EQ, compression etc. For example, if the low end is overpowering in a mix, try lowering the volume
of the bass or Kick-drums part instead of applying an EQ or compression.

Often, people address problems that can be solved with the volume fader using EQ, compression etc. This is the biggest mixing mistake you can make. Keep it simple. A slight volume adjustment always help.

Bass, Mids and Highs

Bass frequencies require more volume to cut through, mids will require relatively less, and highs will require the least. You will require to set bass frequencies at higher volume levels compared to mids and highs.

If you are a complete beginner, one of the best levelling approaches is to level the bass elements first next to the mids and at last the high frequencies.

If you are not sure of balance, RMS levels can act as a guide for you to understand how levels are behaving in your mix.

Balancing Is Relative

Whether you are levelling or panning, balancing elements in your mix is relative.

Each sound interacts with other sounds in your mix. How a guitar sounds solo will be different from how it sounds with drums and bass. So you must consider the relation while balancing.

Level according to the importance of instruments and elements for your mix. Play around with faders to add more or less volume to a particular element.

Adding more volume to a channel will make it more audible to the listener and will be precieved as more upfront in the mix.

If you want the listener to pay more attention to heavily chugged guitars, move the faders up and level accordingly. If you want the off-time note in a guitar solo to be less audible, lower the fader. Faders are your best friend.

Listen to different elements for how it sounds with the previous element and decide what matters more to your mix. Balance accordingly.

Monitoring Levels

During your mixing sessions, make sure you monitor at different volume levels. Don't alter the individual faders if the mix is sounding too loud or soft. First alter your monitoring levels using the volume control on your audio interface, mixer or monitoring control.

Monitoring at different volumes is critical.

At low volume 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. Adjust and make changes to your mix levels at different monitoring volumes.

Checkout this article here for some important tips to set levels in a mix .

Headroom Considerations

In DAWs, signals levels are measured in dBFS. One can have a maximum signal level of 0dBFS(The Loudest signal without any clipping or harmonic distortion).

For mixing purposes, starting with enough headroom is critical. At levelling stage, leaving at least a headroom of 6dBFS is a safe start. Ensuring your signal levels remain below -6dBFS in the levelling stage acts as a safeguard against clipping.

In analogue and digital audio, headroom is the amount of signal-handling capabilities that an audio system can handle without any damage or loss of signal. Headroom can be considered a safety zone that allows transient audio peaks to be accommodated without getting clipped or distorted.

Leaving headroom allows you to add processing to your channels like EQ, compression, FX etc without clipping the channel. Headroom is essential when you level your mixes. Headroom ensures that your channels do not clip and produce any harmonic distortion.

Masking Is Your Friend

Masking is a phenomenon in which the threshold of hearing for one sound is raised by the presence of another sound. If someone listens to a soft and a loud sound at the same time, he or she may not hear the soft sound. The soft sound is masked by the loud sound.

Masking is pretty common, especially if you are mixing a dense song. Sounds with similar frequency spectrum mask each other, depending on their loudness. E.g. a loud snare will mask softer clap sounds. If you raise the volume levels of claps and make them louder than the snare, now the snare will get masked by claps.

Masking can also be used intuitively while mixing. You can use masking to hide any nuances in your mix or to saturate sounds. Treating masked elements is critical as a mixing engineer. 

Here is how one can resolve any masking issues while mixing:

  1. By raising or lowering the volume levels. While levelling, if you come across any masking issues, you can resolve them simply by raising or lowering the volume level of one element concerning each other. The element you wish to be heard more, keep it loud.
  2. If levelling is not helping a lot, use panning. By panning one element to a different stereo position with similar frequency sound.
  3. Masking can also be resolved by using an EQ to cut or boost frequencies that are clashing and make space for masked sounds.

How many times to Level balance?

Level balancing is critical. It needs to be done as many times as required to make a mix sound balanced and translate well. Start with a rough balance that sounds good. You rebalance after each stage in the mix and once you are done with the process. Once you are done processing and mixing, finish with rebalancing the faders. Use pink noise levelling technique to ensure all levels are balanced. Learn more about the pink noise levelling technique here.

How To Know If Your Mix Is Balanced

A well-balanced mix will translate well on different output references. It will translate well on a small speaker, mid-size speaker and large format speaker.

To know if your mix is well-balanced, watch out and listen for certain indicators:-

  1. There are no sudden jumps, clicks or pop. Your mix sounds smooth with no elements popping out.
  2. A well-balanced mix translates well at different output levels and on different output reference formats.
  3. Master fader is another great indicator - RMS and Peaks value on the master fader stay stable for longer times.
  4. All different elements in your mix are related to one another and complement each other.
  5. Energy levels of your mix are as per the song needs.

Now you know how to set volume levels in your mix. If you have any comments or feedback, do comment below.

Suggested Read: How To Set Volume Levels In A Mix

Suggested Read: Important Tips To Set Levels In A Mix

Suggested Read: How To Auto-Tune Vocal – Pitch Correction

Suggested Read: How Loud Should Be Your Audio Mixes Before Mastering

 


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Udeeksh Sood on

Udeeksh is an Audio Engineer and Co-Founder of learnmusicproduction.in. He loves to produce music, research music gear, play guitar, go on treks and road trips.