Volume mastery: Essential mixing tips for beginners
In the music production world, the perfect mix is an elusive dream. One crucial aspect is managing volume levels for balance and clean loudness. Read on as we explore the art of volume levels and help you avoid common pitfalls that can ruin your mixes. By understanding volume control, you can elevate your mixes to new heights.
Before diving into the intricacies of volume balancing, it's important to understand the optimal loudness range. While it may be tempting to crank up the volume on everything, this will lead to clipping. Clipping occurs when a signal goes above 0 dB, resulting in unwanted digital distortion. To avoid this, no channel in the mix should peak above -6 dB, and the master channel shouldn’t peak over -3 dB. This is called “leaving headroom” and it prevents clipping as well as prepares your mix for the mastering stage.
A pillar of successful mixing lies in balancing the volume levels of the different elements. By setting a hierarchy of importance among all instruments within your mix, and letting that affect the levels, you can ensure key elements stand out. However, it’s equally important for the sounds to stay connected. You simply have to find the right balance. Let's explore some practical techniques.
One by one
Start by bringing down all volume faders to establish a clean slate. Then, gradually increase the volume of each channel, starting with core instruments, such as the kick. This foundational element should peak just under -6 dB, providing a solid base. Continue by bringing up the volume of other elements one by one, like the snare, bass, and keys. Ensure each element complements the ones before it. By focusing on one sound at a time, you can easily achieve a balanced mix.
To refine the volume levels further, consider using the 3 dB trick. Incrementally adjust the volume of an element you’re unsure of up by 3 dB until it’s too loud, and down by 3 dB until it’s too quiet. This technique makes you more aware of the subtle differences in volume and allows you to make an informed decision. The sweet spot tends to lie right in between too loud and too quiet.
Using reference tracks can be an invaluable tool in the mixing process. Select songs within the same genre as yours, make sure the volumes are similar, play them back to back along your mix, and compare them. Analyze the loudness and balance of the different elements and adjust your mix to be more like the references. By aligning your mix closer to what you know sounds great, you can achieve a more professional and stylistically authentic sound.
Dynamic sounds can be difficult to place in the mix when some parts are too loud while others are too quiet. You can manage the dynamics of a sound with volume automation and compression. At a macro level, volume automation allows you to control volume changes across specific sections of your song. At a micro level, compression is effective at controlling ever-changing dynamics. A compressor evens out volume by reducing the difference between the peaks and the valleys.
When you apply a compressor or any other audio effect that changes the volume, it’s essential to match the level. Louder always sounds better to our ears but if you match the level, you will know if you actually like the change of the effect, not the volume. Long effect chains can also easily get destroyed when altering if you don’t implement level matching.
Pump up the volume
While volume control is essential, it's natural to want your mix to sound louder without compromising quality. This is where mastering comes into play. By adding a limiter to the master channel, you can increase the overall loudness of your mix while maintaining a controlled output. Be cautious not to overdo it, as excessive gain can lead to distortion and compromised audio quality. Strive for a balance that achieves the desired loudness without sacrificing clarity and dynamics.
Consider the platform
Most platforms recommend for mixes to peak at -1 dB (-2 dB on Spotify) to avoid clipping when encoding to different formats. Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, SoundCloud, and more, also apply volume normalization for consistent playback across different songs. This means excessively loud mixes will get their volume turned down. If you push the limiter to get the mix as loud as possible, you’re left with a moderately loud mix with a bunch of artifacts and distortion in the end.
To avoid this, it's recommended to use a tool like Loudness Penalty, a free website that allows you to upload your songs and see how different platforms will adjust their volume. It's generally a good idea to aim for a mix that is loud enough to get turned down a few dB.
Understanding volume levels is a crucial skill for any aspiring music producer and beatmaker. By balancing volume levels, you can create mixes that are clear, cohesive, and professional-sounding. Remember to start with a solid foundation, gradually adjust the levels of each element, and fine-tune with the help of reference tracks. Use volume automation and compression to manage dynamics effectively, and keep an eye on the master channel to maintain headroom for mastering. Finally, strike a balance between loudness and quality with the help of a limiter. Don’t forget, practice makes perfect!