I work as a college teacher from Weds-Fri, teaching Music Production. On Friday I teach my Yr 2 students in the studio, and this point of the year we start looking at mixing. That means my blog posts on my website are going to get steadily more techy over the next few months. Each week I am going to post the contents of my lesson on here, in a series of blog post covering mixing from the very basics. First up – volume.
Write a mix hierarchy – what is in your song, and what is the most important element?
What is the focal point of your song at each section of the track? Your track needs something memorable for the listener, something to give the track a sense of identity. This should be the loudest element in your mix, and bear in mind this will change in each section. In a traditional song, the focal point is almost always going to be the vocal, in dance music your bass is going to take up a large amount of headroom but there needs to be another melodic element/hook that takes centre stage. If the loudest part of your mix is the drums then the other parts of the track are going to be subdued.
I will actually write this down on paper – a list of all the elements in my track, the role they play (melody, harmony, atmosphere etc) to help me to decide what is the most important. It is very easy to get accustomed to the sound of a track you have been writing for months, sometimes you need to apporach it from a fresh perspective. And sometimes it can really help to push all your faders down to 0 and start again.
Gain structure – keeping volumes down at the channel stage.
You do not want to be clipping at any stage of your mix, and in the modern DAW environment there is really no reason to go anywhere near 0db. If you find you are running out of headroom, select all of your tracks and pull them all down together, this retains your mix balance but will create lots of headroom just by a 2db adjustment.
Make bus groups for each set of sounds
This makes it easy to control volume of whole groups. For example, a drum bus lets you mix the whole drum group to the appropriate level in your track and process all of your drums together. Group your strings, pianos, pads, vocals, mid-basses… once you have got the balance of your individual tracks right you can then use the bus groups to adjust the overall balance of your mix quickly.
Leave some space in the track – your master volume shouldn’t go above -3db. If you have left headroom then once you have decided on your focal point it is easy for your loudest sounds to poke up into the space and grab the listener’s attention.
Trust your ears, but learn to use the meters to check that you do not have a lopsided mix. This is especially important if you are working in a home studio or on headphones and you don’t have great bass response. Watch your favourite tracks in your analyser to get an idea for relative bass/top end levels. You are not trying to match the levels of a mastered track, don’t try to smash your bass up to the same point as a Break mixdown, but you do want to learn about the relative balance of a good mix.