How to Set Levels in a Mix - Practical Techniques:
Below you'll find three different methods you can use to set levels when you do your initial rough mix...
1. Follow the Leader:
Start your mix with the main instrument. This may be the vocal in a
pop track or your kick and bass in a club track. It’s usually the
instrument that needs to grab and hold the listener’s attention and lead
it through the track. Set these levels first and then fit the rest of
your instruments in around them to achieve your intended final result.
which level do you set your main element or instrument? This depends
on the genre and to a degree your own taste as a producer.
example, let’s say you’re doing a dance track and decide the kick is the
place to start. A good place to set your kick level is -10dBFS to -6dBFS.
exact level doesn’t really matter if you understand the logic of the
technique. The idea here is to give enough headroom and kinda ballpark
the initial level of your main instrument just below where you want your
final full mix level to end up.
So, if you use the kick example,
you may start with your kick at -6dBFS. Then, as you introduce your
bass, synths, drums and other instruments you add more energy (level)
into the mix. This pushes up your mix up by say 3dBFS and you end up at
-3dBFS on your final mix level. Happy you, happy mastering guy, happy
So, this means that if you have a lot of instruments in
a full mix then it may be a good idea to start with your main
instrument lower at -10dBFS. If it’s a sparse techno style track then
you could probably start at a higher level.
When in doubt always err on the side of more headroom when you set levels in a mix!
2. Mix in Mono:
Set your mix to mono. Switch off one monitor. Then, set your
balances. Any problems with panning will be audible in mono.
need to adjust your panning slightly to compensate for sounds that fall
away or get too loud in mono. Now, switch back to stereo and have a
The thinking with this technique is that if you can make
it sound good in mono it’ll sound great in stereo, and that it’s easier
to balance levels and spot phase issues that affect levels in mono.
switch to mono, use a single speaker and do a quick mix. It may take a
bit of getting used to but once you get into this technique you could
speed up the process when you set levels.
EQ and panning can also be done in mono.
3. Mix through pink noise:
Generate pink noise at a suitable level. This level should be around
where you want your main element to sit in the mix. Bring down all
your mixer's faders apart from the master. Mute all your channels. Now,
add every track or instrument one by one.
Solo the track you're working on, push up the track fader until you just start to hear the instrument.
mute the track and repeat with the next track until you've set all
Switch off the pink noise. Have a listen. Rough mix done, ready
to be tweaked!
This technique is a great way of getting a basic
mix going in a methodical way and have a relative starting-point balance
in next to no time.
Read this post over on Sound-on-Sound to learn more about this technique.