Over the next few minutes you are going to learn how to set instrument levels in a mix and balance your tracks like a pro…
So you can make drastic improvements to your mixes by focusing on getting the volume of your individual channels right.
Are you skipping the most important phase of the mixing process?
Rob here from musicianonamission.com, and over the next few minutes you are going to learn how to set instruments levels in a mix and balance your tracks like a pro. So, you can make drastic improvements to your mixes by focusing on getting the volume of your individual channels right. But before we continue make sure you grab the free volume balancing cheat sheet to make sure you actually practice doing this, and then get it right every time.
So first of all, what is volume balancing? Well, it’s simply the act of adjusting the volume faders and making sure every instrument is at the appropriate or right volume for the track and this is actually where the bulk of the mix comes from. I’d say 80% of the mix comes from this phase of the mixing process just making sure everything is at the right volume and it’s incredible how much of a difference this can make. So, you want to spend plenty of time here, don’t skip ahead too soon. Personally I spend around 30 to 60 minutes here depending on the size of the project, and old-school engineers relied on volume balancing alone. They used to be called balance engineers instead of mix engineers, and they’d use very little or no EQ or compression and that’s actually still the case if you’re working with acoustic bass genres like classical music, jazz music, a lot of folk music. It pretty much comes solely down to the volume balance, and then just a tiny bit of EQ and compression here and there.
Now, a lot of people have forgotten this, especially if you’re mixing electronic music, pop music, rock music that kind of stuff where there’s lots of processing so you get distracted by plug-ins and toys which is a huge error. So, how I recommend you approach a volume balancing is to think of it in height-order and this is how I think of it. What you meant to do? You meant to just bring all the faders up. How you meant to get started with this? Well, I recommend starting with the most important element, then bringing in elements one-by-one in order of importance and that’s where we get this idea of height-order. Start with the most important element, the tallest element and then we work backward from there. So, think of it as arranging the volume balance in height order. We want the vocals to be at the very top, and then down at the bottom we want things like guitars that aren’t important or percussion and that kind of stuff.
Now, usually the key element here is the vocal or the drums. Sometimes it might be the guitar, but generally the vocals or the snare in rock or the kick in hip-hop something like that. And if you’re going to start with the drums you can go one level deeper and think of height-order within the drums. So, within the drum-kit itself you’re going to start with the kick or you’re going to start with the snare that’s going to depend on the genre, and then once you’ve brought that up just you know set it at zero which is how I start out choose the most important element, set the faders to zero and then start bringing everything around it. So, once you’ve done that you can move onto the other parts.
Now, I want to talk to you a second about what I call Occam’s Mixing and this comes from the principle of Occam’s Razor, which is used in philosophy and science, and this the stated principle that all things being equal the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. Now, we can apply this to mixing in general and I think this is absolutely crucial, not just volume balancing but the entire production process. The simplest solution is normally the correct one. The best path forward is normally simple. Don’t overcomplicate things.
So, how do I apply that? Well, a slight adjustment of the volume fader can do a lot more than EQ, compression or a lot of other processes. So, remember that the simplest thing just nudging the volume fader slightly can make a huge difference. Often people would address a problem that can be solved with volume balancing using EQ, compression, different plug-ins and that’s a huge mistake. Always go for the simplest solution. If the low-end in a track is slightly too loud don’t go to the mix buss and apply some cut to the low-end just bring down the volume of the bass. It’s normally that simple and just see if a slight volume adjustment would help.
Now, it’s impossible to make a video about volume balancing without mentioning volume automation and the importance of this, because it’s nearly impossible to get an even mix throughout the song; verses and choruses are going to differ for example, the guitar part is too loud in a verse but then it gets buried in the chorus. If you just use the volume fader on its own you’re never going to get a perfect volume balance. So, the solution here is to use volume automation, and this isn’t complicated, it’s not advanced if you’re new to this idea of automation you just draw it in or you can just hit the record automation button in your door and move the faders as the songs play, and there’s multiple ways to do this. You need to look into that and find out how it works in your door, but essentially what we’re trying to do here is just automate entire sections when needed. So, let’s go back to the example if you balance the guitar part in the chorus which is I recommend where you start. You just loop the chorus get the volume balance go in there, and then you notice that same guitar part is too loud in the verse. Well, just automate down that whole section of the guitar part, you just highlight it and automate it down so that it’s quieter in the verse and then it automatically gets louder when it needs to in the chorus. And then, once you’ve automate whole sections you can then go a layer deeper and if you need to bring smaller sections up or down you can exaggerate different phrases on different parts throughout the song or you can even automate individual words. If you need to do that do it, if there are words that are getting buried, parts that are getting buried that’s when you need volume automation. And this is how it’s going to look in your door you can just turn up or turn down certain sections, phrases anything you want.
So, just a quick recap here before I move into demonstration. First of all, volume balancing is the foundation of every mix, don’t forget that. You want to set a good balance at the beginning, and then come back and readdress this throughout the mix. Start by bringing up the faders in order of importance, remember height-order, start with the most important element and then bring things in, in order of importance. And then, remember that a small volume adjustment can make a big difference. Don’t always skip to plug-ins when you could just change the volumes slightly and once you’ve done all of that remember that you’ll also have to use automation when you need it to make sure you have the right balance throughout the song, because one section might be perfect and another one is not so you need to automate that.
So, we’re going to jump into live demonstration now. If you want to recap all of that make sure you’ve got it there and next time you mix you can actually implement that. Go and download the free volume balancing cheat sheet that’s going to help you to get this right every single time. You can go to the link in the video, the link in the description below or just go to musicianonamission.com/balacingcheatsheet.
Okay, so let’s jump into logic. So, I’ve got a track here. I have just roughly organized it. There is nothing really gone on here. I’ve just put them in the right order that I want and what I’m going to do now is first of all just check the gain. I’m going to just hit play and see if there’s any channels that are too loud before we move into the volume balance.
See I can already see we’re clipping on the mix buss and there are a couple of channels here that are pretty hot. So, let’s just grab the gain tool and go ahead and cut some of those hot tracks.
So, that’s good we’re not clipping on the mix buss now. We’ve got plenty of headroom. So, what I’m going to do is just bring down all of these channels, every single one, and we’re going to start with just the lead vocal and what I’ve done is just set this to zero and that gives us then a point of reference. The lead vocal is the most important thing. In most cases you might be starting with the kick or snare, but whatever you start with set to zero, and then start bringing things in around it. So, I think with this kind of music after lead vocal maybe the next important thing is the kick, and then I’m going to start bringing in the guitars.
And also notice I’ve looped the loudest section of the song, so we want to start with the climax. For pretty much the entire mix we want to start in by looping the climax of the song, and then we can go back and work with the rest of the track afterwards. So, let’s dive right in.
So, we’ve kind of got the guitars in now. I think next is going to be the snare, and then probably the bass, and then we can start to bring in the rest of the drum-kit.
I don’t really like the tone on that bass sound, so what I’m going to do is just leave that out I’m not going to use that. Instead I’m going to use this DI for now and probably later in the mix I’ll use an amp simulation on this to get the tone I want, but for now for balancing let’s just do the DI.
So, there we go just a quick start there you can see the approach that I have with this just bringing in things one-by-one in order of importance. We’ve then got a good starting point, so this is just a starting point. I’d probably spend another half-hour on this just getting volume balance, checking the sections, going through the whole song checking I haven’t missed anything. There are loads of guitars here that haven’t cropped up yet, but that’s the starting point. So, go away and actually implement this. This is so important because this is so foundational, and if you skip over this phase and don’t have a good system for approaching this then you’re doing yourself a huge disservice and you could really suffer down the line when you then start to bring in plug-ins, if you’re balance isn’t good it’s never going to sound great.
So, make sure you download the free cheat sheet I put together just for this video and that’s going to help you to go through this step-by-step and actually practice doing this in your mixes, so that you can then start to get this right every single time and make your mixes sound more professional. So, that’s all for today, hope you enjoyed watching. Be sure to grab that cheat sheet and I’ll see you next week.