Today I want to start a short multi-part series on mixing basics. It’s called The Beginner’s Guide To Mixing, but really it is the same guide (or path let’s say) for the advanced mixer. Every good mixer needs to keep these things in mind as they begin their work. So I see this guide as more of a course in foundational mixing concepts that will serve you well for years to come.
Step #1 – Monitoring Levels
Before you even begin to touch a thing in your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) you’d be wise to set one thing in place: your monitoring levels. Basically, whether you are mixing in headphones or on speakers you need to set a specific (and consistent) volume level that will be your default mixing volume.
The slightest change in volume can affect how you hear your mix and cloud your decision making. So find the sweet spot on your volume knob and leave it there for most of the mix. What is the monitoring level sweet spot you ask? Simple, the best volume to mix at is the volume that is quiet enough to allow you to have a normal conversation with someone sitting close to you without having to raise your voice.
That’s probably quieter than you’re used to mixing at, but there are three good reasons to monitor at low levels: more accurate frequency response, fewer room reflections, and protection of your hearing.
Step #2 – Gain Staging
Once you’re monitoring volume is set, you’ll want to do one more boring bit of prep work. And that is setup proper gain staging of your tracks inside your DAW. Simply put, your tracks are likely to hot (i.e. too loud) and are taking up way to much headroom on your master fader. Your goal is to bring down the gain of all of your tracks so that by the time they compound at your main output pair, you have plenty of headroom on your mix buss.
Headroom in the digital world is the name of the game. If your master fader is getting close to clipping you are in trouble. Digital clipping does not sound good. This however can be easily avoided by turning down your tracks. You can either do this with the actual volume faders as I show here, or you can drop in a few trim/gain plugins and do it before the actual fader as shown here. Also, simple clip based gain on the wave forms works just as well.
When you can play your track back in see around 25% to 50% of headroom on your master fader on average, you’re in the ballpark and are ready to get to mixing.
Step #3 – Track Volume
Our final step for today’s portion of The Beginner’s Guide To Mixing is potentially one of the most critical of them all. At this point in the process we want to establish each track’s ideal volume position, relative to the other tracks in the mix. You might have already done some of this in the previous step (as seen in those videos), but here is where you want to finalize the volume for every track.
Every track has an optimal volume fader position. Your job is to find it. This takes lots of repeated listening, in context of the mix of course. Your goal is to find that one volume spot for each track where it plays its role well and just about every part of the song. It won’t be perfect (i.e. you’ll likely need some volume automation down the road), but it will be 90% of the way there.
This one step is so critical because it not only is the majority of your mix’s sound, but it affects everything you do next with EQ, compression, effects, even automation. I honestly try and pretend that I have no plugins to use, only volume faders. This forces me to find the sweet spot for each track and make a compelling mix with no effects!
Check out Part 2 of The Beginner’s Guide To Mixing