Correctly setting your mixing levels before mastering is essential for great mastering results. Having the best DB levels for mixing is also critical. Here’s how to do it properly!
Note – Whether you need to know how set mixing levels in fl studio, pro tools, audacity, garageband, cubase, logic or abeleton the information provided applies to all of these programs.
VIDEO – Setting Your Mixing Levels Before Mastering
How To Set Mixing Levels
Each channel on your mixer board has a level meter for the individual vocal and instrument tracks you’ve recorded. You also have a main/stereo out that has a level meter for ALL the tracks combined. The mixing levels for each instrument should NEVER go over 0 level, and your mixing levels on your main/stereo out should never go over 0 level.
There’s really no need to because overall volume boosts are done in mastering NOT mixing! And, most of the time going over-level means instant distortion on the track.
The photos below are level meters from two different guitar track. Guitar Track 1 peaks a few dbs under 0 level and is great. Guitar Track 2 is several dbs OVER 0 level and will badly distort.
The fix – Simply pull down the fader on Guitar track 2 a few dbs so it’s no longer over-level!! This is VERY basic stuff here, but you’d be surprised how many sound engineers out there don’t know this!
Guitar Track 1
Guitar Track 2
Under 0 Level
What If You Need To Make A Track Louder, But Can’t Without Going Over-Level?
This is a VERY common problem with sound engineers who are new to mixing. They need to make one track louder to cut through the mixing, but in doing so, it goes way over-level.
Here’s the simple solution!
Highlight ALL the tracks in your mix and link them all together.
Then pull down the faders (roughly -5db) on ALL of the tracks in the entire song.
Now unlink them.
Every track is now at least -5db below 0 level, if not more. Now you can start raising the volume on the tracks that need it.
Note: If you run into this exact same problem again, you can keep repeating this process until you have a nice track to track volume balance.
How To Set Mixing Levels And Know They’re Good For Mastering
Usually, if you don’t go over-level on any of your individual mixer board channels you automatically won’t go over-level on your main/stereo out. And your levels will be perfect for mastering, leaving enough headroom. BUT, if the main/stereo out meter is over-level and you didn’t go over-level on any of the individual channels, simply pull the fader down a few dbs until it isn’t.
“Overall volume level is adjusted in MASTERING, not in MIXING. Your job in mixing is to stay under 0 level on all of your meters. Don’t crank up your faders and distort everything, trying to get as loud as the songs on the radio! It doesn’t work that way!”
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So How Should My .Wav Files Look If I Have Correctly Set My Mixing Levels Before Mastering?
VIDEO – Analyzing Your .Wav Files
Export your mix, and then import it back into your DAW program so you can see how your .wav file looks.
The examples below show how your .wav files should (and shouldn’t) look. If yours looks like photo Wav 5 or Wav 6, don’t even waste your time and upload it! The song basically cannot be mastered. Start reading this article from the top and adjust your levels!
Wav 1. This file is -6db under 0 level. A little low, but I can work with this in mastering.
Wav 2. This file is -3db under 0 level. The is “industry standard,” what mastering engineers request. This is the ideal amount of headroom for mastering.
Wav 3. This file peaks at exactly 0db. It doesn’t go over-level and there are no flat spots. Still good!
Wav 4. This file is +3db over 0 level. All the flat spots are distortion. I can master this and it will sound much “better” but in most cases it won’t sound “great!” Lower your levels!
Wav 5. This file is +6db over-level! Completely distorted from beginning to end! I can’t do ANYTHING with this file! NO ONE CAN!! Remix this MUCH LOWER!
Wav 6. This is an interesting file. It’s completely distorted with no dynamic range, but its still -3db on the main/stereo out.
The person who mixed this either:
A. Had something similar to Wav 5 above and just gained the file down -9db. B. Some or all of the individual mixer channels are over-level, and the master/stereo out fader was pulled down -9db.
Either way, this can’t be mastered with good results. Once your song is over-level and distorted you can’t just lower the volume of the entire song. You’re just making the distortion quieter, not less intense.
For example – This would be like having a sweater with a huge hole, and then washing it in real hot water to try and shrink it. Yes, you effectively made the hole smaller because now the entire sweater is smaller. BUT, you still have an unusable sweater with a big hole in it!! You didn’t solve the problem!
Properly setting your mixing levels before mastering is a very important part of the mixing process. I hope this article explained it for you!If you’ve made it this far, you pretty much know how to set you mixing levels properly. Now you need to know how to MASTER your own music properly.
What Is Headroom And Dynamic Range?
In order to produce a good master, a mix needs proper headroom and dynamic range.
What is Headroom?
Headroom is the distance between an audio tracks peak level (when the meter is at its highest) and 0 level on the output meter.
As a song plays, the output meter on the stereo/main out bounces up and down with the music. You can see how high (loud) an audio track peaks by looking at this meter. Anything peaking over 0 level usually means distortion, so at all costs stay below 0 level.
How far is your peak loudness below 0 level? That’s the simple definition of what headroom is. So, if your meter is peaking -3dbs below 0 level, you have +3dbs of headroom. If your meter is peaking right at 0 level, you have NO headroom.
Note – +3dbs to +6dbs of headroom is the standard recommended amount, but many times a song with more or a little less headroom can still be mastered with no problems. But, it really makes no sense to give a mastering engineer a mix with 0dbs of headroom and risk the chance that it’s slightly distorted. There’s no reason to do it because overall song volume is done in the mastering process, not in mixing.
What is Dynamic Range?
Dynamic range is the area between the peak level (when the meter is up) and the low level (when the meter is down).
Roughly, 3dbs to 6dbs of movement between the high and low meter level is a typical amount of dynamic range, but this does depend on the genre of music.
Note – One problem you want to watch out for (if you’re mixing your own music) is dynamic range between song sections. You don’t want a +10db or more difference between the verses and choruses. This creates a mastering problem because the verses will never be loud enough compared to the rest of the song. Roughly a 6db difference is as high as you want to go.
Why Does A Mix Need Headroom And Dynamic Range?
In one sentence, it gives the mastering engineer more room to work with. If I compared a hair stylist to a mastering engineer, hair length would be headroom. If someone came in with 18″ of hair, the skies the limit as to how she could style it. But, if they came in with only 1″ of hair, her style options are very limited. In audio mastering, no headroom limits your options.
In the audio mastering process, a series of EQ boosts and cuts are performed. Most of the time you’re going to need to boost something, even if it’s only a little +2db boost at 100hz. Well, if the song is already at 0 volume level or higher, you might not be able to make a necessary boost without distorting.
Also, if a song has very low dynamic range (the meter barely moves) it’s probably over-compressed. Which means it could lack punch, power, clarity, or could even limit EQ options. You want your song to have some dynamic life!
I want a song mix with some headroom and decent dynamic range. I want to EQ it as necessary, I want to compress it as necessary, I want to be able to set the overall volume as necessary, and I don’t want to work with a distorted mix.
How Long Does It Take to Mix A Song?
I’m going to go with 6-8 hours to mix an average 25-30 track song, over the course of a couple days. I say a couple days because I’m a firm believer in the “next day fresh ear” mixing and mastering method. I like to clear my head and listen to a mix (or audio master) fresh the next day, and then make my final adjustments and tweaks. But honestly, there’s no definitive answer to this.
Mutt Lange, the engineer who worked with Shania Twain, Def Leppard, AC/DC, Michael Bolton and a slew of other stars, was a LEGENDARY slow worker.
Truly AMAZING RESULTS (and like I always say, all anyone cares about is the end result). But, a sloooow methodical worker.
I’m not going to go back and read up on him again for exact details, but I remember reading each song takes him a couple months to record and mix. I said a couple months for ONE song!
I’ve heard many engineers quote 10 hours to mix a 25-30 track song. This sounds fair.
One factor is how well you know your EQ and effects, and how many you use. If you’ve been doing this for many years, you already know HI & Low Pass EQ filtering, and can apply it right off the bat. You also have favorite effects you like to use for each genre, and know the delay times, which reverbs to use, etc. on vocals in certain situations.
Someone like this could finish a song MUCH FASTER than someone just starting out who is in “trial and error mode,” testing different effects on every track. Someone like this could take weeks to mix one song. And it still might suck! But that’s a different story.
Number of effects used will also affect song mixing time. A pro might use a dozen different effects on the lead vocal, changing them in each section. While a newbie might use ONE EFFECT (plate reverb) on all the vocals in the entire song.
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