How To Balance All The Elements In A Mix
Have you ever heard the phrase, “It’s the ear, not the gear?”
I remember when I first started learning how to mix, I would research which compressors my favorite mixers used on certain songs. I thought if I used the same gear as them, my mixes would sound like theirs.
Eventually, I stumbled across a YouTube video of one of my idols mixing with stock plug-ins, just to prove that it could be done. I couldn’t believe it.
The truth is, the most important element in any mix is the balance between each element. Using simple level manipulation, you can quickly dial in a balanced mix. Doing this first leads to less significant changes when processing your mix with plugins, meaning you can get greater results with even the simplest tools.
In this blog, we’ll show you how to balance each element in a mix for a professional, cohesive sound.
Why Balance Is Important
Most modern productions have a lot going on. In order to hear everything clearly, the mix must be well balanced. If one instrument is too loud, it can make it difficult to hear one or more of the other instruments in the mix.
Loudness has a big impact on how people perceive sound. The ISO published a set of standards in 2003 called the equal-loudness contours that show how sound pressure level, or volume, can affect how we perceive sound.
When a track is played at low volumes, humans are still able to make out frequencies from 1-5 kHz pretty clearly, but we have trouble hearing frequencies under 500 Hz. That’s why it’s almost impossible to hear the bass when listening at low levels, but you can still hear the vocals.
As playback volume increases, our hearing becomes more balanced, making it easier to hear the high and low frequencies evenly. The ideal listening range for most home studios is around 73-76dB SPL. But mixers have no control over how loud people listen to music. Only how loud each element is in the track.
That’s why it’s crucial to make sure that your mix is balanced and each instrument is at the proper level relative to the other channels. As you increase the volume of an instrument in a mix, it sounds closer to the listener, with more fullness in the low-end and clarity in the high-end.
This is why reaching for plugins right out the gate might actually mean you spend more time trying to improve your sound. Setting the loudness of a channel first helps you get 80% of the way there. The plugins can then help you sculpt your sound to 100% of what you’re shooting for.
Creating a basic balance between each of the tracks at the beginning of a mix gives you a solid foundation to work from and makes it easier to make critical mixing decisions down the road, like which frequencies to cut or how much compression to apply.
Use Reference To Find a Starting Point
It can be difficult to know exactly how loud each instrument should be in a mix. One simple way to help you dial in a balanced mix is to use reference tracks. Mastering The Mix plugin REFERENCE makes it easy to compare your mix to your favorite tracks and quickly identify differences in volume.
Just drag and drop your reference tracks into the Wave Transport and listen to how loud the snare sounds in the context of the rest of the mix. Then toggle back to your track and compare. If the volume of the snare is louder in the reference track, bring your snare fader up to match.
You can repeat this process for every instrument in the mix. Just be sure to use the level match feature in REFERENCE for a fair comparison. As I mentioned earlier, louder sounds seem brighter in the top-end and fuller in the low-end which can trick you into making poor mixing decisions. Since you’re still in the mix stage, your production should be a few dB quieter than a fully mastered track. Level match in REFERENCE takes this issue out of the equation by accurately matching the perceived loudness of all of your reference tracks to the track you’re working on. Allowing you to make informers mixing decisions that lead to improvements in your sound.
How to Balance Each Element of a Mix
Only one instrument can be the loudest track in the mix at a time. So the loudest instrument should be whatever is the focal point of the song at that moment. In most cases, that’s the vocal.
However, many engineers choose to start their mix with the drums, as they encompass the entire frequency spectrum, making it easier to hear the balance between high and low frequencies.
Start by setting the snare fader at 0 dB and bringing the rest of the drum mix in around it. The snare is the foundation of the backbeat, and typically one of the loudest elements in the mix.
Next, bring the kick fader up until it sounds almost as loud as the snare. It should be loud enough that the low frequencies are rich and powerful, but not so loud that it masks the bottom-end of the snare drum.
Then, start bringing in the toms. These can be almost as loud as the snare if they’re used sparingly, but if they’re heavily featured they should sit a little further back in the mix.
Start bringing in the cymbals, overheads and room mics as needed. The level of these tracks will vary greatly from genre to genre, but they should definitely all be used to support the main close mics—not overpower them.
One key component of balancing the drum mix is panning. Use the pan knob to add separation between the toms, widen out the overhead mics, and add depth to the room mics.
Just make sure to frequently check your mix in mono. You never know where your track will get played, and you want to make sure it sounds good in every format.
LEVELS features a mono button at the top for quickly referencing your mix in mono. Select a mixing preset in LEVELS (presets in bottom left corner) so that you get a warning if you push your peak or loudness too high. The sections in LEVELS will turn red if there’s an issue, and you can hover over the section icons to learn how to fix the identified issue.
Remember, if it sounds good in mono, it will sound great in stereo! Vice versa is not always the case.
Once you have the drums balanced, it’s time to bring in the bass. This one can be tricky due to the amount of low end. The bass should be loud enough that the low end is big and powerful, but not so loud that it overpowers the kick drum.
Remember to check your reference mixes often to make sure you’re staying on course.
Once you have the bass level where you want it, don’t be afraid to adjust some of the other faders as well. Mixing is a process of chasing your tail. Every move you make affects the rest of the mix, so you may need to tweak the balance from time to time.
This is typically when I start to bring the vocal into the mix. I find that if I wait until I bring in the other elements like guitar and synth, it can start to sound like a karaoke track with the vocals slapped on top.
The earlier you bring the vocal into the mix, the easier it is to make it the focal point. The vocal should be the loudest element in the mix, but not so loud that it feels disconnected from the rest of the band.
Since drums are short transient bursts, they can have a higher peak than the vocal, but not seem louder in context of the whole mix.
Next, bring in the remaining instruments in order of importance. If it’s a rock song, start with guitar 1, then guitar 2, and so on. Then move on to the keys, and all the way down the list to the glockenspiel you used in the outro.
Use panning to help create separation, and remember to check your mix in mono and compare against your reference mixes often.
Remember, only one instrument can be the focal point at any given time.
Learning how to balance all of the elements in a mix can be difficult, especially since tastes tend to change from genre to genre.
In rock music, the guitars are one of the loudest instruments. In hip-hop, it’s often the kick/808. In EDM, it’s usually the bass. And in pop music, the vocal is everything.
It may take a little extra time at the beginning of your mix, but by balancing all of the elements in your session first (before any EQ, compression of effects), it makes it easier to address frequency and dynamics issues later on because you have a clear vision of what you want the mix to sound like.
Just remember, it’s the ear, not the gear, and reference tracks will keep you on the right path from start to finish.