Mixing With Levels
The home display has four sections labelled HEADROOM, STEREO FIELD, DYNAMIC RANGE and BASS SPACE. LEVELS assesses your audio as it passes through. If there are no issues with your mix, the sections will glow green. If there is an aspect of your mix that needs to be fixed, the section will glow red. The four section icons are clickable and open up a new dedicated central display. These dedicated displays give you a relevant insight into the technical details of your mix. If an issue has been resolved you can reset the section from red back to green by clicking the section icon. You can navigate back to this home display by clicking LEVELS in the top left corner. You can reset all four sections back to green simultaneously by navigating back to zero in the transport of your DAW.
The Mono button sums your dual stereo signal into one single output. This summing process can cause dramatic changes to your mix. Many listeners will experience your music in mono when they are in clubs or bars. When auditioning your mix in mono it is advisable to listen through one monitor. This is because the low end can feel 'hyped' when listening in mono though two monitors. Select Mono and then either the R or L [right or left] buttons to limit the output to either the right or left monitor respectively.
The central display has a peak meter which gives you a reading of how close your track is to 0dBFS. Each bar represents 1dB and the central threshold is set at -6dB. The goal is to keep your audio under -6dB and in the lower green half. If your audio breaches the threshold of -6dB the meter will start moving into the upper red half and it will turn the Headroom icon red.
You want your track to peak at -6dB to give the mastering engineer plenty of headroom to apply appropriate compression and EQ enhancements. You can change the threshold in the settings. For example you might set the threshold to 0dB if you are using Levels for mastering. You can reset the section by clicking on the readout or by clicking on the Headroom icon.
If the peak level of your mix breaches the threshold of -6dB, then you need to lower the overall level to give yourself more headroom.
There are a number of ways to do this. My personal favourite is to select all the channels in your session and lower them simultaneously. By keeping the faders relative to each other, you won't change the balance of your mix. Remember to keep the output and master fader at 0dB. Note that this method is only possible if you have no volume automation.
Mix Peaking at 0.4dB on the output. There is NO headroom and there is digital distortion.
Mix peaking at -6.2dB on the output. Ideal amount of headroom.
Another way to do this is simply loading a gain plugin on your output channel (before Levels) and lower the gain until your mix peaks at -6dB.
The LUFS Meters
The LUFS [loudness units relative to full scale] measurement scale was standardised in 2011 and is devastatingly accurate in displaying the perceived loudness of audio material. It’s an extremely useful insight to have whilst mixing and mastering. Navigate to these LUFS meters by clicking the LUFS button in the headroom section. There is a short term LUFS meter on the left and an integrated LUFS meter on the right. Similarly to the peak meter, each bar represents 1 unit. The defaults for mixing are set at -14 for short term and -16 for integrated.
The short-term meter will display the LUFS measurement over the last three seconds. The integrated meter shows the accumulating LUFS level of your track. You can reset the meters by clicking on the readouts. For a well balanced dynamic mix, you would want an integrated level of around -16 LUFS. When mastering, you would want to aim for an integrated level of around -9 to -13 LUFS. This may seem quiet to you when you consider that many chart topping hits can read as high as -6LUFS, but this is the result of the loudness war. The music industry is moving towards supporting more dynamic music which generally sits around -9 to -13 LUFS. When submitting audio for TV you would be required to deliver it with an integrated level of -24 LUFS. You can change the thresholds in the settings to suit your needs. If you material breaches your set LUFS thresholds, the HEADROOM icon will turn red.
The vectorscope displays your audios placement in the stereo field. When the image is spread out across the circle, your mix is wide. When the image is simply one thin line down the middle, your mix is mono. The L-R [Left Right] meter at the bottom of the central display area shows how even the left and right outputs are. If the pointer is central, then your music is evenly balanced between the two speakers. If you have an unbalanced output the pointer will hover either too far left or right and will glow red, this will also turn the STEREO FIELD icon red.
The correlation meter on the left side of the circle shows the degree of similarity between the left and right channels. A reading near +1 indicates a well-balanced mix. If the pointer hovers passed the central point towards -1 it indicates that the mix has phase issues. This can cause the mix to fall apart when played back in mono. A breach of the stereo correlation threshold will also cause the STEREO FIELD icon to turn red. These thresholds can be changed in the settings.
How To Fix Issues Shown By The Left/Right Meter
If the L-R meter pointer starts moving too far left or right from the middle, it will glow red. This informs you that the output of your mix is too unbalanced. You need to balance the stereo field evenly to have a solid mix that translates well in all environments.
Have a look at the core elements of your track and make sure the panning isn't dominating one side over the other. Try using a stereo placement plugin to place the low frequencies of your kick and bass in mono.
How To Fix Issues Shown By The Correlation Meter
When the correlation meter heads towards -1 this shows that the left and right channels are producing opposite audio signals. This can lead to phase cancellation meaning that your mix might sound thin and won't translate well when played back in mono. Use the MONO button in the home display to regularly check your tracks mono compatibility.
A good way to reduce phase issues whilst recording is to use the 3:1 rule. Make sure the second microphone is 3 times the distance from the source as the first microphone. If you're at the mixing stage and can't re-record you can try a phase alignment tool. Alternatively, you can try just nudging the audio a few milliseconds either way. Even a small adjustment might have incredibly positive effects on the phase of your mix.
What causes phase issues?
Phase issues can creep into your mix when recording audio using two or more microphones. In a nutshell, this is because the ‘nearly identical’ audio signals induce comb filtering. This makes the sound weak and thin rather rich and full. Different elements of your mix that have overlapping frequencies can also introduce subtle phasing issues.
Having low frequencies placed very wide in your mix can have negative affects on your mix. Wide bass frequencies might suffer from phase cancellation when played in mono, making your mix sound weak. Bass also takes up a lot of space, so by keeping it mostly mono you can utilise the rest of the stereo spectrum for other elements in your mix. When you engage LOW PASS (by clicking the ‘Low Pass’ button), you can see the low frequencies that are too wide glowing yellow and red in the vectorscope. The goal is to keep the low frequencies in the more central green area. This will lead to a more powerful and balanced mix. If you have wide low frequencies, you could try using a stereo placement plugin to place the low frequencies of your kick and bass in mono.
The oscilloscope in the central display circle will react to the audio material passing through LEVELS. The visuals will immediately show you how dynamic your music is. If your music has a dynamic range above the set threshold, the oscilloscope will glow green. If your music approaches the threshold it will begin to turn orange. If your music breaches the threshold, the oscilloscope will turn red.
LEVELS creates a ratio of the ‘short term LUFS’ to ‘peak level’ of your track and gives you a DR [Dynamic Range] reading. The lower the number, the less dynamic range your track has. The dynamic range is not relative to the loudness of your music, so if your music is over compressed the oscilloscope will turn red regardless of how quiet the track might be. The default dynamic range threshold is set at 11DR for mixing and can be changed in settings.
Great songs will often have interesting changes in volume between the verse/chorus buildup/ drop. This builds tension and release and adds energy and drama to the music. The technical term for this is dynamic range. A small dynamic range can come about from over compression and limiting. This can suck the life out of your music. It can also reduce the clarity and punch of the transients in your music. So to get a great final mix, you'll need to make sure that the dynamic range is on point.
To get a more dynamic mix, look at the compressors and limiters in your session and make sure they aren't working too hard. I usually don't compress any material with a ratio exceeding 4:1. If things sound too quiet in parts of your mix, automate to get your levels and then apply lighter compression. Mastering can lower the dynamic range of your track so it's better for your mix to be over dynamic than not dynamic enough.
Bass Space identifies if any channels within your mix are outputting unwanted low frequencies.
For your kick and bass elements to sound powerful and clear they need as much space as possible. To use Bass Space, first mute your kick and bass elements within your DAW. The frequency bars in the central display area will show the levels at 40Hz, 80Hz 160Hz and 180Hz. They will turn red if there is too much low end energy. If this is the case you need to identify which channels are outputting the excess low frequencies. Solo the individual channels to find the culprit and then use a high pass filter to clean up this excess low end rumble to maximise the clarity and power of your track. Be careful to not remove the material you actually want to hear in your mix.
EQ removing the unwanted low frequencies of a vocal recording.
To access the settings, click the cog icon in the top right corner.
LEVELS has four mixing presets: ‘Balanced’, ‘Dynamic’, ‘Loud’ and ‘Punchy’. By default, the Balanced mixing preset is selected when you first load LEVELS. You can switch between the presets by clicking the buttons. Your selected preset will be saved with your project and will load when you re-open a project.
The settings for each preset can be seen in the boxes on the right-hand side. These can be tweaked to suit your needs. For example, if you want your track to peak at -3dB rather than the default -6dB, simply change the ‘Peak Threshold’ box to -3.0. Or, if you have a large amount of panning and want the Stereo Balance (L & R meter) to be more forgiving, simply increase the value from 0.3 to something more forgiving like 0.6.
‘True Peak’ is disengaged for mixing as it is more applicable for mastering. True Peak will also slightly increase the CPU usage making it less fit for large mixing sessions. Click here to learn more about True Peak.