DECEMBER 6, 2023

Volume Balancing: Guide to Setting Levels in a Static Mix

Mixing Levels 1862x1040

Mixing music is both an art and a science. It's the process of blending different musical elements to create a cohesive and engaging sound. However, before diving into the world of equalization, compression, and effects, there's a fundamental step that lays the foundation for a great mix: volume balancing. In this guide, we’ll provide an in depth look at this initial stage of mixing. We’ll explore the purpose of a static mix and how to approach setting level relationships between different elements in your mix.

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What is a static mix

A static mix refers to an initial, relatively fixed version of a mix in audio production. It's often the first pass at balancing the levels of individual tracks or elements within a song or audio project. The term "static" implies that the mix is not intended to change significantly throughout the song; instead, it serves as a foundational starting point for the subsequent stages of the mixing process.

In a static mix, the primary goal is to establish a basic balance between different elements, such as vocals, instruments, and effects. The engineer or producer adjusts the volume levels, panning positions, and basic EQ settings to ensure that all components of the mix are audible and working together cohesively. This balance provides a solid foundation for additional processing, such as equalization, compression, and spatial effects, which are typically applied in later stages of mixing.

Static mixes are valuable because they allow producers and engineers to hear the song in a preliminary state, assess the overall balance, and identify any potential issues or improvements before diving into more detailed mixing techniques. It's like creating a rough sketch of a painting before adding finer details and nuances. Once the static mix is established, further refinements can be made to enhance the clarity, depth, and emotional impact of the audio production during the subsequent stages of mixing and mastering.

What is volume balancing?

Faders in the Pro Tools mix window

The main focus of creating a static mix is volume balancing. Volume balancing, in the context of audio mixing, refers to the process of adjusting the relative loudness levels of individual tracks or elements within a mix. The goal is to ensure that each element contributes to the overall sound without dominating or getting lost in the mix. It involves setting the right balance between different instruments, vocals, and other audio elements to create a cohesive and pleasing sonic experience.

Preparing for a static mix

Before diving into the creative process volume balancing for a static mix, it's crucial to lay the groundwork for a smooth and productive workflow. This preparation ensures that your technical foundation is solid, allowing you to focus on the creative aspects of mixing. Let's break down what the preparation looks like:

1. Ensure proper gain staging during recording

It’s essential to ensure that every track has a strong enough level during the recording stage of music production, before you even get to mixing. Inadequate recording levels can result in a weak and noisy sound, making it challenging to achieve a balanced mix. To get this step right:

  • Use Adequate Gain: Set the gain or input level on your recording equipment (microphone preamp, audio interface, etc.) appropriately. Aim for a robust, healthy signal without any signs of clipping (distortion) or excessive noise.
  • Check Meters: Keep a close eye on your equipment's meters or level indicators. They should consistently display a healthy level without frequently reaching the red or peaking too low.
  • Perform Soundchecks: Before hitting the record button, conduct soundchecks to ensure that all instruments and vocals have sufficient volume. Make any necessary adjustments to microphone positions or instrument settings to achieve the desired level.

2. Organize your mixing session

 Once you confirm every track has healthy levels, it's time to set up your mixing session for optimal navigation and efficiency. Here's how to do it:

  • Organize Your Tracks: Import the mix into a new session and organize every track and audio file you'll be working with. Create a logical and consistent naming convention for each track, such as "Kick," "Snare," "Lead Vocals," etc. This organization simplifies the process of identifying and locating specific elements in your mix.
  • Color Code Tracks: Take advantage of your digital audio workstation's (DAW) ability to color code tracks. Assign distinct colors to different types of instruments or groups of instruments. This visual cue makes it easier to differentiate between tracks, especially as your mix becomes more complex.
  • Group Similar Tracks: Group related tracks together, such as grouping all drum tracks or backing vocals. Grouping allows you to process and control multiple tracks simultaneously, streamlining your mixing workflow.
  • Remove Unnecessary Elements: If you have unused or redundant tracks, consider deleting or disabling them. This declutters your session, simplifies your workspace, and conserves valuable system resources, ensuring that your DAW operates smoothly.
  • Create Session Templates: Think about creating mixing session templates that include your preferred routing, bus channels, and commonly used plugins. Having a template at your disposal can save you time and maintain consistency across your mixes.

Incorporating these preparatory steps sets the stage for a successful static mix. With a solid technical foundation and an organized session, you'll find the creative aspects of mixing to be more enjoyable and productive.

Volume Mixing Cheat Sheet: Step-by-Step Guide

Now that you've prepared your workspace and gathered your tools, it's time to start the mixing process by creating a static mix. This initial step is all about setting your instrument levels, ensuring that no single element overwhelms the mix, and creating a solid foundation you can build on. Let's break it down into actionable steps:

1. Loop the busiest section

Start your mixing journey by focusing on the busiest section of your song, such as the chorus or a segment with multiple instruments playing simultaneously. Mixing in the context of a busy section allows you to understand how different instruments interact during the most intense moments of the song. This section serves as a reference point for the energy and intensity that the rest of the song should build towards.

Action Tip: Loop this section in your digital audio workstation (DAW) to maintain a consistent playback, making it easier to hear and adjust instrument levels.

2. Zero out the mix

Before you start adjusting levels, "zero out" your mix. This means moving all the faders on your mixing console or in your DAW to their lowest position. In this state, no audio from the tracks is audible, and all settings return to their initial state. This blank canvas allows you to begin the mixing process with a clean slate.

3. Set the level of the most prominent element

Identify the most prominent or dominant element in your mix and raise the level. This is often the lead vocal or the primary instrument carrying the melody. Adjust its fader first, aiming for a level where it's comfortably audible but not overpowering. Trust your ears as your primary guide during this process. To provide ample headroom for later processing and prevent distortion, target a peak level of around -12 dB to -6 dB on your mixer or DAW meter.

Action Tip: Use solo and mute functions sparingly to focus on individual elements without losing sight of the overall mix.

4. Balance supporting elements

Continue the process by gradually introducing other supporting instruments, such as guitars, keyboards, and additional vocals. For each instrument, focus on achieving a balance that enhances the overall sound while maintaining clarity and definition. These are elements that complement and enhance the focal element without stealing the spotlight. Balance them with the focal element so that they work together harmoniously, contributing to the overall texture and depth of the mix. Consider elements like rhythm instruments, harmonies, or secondary melodies, adjusting their levels to support the main theme.

5. Address unique sound elements

Once the focal and supporting elements are in balance, turn your attention to unique sound elements. These may include unconventional instruments, background textures, or sonic textures that add character to your mix. Adjust their levels to ensure they're audible and contributing to the sonic landscape in a distinct and complementary manner.

6. Introduce audio effects

If your mix involves special effects, such as reverb, delay, or other processing, integrate them gradually and judiciously. These effects, like your instruments, also add sound to your mix and you should set their levels in a way that enhances the overall sound rather than overshadow it. Adjust their levels to add depth and dimension while maintaining clarity.

7. Compare to a reference track

As you work on setting instrument levels, using a reference track can be a valuable tool when dialing-in the level relationships between your tracks. A reference track is a professionally mixed and mastered song that you use as a benchmark for your own mix. It provides a point of comparison to ensure your mix meets industry standards and sounds competitive.

When comparing your mix to a reference track, keep in mind that reference tracks are typically already mastered, meaning they have undergone a final polishing process. To use a reference track effectively, reduce its volume to match the level of your mix. This way, you can focus on comparing the tonal balance, dynamics, and overall feel without being misled by differences in volume.

Ask yourself questions like:

  • How loud is the kick compared to the bass in the reference track?
  • What’s the relationship between vocals and supporting instruments like keys and guitars?
  • How loud are field recordings and background elements?
  • How prominent are effects like reverb, delay, etc.?

By analyzing your reference track, you can make informed decisions when setting the level relationships between your tracks.

8. Fine-tune and interate

Throughout the level-setting process, continuously listen to your mix and make fine adjustments as needed. Be open to iteration, as achieving the perfect balance often requires multiple passes. Trust your ears and pay attention to how each element interacts with the others, making precise tweaks to achieve a cohesive and polished sound.

Mistakes to avoid when setting levels in a mix

When setting levels in audio mixing, there are several common mistakes that should be avoided to achieve a balanced and professional sound. Here are some of these mistakes:

  • Overloading the Mix: One of the most common mistakes is pushing levels too high, causing clipping and distortion. Avoid letting any track peak in the red zone on your meters. Proper gain staging during recording and mixing is crucial to prevent this.
  • Ignoring Gain Staging: Failing to maintain consistent gain staging throughout the signal chain can lead to problems. Make sure that the levels are optimized at each stage of the audio path, from the recording phase to the final mix.
  • Neglecting Panning: While setting levels, don't forget about panning. Not all elements should be centered. Proper panning creates a sense of space and depth in the mix. Over-reliance on center-panned instruments can result in a flat and uninteresting sound.
  • Soloing Tracks Excessively: Mixing individual tracks in isolation (soloing) can lead to imbalances in the overall mix. Always listen to the mix as a whole, as some elements may sound fine in isolation but clash with others when combined. It's OK to solo a track when you want to pinpoint a problem and do precision refinements later in the mix. But every instrument still exists within the larger mix. Always check the balance within the context of the mix. Otherwise, those soloed tracks may overpower the rest.
  • Not Carving Out Space in the Frequency Spectrum: We can't stress how important it is to give every instrument room in the frequency spectrum. Volume alone can't establish the balance you want. If you have too many sounds or instruments occupying the same frequency range it will be difficult to hear things clearly, regardless of how much you focus on volume balancing.

Beyond Setting Levels in a Mix

Setting levels is just the beginning of mixing. Creating a professional and balanced final mix goes beyond tweaking faders and mixing dB levels. Volume is more than just the overall loudness of a track. It's also the prominence of specific frequencies, where those sounds sit in the stereo field, etc.

Other elements in the mixing processes will impact a listener's perception of balance and loudness. These include:

  • EQ: EQ, or equalization, lets you manipulate frequencies. Instruments can clash if they occupy the same frequency range, and EQ allows you to give every voice its own space.
  • Panning: Panning determines sound placement across the stereo field, giving you new ways to add clarity and establish space for instruments.
  • Stereo Imaging: Stereo imaging refers to the process of creating width and depth in your mix. You can improve the balance in your mix further by separating instruments in the stereo field (left, right, front, or back).
  • Dynamics Processing: Dynamics processing tools, like compression, can maintain consistent levels and carve more space.
  • Automation: With automation, you can adjust the audio level dynamically throughout your song, allowing specific voices to take center stage whenever necessary.

Mixing dB levels and adjusting the volume of every instrument is important. However, a truly balanced mix will use additional techniques while considering how all these factors interact in the final product.

Start creating balanced mixes!

Remember that this framework is flexible and adaptable to different musical genres and styles. There is no one size fits all but the key is to prioritize the relative importance of elements within your mix and ensure they work together. While mixing may seem intimidating and full of complex steps, you can make your life easier by setting yourself up for success! Start by understanding the roles your instruments play. Then, use reference tracks for inspiration and set the audio levels of every track to achieve the right balance. Next, utilize techniques like planning, dynamics processing and automation to refine things further.

The key to getting better at mixing is to just do it! Experiment with different techniques and tools. See how small changes impact the overall balance of a song and use what you learn to push your skills further with every project.

If you’re looking to get started with mixing, can download the free version of Pro Tools Intro to take advantage of features that will help you on your journey to becoming a skilled mixer.

Download Pro Tools Intro for Free

  • Sam Butler headshot

    As director of audio software at Avid, and a keen musician, Sam works with all the departments in Avid to produce the future of the Pro Tools and Sibelius products and solutions.

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