The wrong way to go about mixing for loudness is to load your tracks and start adjusting the faders and adding effect VST’s, trying to make sure that your final output track is at zero dBFS.
In this article, we will explore recording and mixing levels using a PC based DAW. We will answer the following questions:
- How loud should a mix be before mastering?
- How much headroom should I leave for mixing?
- How can I make my mix louder without clipping?
- How can I make my mix more dynamic?
and a few other related topics.
Loudness is not the only objective when mixing a song. The first objective is to get clarity of sound. The second objective is to get a “big sound” without distortion.
* We achieve clarity by:
1. Volume balance across all the tracks.
2. Frequency separation within each track.
3. Panning specific tracks
4. Stereo Width adjustment
The above list is in the “workflow” order.
How loud should a mix be before mastering?
Mixing Rule 1.
(a general rule with many exceptions). We are aiming for no more than -8dBFS PEAK and around -20LUFS on the final output channel before mastering.
Optional Mixing Rule.
Don’t cheat by using the Limiter. Why? A Limiter limits dynamic range. Our arrangement will lose expression if we limit. Clipping is essentially a signal that has been limited so fiercely that it distorts. Clipping can happen through signal manipulation or just exceeding the speaker/ earphone output specs.
Target output after the mix at -8dBFS PEAK and around 18dBFS RMS or LUFS. This will allow us to lift the highs to anywhere between -3dBFS and Zero without clipping and lift the low volumes (by means of slight compression) without loosing too much dynamic range when Mastering. Please check our post on How Can You Learn Mastering Music As A Beginner?
How much headroom should I leave for mixing?
- If we are recording from scratch, we work to a target level -18 RMS or LUFS level for each track in the song and no more than -8dBFS PEAK on any channel. We also don’t want our Master Output channel to exceed -8dBFS PEAK at any point.
- The same target levels apply for imported files and projects. Imported files will not necessarily be at these levels. To get them to the right baseline levels before mixing, see the paragraphs on Gain Staging.
This target gives us a dynamic range of 12dBFS. This also allows enough headroom for us to ‘lift’ the lower volume levels (using compression) to increase the overall loudness, without clipping or distortion when Mastering.
Depending on where our music is going to be played, and the genre, the final arrangement level after Mastering should be -3 to 0 PEAK with a dynamic range of around 10dB to 16dB.
So let’s make this practical. Look at the screenshot below.
- It is a 12 track midi arrangement imported into Logic Pro X.
- The tracks have been re-voiced to play the Logic VST’s and sampled instruments.
- No effects are switched on, all channels raw.
- Levels of the instrument channels range from -23dB to zero PEAK
- Combine Output on the Stereo Out is a +3.3 PEAK.
- The LUFS are sitting at about -10dBFS
The problem is that we have no headroom. We need headroom to mix and to master. If we start fiddling with the faders and adding effects, we are going to spend a long time to produce a sub-standard production. How do we approach this?
We will need to do Gain Staging before starting to mix. Gain staging is the process of setting all of the volume levels on
the channels to about -18 to -20RMS dBFS. Some producers recommend mixing to a higher level, but to my mind, it
makes things more difficult later.
If we get the Gain Staging correct before we begin mixing, we will achieve maximum
volume and avoid clipping and distortion when we start mixing. We will also spend less time trying to get the balance right by continually fiddling with faders.
Keeping all tracks around or just below -18 RMS (or LUFS) and not exceeding -8dBFS PEAK gives us plenty of headroom when we start Mixing. Read this post on what’s the difference between LUFS, RMS and True Peak.
The next screenshot is the same project, with all the levels set to approx. -18 to -20dBFS and now PEAKS at -7dBFS on the Output Channel.
There are varying opinions on how best to do this. But the key is to get the level of the channel to the target level (around -18, some producers target around -12PEAK) PRE-FADER without adjusting the fader.
Depending on your DAW, each track has a control panel (In Logic, it is the Inspector panel) where the level of the track and /or region can be adjusted. In the screenshot sample notice that the faders have not been adjusted, they are still at 0dBFS. In this example, the Gain plugin was used. The great thing about a Gain Plugins is that it can be used on both MIDI and Audio Tracks. We could have adjusted the volume on a MIDI track, or normalize to a level on an Audio track.
The gain on the Gain plug-in is adjusted up or down before the signal hits the channel fader, so that has the signal hit the fader at around -18to -20dBMS PEAK. The result is our Output Channel is sitting at -7dBFS PEAK and -20dbFS RMS. We haven’t touched a fader or activated an effects plugins, and we are now ready to start mixing.
Mixing rule 2.
No channel can be in the yellow or RED. Only green wherever you look.
How can I make my mix louder without clipping?
We use the filtering bands on the EQ to filter out unneeded frequencies on each track. This also gives us the ability to boost the signal on that track more. As an example, the sample in this article on channel 7 has a Hard Techno Hit at a high rep rate in the higher frequencies.
Use the Shelf Low Pass Filter to cut out all low frequencies or harmonics that may be present and use one of the Power Metric Bands to slightly boost the higher frequencies. The spectrum analyses that come with many equalizers and will give us a graphic representation of the instruments frequency band, we then use the filters to cut out the rest. We do this for each track. Two screenshots below show the equalizer with the spectrum analysis, and the highs lifted slightly.
Musicgearo Mixing Reference Cheat Sheet
After level setting and frequency separation, it sounds OK, but..
How can I make my mix more dynamic?
Up until now, we have been busy with the technical part of mixing. Now we come to the art, the craft.
- The most obvious tip is to use multiband compression when mixing (Check Xfer Records OTT.) This is a great tool that can make your sounds well balanced, remove unwanted distortion, achieve a pleasant and smooth sound. Also, second alternative is using Dynamic EQ. Check this article with two free Dynamic EQ plugins.
- For stereo width, duplicate a track. Pan the first track hard left and pan the duplicate track hard right. Then add different Effect Plugins to the different tracks. Works great for vocals.
- Add a Tremolo VST to a track — some plugins will ‘synch pan’ left to right in synch with the project BMP setting. This effect works great with Synth Stabs, hitting left and right in time to the beat. Get FREE Tremolo Plugins here.
- Put your arrangement in a Cathedral or Cave or Theater. Add a convolution reverb to a track or the whole arrangement to add life and unique sound. Get more info about Convolution Reverb Plugins here.
- When we have a few primary tracks that are in the mid-frequency range (which is often the case), don’t leave
them in the center. Separate them by panning them either left or right.
- Panning places an instrument or track left or right off-center. Reverb will place the instrument “shallow or deep” (distance from the listener). By adjusting the panning and reverb, we can place the instrument (or
group of instruments) in the arrangement. Eg. Brass – right back. If your DAW has Binaural Panning
experiment with it, Binaural Panning allows you to position the direction of a signal source, so your ears
perceive the sound as coming from either in front, behind, above, below, and to the left or right of the listening position when using a stereo output. Get a FREE Binaural Plugin.
- Use the Stereo width plugins on a track or whole arrangement.
- We need to be careful not to over-engineer. We have gone to the trouble of filtering out clashing and unneeded frequencies. If we do not take care, we can re-introduce other frequencies that will clash our primary frequencies when adding effect VST’s, and we end up “muddy” again.
- Build the Dynamic Range as the song progresses. Different DAWS will have different ways of changing the volume within a track as the arrangement plays. Fading instruments in and out contributes to a big sound. Also, slice your track up into different regions (optionally put the regions on different tracks) and have them play at different volumes as the song plays.
Also, let’s check this post what will further explain to you how to increase dynamic range.
In summary. The mixing workflow is a bit of a conundrum. Primarily we mix to get a great sound, but we start mixing the process with volume level adjustment. When we are done with our mix and got a great sound, we start the Mastering process, where the primary objective is to get the right volume level.