5 Tips: Setting Perfect Levels with the Core Production Bundle | Soundways

Balancing Levels

Setting levels is the most fundamental aspect of mixing music.  Before the days of Pro Tools and endless editing, mix engineers were known as "balance engineers."  This is because the primary duty of a mix engineer is to balance levels between musical elements.  Critical listening skills are essential to setting precise levels.  Mix engineers usually need a room with great acoustics and extremely accurate monitoring to ensure that they are creating a balance which translates to all listening systems.  However, trends in modern music production have led many engineers to work in smaller spaces, with less than perfect acoustics.  This causes engineers to make poor decisions when balancing tracks.  Thankfully, Soundways has developed the Core Production Bundle to help engineers and producers set levels in the most accurate way possible.  

The Core Production Workflow

The Core Production Bundle was created to help recording, mixing, and mastering engineers deal with the problems of mix translation.  Often times things will sound great in the studio, but not when played on other systems.  Engineers need a way to ensure that their work will translate faithfully to all listening systems.  

In the past, engineers used smaller monitors like NS-10's or Auratones to make critical balance decisions.  Listening in this context allowed engineers to hear more details.  These speakers may work for some engineers.  However, they are not designed for accurate listening and introduce a variety of distortions.  The Core Production Workflow allows engineers to focus on the audio core in the most precise manner possible.  The core is the range of frequencies most sensitive to the human ear,  2kHz - 5kHz.  This workflow ensures that engineers make precise adjustments which translate to all speaker systems.  Here are some tips for balancing levels with the Core Production Workflow.

Tip #1:  Listen Critically

It is important to focus on the audio core when making critical mix decisions.  To hear the core in the most accurate way, place Reveal on your DAW's master bus.  Turn on Critical Listening mode and listen to your mix.  You may find that in this context things have changed.  Perhaps the bass guitar has disappeared, or the kick drum is too soft.  Maybe the vocal sounds a little harsh, or the snare is too loud.  These are things that your listeners will likely hear and it is important to solve these issues.  

With Critical Listening engaged, make any necessary balance adjustments.  It is important to make sure that every element of a mix is clearly audible in this context.

Tip #2:  Find the Lead Element

It can sometimes be difficult to decide which element of a mix should be the focal point.  Instruments like guitars, vocals, synths, and drums often occupy a similar frequency range.  This causes things to clash, or mask one another.  When setting a balance between instruments, first consider which is the most important.  For most pop productions, this will likely be the vocal.  For instrumental productions, the drums are often to most prominent element in the mix.  To set these most critical levels, use the Core Production Workflow.  

First, be sure to enable Reveal's Critical Listening mode.  Now set the level of the lead instrument before bringing up the rest of the mix.  This should be somewhere between -3dB and -12dB.  Once a proper level is set, start to bring in the other elements.  This should be done in order of importance.  For a pop production the order will likely be vocals, drums, bass, guitars, synths, and auxillary instruments.  Be sure that the lead element remains the focal point of the mix throughout this process.  Once a pleasing balance has been set, turn off Critical Listening mode.  In this context, make any adjustments to the low frequency balance. 

Tip #3:  Move Faders

It can sometimes be difficult to find that spot where the guitar sits beautifully in the mix.  Perhaps the cymbals need to be tucked in behind the vocal, but you can't decide the proper level.  Try using this technique in moments of uncertainty.  

Move some faders!  Grab the problematic track and begin to adjust the level.  First, find the point at which the track become obviously too loud in context of the full mix.  Then reduce the level until the track becomes obviously too quiet.  You now have found a working range for this particular element.  If this range is very broad, there may be dynamic issues with the track.  In this case, compression may be necessary.  Try to narrow the range of usable level as much as possible.  Now, enable Reveal's Critical Listening mode and make any final adjustments.  Listening in this context allows engineers to set relative levels with a high degree of precision.  

Tip #4:  Take Breaks Often

When mixing, it is important to take breaks often.  The human ear is extremely sensitive to sound.  Short term ear fatigue can occur after only 6 minutes of listening.  This means that objectivity can be lost very quickly.  Use aFMonitor to avoid the effects of ear fatigue.  

Place aFMonitor on your DAW's master bus.  aFMonitor will now track the time you've been listening and notify you when its time to take a break.  Be sure to check aFMonitor before making any critical mix decisions.  If the listening timers have completed, it's time to take a break.  Simply stop playback and rest your ears.  aFMonitor will keep track of the time you've spent resting and let you know when it is okay to resume working.  

Tip #5:  Use Reference Mixes

It is important to use high quality reference material when mixing.  This allows you to hear how other engineer's mixes sound in your studio.  Beginning engineers will especially want to use this technique.  If you are having trouble setting levels, try using a reference mix.  

Find a song in a similar genre.  Make sure to get a high quality wav file, if possible at 96kHz 24 bit.  Listen for relative levels and emotional elements in the mix.  Reference mixes can act as a sonic template for a professional mix.  If your mix can compete with your reference material, you likely have a professional mix.  Using these tips engineers will be able to confidentally adjust relative levels and craft mixes which translate accurately to all speaker systems.