How To Set Mixing Levels (+Volume Balancing Cheat Sheet!)

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  • How does genre affect mixing levels?
  • Learn how to achieve mix depth and glue through volume balancing.
  • What are the alternative methods for achieving mix balance?

In music production, mixing is one of the most important stages in the process. In mixing, we take the recorded elements from the production stage and, through volume balancing, EQ, compression & other effects, try to blend all the elements together to create a cohesive song.

The goal is that every element of the production has its perfect place in the mix and blends well with everything else.

This is a skill that can take a lot of time to master, as I’m sure you are well aware. The difficulty of learning how to mix well may have caused you to ask…

What is the Right Mixing Level for Each Instrument?

As much as I would like to give you a formula for this, the truth is it doesn’t exist. Every song is unique, so there is no one size fits all approach to volume balancing.

Music would be boring if we always set the guitars to the exact same level, and we would certainly lose something if every song had the drums equally loud regardless of style, mood, or genre.

However, factors such as the genre and arrangement of your song (including the instruments involved) can give you guidelines for achieving that perfect balance.

(If you’re confused about the mixing and mastering stages, you can find out more in Mixing vs Mastering: What’s The Difference?)

Why Setting Levels is Important

In the world of online production tutorials, there is not as much discussion about how to set levels, probably because it is not the sexiest part of the job.

This could lead you to believe that getting a good mix comes down to having the right plug-ins or using special techniques within your mix. While it is super fun to learn crazy mixing techniques, volume balancing is ultimately the most important part of a mix.

After all, a good volume balance of all your mix elements is what helps a song have a sense of cohesion – that feeling that each piece of the song fits together perfectly to form a complete work.

Any processing we do after this (EQ, compression, or effects such as reverb and delay) is used to help achieve that goal of creating the perfect spot for each mix element.

In his book, Mixing Secrets for the Small Studio, Mike Senior (writer for Sound on Sound) advises mixers to spend time at the beginning of the mixing process just setting levels.

He suggests that you work on getting the mix to sound as good as it possibly can with only level adjustments, panning adjustments, and high pass filtering before moving on to additional processing.

While this may seem difficult to do, the goal is not to have an amazing, finished mix at this stage. The reason this approach is important is that it helps you figure out what processing actually needs to be done on a mix, rather than just slapping EQ and compression on everything because you’ve seen others do it.

This also shifts your mindset towards viewing all the mixing tools we have as methods for achieving a better mix balance, which again is the most important part of any mix.

For example, let’s say you’re working on your initial balance, and you have a lead guitar part occurring at the same time as a lead vocal, but you’re having trouble getting it out of the way of the singer’s voice.

If you turn the guitar track up, this brings up some of the quieter notes so they are more audible, but the louder notes jump out too far and compete with the vocal’s space in the mix. Turning it down gets it out of the way the vocal, but now the quieter notes appear to have gone missing.

This would probably lead you to the conclusion that a compressor is needed on this track to reduce the dynamic range of the guitar performance. However, volume automation is much more precise and gives you an opportunity to really balance things by ear rather than relying solely on automatic gain reduction.

All of this is to say that volume balancing is an extremely important part of a mix and will inform the processing decisions you make going forward, so I think it is important we take a look at some techniques to help us get this right.

(If you’re totally new to compression, we’ve got you covered with Understanding Compression (Audio Compression For Dummies))

Guidelines for Setting Levels

Like I said earlier, there is, unfortunately, no one-size-fits-all formula for getting the perfect volume balance for every instrument in every mix situation.

There are, however, some general guidelines that can help you decide what to set your mixing levels at and get your mix on the right path!

1.) Genre Matters

The genre of the song you’re mixing can be helpful in determining where certain tracks’ levels may need to be. It is helpful to reference popular songs in the genre you are mixing and listen for common techniques used in them, especially if you are aiming to work at a commercial level.

For example, if you are mixing a pop song, you will find that most tracks in this genre have the lead vocal front and center. It almost has a feeling of being “on top” of the mix. If you’re mixing an alternative rock track, on the other hand, you’ll find often that the vocal feels more like it’s “in the mix,” like it’s blending in with the rest of the band as opposed to jumping out of it like a pop vocal.

If you are mixing for a client, the artist and/or producer may have a list of songs they were referencing while recording the song. Getting these reference tracks from them can also give you clues to the type of balance they’re looking for in their mix.

While referencing songs within a similar genre can be a helpful tool, I would advise you to view references as suggestions rather than hard and fast rules.

While there are techniques you will want to pull from these tracks and use in your mix, the reality is that every song has a unique arrangement, so there may be times where breaking from the norm is necessary because it sounds better in the context of your mix.

It is important to listen critically to all your mix elements to figure out the level they need to be at, but referencing other mixes within your genre will greatly aid in the decision-making process.

2.) Think About Mix Depth

When mixing, we often think about mix width or the panning of individual mix elements left to right across the stereo field. By creating a good volume balance, however, we can achieve a sense of mix depth.

The level of a sound is one way that we perceive the distance of an object. Think about when you hear an ambulance driving down the street, for example.

As the ambulance gets closer to you, the sound of its siren becomes much louder, and then quieter again as it passes you and moves farther away.

This same principle is applied to pro-quality mixes. If every single element of a mix is loud, it can feel like everything is right in your face. This is overwhelming and fatiguing for someone to listen to. A listener is really only able to concentrate on a few things at a time within a song, so mixing engineers have to decide what is most important and put that at the “front” (i.e. at the loudest level in the mix).

This then allows other instruments to sit slightly “behind” or in the “middle” of those main elements as support (slightly lower in level). Other elements are pushed to the “back” to add more mix depth and ambient texture to the mix (the lowest in level).

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Listening to your track and determining what elements should be at the front, middle, and back can help you figure out the right levels to set your tracks at. Many mixers start their balancing process by soloing the most important elements first and setting these levels before anything else.

They then start bringing the other elements into the mix by order of importance. In a pop mix, for example, this means you would probably start with your lead vocal, drums (specifically kick and snare), and bass first as you would want those to be front and center, driving the rhythm and emotion of the song and grabbing people’s attention.

Slightly behind that, you would probably have synth or guitar leads, and synth pads or rhythm guitars, as these are all supporting the main elements of the mix.

Even further back, you might have some additional synth pads or other ambient elements (reverses, risers, etc.) that do not need to be at the forefront but add more depth to the mix.

Note that this relationship may change throughout the song. Many rock songs, for example, have a guitar solo after the second chorus which is intended to fill the same space that the vocals were just occupying, so you would put it towards the front of the mix.

3.) Work to Achieve Mix Glue

You may have heard people talk about trying to “glue a mix together”. Since most elements in a modern mix are recorded in isolation, and not with a group of musicians playing in the same room, part of our goal in mixing is to create the feeling that these separate elements really are playing together in the same space.

While this can be achieved by using effects such as reverb and delay, the actual level or volume of each mix element will ultimately play a big part in creating this sense of cohesion.

Creating mix glue comes down to making sure that no one element is too far in front or behind everything else in a mix.

While you still want some difference of level between each track in order to create mix depth, pushing something too far forward or back in the mix will make it feel disconnected from everything else going on.

For example, if you push your lead vocal too far out front, it can almost sound like someone is singing to a karaoke track rather than as a part of a group.

This has less to do with the literal fader level of all your tracks, and more with using your ears to judge if something feels too disconnected from the rest of the mix.

It can take some practice to get a sense for when a mix sounds “glued together”, but the more you listen critically to your mixes, the more you’ll have a sense for how to shape the parts to fit together in a way that feels right.

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4.) Use Alternative Methods

As mentioned earlier in this article, volume is not the only way to get your track to the right mixing level. Tools such as panning and subtractive EQ also help create a good mix balance.

While panning is used to create a sense of mix width across the stereo field, it can also allow individual mix elements to have their own space in the mix. Fir example, let’s say you have a lead guitar melody and a synth melody happening at the same time.

There’s a good chance these parts are both going to be occupying the mid-range of the frequency spectrum. If left in the center, one part might mask the other, and they will be competing to be heard. If you were to pan one element slightly to the left and another to the right, each element now has its own space in the mix. Now each part can be more easily heard amidst all the other mix elements.

Using subtractive EQ, or reducing the level of certain frequency ranges, can also help create balance.

This is why a high pass filter is often used to reduce the level of low frequencies in instruments other than the kick drum and bass. With fewer elements occupying the low end, the kick and bass stick out and are heard much more easily.

A Note on Overall Mix Level

As you’re working to achieve your volume balance, you also want to be conscientious of your overall mix level. You need to make sure that the sum of all your mix elements is not creating clipping and distortion on the master bus.

Generally, you should aim for your master output level to be around -4 to -6 on your meters. This gives the mastering engineer some headroom to work with when they add their processing, leaving plenty of room for final boosts before the song is distributed and uploaded to streaming services.

(“Stem mastering” is a relatively new mastering practice that is similar to mixing but happens after the mixing process. Confused? Read more in Stem Mastering vs Stereo Mastering (Breaking It Down))

In Summary

As we’ve seen, setting mix levels is a very important part of the mixing process, and informs the other decisions you make in your mix. While mixing isn’t just about “setting the faders correctly”, doing this early on in the process will help you figure out the role each part plays in the mix, leading to a greater sense of clarity and cohesion in the final mixdown.

While there is no formula for setting each instrument’s mixing level, you can use the genre of the song and your perception of mix depth to guide you in deciding how to set the levels for each part in your song.

You can also use alternative methods such as panning and subtractive EQ to help you achieve the right balance. If you get this part of the mixing process right in the beginning, I can tell you from personal experience that it will make the rest of the process much smoother. Happy mixing!