Corey asks a stupendous question:

“What would be a good way to even out dynamics in a quieter section, AND louder section, of a song without all sections of the song ending up the same volume? It seems like there should be an easier way than automating the compressors threshold on every track.”

First things first. Compression isn’t always the answer.

While I LOVE what compression can do for a track or a mix, I also know that it’s not a miracle worker, and there are other things to consider before you start making that compressor work overtime.

With that, here are four ways to balance out the loud and soft parts of a song (and yes, compression is a part of the equation):

1. Start With Instrumentation

Sometimes a song doesn’t work simply because the instrumentation is off.

Going from a whisper-quiet classical guitar to a heavy metal thrash-fest generally doesn’t work.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t work contrast and dynamic changes in to your songs (you definitely should), but if you make the changes TOO dramatic, you might have a hard time getting them to balance nicely in the mix.

So, for example, try adding in a piano and maybe some soft electric guitar swells to that classical guitar to get its energy level up…to prepare you for the thrashing that’s about to come.

2. The Volume Fader – The Unsung Hero

I say this a lot, but the better you get at setting levels in your mix, the less problems you’ll have.

There are SO many times that I’ve solved a mix issue simply by adjusting the faders and balancing the tracks a little better.

3. Don’t Forget About Automation

Compression is a great tool, but sometimes automating the volume of a track (or a mix) can give you better results.

In other words, simply turn up the quieter parts of the song to get them closer in volume to the louder parts.

4. Compress the Louder Parts

There’s this idea out there that the mix bus compressor needs to be working at all times, even on the quieter parts. Well hang on a second.

Set the compressor to do it’s thing on the louder sections, knocking off a few dB of gain reduction, but then leave the quieter parts alone (i.e. below the threshold).

By allowing the compressor to turn down the loud parts, you’re essentially turning UP the quieter parts.

But don’t ignore steps 1-3.

And when you get to compression, knowing HOW to set up that compressor is uber important.

I’ve gotcha covered. Check out Understanding Compression:

www.UnderstandingCompression.com

  • Andre

    Automation is my nemesis at the moment, unfortunately. I find it tedious and annoying to write. Any tips and tricks on how to automate effectively?

    • Hmm…one thing I like to do is automate sections, so I’ll select an entire verse and turn it up or down by a few dB. I don’t do a lot of “riding the fader.”

      • Andre

        I do that a lot too. I make the verses softer and the choruses louder. The thing is that sometimes its not a question of automating the whole section,,,

        Recently I mixed a black metal song – really dense arrangement, not much dynamic range and everything going at 100 miles an hour throughout. I got reasonable separation and most of the levels where I wanted them to be, but the snare was disappearing every time there was a blast beat section. So it was not a question of automating the entire section, I needed only the snare to be louder at certain points.

        I guess most of what I’m after is stuff like “Where do you start the automation?” and whether you should use groups. Like I realised just now that if I had grouped the snare top and snare bottom and automated the group instead of the individual tracks that would have been way easier than automating the two individual tracks…

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  • This is really relevant to one of the songs on the album I just finished. It’s a really dynamic ballad-like song overall, starting with some soft crooning low-gain electric guitars, and climaxing with a wall of high-gain rhythm guitars and strings. It sounded awesome, but when I went to actually master it in the context of the rest of the album, I found it was too quiet to start, so I had to go back to the mix since I didn’t want to squash the whole song with compression just to volume match the rest of the album.

    Ultimately, automation became my best friend and I was able to bring the different sections a little closer together in volume, while still retaining the dynamics that make the song move the way I wanted it to move.

    • I’m glad you went back and used automation than just squashing the crap out of it. 🙂

  • Andrew

    I use Automation Lately since there are so many things you can do with Automation and make it sound all “natural” in my opinion as oppose to compression (it’s boring though Lol, but I can ride a fader ALL DAY).

    I think I’ve been backing down on compression lately and only using it for “VERY SLIGHT” Dynamic control or a SLIGHT Gel to the track(s) to get a “commercialized sound” (I Like knocking off a Db or 2).

    Other than that, Cymbal swells (Like Joe’s Freebies that are Royalty Free! So Check them out!!!!) and a couple of “Transitional parts/build ups” like a Tambourine on the chorus sections only can sound nice if you want to add dynamics to a song! =)

    • Andrew!! Good to have you back, buddy.

      You’re totally right, automation is a great (and often underused tool) but it’s also super tedious at times.
      And for those of you wondering, those free cymbal swells are here:

      http://www.homestudiocorner.com/percussion

  • Smurf

    I guess I am old school, but I would rather go thru and MANUALLY turn up the sections that are too soft, or turn down the sections that are too loud. One new “feature” of PT is something that has been around for years, even in a free DAW like the Kristal Audio Engine, and that is the ability to split/break/slice a section and adjust the volume of only THAT section.

    Once you go thru & do this your compressors work way less, which helps create a more “open” sound. Automation is great, but I can go thru a track MUCH faster using this method than creating automation points in any DAW I have worked in.

    Just a IMHO, YMMV, yada yada type of post!

  • All of these suggestions are great. I’d add one other little bit of advice with respect to overall dynamics: One way to judge whether a mix’s levels are right is by listening to the relative levels of “focal points” in the song.

    What’s a focal point? At any point in time, one of the parts is usually the focus of the song, whether it’s the vocal or a lead or a drum fill. Use automation to keep these focal points about even in perceived volume (+/- a few dB) and make them louder than the rest of the elements in the mix (they are, after all, the focus at that time). Because your compressor will key off the loudest element in the mix (OK, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but I don’t want to go into it now), the compression will be more even and the overall mix will have fewer compression artifacts. As an added benefit, it will make the mastering process easier.

    I can hear the complaining now – “But, Frank, I’ve just reduced the drum volume to put them in the back of the soundfield. Now you’re telling me to turn up fills?” Yes. I’m telling you to bring the drums forward on fills, assuming the fill happens to be the focal point at that time. Drummers tend to hit fills harder than normal rhythm strokes, so we’re used to hearing them get louder – it works psycho-acoustically and a bit more volume won’t break the fourth wall. Same way with that killer bass run. Or that interstitial guitar lick. You don’t even have to increase their volume that much – you can also use automation to slap an EQ on the focal points to boost them in the presence band (3-6 KHz, season to taste) or turn down their reverb a bit. It will make them stand out without as much overall level change – we’re talking psycho-acoustics here, not numerical equality.

    Getting focal point levels right will go a long way towards making your mix even. And an even mix is one of the hallmarks of a good mix.

    • ALEXANDRE LOURENCO

      Good to read that!

      Once in a wihle I do something with some bass runs at the end of compass that to need to stand out a litte bit –  I’m a bassist :). But it was just a instinctive move, but now I know it makes more sense than I thought!

      Like the tips!

    • Interesting ideas. Thanks Frank!

  • Steve

    Hi Joe,

    I’ve only recently discovered your site, so thanks for the resource.

    As to the original question by Corey…

    Why not just mult out the quieter sections to new tracks and treat these tracks seperately? I know Mike Senior, author of “Sound on Sound” magazines mix rescue feature is a big advocate of this sort of technique.

    By the way, I recommend Mike’s ‘Mixing Secrets,,,’ book.

    Cheers,

    Steve from Cumbria, UK

    • ALEXANDRE LOURENCO

      Hi, Steve!

      I’m a big fan of SoundOnSound Magazine and and of Home Studio Corner! 

      I’m just a begginer in the mixing world, but I got a different point of view about add new tracks in this particular case…

      In this example you are dealing with entire sections and not with just one or two tracks, so, for me, it’s a more complicated way of work and it might be counterproductive. Imagine if you you have to add new tracks for every instrument of that section and apply new plugins to that tracks…. 
      Of course it depends on how many tracks you have to duplicate or add. In some cases it may not be so hard or complicated.

      It’s just a point of view! 

      What do you think?

      Cheers,

      Alex from Brazil

      • Steve

        Hi Alex,

        I’m only about 18 months in this journey, so I’m in no way any sort of expert.

        If I remember right, Cory’s original question on the podcast was in regards to a Drum track… I could very well be wrong though. The dynamic balancing of a whole song was a sub question after the main one – as I say I may be very wrong because I’ve listened to seven episodes today while driving my work van 🙂

        My suggestion was based on this memory and was really meant in relation to just the drum multitracks. I basically meant, mult the quieter sections of the drums, use the same – or different in appropriate – EQ etc and then compress the mults in a more suitable way.

        I get your point about adding masses of extra tracks if it was for every intsrument in a large project but I wasn’t really considering that at the time.

        Cheers,
        Steve

        • ALEXANDRE LOURENCO

          Ok, Steve! Now I understand your point! I didn´t remember right about the podcast anyway!
          It’s always good to discuss about things we like a lot! I’m only 6 months trying to learn something!

          And I’m glad that you replied my question! I hope we can keep in contact and you become an assiduous reader of this blog. Exchanging experiences with learning people is way too valuable!

          Best regards!

          Alex

          • I don’t know what assiduous means….but I like it! 🙂

            • Sorry if I used a unusual word! In portuguese we say “assĂ­duo” and it’s quite usual (i’m brazilian). Then I thought it was a common word in english as well.

              as·sid·u·ous   [uh-sij-oo-uhs]  Show IPA
              adjective1.constant; unremitting: assiduous reading.2.constant in application or effort; working diligently at a task;persevering; industrious; attentive: an assiduous student.

    • To multi-out the quieter sessions would make things more complicated, because you end up having twice as many tracks.
      Not a big deal, of course, but for some lazy people (like me), it might not be worth it. 🙂