Welcome to Day 22 of 31 Days to Better Recordings.

Have you ever played the red light game?

No, not “red light, green light.” I’m referring to the game you play while you’re mixing a song. You’re so close to being finished…you can taste it. You make a little tweak here, a little fader move there, then BAM.

The red clip light goes off.

You hunt down the light, click on it to make it go away, then adjust the level of that track down a bit. Okay, crisis averted, back to mixing.

But wait, now the mix doesn’t sound quite as good as before. Since you had to turn that one track down (because it was clipping), you need to turn down all the other tracks a little bit to make everything balanced again.

20 minutes later…the mix is starting to sound good again. Rock on!

“Hmm…that bass part should cut through a little more,” you say to yourself. So you adjust the compressor for a few minutes. It starts to sound awesome, then? BAM!

Another clip light. You click the light off, then turn down the bass. Now it sounds too quiet, so you have to go turn everything else down again.

20 minutes later, it sounds okay, but not as good as it was sounding before. You’re feeling a bit cranky. If feels like you take two steps forward, then the stupid clip light makes you take three steps back. You spend more time recovering from clipping than you do actually mixing the song.

Time to call it quits and go watch Seinfeld.

How to Set Levels for Mixing

The problem here, obviously, is that you’ve set the levels of your tracks way too high. In your excitement to get started on the mix, you didn’t give any thought to the levels. You just brought everything up until it sounded nice and loud to you, and you never looked back.

I’ve written about setting levels for mixing before, and I recommend you read that article. Everyone wants mixes that are loud and full, but you won’t get there by running your levels too hot. On the contrary, actually. You’ll end up simply frustrating yourself to no end. Perhaps you’ll never even finish the mix, because it becomes more of a chore than anything.

The Key to Good Mixing Levels

There are no rules or formulas I can give you. I can’t say, “Set the kick drum to -9 dB on the meter, and the snare drum to -5 dB.” Strict rules like that never work in the audio world. You simply can’t create a formula for a great mix.

Most of us learned how to set levels for mixing by playing the red light game…a LOT. Over time (for me it was several years), we eventually learn our lesson and adjust our mixing habits.

I’d love to save you a few years of playing the red light game. I’d love it if you could skip over all that frustration and start getting better mixes.

The key to good levels is so simple it almost seems silly to even talk about it, but this single task has improved my mixes tremendously.

What is it?

TURN UP YOUR MONITORS!!!

See? I told you it was simple.

Rather than turning up the individual tracks in your session, before you start mixing ANYTHING, turn up the volume knob on your monitors (or headphones). If the knob is normally at 9:00, turn it up to 2:00.

The louder your monitors are, the less likely you are to turn up your tracks to an inappropriate level.

I’m certainly not advocating listening at ridiculously loud volumes. That’s not the case at all. What I am encouraging you to do is to set to turn up the volume so that you can hear things clearly without cranking up the individual tracks.

This will force you to keep the individual fader levels of your tracks much lower than you would have before…and you’ll find that you’re hardly ever playing the red light game anymore.

Quick Thought on Mastering

You may think that having such dramatically lower levels in your mix will make your mixes too quiet, and that it will be too difficult to accommodate for this in mastering. I found it to be completely the opposite.

All of the mixes from my album Out of Indiana, were mixed using this approach, so the mixes themselves weren’t terribly loud. When I sent them to my mastering engineer, he had plenty of dynamic range to work with, and he was able to make them sound nice and loud without making them sound squashed and over-compressed.

Keep that in mind when you mix.

Day 22 Challenge

Today’s challenge is obvious: turn up your monitors! Kindly report back here and let us know if it helps.

  • Yeliseol Falsified Road

    You are right, best is to mix at a lower volume around -6db or lower. It just works fine for me. No messing with the individual faders.

  • So true. Initial volume has NOTHING to do with levels after mastering

    • That’s a hard one to convince people of. 🙂

  • makes hella sense.

  • Hey Joe! Maybe I’m asking something completely stupid but I must ask anyway. =)

    I truly understand everything about you said about monitors volume. I just don’t feel secure about what levels are ok to start mixing. I mean, if I bring all tracks to -30db (I’m choosing this number randomly) and work at this state is it ok? Is there any difference if I work on -15db or -75db? Would be true to assume that for more tracks I should start mixing at lower levels? Example: if its vocals and guitar maybe it’s ok to turn everything to -10db and if it’s an entire orchestra maybe it’s better to start at -100db?

  • Oscar

    Question? What about if I lower the master level of the mix, instead of bringing down the track? Is this improper?

    • It’s not good practice. While it essentially does the same thing, your goal
      is to keep the master at “0” and turn your faders down.

      • Coroneloscar

        Thanks Joe!

      • Laura J

        But can you please explain “why” it’s not OK to use the master fader, when you just said it is essentially “the same thing”?

  • Arjun Ramesh

    It’s funny that you mentioned this, Joe. I wish I had read this a couple of days ago. Unfortunately, I have been a bit busy and was working on a mix, ironically. I was mixing my own stuff. When I began setting levels, I noticed that when I felt that I had decent levels set, I looked at the Master Fader and saw that it was only hitting about 1/2 way. I thought that this was a bit too quiet. So, I grouped all of the audio tracks together and brought them up a bit. When I started compressing tracks and eq’ing them, of course the clip indicators went off on a couple of them. So, I had to back peddle and find the clipped track and lower the volume. It did not clip anymore, but now, my mix sounded different, especially with the wet to dry ratio of reverb tracks. This was getting pretty annoying. It took me the whole day to mix one song. I am going to go back and listen again, as I already have a few tweaks that I want to make to it, after reading some helpful hints on this website. I tend to turn down my headphones, because I was told that if I am able to hear all of the tracks and they sound balanced at a low level, then they will sound that way at loud levels, as well. So, it had become a habit of mine to do that. But, I will try your recommendation and see what results I get. Thanks.

  • Bernard

    Hey Ricky, why don’t you just use the master fader? A lot less hassle for a better result.

    • Ricky

      Well, lowering the master fader won’t fix the issue of individual tracks clipping. It will only lower the level on your mix bus. It’s generally considered a better idea to leave your master at 0 for the sake of gain staging.

      • Bernard

        Actually it does! Because Pro Tools has a very high resolution internal mixing bus (32 bit floating point in LE, 48bit fixed in HD), it wont matter if you clip while mixing, so long as no plugins clip and your not using discrete outputs (assuming mixing in the box here). Basically the individual tracks are not actually clipping at 24 bits, but the output converter starts to clip. If you simply drop the level going to the converter using the master fader, you effectively stop any clipping. 

        The master fader in pro tools does not affect your gain stage at all, and leaving it at 0db does not make a difference either in the digital realm.

        Here is a great article on the topic, I highly suggest giving it a read, and as you’re a HD user make sure you read the second page too!

        http://brianleewhite.com/2009/10/13/master-faders-demystified-part-1/ 

        • Ricky

          No, it still won’t help any clipping before the master bus. Pulling down the master fader will lower the level being sent to the DA converters, you’re right. But that’s all it will do. And it definitely affects your gain staging. The point of having more headroom (higher bitrate) on the master is so you don’t have to bring it down. It can handle the increase of level from all your audio tracks mixing together.

          In fact if you follow proper gain staging guidelines, you shouldn’t even have issues with clipping. And your mixes will sound infinitely better. Let me ‘splain:

          All audio equipment is optimized to function at 0VU. On most AD converters, that is usually calibrated to somewhere between -18dBfs and -14dBfs. Although there is a decent amount of headroom there, the equipment itself sound best at 0VU, around -16dB below the maximum level in Pro Tools. That’s right about where the green section on the meter turns to yellow.

          There is a tendency to record and mix waaayyyy too hot. A lot of people record with the meters nearing 0dBfs in PT (or even clipping), then push up faders because they “can’t hear the acoustic guitar, or the kick drum, or the vocals, or the…” (You get the point.) Then they pull down the master fader because it’s clipping. At this point they’ve boosted the signal twice (once at the preamp when tracking and once at the fader while mixing) only to lower the level when summing all their tracks together. That’s like driving with the parking brake on. You’re working against yourself.

          It’s simply much more effective (and better sounding) to track your audio at low levels, lower faders to mix rather than boost them, and leave the master bus fader alone. And you’ll hardly ever have to clear a clip again.

          • Bernard

            You should really check out that link in my last comment http://brianleewhite.com/2009/10/13/master-faders-demystified-part-1/ (which I just realized didn’t work because of the space I put behind it, my bad). You’ve just said ‘No, it still won’t help any clipping before the master bus.’ There is no such thing mixing inside Pro Tools. The master fader isnt controlling some another layer or bus of information, its controlling the mix summing bus itself. While mixing, you are not going to clip the mixing bus, so each track that is reporting as clipping is not clipping the summing bus. The only reason the indicator is there is for recording or using outboard equipment.

            I know what you’re getting at with your explanation, and I do not normally clip the master while mixing. I completely agree with your points, all are valid (again I’m talking mixing not recording like you stated in your example, clipping there is valid). I was stating that if you do happen to clip a single track [mixing], if you bring the master down and it is no longer clipping there is no more distortion/clipping. Try it yourself if you don’t believe me.

            Again, moving the master fader won’t affect the mix like a master fader will on a traditional console. It’s in Pro Tools for a reason.

            There is even a little test in that link, I highly suggest reading that and the second page.

          • Dany

            You’re so right!!! So fuckin right, And I hate that people actually argue that.

  • it may seem a little taboo, but on some of the tracks that are most likely to clip (kick, snare) i use a soft clip plug-in. to my ears, the track sounds the same with or without the plug-in. i don’t use it so i don’t have to mix carefully and thoughtfully, but more to catch anything that i don’t want to squish the life out of with a compressor (i prefer a pretty natural snare sound). i also use it on my master bus (right after a SSL master bus compressor set with a low ratio and like 3db of reduction). this helps keep the track pretty tame without (to my ears) any sort of negative effects.

  • You’ve hit the nail on the head, Joe. It’s all a question of headroom. Essentially, when you’re mixing you shouldn’t have to worry about the headroom of the mix bus.

    These days I also mix aiming for the foreground parts (vocals, kick, snare) to roughly hover around -24dBfs. Starting the mix around here gives me enough level to keep my meters and dynamic processors useful, and enough headroom to hot have to worry about the mix bus.

    I wrote a bit more about monitoring gain staging a year ago here:
    http://kimlajoie.wordpress.com/2009/06/18/monitoring-gain-staging/

    And a more technical explanation of dynamic range and headroom here:
    http://kimlajoie.wordpress.com/2009/09/03/dynamic-range-and-headroom/

    -Kim.

  • Ricky

    A great way to decrease levels without destroying your mix:

    Create a single group for all your tracks!

    All the faders will decrease by the same amount. Pro Tools has one already set up titled “All”.

    • This works well ONLY if you don’t have automation on any of your faders. If you do, then you’ll only turn down the tracks that DON’T have automation when you turn down the whole group.

      • Bernard

        Hey guys, first time commenting here,

        If your clipping a track or two, simply pull down the master fader until it is not clipping. This way you preserve all your automation etc and can easily drop a db and keep your mix the same way. Just be keep an eye on your plugins, as they sum differently to the tracks. Also, I’m talking pro tools LE or M, not HD.

        Hope that helps! It’s a very useful tool.

      • Preshan

        +1 to Ricky.

        I do this immediately after tracking, long before I’ve thought about any automation. I use the “All” group and bring all the faders down to about -5dB before I start mixing. Then if I want something louder, I don’t have to push it into +1, +2dB which can be clip territory if you’ve tracked hot signals. I’m forcing myself to get into the habit of turning stuff down instead of cranking whatever I want to hear in a mix.

        Then I can turn up my monitors to make up for the decrease in fader level.

        But yes, I know this really messes up stuff if you’ve automated half your tracks…

      • Ricky

        Very true Joe. I’ve gotten around that in Pro Tools HD by almost ALWAYS automating with Volume Trim rather than the normal volume automation. This allows me to remain in complete control of the faders at all times.

        Would it work in LE to just group the automation as well and pull down all the automation for all tracks at once using the trim tool?

        Although, as both you and Preshan pointed out, pulling down the overall level is normally a step to take at the BEGINNING of the mix… 😉

  • I disagree. So does Bobby Owsinski (http://bobbyowsinski.blogspot.com/2010/10/dangers-of-loud-playback-levels.html).

    I mix faster and better at a very low volume. I have to work harder at low volume. My mix choices have to “Go big or go home” when it’s quiet. Everything sounds good when it’s loud, the trick is to make things sound good at a lower listening level (see Bobby’s #4).

    Do I check at a high volume? Absolutely. But 90% of my mix is monitored quietly. How low? A normal conversation is easy to have and prevents me from hearing the mix. Works for me.

    • Christopher w

      To clarify, I’m sure Joe means turn it up a bit not loud per say… but about 60 dB-70 dB (totally an estimate). over 80dB is when you start to damage you ears if I recall.

      I usually do all my mixing at low levels and then turn it slightly up (one or two square level-things on a mac) when I set my faders. I will then have a little break and don’t even think about the song so I have a fresh pair of ears (sort of) and then go back to my mix and crank it up as if I was listening to my favourite song to make sure everything sounds right.

    • Phil Harmon

      I believe the essence of today’s tip was to compensate lower “fader” levels by increasing the monitor volume level. Not actually listening at higher db’s. Therefore, preserving room on the faders to increase channels that need it.

    • Hey Randy,

      I’m with Bobby, too. I’m not advocating LOUD levels. I’m advocating setting the monitors to a proper volume so you’re not cranking up all your faders.

      This post in no way suggest mixing at a high volume. It’s about gain-staging. Use your monitor volume to turn things up to a proper level, RATHER than the individual faders. Make sense?

    • To quote what I wrote in the article: “I’m certainly not advocating listening at ridiculously loud volumes. That’s not the case at all. What I am encouraging you to do is to set to turn up the volume so that you can hear things clearly without cranking up the individual tracks.”

    • Maybe the confusion comes from the title of this post. Choosing a level at which to mix can be done independently of gain staging. Certainly you want to give yourself enough head room to keep from clipping. But simply turning up the monitor volume does not guarantee that you won’t clip. In fact, the spec for film mixing is 85dB SPL
      (or 83dB SPL, depending on how you measure it) but the “louder” TV mixes are set for 78dB SPL. I’m not suggesting home recording enthusiasts are likely to calibrate their monitoring setup, but I think everyone needs to pay attention to the relationship between their digital level in dB FS and their monitoring volume level in dB SPL. In other words, mix headroom (gain staging) is inside the box, monitor level is at your ears. Turning up the monitor volume doesn’t inherently give you more headroom. And thanks for giving me the opportunity to raise this concern.

  • Frank Adrian

    I figured this out after mixing my first dozen songs or so (OK, so I’m a slow learner) and having to turn down/re-level tracks about a half dozen times in each. I usually don’t have to reset the mix now more than once per song…

    Hmmm. Maybe I should turn the monitors up some more.

  • Joe R.

    As I was reading Today’s Post, I was listening to random music playing from my PC.
    “Change” from Joe Gilders “Out of Indiana” kicked in….. It was louder than the previous professionally released song!

    It sounds great Joe!

  • Everett Meloy

    It was just luck that I started mixing with headphone level up so didn’t have that problem. Until on one recording I assumed the level was still the same and everything you said was there. I honestly thought that there was something wrong with my DAW and put the project away. Later I was working on something else and discovered the volume level lower setting. Such a good lesion.

  • Matt Needham

    I’m slowly making a habit of this. Your article on setting recording levels with Digital Interfaces really helped me, too. With recordings around -15db, I rarely have any problems with clipping. One problem I fear is that since I don’t have true monitors (consumer stereo system on a dorm room desk), turning up the volume will increase the effect of the frequency response in my actual speakers.

  • Eric

    Great advice Joe! Hey, who did you use for mastering your album? How can he or she be reached?

    Thanks!

  • Matt

    hmmm, not sure on this one. I usually mix at the same level that I prefer to “listen” to music at. Of course, I turn something up when I am checking EQ or compression or reverb tails and such. Overall, I don’t know that mixing with the monitors up is good or bad, it’s just different from what I would do. Actually, when trying to mix in a vocal, I usually turn DOWN the monitors so that I can barely hear the music to see if the vocal is sitting too far on top or below, as my ears tend to compress loud sounds in general, this is helpful to me. Just a thought….

    • Hey Matt,

      I’m not talking about listening at a louder volume. What I’m referring to is turning up the MONITORS instead of turning up the fader.

      Every beginner I talk to has problems with clipping because he keeps turning up his faders to be able to hear everything. Turning up the monitors INSTEAD will solve this problem.

      I’m not talking about listening at deafening volumes…or even LOUD volumes. I’m talking about using the monitor volume to achieve the level you want, NOT the faders. Make sense?

      • Matt

        Hey Joe,
        Ah yes, sorry, I misunderstood. Thanks for clarifying your point.

        (Hey, If you get time, I e-mailed you using the “contact” tab concerning “work with me”. Sorry to use the forum to let you know.)

        Thanks again Joe!!

  • Phil Harmon

    Joe,

    Absolutely one of your easiest and best tips. I agree with you that if you can get used to setting up proper levels at first, one’s mixing life gets dramatically simpler. My mixes have become easier, more consistent and with plenty of dynamic range by simply backing off the faders and turning up the monitors in the beginning.

  • All good points.

    Would you recommend setting a general volume level based on a reference/commercial recording?

    • Sure, but I wouldn’t even think about it that hard. Just turn it up. 🙂

    • Captain,
      This is exactly what I do to set the level too, particularly the drum track set to be slightly lower than a reference track, and I don’t really have problem on clipping. On the opposite, I have problem that I always wanted to turn down individual tracks and ended up having the final mix too quiet and I have to turn up the master fader so it sounded similar to reference recording.