VU-meterWhat was your biggest issue when you mixed your first song? I bet you a nickel it was getting the levels right.

You probably got half-way through the mixing process, and suddenly several of your tracks are clipping, or your master fader is clipping. So you turn the clipped tracks down a bit. Well now the mix doesn’t sound right, so you try to turn every other track down by the same amount. Still doesn’t sound right.

You go back to work, re-balancing everything. Before you know it, your tracks are clipping again. You think to yourself, “Did I really turn these up that much again?” You slam your fists into your desk…or kick the dog…or yell at the cat…or maybe you do all of these at the same time.

Welcome to the world of mixing.

You are not alone. This was my experience, and I bet (another nickel) that if you asked any experienced engineer, he’d share a similar story of his own frustrated journey.

My Advice to You

This is the part where I could go into a list of techniques for keeping your track levels down to prevent clipping, but you know what? I’m not gonna do that.

Why? Because I think there is one single reason why people have such trouble with clipping during mixing. I’ll get to that in a second.

The first thing you can do to make your life easier as a mix engineer is to make sure you don’t record everything at a super-hot level. I talk about this in Setting Levels for Recording.

You don’t have to peg the meters to get a great-sounding recording. If you just get a decent level, you’ll be much better off when it comes time to mix.

Sometimes you don’t have control over the levels. Perhaps you’re only mixing the song, not recording it. If so, then you’re at the mercy of the recording engineer who recorded the tracks.

Okay, back to getting rid of all that nasty clipping on your tracks. My suggestion to you?

Turn up your monitors/headphones!!

Seriously, this is the biggest reason I get clipping on my mixes, I keep the volume knob too low on my monitors and headphones. Rather than turn up the monitor volume, I push up the track levels in my mix. That’s a recipe for failure. (It’s also a recipe that will produce more dog-kicking outbursts if you don’t fix it.)

Let’s say you’re mixing a rock tune, and you’re listening to just the drums. Before pushing the kick drum up to zero or (even worse) above zero, reach for the volume knob on your speakers or headphones instead.

You’ll be able to hear everything better, and your mixing levels will be well below clipping. Remember this next time you’re mixing. I bet (yet another nickel) it will help.

Photo by mockstar.

37 Responses to “Setting Levels for Mixing”

  1. johnjurjus

    Where can I find people involved and active in home recording like myself and who are willing to exchange home recordings.
    I like to listen to what others are creating in this field so I can compare my recordings against people with this same hobby.(not professionals)
    My music is of the 50-60 years and is mainly guitar music.

  2. tobybaxley

    What is your advice for calibrating and balancing studio monitors? I've heard of setting them to 85dB white/pink noise. Is there an easier way to do this short of going out and buying an SPL meter? Sorry if you've already posted a tutorial on this. I'm just trying to catch up.

    • Joe Gilder

      I don't think you can REALLY calibrate without using an SPL meter. However,
      if you can just find one to borrow, you can run pink/white noise through
      your monitors, then just mark your volume knob and show where 85 dB is. Then
      you can give the SPL meter back to whomever you borrowed it from.

  3. Charlie

    Great Post. It's abundantly important to prevent clipping and you give some great ideas.

    However, in my experience I find it really important to also spend a good chunk of time mixing with my monitors at a low level. Everything sounds like it has a lot of energy at high volumes on nice speakers. Turn it down and it loses the power.
    If you can make a mix have lots of energy when listening at low volumes you know you really have the track working. (of course also making sure you aren't clipping anywhere in the signal chain)


    • Joe Gilder

      Good point, Charlie. You certainly want to check your mixes at all volumes.
      However, for *setting levels*, which is the topic of this post, you need to
      crank 'em up.

  4. Dirk

    that -6dB tip is golden !! Paul Frindle always talks about that on gearslutz.
    suddenly you HEAR the reverb and the delays !! same goes for comp & EQ.
    it's magic..

  5. Name

    Joe, PLEASE don't ever kick your dog. If you do, i hope he kicks right back. 🙂 Love and thanks for all this!!!m (Except the dog-kicking part….) steffie

    • Joe Gilder

      I don’t know, Neil. I had a session today, and I STILL had to stop myself several times from turning up the faders. The singer wanted more guitar, so rather than turning the guitar up, I turned the vocal down and turned his HEADPHONES up.

      So simple, but it helps tremendously.

  6. Michael W

    For a second I thought you were talking about me, then I realized you were! I guess I didn’t realize how much room I really have and don’t always have to hit ‘0’ all the time with everything.

    Another great little read.

  7. @theaudiogeek

    One trick, for getting your monitor level right. Start with your snare top, make that peak around -12 on the master, turn up your monitors so that snare is loud and clear, or just below.

    Alternately, compress the bass guitar and have that set to about -12 on your master.

    Build up your mix around that.
    Take breaks.

  8. steve.h

    Excellent advice! I’d further recommend that before you sit down and mix anything, calibrate your monitors to 85db white/pink noise, and mark that on your volume knob. That way, at least you have a reference volume, and at 85db, you’ll know when your hearing is flattest.

  9. Rich Huxley

    Good advice!
    I must add though that plugins too have their sweet-spots, so don’t set too low.

    A good piece of advice I read is to make sure (particularly if you’re mixing ITB) that at EVERY point in the chain, make sure you’re not going above 6db below zero… this should ensure that you’re not clipping BETWEEN sample points. Inter-sample clipping is part of what contributes to the congestedness of ITB mixes. Hear the openness in your mixes by keeping things below -6db on the way into busses and plugins.


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