Setting levels correctly has the ability to make or break a mix. Many engineers will tell you that the most important thing in mixing is editing the sonic attributes, which is using EQ, compression and other plugins to change the sonics of a sound. However, I once heard world-renowned audio engineer Ken Lewis (Credits include: Snoop Dogg, Beyonce, Eminem, Mariah Carey) say that editing the sonics of a sound comes secondary to setting levels correctly in a mix. I would completely agree. I think that setting levels correctly is the most important thing to be done in a mix. When your levels are set correctly you are halfway to a finished mix. If everything is in its place before the sonic work is done it will make it much easier for you to decide if a sound needs any EQ or compression work. With that being said I will tell you that setting the levels correctly is what almost all new engineers struggle with. Many new engineers believe “the louder the better” so they start off their mix pushing the faders and cranking the volume, which is the exact opposite of what should be done. You should begin your mix at lower levels and do the fine editing and tweaking first. Leave the cranking to the mastering stage.
The good news about setting levels correctly is that it is so simple. In mixing you have so many knobs, controls, plugins and sends. A new engineer will be completely lost to all of this. But in setting levels there isn’t much to be confused about. You only have one control for this process; the fader, shown below. The engineer only has two possible options when using a fader: move it up or move it down. Simple, right? Moving the fader up will increase the Decibels (dB, the unit by which sound is measured) of a sound, making it louder in the mix. Moving the fader down will decrease the decibels of a sound, making it quieter in the mix. With that being said let’s move on to the process of setting levels correctly.
There is no perfect way to set the levels in a mix but each engineer will tell you that he has his own technique. I will share mine with you as a starting point for your own mixes. I predominately mix Hip-Hop/Rap and Trap music. In these genres the loudest instruments are the Kick/808 and the Snare. However, in genres such as Rock and Folk this is not the case so it is important to study and know your genre well. I will give you my technique for Hip-Hop/Rap and you can carry these tips and techniques over to your genre of choice.
I first turn every single sound in the mix down all the way so that when I hit play I hear nothing. To do this, grab every fader of each sound and drag it down until it cannot go down any further. Then select a section of the song where almost all the instruments are playing, usually the hook, and put this section on loop so that it plays continuously. Then, I begin with the most important, most predominant instrument in the mix, which like I said before in my genre this is the 808. I grab the fader on the 808 track and I move that up until the 808 signal peaks at around -10 dB. I do this because I know that after everything else is brought into the mix the Master fader will peak around -6 or -7 dB. After the 808 has been set, I move on to the next most important instrument, the Kick. This is where you will learn that every mix is different. The kick must be brought up in relation to the 808. I cannot give you an exact dB because it will depend on your track and what type of sound you are going for. With that being said, I bring up the kick until it gels well with the 808. I then move on to the hihat, open hats, and crashes and bring those up in relation to the kick and 808, always making sure they can be heard but are a bit quieter than the kick and 808. I do this with every sound in my drum kit EXCEPT the snare, I set the snare’s level last. After all the drum sounds have been brought up and are sitting well together (everything can be heard but nothing is louder than the 808/Kick), I move on to the instruments (strings, piano, brass, synths). I choose the most important instrument in the mix and bring that up first. Making sure that each note it plays can be heard. I set the level carefully so that it sits, generally, underneath the 808/Kick and about even with the rest of the drum kit. I then choose the next most important instrument and bring that up in relation to the first instrument so that it too can be heard but doesn’t overpower the first instrument. I do this with the rest of the instruments going from most important to least important. After the instruments are finished I use the same technique for my FX (rises, chirps, chants). Choosing the most important and bringing it up then working my way to the least important. A classic mistake by young engineers is mixing the rises much too loud or much too quiet. If the rise is too quiet it does not add anticipation and is useless. If the rise is too loud it is obnoxious and will distract the listener terribly. You must set the rises just right to add anticipation but not overpower everything else. After the FX are sitting nicely and all the drums, instruments, and FX can be heard in the mix I return to the Snare. I grab the snare’s fader and bring it up even with, or sometimes slightly above the 808 so that it is the loudest sound in the mix, even if only slightly louder. This will make the groove of the track very easy to feel.
After these steps are complete you are finished setting levels correctly. Now you have what is called a “Rough Mix”. While it is a lot to take in at once, the entire process should only take a few minutes. The most professional engineers can finish setting levels in about 2 or 3 minutes. Remember, you never want your master fader to reach 0 dB in the mixing stage. This is a classic mistake by young engineers. You must give the mastering engineers room to work with. Leave the peak of a mix at about -7 or -8 dB. It will take several mixes before you are comfortable with this process. This is called “training your ear” and every engineer must go through this stage. But don’t worry, as long as you continue to study your genre and practice on your own mixes your ear will train itself in no time.