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Mixing: Where to start? - Set all of your tracks to the same level?

If you don't know where to start mixing a multitrack recording, then often having some plan, even a crazy one, is better than having no plan at all.


A common question I am asked is, "With which instrument should I start mixing?"

I can think of at least four good answers to this, and possibly a fifth. I have already covered the vocal, drums, the most important instrument, and starting with random levels. In the last day of this working week, I will cover one more option that may seem just a little crazy.

Clearly, some of the tracks in your multitrack recording will be more important than others. The vocal, for instance, must be more important than the floor tom (unless you're mixing Sing, Sing, Sing!).

But setting levels according to the relative importance of each track doesn't work. You can try it and see for yourself - list each track in order of importance, then set the most important at 0 dB, then all the others in descending 1 dB intervals. You'll get an interesting mix that might tell you something about the song you're working on, but it will demonstrate that there is only a mild correlation between importance and level for any track.

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What you can do however is start from an assumption that there was a reason why every track was recorded, so each track deserves equal consideration. Most mixing engineers will audition tracks individually, to get a feel for the components of a song, and to look for any problems that may need correction. So why not go one stage further and mix all of the tracks at the same level? This of course is just a starting point. You will raise some tracks in level and lower others until your mix is perfect (adding processors and effects to taste along the way).

So you might think that setting all the faders to the same level will achieve this. But it won't. The tracks are probably recorded to different levels, and in any case the recording level will have been judged according to the peaks, not to the subjectively-heard loudness of each instrument or vocal.

What you need is... a VU meter!

VU (Volume Unit) meters were developed way back in the history of audio. I mean way, way back. They were superseded by meters that display peaks more accurately, which is essential for successful clip-free digital recording.

However, a VU meter does show the subjective loudness of a signal quite well. The level you see on the meter corresponds closely to the level you feel that you are hearing.

So, armed with a VU meter plug-in, you can indeed set all of your tracks to the same level. -10 dB on the faders would probably be a good starting point. You will quickly realize which tracks need to recede into the background, and which need to become more prominent.

Of course, this is far from being the only way to start out on a mix. But it is a plan. And having a plan - whatever plan - is, in most aspects of life, far more productive than having no plan at all. Try it!

By David Mellor Friday March 9, 2012