How to set levels in a mix (reference tracks, static mix, automation & more)

How to set levels in a mix (reference tracks, static mix, automation & more)Setting the levels of the different instruments in your song is a fundamental part of the mixing process. Whilst exactly how you should set your levels is very subjective, there are a few key areas that we can discuss which will help you find the right way to set levels in your mix.

Setting levels in your mix

A common misconception is that you should aim for each of the tracks in your mix to sound equally as loud. In reality, there should be variation between your levels. It’s OK for some things to sound louder or quieter than others. How levels are set varies greatly by genre, producer, decade etc. But in most cases, the lead vocals will likely be the loudest track in a mix. For me, the next loudest part of the mix after the vocals would usually be the snare drum. But for others, the snare may appear relatively low in the mix. It all depends on how you want your mix to sound.

Of course, if you’re new to mixing, then it’s perfectly normal to think, ‘I don’t know how I want my mix to sound’. That’s where reference tracks can come in really handy, for beginners and experienced producers alike.

Reference tracks

A reference track is a mixed (and usually mastered) song for you to use as a reference for your own mix. By listening to a track that you think is well produced, you are able to hear the relative levels between each instrument and gain an idea of how the levels in your own mix could be arranged.

If you don’t already have some songs that you use as reference tracks, then listen to some songs from the same genre that you’re producing until you find one that you think is really well mixed. Then, analyse your chosen song(s) to identify how each instrument’s levels are set in comparison to each other. Are the vocals the loudest thing in the mix? Where do the guitars sit in comparison to the vocals? How loud are the kick and snare? How loud are the cymbals in comparison to the rest of the kit? Making these observations of a mix that you like gives you a great insight into how you might want to set the levels in your own mix.

The static mix

For many producers, setting levels is the very first part of the mixing process, forming part of what is known as the ‘static mix’. Creating a static mix involves creating the best mix that you can by altering only the levels and panning. No EQ, no compression, no reverb. Just levels and panning. Producers aim to get the very best balance that they can at this stage. Of course, the levels that you choose here are not set in stone, though they should be as close as possible to how you want your mix to sound. Nevertheless, things can be altered and tweaked over the course of the mix if required. But the creation of a static mix allows you to build a solid foundation which you can then build on with the addition of processing and effects.

Approaches to setting levels

The way that producers approach the setting of levels for their static mix can be quite varied. Some start with all the faders at zero, hit play, and respond to what they hear. Others start with all the faders turned down and bring them up one by one. The order that they bring the faders up varies. Some bring up what they consider to be the most important tracks first. These are usually the tracks that they intend to be the loudest. For many, this would mean starting with the vocals and then building the mix around the most important parts. Other producers however, start by bringing up the drums, then the bass, then guitar, and add different tracks to the mix in a more structured fashion.

For a long time, I used the first method. I just hit play and moved faders. This is a good approach, and still one that I will use if the track count in the mix is low. Say 16 tracks or fewer. If however there are a lot of tracks in the session, then I find that this approach can sometimes make it hard to keep tabs on everything that’s going on.

A hybrid approach

As such, I now use an approach which is a combination of the two previous examples. If I’m not familiar with the song, then I’ll listen to the track a couple of times to get a good feel for what each part is playing. As the song plays through, I may move faders, but only to make it easier to hear what all the parts are playing.

Once I have an idea of what each track is doing, I’ll turn all the faders down, and I’ll start the track again. I’ll then bring the faders up one by one. I start with the kick drum, then the snare top and bottom. Then I’ll bring in the overheads and the rest of the kit and get a good drum mix. Next I’ll bring in the bass, balancing the different tracks if there is more than one. Next will be the guitars, followed by lead vocals, then the backing vocals.

I find that this approach creates a good foundation of drums and bass to build the rest of the track on. Simply loop the song and let it play through as many times as you need to. Go back and adjust tracks that you’ve already brought in as necessary to achieve the balance that you’re looking for.

This forms the static mix. Of course, level adjustments may be required in order to maintain your original intention as the mix progresses. What’s more, setting a fader to one position for the whole song is often not appropriate. Changes over the course of the song will likely be required, both for practical and creative reasons alike. For this, you use automation.

Level automation

Using automation, you can tell your DAW to automatically turn tracks up or down during the song. You can do this for practical reasons, i.e. the guitar is louder in the chorus than the verse, so you need to set the level in the verse differently to the level in the chorus. Or, you can do this for creative reasons, whereby you alter the level of tracks in different parts of the song to keep the mix interesting and engaging. Automation can also be used to make changes to EQ, compression and many other aspects of your mix over the course of the song. Generally speaking, automation is usually carried out as the last stage of the mixing process and is where you make the final tweaks and adjustments to your mix.

So, how do you like to set the levels in your mix? What tracks do you mix the loudest? How do you approach setting your levels? Share your thoughts below!


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