What to do when you can’t find the right mixing level for an instrument

What to do when you can't find the right mixing level for an instrument

Recently, whilst mixing, I noticed something really interesting about what’s actually happening when you can’t find the perfect mixing level for an instrument in your session.

Its something which I’ve come across before, but something that I didn’t realize the significance of until now. On this recent session, I’d mixed most of the song, but for some reason, as I came close to finishing the track, I found that I just couldn’t settle on an appropriate volume level for the lead vocal. I tried setting it high, low and just about everywhere in between. Try as I might, I couldn’t get the vocal to sit properly at any level in the mix.

Out of frustration, I decided that I had no choice but to start the vocal track from scratch. I was happy with the way the vocal sounded, but I just couldn’t find the right mixing level for it. So, I stopped the song, bypassed all of the vocal track’s plugins and played the track back from the beginning. All of a sudden, the problem went away. Now, no matter where I placed the fader, the track sat nicely. Suddenly, I had the option to sit the vocals where ever I wanted in the mix.

So what’s actually happening when you can’t find the right mixing level for an instrument?

It turns out that the problem wasn’t that I simply couldn’t pin point the perfect volume level for the vocals. Instead, there was an issue with the processing that was happening on the vocal channel. Upon closer inspection, I found that I’d been too heavy handed with the de-esser on the vocal track. The de-esser was squashing the high end too heavily which was preventing the lead vocal from maintaining clarity in the mix. So no matter what volume level I tried to place the vocal track at, it just didn’t sit right.

What’s the solution when you can’t find the right mixing level for an instrument:

I completely reset the settings for the de-esser, revisited the compression and adjusted the EQ a little. Hey presto, the vocals sat perfectly. Of course, the problem in this scenario is that the vocals didn’t sound bad before. So there was no reason for me to revisit the processing on the channel to see if something needed to be changed. On the surface of things, it just seemed as though I simply couldn’t find the right level to set the vocal channel to. But having experienced this, I now know that what seemed like an issue with the vocal level was actually a clue to the real problem.

So here’s what I’ve learned from this experience…

In an ideal world, we wouldn’t make these kinds of mistakes in our mixing. There are certainly plenty of steps we can take to try and make mistakes like this a rare occurrence. But should the worst happen and we do make a mistake, and we just don’t spot that bad decision we made earlier on in the mix with a particular plugin, its reassuring to know that there are little clues that might bring these things to our attention later down the line. THIS, was one of those clues.

So, if you’re struggling to find the right mixing level for an instrument then its likely that this is an indication that there’s a problem somewhere else on that channel. Ideally, if a track is equalized and compressed well, then you should be able to set the level for that track where ever you want it. If you find your self endlessly adjusting a track’s fader and not being able to settle on a position, then take this as a sign. Go back and revisit the other things that are going on with that track. It’s highly likely that you’ll find something somewhere else on the track that’s causing a problem.

Have you ever experienced this? How did you solve it? Are you currently struggling to find the perfect level for a track in your mix? If so, go back and revisit the processing on the channel. You may be surprised to find that the issue isn’t the level of the track at all, but something else entirely.


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