How Loud Should You Print Your Final Mixes?
This is an important step, one that really should be considered at the very beginning of the mix process. Let's look at some guidelines to help. In general, your mix should not hit zero. Ever. And that includes the level meters on the tracks, both inside the plugins and at the mix bus. Those red peak lights should never be on. In fact, you shouldn’t be anywhere near zero on any individual track. While you can’t always hear the effects of these “overs”, they add up and creates a harshness or graininess that cannot be removed in mastering.
But, here’s the thing: simply turning down your master fader will not solve this problem. If you are hitting your mix bus too hot you will have to lower the track levels of all of your tracks, and then make sure that reverb and sends and compressor thresholds are still working the way you intended them to. This is called gain staging and it’s just as important in digital as it is in analog.
For instance, you already know that you don’t want to have your mic pre turned down low and then add a bunch of gain after. That is noisy. Similarly, running the mic gain too hot will distort—even if you bring down the fader after. This is what is happening inside the workstation.
Do not worry about you mix being as loud as a finished master when you are mixing. This is the wrong place to be putting on the peak limiter. The subtleties of mastering simply don’t work as well if your mix is a flat-topped, peak-limited file. In all cases the peak limiting/maximizing/gain/squashing has to be done last or you will not have great results.
Ok, so that’s ideal, but what if you have a complete and approved mix ready to go now and changing all the levels is just not going to happen with this artist? In that case, you will just need to print what you have and we will do the best we can. It’s not broken, it’s just not ideal that way.
Many mixes come to us hyper-compressed and we do make them sound better—we can even make them louder. But they would have turned out better in most cases if the gain structure was carefully considered while setting up the mix.
As a rule of thumb, if you have more than ten tracks you should not have any one track with a level over -10.
if you have more than twenty-four tracks you should lower the track level to -15. Yes, it sounds crazy. But, start your mix with all the faders at -15 and turn up your monitors (not your master fader) to listen. You will see that if you do it this way (like the pros do), your end result will sound better, with more depth, better resolution, more accuracy in the midrange tone, better guitar tones, and better spacial stuff like reverbs.
Worry about getting the balances right and try to not mix into a buss compressor unless you are content with just “kissing" it. Anything more than 1db of actual gain reduction on the master bus is probably too much—It’s a sign that your mix elements aren’t right yet.
If you feel you need to put a lot of compression on the mix buss, then go back and look at your tracks. Some of your tracks are probably not compressed the way they should be. This may be hard to figure out on your own. So if your mixes aren’t turning out the way you hoped they would you might need a little help.
Hire an experienced engineer to look at your mix and teach you the things that it would take you years to discover on your own. The kind of help we're talking about is one-on-one mix consulting. Any good mixer can probably teach you many new tricks to make the cost more than justified.
Also, ask your mastering engineer. Will he or she advise you on your mix? We have taken several clients that had very average mixes, and, with a few short sessions, helped artists and producers, songwriters, and studio owners improve their skill and learn to hear what they need to hear. We are here to help you sound your best. And that always starts with a great mix.