In this article, we will explore recording and mixing levels using a PC-based DAW.
So How loud should a mix be before mastering? –
We aim for no more than -8dBFS PEAK and around -20LUFS on the final output channel before mastering. Optional Mixing Rule. Don’t cheat by using the Limiter. Limiter limits the dynamic range, and our arrangement will lose expression if we limit it.
Clipping is essentially a signal that has been limited so fiercely that it distorts. Clipping can happen through signal manipulation or just exceeding the speaker/ earphone output specs. Target output after the mix at -8dBFS PEAK and around 18dBFS RMS or LUFS.
This will allow us to lift the highs to anywhere between -3dBFS and Zero without clipping and lift the low volumes (by means of slight compression) without loosing too much dynamic range when Mastering.
How much headroom should I leave for mixing?
Depending on where our music will be played, and the genre, the final arrangement level after Mastering should be -3 to 0 PEAK with a dynamic range of around 10dB to 16dB.
- If we are recording from scratch, we work to a target level -18 RMS or LUFS level for each track in the song and no more than -8dBFS PEAK on any channel. We also don’t want our Master Output channel to exceed -8dBFS PEAK at any point.
- The same target levels apply for imported files and projects. Imported files will not necessarily be at these levels. To get them to the right baseline levels before mixing, see the paragraphs on Gain Staging.
This target gives us a dynamic range of 12dBFS. This also allows enough headroom for us to ‘lift’ the lower volume levels (using compression) to increase the overall loudness without clipping or distortion when Mastering. Look at the screenshot below.
- It is a 12 track midi arrangement imported into Logic Pro X.
- The tracks have been re-voiced to play the Logic VST’s and sampled instruments.
- No effects are switched on; all channels are raw.
- Levels of the instrument channels range from -23dB to zero PEAK
- Combine Output on the Stereo Out is a +3.3 PEAK.
- The LUFS are sitting at about -10dBFS
The problem is that we have no headroom. We need headroom to mix and to master. If we start fiddling with the faders and adding effects, we will spend a long time producing a sub-standard production. How do we approach this? We will need to do Gain Staging before starting to mix. Gain staging is the process of setting all of the volume levels on the channels to about -18 to -20RMS dBFS. Some producers recommend mixing to a higher level, but to my mind, it makes things more difficult later.
If we get the Gain Staging correct before mixing, we will achieve maximum volume and avoid clipping and distortion when we start mixing. We will also spend less time trying to get the balance right by continually fiddling with faders. Keeping all tracks around or just below -18 RMS (or LUFS) and not exceeding -8dBFS PEAK gives us plenty of headroom when we start Mixing.
The next screenshot is the same project, with all the levels set to approx. -18 to -20dBFS and now PEAKS at -7dBFS on the Output Channel. There are varying opinions on how best to do this. But the key is to get the level of the channel to the target level (around -18, some producers target around -12PEAK) PRE-FADER without adjusting the fader. Depending on your DAW, each track has a control panel (In Logic, it is the Inspector panel) where the level of the track and /or region can be adjusted. The screenshot sample shows that the faders have not been adjusted; they are still at 0dBFS. In this example, the Gain plugin was used.
The great thing about a Gain Plugins is that they can be used on both MIDI and Audio Tracks. We could have adjusted the volume on a MIDI track or normalize it to a level on an Audio track. The gain on the Gain plug-in is adjusted up or down before the signal hits the channel fader, so that has the signal hits the fader at around -18to -20dBMS PEAK. The result is our Output Channel is sitting at -7dBFS PEAK and -20dbFS RMS. We haven’t touched a fader or activated an effect plugins, and we are now ready to start mixing. Mixing rule 2. No channel can be in yellow or RED. Only green wherever you look.
How can I make my mix louder without clipping?
We use the filtering bands on the EQ to filter out unneeded frequencies on each track. This also gives us the ability to boost the signal on that track more. For example, this article’s sample on channel 7 has a Hard Techno Hit at a high rep rate in the higher frequencies. Use the Shelf Low Pass Filter to cut out all low frequencies or harmonics that may be present and use one of the Power Metric Bands to slightly boost the higher frequencies.
The spectrum analyses come with many equalizers and will give us a graphic representation of the instrument’s frequency band; we then use the filters to cut out the rest. We do this for each track. Two screenshots below show the equalizer with the spectrum analysis, and the highs are lifted slightly.
Mixing Reference Cheat Sheet
After level setting and frequency separation, it sounds OK, but…
How can I increase Dynamic Range In Mixing/Mastering?
- Multiband Compressor
This is a great free tool that can make your sounds well balanced, avoid distortion, and achieve a pleasant and smooth sound.
- Dynamic EQ
This will increase the dynamic range of your mix and add more life when used properly.
- Transient Shaper
Great to add edge to your drums and make them sound big. Check this post with list of transient shapers that we personally recommend. Also, transient emphasis is also part of the mastering tools/limiters like iZotope Ozone 9 Maximizer, Newfangled Audio Elevate, which allow you to make your master sound more punchy and precise.
- Use Metering Plugin To Inspect
This will allow you to see the dynamic range, and then you can improve it. Here are some of the metering tools that we recommend.
- Multiband Compressor
Also, let’s check this post that will further explain to you how to increase dynamic range.
The mixing workflow is a bit of a conundrum. Primarily we mix to get a great sound, but we start mixing the process with volume level adjustment. When we are done with our mix and got a great sound, we start the Mastering process, where the primary objective is to get the right volume level.
Mastering Related Readings:
Started as a rapper and songwriter back in 2015 then quickly and gradually developed his skills to become a beatmaker, music producer, sound designer and an audio engineer.