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Volume levels in the mix: better dynamics step by step


Volume mixing levels is a third piece about greater dynamics.

Till now I wrote the guides: "Greater Dynamics" and "Compression, a different approach".
Now it's time to see in practise what this all means.
It's just a guide only to experience other volume levels yourself.
Of course it's up to your ears and brains if it sounds better this way or not.

K-metering system
I use Bob Katz metering system.
You can read a lot about the history for this metering system on or read about this in my M&M
manual. I use Roger Nichols Inspector XL metering system based on the K-system.

Bits into the digital world

In the digital world the best levels are between 0 and -18dBFS.
So in this aerea we must save and maintain the best bits.

I want to separate 2 things:

1. Live recordings
If you are recording live, an acoustic guitar for example, please take the best volume levels into the digital
world. In other words, record as close as possible to 0dBFS. I wrote something about recording Vocals in my
M&M manual. Please read this.

2. Non live recordings

Here I mean sample libraries, all kinds of vst instruments or whatever, which will not enter your DAW from
the outside world.
Here, you do not have to worry about recording as close as possible to 0dBFS.
A good sample library has already done that job for us.

Digital volume levels

We take an example of an individual instrument reading RMS average level of say -20dBFS and peaks at
-8dBFS. This means it has 12dB headroom for peaks (also called the Dynamic Range value DR).
Now if more instruments are added, then RMS average and Peak levels will change so at the end it gives
you a higher RMS average level and peak level.
Keep this in mind !

Volume levels in the mix step by step

Step 1
Put a K-metering plugin as an insert on the master stereo output buss
In Nuendo I put an Inspector XL level meter on insert 8.

Step 2
Which naked volume levels per instrument ?
Naked means that you are starting your mix without any effects (compressors, EQ's, limiters, reverbs etc).

- leave all fader channel levels at 0dBFS.

- use the trim pots only (input knobs per channel) to adjust levels (as well upwards as downwards)
- now solo each instrument and try to achieve -20dBFS RMS avarage (so do not pay attention to the peak
levels for now)

Step 3
Balance your non balanced volume mix
Of course now almost every instrument in the mix is out of balance. To achieve 20dBFS average, for some
instruments like hi-hats, your trimpot has gone upwards. Some instruments sound too loud now.

You just learned how every instrument sounds at the same RMS average level.
From this perspective you definitely will make better mixes because you now hear better where to begin.

- now use the channel fader levels to balance your mix volume levels
- take the instrument you wish to leave unchanged ( a kick for example)
- balance the rest relatively to this instrument
- try not to pull volumes up (unless it is necessary, than do it with the trimpot), just lower the rest
- save these mixer settings

Now you created a good volume balanced mix without pan positions and without any effects.

From here on we are going to make the mix only better and better!

Step 4
Transparency/mono listening/stereo positioning
Read my guide on that, so it's time to equalize, listen in mono and pan in stereo.
- put all channel faders back at 0dBFS position (so all instruments read -20dBFS RMS avarage again)
- use my Transparency guide and use step 1 only for now

On purpose I let you use your low cut and high cut filters at these levels, so you can hear the difference when you load
your saved mixer settings (it's just to learn frequencies at different volume levels at the same master volume level)

- load your saved mixer setting

- listen, re-eq if necessary, and use my Transparency guide Step 2-3-4-5-6

After several times working this way you can directly work from your mixer settings at the end of step 3
Balance your non Balanced volume mix !

Step 5
Use my guide "Compression, a different approach" Step 1-2-3-4-5.

Step 6
Finish the mix !
Use other kinds of effects and finish the mix.
Always use reverbs at the end !

Mix possibilities
K20 : you are appr. operating at this level
K14 : if you mix at K14 you can go for a master DR12 or DR10
Somewhere between K14 and K20 : choose what suits your ears

Your mixes will now have good dynamics and you just realized a tribute to the loudness war !