mixing music

Choose moderate volume when mixing music

When mixing music — in your home studio or a massive “A” room — cranking up the volume makes everything sound sweet. At least, until reality sets in.

This article was originally published in Sweetwater‘s online magazine, InSync, and is reprinted with permission.

Raging guitars, thundering bass… let’s face it, cranking up the volume is fun. But if you do it while you’re creating an audio mix, you’re short-changing yourself. Here are a few reasons why you should maintain moderate volume levels when mixing music.

Things sound better at louder volume

The fact is, human ears aren’t linear devices. Our ears are most sensitive to mid-range frequencies (around 3-4kHz). Increasing volume accentuates lower and higher frequencies, which flattens out the listening curve, creating an illusion of power and clarity. That’s why things sound better at a louder volume. Just ask Fletcher and Munson. The Fletcher-Munson curves are graphs based on scientific research that illustrate how our ears hear different frequencies at different volumes. If you mix at a loud volume, your music will sound incredible — until you turn it down. Then your mix will sound small and steeped in mid-range. But, if your mix sounds great at lower volume levels, it will still sound great when you pump up the volume.

Mixing Music Fletcher-Munson graph

Safeguard your hearing

Would you hit yourself in the head repeatedly with a hammer? Let’s hope not! Subjecting your ears to hours of loud music is the sonic analogy and amounts to the same kind of assault. Prolonged exposure to sounds in excess of 85 dB can permanently damage your hearing, and if you can’t hear, you can’t mix. So do yourself a favor, and turn it down.

Combat ear fatigue

Have you ever been completely satisfied with a mix, only to fire it up two days later and think what the…? Did it sound like nails on a chalkboard? That is a result of ear fatigue. As a means of self-preservation, your ears reduce their sensitivity during prolonged periods of excessive volume. As you can imagine, this will impact your mixing decisions. To combat ear fatigue, turn the volume down a few notches and resist the urge to increase the volume when you perceive a decrease in level. Take a break instead. Your mix will sound louder when your ears are rested. It’s a time-saver in the end: if you mix while your ears are fatigued, you increase the chances of needing to remix your entire project later.

How loud should you mix?

Frequencies sound the flattest at around 85 dB, and that’s where many engineers like to work. But keep in mind, that number pertains to larger, professional mix rooms. If you’re working in a small bedroom studio on near-field monitors, 85 dB might be pretty loud. A lot of us here at Sweetwater calibrate our studios to as low as 70dB to accommodate our smaller recording spaces. A good rule of thumb is that your volume level should be low enough to allow for conversation without raising your voice. If you need to shout to be heard, your monitors are too loud.

10-step monitor calibration

If you want to calibrate your monitors, the first thing you’ll need is an SPL meter, such as the Galaxy Audio Check Mate CM-130. Or, in a pinch, you can download an SPL meter app for your smartphone. Then follow these simple steps:

  1. If you’re calibrating with your speakers’ volume controls, turn them down to zero. If you’re calibrating with your audio interface or monitor controller, set your speakers to 0 dB and turn your interface/controller volume knob completely down.
  2. Turn on your DAW.
  3. Create a mono pink noise file that reads -20 dB RMS on your master bus. If your DAW doesn’t come with a noise generator, you can easily find one or download a pink noise file from the Internet by searching for “pink noise generator.”
  4. Place your SPL meter at the mix position and set its frequency weighting to “C” with a slow response.
  5. Make sure all your faders are at unity gain (0dB).
  6. Load the noise into your DAW and loop it.
  7. Pan the noise to your left speaker.
  8. Slowly raise the volume on your speaker/audio interface/monitor controller until you reach somewhere between 70 dB (for a small room) and 85 dB (for a large room). Do not calibrate at a level higher than 85 dB.
  9. Mark the position on your volume knob.
  10. Repeat the process with your right speaker. When you reach the marked position, your SPL meter should read the same level as the left one. If not, adjust the right speaker’s gain so both read the same level.

While it’s okay to briefly listen to a mix at a louder level to hear what it sounds like cranked up, you need a default volume level to call “home.” Once your ears adjust to this baseline, you’ll find that your mixes sound great at any volume, are consistent from song to song, and translate better than ever.

Final thoughts

  1. Check your dB levels periodically while you’re mixing and adjust as needed. Adding dynamics processing and EQ can increase your mix’s volume.
  2. Take frequent breaks, 15 minutes for every two hours mixing is a general rule. Even though monitoring at a safe level will allow you to work longer without experiencing ear fatigue, your ears still require adequate rest to perform their best.
  3. Monitoring at low levels is especially important if you’re mixing in a not-so-perfect room. When you crank your studio monitors in a room with questionable acoustics, it accents undesirable reflections and resonant frequencies.

This article was originally published in Sweetwater‘s online magazine, InSync, and is reprinted with permission. Sweetwater is the expert dealer in musical equipment for musicians, recording studios, schools, churches, concert sound companies, and broadcasters. Sweetwater sells pro audio equipment, digital recording systems, pianos and keyboards, guitars, microphones, mixers, loudspeakers, signal processors, and drums.

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