We’re always looking for the silver bullet to get our mixes sounding professional, polished and pristine on a consistent basis. As you can see from that first sentence, my search for ‘p words’ is complete, but the hunt for that mixing silver bullet seems never-ending for a lot of us.
Personally, I don’t feel there’s a catch-all solution to becoming great, or even good, at mixing. It takes time, consistent action, repetition and constantly learning new things. The good news is that the same thing applies to learning any new skill and, over time, things start to come together quickly and your talent grows exponentially.
Besides using my one hack that you should already know about, I have another mixing secret to share with you today that will make a huge difference. This secret took me from having my mixes fall apart completely outside the studio to getting a consistent, professional sound. I wish I had learned it a lot earlier and it’s time for me to share it with you…
No, it’s not an EQ move, a new compressor or any other piece of gear or plugin.
Mix at low volume
As I said, it might sound straightforward but hear me out.
I’ve always been conscious about protecting my hearing. Even before I had any interest in mixing or producing, I played in bands and knew that if I wanted a longterm career in music, that I needed to make sure my hearing lasted.
When I was in college and started to have access to good gear, great musicians and good times, we used to crank the monitoring volume. A lot of our work was group-based, so no matter how often I turned the volume down, it’d find it’s way back up to ear-bleedingly high levels in no time. It felt good to blast out our mediocre recordings and think we were working on something special. We’d move our faders around and make our EQ and compression decisions while listening at obscene levels. We were fooling ourselves.
Once we took a CD (remember those things?!) out of the studio and listened to it at home, we’d very quickly recognise that what we had produced would never stand up against a commercial recording.
Now, over time, we got sense (at least in the studio) and gradually began to monitor at lower levels. Can you guess what happened next?
Our mixes improved!
Not only that, but they started to sound better on our home stereos, iPods and whatever other cheap knock off mp3 players we were using at the time.
We fell victim to the fact that as simple humans, we perceive louder as better. So when we cranked the volume, we thought we were working on a masterpiece, when we were actually polishing a very loud turd.
At some stage during my early career, I read a brilliant article that featured CLA talking about mixing at low volume and how it’s crucial to him getting a hard-hitting mix. That sounds counterintuitive, but CLA is masterful at pretty much everything when it comes to mixing. So when he talks, I listen.
Even though I always tried to mix at low volume, I dropped the volume of my monitors down even further. My approach now was to not only protect my hearing, but to see if I could really make my mixes pop at a low volume. I had a set point on the knob where I wanted the volume to sit at all times. I then proceeded to listen to all music and my reference set at this level. Once I got used to how things sounded, I began mixing that way and guess what?
It was really hard to avoid raising the monitoring volume
Any time I got stuck and couldn’t hear what I wanted to hear, I raised the volume and then it all became clear. But once again, I was tricking myself. In time, I found that the better approach was to either increase the fader of the individual track or EQ/compress it better. The volume knob shouldn’t move.
So, I stuck with this approach and still mix this way today. The only time I raise the monitoring level is when I want to get excited about what I’m doing and hype myself up to finish a mix. I do that once or twice a mix and that’s it.
Now, enough about turd polishing, CLA, my experiences and on to how this applies to you.
Here’s why I think you should mix at low volume levels:
- Your ears will thank you and you’ll have a longer career.
- You won’t experience ear fatigue and can mix for longer periods of time in a single session.
- If it sounds good at low volume, you better believe it’ll sound good loud.
- The opposite of 3 is not true.
- If your room acoustics suck, then this is a sneaky workaround. Mixing at low volume takes your room out of the equation to a certain degree.
- Listening to your reference set at low levels means that you can directly apply what you’ve learned about how those mixes sound at low levels to your own mixes. Therefore, when you crank your mix, it will sound as professional as your references.
- If 5 and 6 are true, then doesn’t that mean you can mix in any studio? You’re no longer tied to your home studio or using one specific space because you “know the room”. While that is valuable, so is flexibility.
- CLA does it and he has more Grammy’s than me.
I could probably keep listing off reasons but that should be enough to convince you for now. The most important reason for me is that your hearing is everything and that gift shouldn’t be taken lightly. Without it, none of the rest matters.
Now, you can get super specific with SPL levels and all that sort of stuff, but I don’t bother with that. I mix at a low level that I’m used to and I know sounds good to me.
Oh and before you ask, my early college recordings and mixes are available to listen to. I’ll send you a map of where they might be buried and you can have your very own treasure hunt, only to be rewarded with the world’s worst prize!
Now, I’d love to know…
Do you mix at low levels? If not, why not?
Leave a comment below!
professional sounding mix every time…