One of the problems that most new mixers have is creating a mix that sounds great in their studio, but not so much when it’s played in a car or another playback environment. While playing your mix on different monitors is one option, that can get confusing if you’re not careful. You may be thinking, which one is correct? There’s another much simpler method that works pretty well though and I call it the 3 Level Balance Technique.
The idea is that you’re going to play your mixes back at 3 levels during the mix and there’s a reason for each one.
Level 1 – High Playback Level
The first level is relatively loud. Not uncomfortably so, but enough to move some air. You’ll be listening to just the foundation mix elements (usually bass and kick) to make sure that they’re working well together and that all the low frequencies are where they should be.
The reason why you want the level hot is because on most speakers you just can’t hear what’s going on with the frequencies at 100Hz and below until you crank it up a bit.
NOTE: You’ll only be using this level for a couple of minutes at most. Prolonged exposure to loud levels can not only be harmful to your hearing, but can cause ear fatigue, which will ultimately lead to a less-than-stellar mix.
Also, don’t expect to hear 40Hz if you’re listening on a pair of monitors with a 5″ woofer. This level will let you hear more of what you’re missing, but not if the speaker can’t actually reproduce it.
I missed this step for years at the beginning of mixes and always wondered why I didn’t have the low end punch that I needed. A minute or two at this level can really make a difference.
Level 2 – Moderate Playback Level
The second level is where you’ll be spending the majority of your time during the mix. It’s a comfortable level in that it’s not too high and not too low. You can hear what you need to hear and do so for extended periods of time.
NOTE: Choose this one level and STAY THERE! By constantly varying the level you’ll find that the ear loses its reference point as the frequency balance of the speakers change. Find the sweet spot middle level and keep it there.
Level 3 – Ultra Low Playback Level
This is where the magic happens. When you feel your mix is finished, turn the speaker level down to whisper level. That means if someone comes in the room to speak with you their voice will drown the playback out.
What happens at this low level is that balance problems are revealed. Mix elements that you thought were perfect might be either too loud or soft. Some mix elements might disappear. Tweak the levels until all seems balanced, then check at the other levels as well.
TIP: If you’re not hearing the kick or bass at this level, chances are that you’re EQing them too low. Change the EQ point of the kick closer to 100Hz and add more 120-240Hz to the bass, and the balance should be a lot better.
If you’ve been having trouble with your mixes translating to other playback systems, try this 3 Level Balance Technique and get closer than you ever have before.
You can read more from The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.