How to Level the Lead Instrument/Vocal with the rest of the Mix
One of the most popular questions in the mixing engineering environment is how to ensure that the relative volume of the lead instrument or Lead vocal is appropriate with the rest of the instrumentation level. Let’s start by asking what happens if the lead instrument is not balanced with the rest of the instrumentation.
The lead instrument is perceived significantly loud than the rest of mix, we get the feeling the lead instrument is performing by itself, and it sounds detached from the rest. This is not a favorable situation because we want the mix to be considered as part of a whole even though we also want that the lead instrument to be clearly heard along the whole piece without being protrusive.
Lead instrument is heard but inconsistently, there are certain parts which are missed or as a whole it gives a feeling that it gets lost in the background.
By the way, this is not a typical issue of unexperienced mixing engineers, this comes up sometimes at a very high professional level. After few thousand mixing hours, trials and errors, readings, feedback and all tips you can imagine I came up with some guidelines I use myself in the mixing session, which I would like to share with you.
First of all: Dynamics Control. This applies to the whole and specifically for the lead instrument. Listen carefully to the recording of the lead instrument. Try to identify sections in which there is a substantial fluctuation of the intended level of the track (yes, even with professional musicians who are able to manage a good balanced recording, there are times in which the track requires a slight volume adjustment on certain sections. Do not rely on compression to balance the track. Do it yourself manually even if you need to automate the track volume MODERATELY, as we do not want to take control over the natural dynamics of the track. I typically fix recording issues in 2 or 3 spots by adjusting no more than 1 to 1.5 db. Note that you should not be touching a spot in which the performer has deliberately changed the dynamics. YOU MUST PRESERVE THE INTENDED DYNAMICS OF THE PIECE. Once you have slightly touched up some spots as needed listen again to the track by itself and check for level consistency.
Compression on a track may help to even out the volume of the track. I sometimes use it on some instruments, but some others I like leaving them alone. Compression will produce an increase of the “perceived” level of the track due to the fact that average RMS – which is basically the intensity of volume the ear perceives – is increased. By using compression smartly you can increase the transients which is the most important section of the waveform as indicates the start of the sound. Some music styles and genres do not use compression or it is used very sparingly, such as Classical and Jazz.
Equalization settings. Sometimes the instrument is not heard well or it is too loud in certain spots only because of the specific frequencies contained in those sections. A Frequency-balanced track is always easier to control from the level perspective. Fix any obvious equalization issues before deciding to raise or lower the volume of the tracks.
During the mixing process: You should have at this point balanced monitors in your studio at a calibrated output. Start listening to the track at the normal output mixing level and calibrate your system for this to be 0dB. Now you will create two additional mixing levels. Let’s call them Low Level and High Level. From my experience the Low Level missing level should be between -2dB and -3dB. The second additional mixing level is the High level which will be between 3dB to 4dB. The reason we are doing this is because we want our mix to function in all hearing environment to be able to address the Fletcher-Munson effect of perceived loudness on different frequencies. If you have an instrument at a given dominant frequency the relative perceived loudness of this instrument to the rest of the mix will vary depending on the listening level. Typically lead instrument mix frequency range spot is between 900Hz to 3500 HZ. These frequencies are highest perceived by the human ear. As you lower the volume of the mix you will find that the instrument starts taking over the mix. Thus it is recommended that in addition to mix at normal mixing levels, run the whole track at these two extra levels and ensure that the perceived level of the leading instrument is still acceptable most of the time.
Create a ”No Volume” mixing level which is typically -30dB up to -35 db. Play the track and if you can only (mostly) hear the leading track, it means that the lead instrument is at a proper level to be heard along the track. If you can still hear the full track along with the leading track, at this level, you should consider raising the lead track level.
Ride the track: I am not a great fan of riding tracks but sometimes different lead sections (such as a quiet part and intense part such as chorus) require managing the volume of the track and you can do this by creating track automation. This is for macro level control only, don’t attempt to apply faders constantly. If you need to ride more than 1.5db or 2 db, then there is something wrong on the track dynamics or arrangement that need fix first.
There are some mixing engineers who like creating two or more versions of the mix by altering the lead instrument relative volume, such as “Mix”, “Mix +0.5dB” and “Mix-0.5dB”. Sometimes this is useful in order to look at the mix later or in a different day. My personal experience is that your ears behave differently during the day. You will find that what you thought it was an acceptable level for the leading instrument, it is actually too loud. By creating these different versions of the mix you can later discern, with more objectivity, what the best one is.
An excellent proof that the lead track level is acceptable is if you are able to write a music transcript for most of the track without soloing it.
Last one and not least: The “live performance” check. Listen to the track and the lead instrument and try to establish, as objectively as possible, if the source of the performance you are hearing is similar to a live performance. If you can hear the solo instrument too much “on the Face” or buried in the background could be sign that you will have to go back and fix things. Live performance is the ultimate goal of any recording. A “studio perceived” version will sound less natural.
Really hope that these tips have provided some grounds for you to experiment in your mixing time. One of the most important things I left out in this article is the critical of the arrangement. Most of the times the source for lead instrument perceived levels issues is in the arrangement itself, so if you also are the performer, consider this before getting in the mixing process. Please feel free to leave a comment or any questions you may have on this article. Have fun!