In Balance?
by Sarah Yules

It’s all about balance. Not just ones own equilibrioception that may suffer somewhat come closing time of your favourite haunt on a Saturday night, but of our general perception of placement, proportions and ability to coexist within an allocated space.

“Balance” may be an unmentionable and offensive word to the Chancellor of the Exchequer right now, as he frantically tries to make Britain’s income and expenditure books balance; but for us studio geeks, it really can and should be a much simpler process.

So where do we start in endeavouring to create a good balance in our mix? Well firstly, lets actually consider what a good balance is. As mentioned in one of my previous months articles, a good balanced mix should be like ‘Amnesty International’ for audio; a mix where each individual part has its own space to coexist with its neighbours, adopting a fair share of the frequency spectrum and given the right to be heard fairly and accurately.

So before we go off to paint up some protest banners to campaign for a better balanced audio world, lets discuss the first stumbling block of our auditory ideal – gain staging.

Getting the levels right during the recording process seems to be a bone of contempt for many. Poor management of input signals and recording levels can lead to an array of difficulties when trying to balance a mix, so here are a few points to consider. To start with, in the recording stage, make sure you use the appropriate microphone for your sound source. Condenser and ribbon mics are very sensitive to high-pressure levels, so not ideal choices for percussive sounds like a kick drum or high level sources such as the front of a guitar cab.

The sensitivity of some condenser / preamp combinations also means they are not always the best choice for some vocalists. If you are finding that your vocals are clipping or distorting you may try just turning the input gain down. However, if this just gives you a quieter source and a lot of background noise, try either applying a high pass filter on the preamp (to cut out some of the room noise and rumble), or use a dynamic mic which can be more capable of handling the dynamic changes of the vocalist and is also more directional - so should pick up more of the direct signal rather than unwanted noise.

The key is, never to overload your inputs on your DAW and make sure you always leave yourself with plenty of headroom. Your recording levels should not be at 0dB as some commonly presume, try maybe -6dB as a rough guide or even less.

If every source you have is already at a max it is much harder to balance these parts together without clipping the master track. You are also leaving no room for subtle fader movements to have an audible effect. During mix down, having as much headroom as possible on individual sources is great for when you start creating stem mixes or summing down your track.

On analogue equipment it is true that you can push the piece hard without causing huge problems. However in digital equipment, the signal should never clip as this produces a nasty sounding square wave cut off to your audio and once it has been distorted there is no way to undo it, so keep those levels controlled.

Another problem area for achieving balance tends to be EQ. If you find that your mixes are well balanced in level but appear a bit “foggy” or “muddy” it is more than likely due to a fight breaking out between two or more instruments all trying to be in the same frequency range. A method known as ‘spectral mixing’ that I refer to in previous articles is particularly useful here. This process involves cutting a space for each individual track using EQ, focusing just on the key frequencies of the instrument that you want to be heard and cutting unnecessary bass content, high frequency content, and problem mid range frequencies out.

EQ alone cannot always help with balancing your bass sounds though, sometimes some spectral mixing between the bass drum and bass guitar is all that’s needed, but this is not always the solution. Many seem to struggle to avoid mixing seriously bass heavy or seriously bass light. This is usually due to the mix environment causing you to end up sitting in a peak or trough part of the waveform and therefore not hearing an accurate representation when mixing. To check this, try listening to the material in other playback systems, like your hifi, car stereo or at a friend’s studio facility if possible. It will then be easier to identify any problems that exist within your mixing space.

It may be however, that the frequency content of your bass is too low and too narrow and is causing it to lack energy or excitement in the mix. Try adding some fundamental frequencies above, either by dialling back in some of the higher frequencies you rolled off, or by putting the bass through an exciter, or maybe by adding a mirror bassline in the next octave up slightly lower in the mix, or just by transposing the whole line into a different, more legible key. Always be wary of adding too much sub bass content. Most home and project studio systems monitoring facilities don’t extend to sub frequencies, so you may get a nasty surprise when played in a club or a kitted-out car system.

If you can get your bass and your drums “gelling” together piecing everything else on top becomes much easier, treat the beat and bass like the foundations of your audio building and if they are not correct anything on top of that will never be balanced.

Lastly another way to help create a good balanced mix is to start the habit of stem mixing. This is basically creating sub groups like many live engineers do, but it has several benefits for the studio engineer too.

Once you have a nice mix of your drums, it is much easier to control their overall level within one group fader than individual ones, same goes for any other instrument group. It also makes it easer if you are planning to sum your mix externally with analogue outboard or a console. Not only does it bring the channel count and required interface spec down, it again makes it less work to balance between the instrument groups and you can keep a closer eye on the changes you are making.

So pay attention to your gain staging, EQ spread, and find easier ways to balance the levels, like stem mixing, and you will soon find yourself feeling a lot more balanced and possibly “in tune” with your audio. Besides, let us not forget that balance is actually one of the most natural phenomenon’s of existence…

Read more at Sarah Yules' Audio Kitchen

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