by Sarah Yules
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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…
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