It’s really easy to fall into the trap of thinking your mix is sounding good, not until you try some DIY mastering on it and realize that it cannot be loud like your favorite songs. In this tutorial we’ll be looking at some techniques you can use to make your mixes loud.
One other element that is mostly overlooked is using good quality sounds. If you’re recording everything live then get it right from the source, don’t try to fix it in the mix. Even those who are using samples or vst have to make sure that they are top quality.
You must also choose sounds that blend well together, that will make the mixing process a lot easier. Making your mix sound loud is not all about using loudness enhancement tools such as limiter, normalizing, stereo enhancement, Sonnox or Waves L-series plugins.
These tools will work well if you have a great sounding mix and you don’t use them to fix problems. Now, let’s take a look at how you can take your average mix into a great sounding mix.
Get The Right Levels From The Source
If you’re recording your music live then get a good balance for all your sounds from the source without relying on the output fader. If that involves adding some reverb, compression or eq then do it and don’t get caught up in thinking you’ll fix it in the mix.
If you’re using a vst instrument, drum machine or a sampler then get the levels right from that vst or drum machine before touching the fader on the DAW mixer.
Some vst instruments come with built-in tools for mixing like reverb, compressor, filter etc. Use those tools to craft your sound to be as good as possible before adding third party plugins. If you’re just dropping samples on a DAW then lower the volume on the wavform.
Getting good quality sounds and right volume from the source just makes your raw mix a lot easier to mix. Your song will have more room for loudness and the faders on the mixer will have more resolution.
A lot of people don’t know how to use a compressor and some don’t use it at all. Without compression then your mix won’t be well balanced, in terms of volume (especially the bass and kick). Compression prevents sounds from jumping all over the place in a mix by keeping the volume of each sound constant through out the whole song.
If you don’t know how to use a compressor then just forget about making your mix loud. Simply spend some time learning about it because it’s one of the most important tools for mixing music. Don’t ever use a preset, you can only use it as a starting point to create your own settings.
When your sounds are compressed with the loud peaks reduced then they wont interfere with the mix bus compressor. There’s nothing wrong with compressing each sound in your mix. Just make sure the sound does need compression and you don’t kill the transients or make it dull.
Create Sub Groups
If you don’t like compressing sounds individually then you can create sub groups. There’s a lot of ways to do this but the most popular 2 ways are to make groups by instruments or frequency range.
If you’re sorting everything by frequency then you will create sub groups for low frequency sounds, low mids, upper mids and high frequency like a multiband compressor. Then send each instrument to the group it belongs depending on where it’s dominant in the frequency spectrum.
When you’re sorting by instrument then you’ll have different sub groups for drums, keyboards, brass sounds, vocals, guitars etc. A neat trick is to have a different sub group for drum sounds such as hi-hat, shaker, tambourine and cymbals.
Low frequency sounds have a lot of energy and louder peak level so compression on a drum bus might not affect the high frequencies and they also need compression to keep them well balanced. You can even separate the percussion from other drums and create a new sub group for them.
This makes it easy to balance everything and make more room for loudness in your mix.
Making Room For Your Sounds
If you did some eq on your mix but it’s still not sounding good. Then it’s either you’re not cutting out enough, so you need to make your cuts a bit more drastic than they are. Or it’s either you’re just cutting or even boosting at the wrong places.
If you don’t know how to use an equalizer then it will be hard for you to get a good sounding mix that is loud. The problem with newbies is that they look at Dave Pensado’s eq settings and apply the same thing on their mixes or use settings they saw on a blog post.
That might work, but there’s no one size fits all when it comes to equalizing sound. You need an eq setting that will work with the material your mixing. So be honest to yourself and if you don’t know how to use eq and compressor go out there and learn how to use them.
They are very important for your production and getting your mix sound loud.
Saturation originates from the analog domain, mixing engineers would use tape to print hot levels that create some type of compression. When the levels are pushed to hit zero decibels that is called ‘soft clipping’ or tape saturation.
When used well, saturation will add harmonics to your mix. This is mostly known as fatness or warmth. You can also use saturation to give your sounds a warm analog feel.
A digitally recorded signal can sound too clean and to avoid that then just add tape saturation to it. You can use distortion, expanders, bit-crusher or overdrive to achieve this effect. This will also add some color and character to your mix.
It is also some form of amplification so it can create room for loudness. Saturation can be used on any sound that needs some harmonics or warmth. It could be drums, synth or even vocals. Use saturation for your sounds, it can also make a whole new depth for your mix.
If you chose to use sub groups then add a limiter in each sub group. If you don’t use sub groups then use a multiband limiter instead of a single band so that you can process each frequency band different.
I would recommend you to use sub groups, that makes it easier to measure the amount of processing needed for each frequency. A multiband limiter can also achieve the same results if you know what you’re doing.
When you add a limiter make sure you don’t make it sound obvious or create a pumping effect. Use it to tame out the loud peaks that the compressor might have missed without squashing the signal. That will also make room for the mastering engineer to increase the overall volume.
A limiter is much easier to use than a compressor so if you don’t know how to use a compressor you can use a limiter instead. Remember to keep some dynamics for the song and the loudest peak must hit at -6db to about -4db.
Test Drive With DIY Mastering
Once you’re done with all that and you think the mix is now sounding a lot better then do some DIY mastering on it. This will reveal all the weakness and strength of the mix. You’ll be able to hear what needs to be fixed in the mix.
If the DIY mastering is also sounding good then you have a good mix. You might want to reference it with other songs to make sure that you got a good quality mix.
Once you’re happy then you can send it to a professional mastering engineer to polish it for you. But if the DIY mastering fails then you have to go back to the drawing board. The problem will be either in the mix or recording.
Don’t fool yourself, if the mix is clipping and not getting louder than what you expect then the problem is in the mix. Some people will say “But I used eq, compression blah blah blah…” my question is, did you use those tools the right way?
The real key to using audio processing tools is understanding how they work. Then you’ll get great results, so be honest to yourself and admit that you don’t know something and spend some time learning about it.
So if you use the tools I mentioned above in the right way then you should be able to make your mixes loud without clipping or ruining the dynamics. I hope you found the tutorial useful and if you have any questions then leave a comment below.
But remember, A song that is sparse, with only a few instruments can be loud easily as compared to a song with lots of instruments. So loudness does not necessarily guarantee that the mix sounds good.
Happy Mixing 🙂