Performance Intensity versus Musical Balance

   By Sarah C   Categories: Mixing TechniquesRecording

Performance intensity is the dynamic level at which the sound source was performing when it was recorded. In many music productions, this dynamic level will be altered in the mixing process of the recording. The performance intensity of the sound source and the actual dynamic level of the sound source in the recording will most often not be identical and will send conflicting information to the listener.


Picture from Flickr user No Feedback Productions

The dynamic levels of the various sound sources of a recording will often be at relationships that contradict reality. Sounds of low performance intensity often appear at higher dynamic levels in recordings than sounds that were originally recorded at high performance-intensity levels. This is especially found in vocal lines. This conflicting information may or may not be desirable, and the recordist should be aware of these relationships.

Important information can be determined by plotting performance intensity against musical balance. This will often provide significant information on the relationships of sound sources and the overall dynamic and intensity levels of the work, as well as the mixing techniques of the recording.

Performance intensity is plotted as the dynamic levels of the original performance. The listener will judge the intensity of the original performance through timbre cues. The listener will make judgments based on their knowledge of the sound qualities of instruments and voices when performed at various dynamic levels.

The reference for performance intensity is the listener’s knowledge of the particular instrument’s timbre, as that instrument is played at various levels of physical exertion and with various performance techniques. A reference dynamic level is not applicable to this element, therefore the song’s RDL is not used here.

Musical balance is plotted as the dynamic levels of the sound sources, as the listener perceives their actual loudness levels in the recording itself. This was discussed immediately above.

The performance-intensity/musical-balance graph incorporates:

1. Dynamic-area designations in two tiers for the Y-axis, distributed to complement the characteristics of the musical example (one tier is dedicated to musical balance, and one tier is dedicated to perform – ance intensity)

2. Reference dynamic level on the musical-balance tier, designated as a precise level on the Y-axis (an RDL is not relevant to the performance-intensity tier)

3. X-axis of the graph dedicated to a timeline, divided into appropriate increments of the metric grid

4. A single line plotted against the two axes for each sound source, on each tier of the graph (each sound source will appear on both tiers; the same number or color line is used for the source on each tier of the graph)

5. A key used to clearly relate the sound sources to their respective source line (the same key applies to both tiers of the graph).


Performance intensity versus musical balance—The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” (Magical Mystery Tour).

The above figure will allow the listener to observe some of the differences between the recording’s actual loudness levels and the performance intensities (loudness levels) of the sound sources when they were recorded. A few primary sound sources are graphed from The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Some sound sources are at very different levels in each tier, and others show no significant change between tiers (little change between how the sounds were performed during tracking versus how their levels exist in the mix). Some sources contain subtle changes of dynamic levels and/or many nuances of performance-intensity information, and the Mellotron exhibits few gradations of dynamics and intensity.

Excerpt from Understanding and Crafting the Mix by William Moylan © 2014 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.







About the Author

Dr. William Moylan has worked with leading artists across the full spectrum of jazz, popular, and classical genres. His recordings have been released by major and independent record labels, resulting in wide recognition, including several GRAMMY award nominations. A leading educator and an active recording engineer and producer for over 30 years, he is a Professor and Coordinator of Sound Recording Technology at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.


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