Working With Faders – The Extremes-Inward Experiment
By Roey Izhaki
A common question probably asked by every mixing engineer at least once is: So which fader goes up first and where exactly does it go? There are a few things we have to consider in order to answer this question.
Faders simply like to go up. It should not come as a surprise if throughout a mixing session one by one all the faders go up – a few times – ending up at exactly the same relative positions. This is the outcome of the louder-perceived-better axiom. Here is an example of how easily things can go wrong: you listen to your mix and find yourself unsure about the level of the snare. You then boost the level of the snare. This is likely to make it more defined, so the move appears to be right. A few moments after, when working on the vocals, you realize that they do not stand out since the snare is nearly as loud, so you boost the vocals. The vocals should now stand out alright. Then, you find that the kick seems too weak since the snare is way louder. So you boost the kick. But now you are missing some drum ambiance so you boost the overhead, then the toms, then the cymbals, then the bass, then the guitars and before you know it you are back to square one – you are unsure about the snare again.
There are a few ways to solve this cyclical syndrome. First, understand that faders are the least-sophisticated tools for making something stand out. Second, listening in mix-perspective minimizes the likelihood of individual level moves. Third, it takes some discipline to stick to the plan, especially when it comes to level boosts. After absorbing these three ideas, you might still find that faders like to go up, so the ultimate solution is this:
Leave some extra-gain available.
The extra-gain dead-end is shown in Figure 12.6. It happens when a fader is fully up, but the instrument can still use some gain. This scenario can be solved in various ways, but it would be much easier planning the levels right in the first place, so the extra-gain dead-end never happens. We have said already that the fader’s extra-gain is better kept for an emergency. So we normally do not want any faders above 0 dB at the early mixing stage. If we also take into account that faders like to go up, it might be wise to leave even more additional gain, so there is still some distance to go before we start using the extra-gain. For example, it might be wise to start the mix with the loudest instrument set to -6 dB (which gives us 6 dB of virtual extra-gain on top of the standard extra-gain).
Level planning requires setting the loudest instrument of the mix first, and then the rest of the faders in relation to it. An example of the opening mix moves for a production where the lead vocal is expected to be the loudest would involve setting the lead vocal track to -6 dB and then setting the overheads level with respect to the lead vocal. The vocal track can then be muted if one wishes to start mixing from the drums. Rough mixes can help as well – if the rough mix ends with the highest fader at +4 dB, that fader should open the real mix at 0 dB (or slightly below it), with the rest of the mix then built in comparison to this level. Another strategy is to create a quick balance mix (faders only) of key tracks before mixing onset. Then adjust the fader levels so the highest fader is on or just below 0 dB.
So that is the digital version of level planning. Analog mixing works slightly differently, and we can borrow the analog wisdom for the benefit of digital. Unlike software sequencers, analog desks do not have a hard clipping threshold – levels can go above 0 dB. When planning levels on analog, engineers sometimes look at the VU meters – a far better indication of loudness than the peak meters on a software mixer. One might mix a dance track in Logic and start by setting the kick to – 6 dB. Then, when another instrument is introduced, it might need some extra-gain, and can even end up at the fader’s dead-end. Employing a VU meter during the early stages of level planning can be beneficial in digital all the same.
The extremes-inward experiment
Sometimes level decisions are hard to make and we find it difficult to ascertain how loud a specific instrument should be. The extremes-inward experiment can help in these situations. Accompanied by Figure 12.7, the process is as follows:
– Take the fader all the way down.
– Bring it up gradually until the level seems reasonable.
– Mark the fader position.
– Take the fader all the way up (or to a point where the instrument is clearly too loud).
– Bring it down gradually until the level seems reasonable.
– Mark the fader position.
– You should now have two marks that set the limits of a level window. Now set the instrument level within this window based on the importance of the instrument.
If the result of the experiment is that the window is too wide, say more than 6 dB, it suggests that some compression or equalization might be beneficial.
The above is an excerpt from Roey Izhaki’s book Mixing Audio, 2e. Roey Izhaki has been involved with mixing since 1992. He is an academic lecturer in the field of audio engineering and gives mixing seminars across Europe at various schools and exhibitions. He is currently lecturing in the Audio Engineering department at SAE Institute, London.