July 30, 2021
Mixing is an interesting art. If a mix is coming together, you’ll want to jam out. And since you’re hoping people will listen loud, new mixers are often tempted to mix at high volumes. It turns out, however, that mixing at high volumes is the last thing you should do. In fact, professionals across the board use the “conversation” method of setting a listening volume for mixdown: mix at a level where you can comfortably have a conversation over the music.
Here are the top five reasons why you should mix at low volumes.
First and foremost, if you want a mix that sounds good at all possible listening levels, is balanced and nuanced, and translates well across systems, you’ll need to mix quietly. To put it simply, cranking the mix in the room skews your perspective, makes mixes sound punchier and more exciting than they are, and changes the balance of what you hear. Typically, when mixers crank the volume, vocals are too loud and drums and other instruments you want to punch are lackluster at reasonable listening levels.
Mixing at low volumes requires you to focus in on the detail of your work in a way that loud listening doesn’t. It’s also harder to discern detail when the mix is cranked to the max in the room, because of extra room reflections, ears instinctively locking down a bit, and general noise masking details. One note: quiet mixing doesn’t remove the affect of room reflections on what you hear, so you should still treat your room properly. But it does reduce the affect somewhat.
Hearing damage is something to be avoided at all costs if you want to continue mixing. Mixing at loud volumes consistently is a recipe for hearing disaster. In addition, mixing loudly leads to quicker fatigue in a given session, and long before you’re finished, you may find yourself making bad decisions due to loss of detailed hearing and attention.
As mentioned above, one of the hallmarks of a tracked mixed at a loud listening level is vocals not sitting right in the mix. Ironically, they’re usually too loud, perhaps because other instrumentation and room reflections start to mask vocals in the room and fatigue the ears. It’s not just vocals that can get skewed. Drums may be too quiet; guitars may be out of balance – really anything could be badly out of balance when mixed too loud. The reverse isn’t true. Mixes that are balanced and dynamic at low levels only sound better when turned up.
Especially when using nearfield monitors that are decently close together, putting you decently close to them, a super loud monitoring environment tends to make the mix sound more mono, which in turn skews your stereo perspective. This lack of clarity in the stereo spectrum further serves to make it hard (and tiring) to keep making good decisions.
Mixing quietly may not be macho, but it’s certainly the smart engineer’s way, which has been proven time and time again by the great mixers. But as a last note, it is helpful to check your mixes at a few different levels for brief periods. Specifically, a decently loud check can give you a better idea of where the very low frequencies sit, and whether there’s anything particularly muddy or boomy in the lows in general. Similarly, an extra quiet, almost inaudible listen will reveal if key elements like vocals can be made out in any situation. Generally, you should try to do the bulk of your mixing at a reasonable and consistent level, so as not to become victim to changes in frequency balance perspective due to the Fletcher Munson curve. But somewhere along the way, it’s still a good idea to crank it for a minute or two. Just don’t stay there too long.
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"Make a joyful noise unto the Lord all of the earth; make a loud noise and rejoice and sing praises. Sing to the Lord with the harp and the voice of the psalm." - Psalm 98:4-5