How to Achieve Tonal Balance of Your Mix

Every new completed mix brings us more confidence and understanding of what we do. Less knobs are tweaked randomly, and the entire mixing becomes a much better planned process.
But setting track levels is not even half the battle. A mix should be well balanced, and yet it shouldn't sound boring. If you miss to emphasize the most interesting element of the arrangement or part of the composition, you won't eventually gain any listeners' attention to the whole track.

Talking about tonal balance, the perception of the mix and the feelings the user receives from listening can drastically change depending on the presence or absence of particular frequencies. For example, if a mix is rich with high frequencies, we call it 'bright'. If, on the contrary, it has little high frequencies, we call it 'dark' or 'dull'. Depending on the amount of low frequencies, a mix is called 'thick' or 'massive' if it has a lot of bass, otherwise we call it 'thin'.

Thus, tonal balance is an important instrument helping influence the listener's perception of the mix.

Good Mix is a Well Balanced Mix

The tonal balance of a mix directly depends on which instruments, samples and other sounds you select at the arrangement stage. It is necessary to clearly understand each instrument's responsibility in a mix.

For example, if it's a chorus, then you should make use of the instruments that will fill all the sound spectrum of the mix. Reserve high frequencies for crashes and mid frequencies for guitars, violins, snare and percussion. And, depending on the priority of a particular instrument, you need to select the sound of other elements having lower priority in the arrangement. For example, if it is important to make the percussion sound bright and loud, select the guitar part and its sound the way it doesn't conflict with the snare's fundamental frequencies.

You may consider the mix to be well tonally balanced, when the tones of all its individual elements are mutually connected. The sound of the overall mix should be thought out to the smallest detail so that it sounds cohesively and purposefully.

For instance, if the crashes sound bright, then the hi-hat should sound bright too. If there are many low frequencies in the kick sound, then all other low-frequency elements should also have the sufficient amount of bass. If the lead vocal is dark with high frequencies filtered out, then the backing vocals should have the similar characteristics.

You also need to understand that if your crashes sound very bright, the vocal cannot be made dark, otherwise it will not be perceived as the main element of the arrangement.

Using Reference Tracks

At the beginning of tonal balance adjustment, one of the first steps is setting the level of a selected fundamental sound. We suggest that you use a reference track that is stylistically the same or similar to your work, it will assist you a lot. The fundamental sound we mentioned, in most of the cases is the one of a kick drum. This is because we hear it throughout the entire track and its loudness usually doesn't change.

The next step is to adjust the volumes of the rest of the sounds to complement to the volume of the fundamental sound. If, for instance, the fundamental sound is the kick drum, next you'd need adjust the volume of the snare, continue with the crashes and so on.

We also recommend combining instrument tracks into groups. Do not start adjusting other elements until you're satisfied with the settings of your main/first group. Having done so, you'll find it's much easier to mix the whole drum kit with guitars, than to mix each individual piece of the drum kit with every other instrument.

Sonic palette of a rhythm section is full of energy, which you can notice from volume meters usually showing higher values compared to the other instruments, so it's a good idea to mix it first. Setting the correct rhythm section volumes right from the start reduces the chance of getting its volumes exaggerated at the master bus by the end of your mixing process.

Another recommended approach is to start mixing the lead vocal and build the whole mix around it. Of course, if you mix instrumental music, you need to define which instrument plays the role of a lead vocal and take it as a starting point.
Using Pink Noise as Reference

This last method we describe here is not so popular, but, as experience shows, it quickly brings reliable results. The idea is to use pink noise instead of your fundamental track. It may sound strange, but the method is well proven and many sound engineers use it. Let's see what makes pink noise so special.

Frequency response of human being's hearing system isn't linear but logarithmic. We perceive pitch increases by octaves. Each subsequent octave covers twice as much number of Hertz as the previous one.

White noise has constant energy across the entire frequency spectrum, but we perceive one-octave pitch increase as if the volume raises by 3 dB. If you filter out white noise, you'll eliminate the 3 dB volume increase per octave each time you go up in frequencies, thus you'll get a more natural and pleasant energy distribution. As a result, all octaves will contain the same equal amount of energy, which will sound more balanced for the human ear. This is where we get pink noise for our mix.

To use this approach, we need to set the volume of pink noise at an average middle working level, no matter, whether it's comes from an oscillator or a sample. After that, run the first track along with the noise and adjust its volume by ear. Try to find a level at which the track will be barely heard through the noise, but not completely muffled. Then disable the first track and switch to the next one. Repeat these steps until you have covered all the elements of your mix.

You may find that certain types of sounds will cut through pink noise better than the others. Therefore, you'll need to pay attention to the characteristics of those sounds. This often happens with low-frequency sounds. For example, it may seem that the kick drum is blocked by noise, although we can hear it distinctly. You may want to increase the gain of the kick, but you should fight this temptation. The similar problem may happen with high-frequency sounds like crashes, percussion, etc. Mix these tracks with extreme caution, with more practice you'll feel it instinctively.

Another problem may arise with highly dynamic sounds. For example, while mixing vocals using pink noise, some words and phrases could be heard well and some not. In this case, don't focus your hearing on the attack of the vocal phrase where it's easier to catch vivid consonants, but focus on the whole phrase. It may turn that the vocal wasn't sufficiently compressed at the previous stage. Vocal is a crucial element of the arrangement and it shouldn't 'fall out' from the mix for a single second.

Of course, using solely this method won't eventually let you have a perfect mix. You'll still have to make adjustments depending on the style of the song and the artist's preferences, but you'll stand on solid grounds with no need to apply any drastic measures later on.

In a way, by its characteristics, pink noise resembles a noisy street or subway, i.e. the place where you'll listen to music in headphones. And it is important that even in such noisy places you could hear the whole mix, not just its individual elements. All in all, even if you won't like this method, you'll have a chance to perfectly train your ear and the next time you'll spend much less time making a quality mix.

If you already have songs, for which you want to receive a reward, then we are waiting for you on the ExpertMusic portal. We provide content for background music of different establishments: shops, restaurants, cafes and malls; as well as for production: commercials, movies, YouTube-videos, games, etc.

We wish you well balanced mixes,
ExpertMusic team.

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