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Pro Mixing Series: Episode one: Monitor Gain


We love Mixing (at least I do). Mixing is always challenging and fun, it’s a stage where you can take some creative licenses (that you didn’t or couldn’t when composing) in the type of sound and expressive response you want to print in the final representation of the work. You become the director of the project, while you still have to take care of not ruining the composition and it’s first, original intention. It is truly a universe of its own in audio creation.

In my experience I have to say that when anyone begins the process of mixing for themselves or for someone else, they do it (and I did it too) thinking about mixing as a simple volume and panning tweak. Wrong!

Both volume and panning are the very main pillars of mixing since stereo audio was possible and since traditional analogue mix consoles were invented, but, as we all know, there are dozens of other factors that get into the picture and change it when you are trying to take your program into the next level.

One of these factors is Monitor Gain and its relationship with the way you may mix your records in the analogue console or DAW faders.

A very frequent mistake for every beginner in mixing (a mistake I committed a long time ago) is to try to “balance” the volume of the summing buss so it stays close to 0dB. I think this happens because we try to get the “finished-CD” sound quality out of the box without thinking about mastering.

Most of us “calibrate” our monitors to sound at a decent volume when the summing buss is peaking 0dBFS and the RMS levels are proportionally high. This is not necessarily a mistake but when you are trying to make a good sounding album* it is important to keep the original feel of the performances of the musicians and enhance it in the mix stage.

If you acknowledge the importance of mastering then you have to respect this: Any mastering engineer will ask you to leave, at least, 6dB of headroom in the stereo sum with no sound coming inside this margin, or barely invading it.

The reason?

(*)A good sounding CD is full of life, given to it by the mixing engineer. Mastering engineers will appreciate when you give them space to work and take your track from glory to pure perfection in sound. The other fact is that you are never going to clip your sound in the summing buss. everything will be just as you adjusted it, with absolute fidelity and zero distortion.

And how can we help them in their noble task? Well it is just a very simple setting but it will change the way you have percieved mixing and your mixes:

Raise the gain in your monitors (speakers/loudspeakers/headphones those things you use to listen to your music when working :P) TURN THE KNOBS UP! Turn them up and NEVER lower them.

Find a comfortable volume to work. Back in the day, what I did in my studio was to open my music player (e.g: iTunes) and set the volume fader to the middle then played some tunes and raised the volume of my monitors until I heard it quite loud. Then I returned to the DAW and opened an old project with the fixed gain I began re-mixing and found that all faders went really down in the interface! From -6dBFS to -20dBFS and such… By the time I ended with a good sounding mix I realized the brickwall limiter in the master buss was doing nothing at all so I killed it. SURPRISE! my headroom is since then -6dBFS, sometimes -8dBFS, and people, I got to say, my mixes sound more open and clear, and I just LOVE it!

When I attempt to do some mastering I have all the space I need.

I guarantee you will notice the difference, the clarity, the PUNCH!

I recommend to turn up your monitor gain 20 or 30 per cent (and even 40% – that’s a third of a standard knob full spin). This will make everything stay in a decent volume in the DAW while you hear clearly, in a decent volume and with the highest definition.Bob Katz recommends to leave 20dB of headroom where the loud drum sounds are going to fit and a “cushion” of 6dBFS with no sound at all. That means that you have to mix at an RMS level of -26dBFS!

And THAT is a lot of space… but what about digital distortion in very soft sounds and fades of my rendered mixes?

Well, that’s why you should render your finished mixes in 24bit prior the mastering processes (the ideal is to render at 32bit float but 24bit will do just great). Even with the huge 26 dB headroom+cushion quality is not affected in a negative way, in fact the resolution grants better fidelity in the 24bit mix than in the finished 16 bit mastered track (there are other, very different factors that affect the excellent quality of the master but this article is not about mastering).

Raise the volume in the monitors, not in the faders. You, your clients and the music you mix will be thankful.


6 Responses to “Pro Mixing Series: Episode one: Monitor Gain”

  1. Smix says:

    Nice Read!

    Really Helpful Thank’s!

  2. Mat Montier says:

    Great Article!! I am starting mixing and this advice is very helpful. Thanx from Argentina.


  3. How to Get Six Pack Fast says:

    After reading through this article, I feel that I really need more information on the topic. Can you suggest some resources please?

  4. Kanan K7 says:

    Basicly what you mean is.
    Since from the very beginning of of thrack (kick for ex.)
    i should leav the master out @ 0db. but the kick channel must peak – 20 dB in the stero out? and so on all the other instruments? but what about if i do no master my tracks? then in the end of the mix i have to push all the channels level up? it will be a hell of a work…please help

  5. Mohamed says:

    i think he means that u need to lower the master channel volume as possible as u can so u can hear more clear sounds and be able to mix and let the volume be controlled by the mastering engineer at its final stage

  6. Nate says:

    I think an important point to remember is even though the monitor levels are what should be turned up when mixing…85%-90% of the time the overall volume should be left pretty low (you should be able to comfortably hear someone talking at normal levels that’s 10 feet away). Everything sounds better louder, especially if you have good speakers. The lower the volume is when you mix, the cleaner and more accurate your mix will be. Before I finalize any mix, I listen to it at an extremely low volume to ensure I can still make out each sound in my mix clearly. If it sounds good at a modest level, it’ll probably sound GREAT at a louder level.

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