When it comes to mixing there’s one thing you must know about yourself. You will always prefer louder sounds over quieter ones. If we compare two vocal passes, we’ll pick the one that’s louder. If we compare two plugin settings, we’ll choose the one that is louder. It’s a well documented phenomenon, but how do we fight it? Gain matching.
Via Andrew Butitta Flickr
Compressors And Makeup Gain
Compression is one area that I feel we can easily fool ourselves into thinking a compressor is either hurting or helping our tracks. In one scenario, we’ll slap a compressor on something like the mix buss, dial in a preset or some standard settings, and we’ll think, “Man this makes my mix sound better already!” Could it be that the compressor is simply boosting the signal by 3db and it sounds more exciting? The same could be true if the compressor setting makes your mix quieter. You think, “Where did my mix go?!”
What you should do is simply grab the makeup gain knob and tweak it until your mix is hitting the same volume up the meter with the plugin on or bypassed. You’ve matched the gain so that the plugin’s output is the same volume as it’s input. Now you can simply listen to see what the compressor is doing to the sound, the tone of your tracks, untainted by the allure of louder (or quieter) output.
Boost Happy With EQs
The same problem happens with EQs. Since a lot of us are in the bad habit of boosting a lot with EQs we tend to like the sounds we’re getting initially. Why? Well, we’ve simply turned up a track at a pleasing frequency. It’s louder, so we think it sounds better. But if you’re going to boost a frequency, you’d better off turning the whole EQ output down to compensate for the amount of boosting happening.
By gain matching the EQ output to it’s input, you’ll be left with a signal that is the same volume as before but now is emphasizing a specific frequency that it wasn’t before. That way you can bypass it on or off and here an actual difference being made, not just a volume boost. This will help you determine if the EQ move was worth it at all. If not, then you take it off and save your mix some precious headroom.
Referencing Other Mixes
One super helpful practice is to pull in your favorite pro mixes to your DAW of choice and reference it every now and then as you work on your mix. The problem generally is that these references are already mastered, so they are loud as beans! This will always make you feel worse about your mix. You’ll like the louder mix better, which is just silly.
Instead once you pull in the reference track, simply pull down the fader and match its output volume to your main outs to match that of your current mix. This way you can flip back and forth and simply hear the reference for it’s tonal qualities and punch, not it’s volume. Your mix can get plenty loud later in the mastering stage, so don’t let volume get in the way of your work.
As the great poet Ice Cube once said: “You better check yo self before you wreck yo self.” This couldn’t be truer when it comes to gain matching in mixing. Just because a plugin or a preset seems to make your track sound better, check the output volume and make sure it matches the input volume before you decide whether it is helping (or hurting) your mix.