Before you do anything else to a mix, proper gain staging is the first aspect of mixing which should be addressed. This means before adding any processing to tracks, before even setting levels of different tracks in relation to each other.
Gain staging occurs in both the recording and mixing stages of audio production. The same principle applies to both, however, in that you don’t want to be too close to clipping in either situation.
Proper Gain Staging
As it relates to mixing, the goal of proper gain staging is twofold:
1 – Keep individual tracks well below clipping.
2 – To keep your master fader well below clipping. This is done through the first goal because the sum of every track making up our mix is what determines how “hot” the master fader is getting.
A nice rule of thumb is to aim for somewhere around -6dB on that master fader at the loudest moments.
Remember that your mix is going to have a good bit of dynamic range, so you can’t just check the fader at any point of the mix. You’re better off locating the loudest point in the mix and ensuring that this does not exceed -6dB.
Getting your mix competitive from a commercial standpoint in terms of volume is just one aspect of the mastering process, so don’t worry if you’re listening to your final mix and thinking that it sounds weak compared to contemporary songs of the day.
In fact, you want to leave that -6dB of headroom when you send the mix to a mastering engineer so that they can have enough room to adequately and effectively process that mix without it clipping on their end.
After you’ve ensured that no individual track is close to clipping and that your master fader doesn’t exceed -6dB, you can go ahead and begin mixing the levels, dropping everything relative to the loudest track in the mix.
So with this proper gain staging method, you’re never boosting any tracks after your initial gain staging, you’re only taking away. The same applies if you’re later doing volume automation. Never boost the gain from where you left it at the end of gain staging. Instead, take away for the quieter parts and leave the parts you want to stand out as they are to make up the loudest part of that track.
All of this allows you to get a good mix but at the same time is more insurance that your master fader’s peak can and will only drop from -6dB, giving the mastering engineer more room to work with to put together a better finished product for you through EQ, compression, saturation, and any other processing they deem pertinent.
Remember this also includes limiting if the mix needs to finally come up to a competitive level when all is said and done.