When Mixing

Playback loud or soft ?

Hi Everyone :)

I have read in more than one place that is wise to set your playback levels either soft or very moderate when you are doing a final mix. The reason for this being that mixes produced at high listening levels often dont sound good at lower levels, whereas mixes done at lower levels seem to sound fine at higher volumes.
What is your feeling or personal experience regarding this ?

Thanks For your time,

Ted Roberts

my experience is that you should test using both a “normal” level and a much softer level…


The bulk of your mixing should be done at moderate levels, but you’ll need to occaisionally check both extremes as well: loud and soft. In fact, check your mix while lowering the volume - the last thing you should be able to hear before the sound disappears is the vocals.


I agree with John and Isaac.

I also feel that doing a the majority of mixing at relatively low levels (perhaps below John’s “moderate”) is good for these reasons:

- reduces ear fatigue, which is very important for good mixes! The louder the level, the more your frequency response curve changes over time. This is the second leading cause of the “What the HECK was I thinking last night?” syndrome (the first being too many beers, dim lights, and general horniness).

- reduces chance of hearing damage, when mixing often and for long periods.

- you won’t let an important element disappear in quiet mixes. At louder levels, you can hear more that’s in the song. This seems like a good thing. The problem is that at lower levels, some of the material drops back so much as to not be noticeable – and sometimes it’s important stuff. If you mix at much lower levels, this won’t happen. This is especially important if your music is mellow, because lots of folks will PLAY it quietly. Less important for head-bangers, I suppose!

And there are a couple big caveats to keep in mind about my suggestion:

- Low levels can also keep you from hearing problems in certain tracks, or a buildup of low-level grunge like rumble. For this reason, it’s important to check your mix nice and hot every now and then – and probably at levels inbetween, too. I generally crank things up when first examing my tracks, to listen for problems – and keep the sessions short. Then, after a break, I mix at conversational SPL levels (~70dB SPL[C]). Periodically, especially when I’m feeling good about things, I crank it up for a listen and then take a quiet break. Not only is this good practice, it’s fun too!

- Fletcher Munson. Your ears have a different EQ curve at different levels. There are two ways to compensate for this: (1) monitor amp with “Loudness” switch – TURN THAT PUPPY ON and be happy about it! Now you can mostly forget about FM. (2) Before each session, “calibrate” your ears by listening to your favorite commercial tunes in the same genre, at the level you’re about to mix. Occasionally recalibrate during a session, especially if you’re adjusting high and low EQ.

Finally, a bit of advice from someone who knows a lot more about this than I do. Bob Katz says to mix at 86 dBSPL (he doesn’t say A or C, but I assume C). He learned this from the motion picture engineering society – that’s more or less “0 dB” for movie theaters and (more importantly) the level they monitor at when mixing for movies. Bob says that in general, movies are better mastered for consistency than CDs and he thinks this is one of the key reasons. He even did some informal single-blind tests with other pro audio engineers and without understanding what they were being tested for, the engineers preferred the results mastered at 86dB to the ones mastered without using a control level.

Now, I think 86dB is a bit loud to mix at all day. And I also think that less experienced engineers are more likely to lose important stuff “in the dirt” when mixing at high levels – pros probably have a better handle on this kind of thing without using techniques to deal with it.

The thing is, it turns out to be a lot HARDER to make a good mix at low levels. And that’s exactly why you should do it a lot – it’s harder because the target is smaller, you have less dynamic range to play with and need to make everything work in that smaller arena. Knowing this, though, there are times when it’s not appropriate – like, when mixing Bollero (which has an incredibly wide dynamic range).

As usual, there are recommendations and guidelines, but there are always good reasons to break the rules. So it’s far better to understand WHY folks say to mix at low levels than to simply follow the rule.

The main reason, though, is to avoid ear fatigue. If you mix at high levels, you need to take more frequent and longer quiet breaks!

HTH :)

BTW, if you don’t know what I mean by “70 dBSPL[C]”, hike on down to Radio Shack and spend $35 on a Sound Pressure Level meter. (They have a slightly more expensive one with a digital readout, but I believe the cheaper analog one gives you a much better idea of what’s going on.)

Use the SPL meter to see how loud it is when you mix. Use “C” setting; “A” is for speech, and also for proving to the police that you really are within the limits of your city’s noise ordinance.

You can also use this meter as a calibration mike. Heck, you could probably record with it and something might even sound good! Don’t hold your breath about that, though. These mikes have a flat response, but at the expense of transient response and clarity.

If the mix sounds good in low volume it sounds good when played loud too The opposite is not necessarily the case.

Thanks Everyone :D

Wonderful replies from all, thanks a bunch. Jiminy Crickets Learjeff that was awesome ! Thanks Bud very informative as always :D

Ted Roberts

You’re welcome, Ted. I gotta have SOMETHING to do while waiting for a compile/sim run to finish …

learjeff, that was a great summary. Post that somewhere permanent. :)

86 db sounds kind of loud to me, too. But if Bob Katz says so…

Electric razor, many industrial work places, 85 dB - Level at which hearing damage (8 hours) begins

Subway, motorcycle, lawn mower, 90 dB - Very annoying

Average portable cd player set above half volume, 95 dB -
Repeated exposure risks permanent hearing loss

Yeah, the whole 86 db thing I don’t buy into. I mix lower than that and when I think I am at a good stopping point I will crank it to this level just to compare and make sure nothing sticks out. But 86db full time, that’s crazy no matter what Fletcher-Munson says.

I agree with Bubba.

I checked my “comfortably loud” level for mixing and it’s around 85db. I don’t like going over that for any length of time…like more than one listen louder at a time. I normally mix in the 75db to 80db ballpark, or even lower.

85db is a good volume to hear all the quite stuff, but it give me quite noticable ear fatigue when leaving it there for any length of time. That’s the volume I use when playing CDs for pleasure – not sitting right in from of the speakers, but walking around the room.

I’m an old rock-n-roller. I love volume - lots of it.

I say mix at a volume that doesn’t cause a change in how you hear other stuff when you walk out of the room. At that volume you can mix for a few hours and not get AS skewed. You will get skewed, but not as bad.

I agree with all the above. Over 80 dBSPL is way too loud for any length of time while mixing/mastering. I doubt Katz listens at that level all day either, in spite of what he says on his web page. (If he did, he wouldn’t be of much use any more, other than writing books!) I think it’s best used just as you guys say, as a reference level, not a working level.

BTW, he was talking about mastering at the time, not mixing. Perhaps he gets it right pretty quickly when mastering!