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Focal Point Mixing

posted Jul 25, 2012, 7:09 AM by Frank Adrian   [ updated Jul 25, 2012, 7:14 AM ]

Joe Gilder over at Home Studio Corner has a some good tips about balancing levels in songs. I'd add one other little bit of advice with respect to overall dynamics: One way to judge whether a mix's levels are right is by listening to the relative levels of "focal points" in the song.

What's a focal point? At any point in time, one of the parts is usually the focus of the song, whether it's the vocal or a lead or a drum fill. Use automation to keep these focal points even in perceived volume (+/- a few dB) and make them louder than the rest of the elements in the mix (they are, after all, the focus at that time). Because your final bus compressor will key off the loudest element in the mix (OK, it's a bit more complicated than that, but I don't want to go into it now), the compression will be more even and the overall mix will have fewer compression artifacts. As an added benefit, it will make the mastering process easier.

I can hear the complaining now - "But, Frank, I've just reduced the drum volume to put them in the back of the soundfield. Now you're telling me to turn up fills?" Yes. I'm telling you to bring the drums forward on fills, assuming the fill happens to be the focal point at that time. Drummers tend to hit fills harder than normal rhythm strokes, so we're used to hearing them get louder - it works psycho-acoustically and a bit more volume won't break the fourth wall. Same way with that killer bass run. Or that interstitial guitar lick. You don't even have to increase their volume that much - you can also use automation to slap an EQ on the focal points to boost them in the presence band (3-6 KHz, season to taste) or turn down their reverb a bit. It will make them stand out without as much overall level change - we're talking psycho-acoustics here, not numerical equality.

Getting focal point levels right will go a long way towards making your mix even. And an even mix is one of the hallmarks of a good mix.