Getting the right tonal balance is one of the hardest aspects of mixing a piece of music.
Tonal Balance in Mixing
Balance: the holy grail of life, the secret of not falling over, and the key to great chocolate brownies!
In our daily lives, balance is everything. Likewise, a good tonal balance makes an awesome mix.
But what is tonal balance in a mix?
Think about the frequencies that make up a sound through energy across the audio spectrum. To get the right tonal balance when mixing, those frequencies should have roughly the same energy across the spectrum.
I mentioned chocolate brownies earlier because many similarities exist between cooking and audio production.
The finest ingredients give the best results to achieve tonal balance, but only if combined in the right proportions. Too much sugar in a chocolate brownie produces an unpalatable mess, but not enough sugar is bad too.
Likewise, too much or too little high-frequency content (the musical equivalent to sugar) and the mix are difficult to consume.
Therefore, low and high frequencies should be present in just the right proportions for the right tonal balance within a mix.
Master getting the right Tonal Balance before mixing
The process of getting a well-balanced tone begins before the mix, and well before mastering (learn more about the difference between mixing and mastering).
You should focus on an even distribution of energy across the spectrum when you start recording.
You should master the appropriate microphone placement and make the best choice of virtual instruments, VST plugins, and samples.
An excellent tonal variation with a steady balance between highs, mids, and low ends can be obtained by moving a microphone when recording and will give you a boost at the start.
Changing a sample, virtual instrument, or re-recording a sound may solve misbalances in tonal quality prior to a mix. Anything you can remedy naturally will give a more authentic mix with well-defined low frequencies and a clean high end.
It is worth noting that the classic orchestra established the pleasing blend of tonality that still forms the basis of audio production balancing today, so check out some orchestral music before you mix to internalize the proven frequency curve.
Remedy the phenomenon of Sound Masking
Perhaps the humble channel fader is the most powerful tool for tonal balance control between the high-end and low-end in a whole mix. By raising or lowering a DAW fader, you are changing the level of frequencies within a sound and altering the tonal balance of a mix.
This brings into play a psychoacoustic phenomenon called ‘sound masking.’ Basically, if two sounds share similar frequency properties, then the ear and brain will focus on the louder of the two, ignoring the quietest. Sound masking is an important subject worth learning.
The following experiment shows how sound masking works, whether you’re an expert or a beginner:
- Load three instruments into your DAW – for example, a kick drum, a bass guitar, an acoustic guitar, and a lead vocal.
- Start with all the faders fully down, and all sounds panned centrally.
- Raise the level of the vocal, which will sound like a normal voice with a good frequency range.
- Now, it’s time to adjust the volume. Turn up the acoustic guitar slowly and listen, not to the guitar but to the vocal; notice how the tonality of the vocal changes as the acoustic guitar gets louder and ‘masks’ certain vocal frequencies. Turn the guitar all the way up, and the vocal all but disappears. Mute the guitar, and the vocal is back!
- Do the same with the bass guitar to hear how the bass guitar masks the other sounds.
Find your best tonal ‘start’ balance through fader leveling alone.
When fader manipulation is not enough, a pro plugin can be used to master it, the most common being equalizers (EQs), which turn certain frequencies up or down in level whilst leaving others unchanged.
So, grab an equalizer and balance away. It will help if you learn the frequency spectrum inside out and use a frequency analyzer to track your changes visually. As you go across the frequency spectrum, you’ll notice it can be divided into mathematical or musical octaves ranging from 20Hz to 20 kHz. Try and make one sound dominant in each of the octave bands.
Muting is seen as an extreme form of tonal balancing across the entire industry. Try loading a mix into your DAW and mute one instrument.
Listen to how the mix has drastically changed tonally compared to what it would be like when it’s at its loudest. You are now undoing sound masking; you are uncovering the frequencies that were hidden in much the same way as erasing layers in ‘photoshop’ allows the images beneath to be seen.
Changing something changes everything! This is a very important point to understand. All instruments affect each other. Changing the sound of one (or removing it) will change how the remaining sounds are perceived tonally within the mix.
In much the same way that an equalizer alters the level of frequencies, a compressor will master this, too. The difference is that a standard compressor will turn down all the frequencies only when a threshold is breached, whereas an equalizer turns down selected frequencies permanently.
Compressors change the tonality as well as the simple level, and each compressor has its own sound, so experiment with different brands. Using a ‘multi-band’ compressor will only affect a set range of frequencies.
Discover the holes in the Frequency Spectrum
Your goal is to ensure that all frequencies are represented in the mix. Always ask yourself, even at the mastering stage, are all frequencies present? If there are holes in the frequency spectrum, it is your job to fill the holes.
To do this, you may have to create new parts. For example, copying a track and shifting it up in pitch will create new high frequencies. Or try adding effects such as a delay and equalizing the effect’s return to fill the missing frequencies.
Any effect can be used. This can be much subtler than altering the direct track itself. Every time you add a new delay, reverb, or guitar pedal, for example, you are adding new tonal colors to your mix and changing the existing tonal balance. Remember, all good mastering engineers know changing something changes everything to reach the desired overall sound!
It is conventional practice to match the tonal balance on the left and right of the mix – make this your goal. Balance the left side and right side of your mix tonally as best you can; a frequency analyzer is your friend here, as it can monitor each side independently.
Reference Existing Tonal Balances
Try to internalize a good tonal balance in a mix based on existing recordings like reference tracks. What do they feel like? What do they look like?
Do your mixes look and sound like professional ones within your genre that the listener will love? Again, a frequency analyzer is great for finding missing frequencies or frequencies that have an intense loudness in your listening environment. If you have big dips or peaks that look out of place, these indicate out-of-balance tonality on the overall mix.
Pink Noise Mixing
Finally, if you are new to mixing and looking for a tonal balancing guide, a good starting point is a technique called ‘pink noise mixing.’ Pink noise contains all the frequencies of the spectrum in level ratios similar to the way our ears perceive sound.
Download free WAV files of pink noise from websites such as www.audiocheck.net or use a pink noise generator.
The technique will give you an approximate start point for a good tonal balance and make it sound incredible in the listener’s and artist’s ears:
- Load the tracks you want to mix into your DAW.
- Mute all tracks and pull all faders down (when you press play, there should be silence).
- Create a new track and load a pink noise file into your DAW (or activate a pink noise generator – when you press play, you should hear only pink noise).
- Un-mute the first track in your mix and slowly raise the fader until you start to hear the track’s sound above the pink noise.
- Now lower the fader a touch until the sound begins to disappear again.
- Mute the track so only pink noise is heard again.
- Move onto each of the following tracks, making changes, un-muting and raising the level to match the pink noise, and then re-muting.
- When you have balanced all of the tracks in your finished mixes, mute the pink noise and unmute all the tracks.
To get it perfect, it takes time and practice.
To Summarise – Your Workflow for a Great Tonal Balance:
- Firstly, master the best balance by adjusting the DAW level faders alone, being mindful of ‘sound masking.’
- Write out the full frequency spectrum and make one sound dominant in each of the octave bands as you build the mix from top to bottom, starting with the drums.
- Use an equalizer, compressor, and other effects to further gel the frequencies to form one cohesive entity.
- Check the left-to-right balance. Does the right side balance out the frequencies on the left side of the stereo spectrum? If there is an imbalance, correct this, making new sounds/frequencies if you have to.
- Measure and monitor the results with a frequency analyzer.
Never forget to use your headphones so you know the final piece is on point, but not too much, to avoid ear fatigue.
Have fun, and go make some perfect ‘chocolate brownie’ mixes! Or a solo good mix, make brownies, a stereo mix, eat brownies, and mix; repeat daily!
If you would like to learn more about mixing and mastering, please check out my books on the subject.