To bring more emotion to a performance, musicians will play certain sections softly and others with more force. The difference between these two points is what’s called the dynamic range, and as mixers, it's our job to decide whether we should reduce or expand it. Dynamic range is one of the trickier areas of mixing, since we want to maintain natural dynamics, but also sound focused and tight in a way that’s appropriate for commercial audiences.
To find the right balance, here are five mix tips to improve dynamics.
Before pushing faders and slapping compressors on every track, make note of the style of music your mixing and where it will be listened to. Even if it seems obvious, skipping this step might land you with a mix that doesn’t fit the expectations of the music at hand.
When mixing pop music, we strive for polish. The vocal is almost always front-and-center, the kick and bass always powerful, and supporting elements need to be as tight as possible. To get this kind of consistency to translate in the loud places we listen to pop—in the car, on public transport, and in public spaces—some pretty considerable dynamic range compression is required.
It's also worth mentioning that pop, like many other genres, doesn’t have just one sound. It might borrow from soul, house, or hip-hop, and this means you should adjust your approach accordingly.
Mixing jazz and orchestral recordings takes an opposite approach. To preserve the live feel, we typically go easy with dynamic processing, allowing the music to speak for itself. As for the typical listening environment for jazz and orchestral, we can assume its at home where things are quiet and listeners can hear softer sections with ease.
While there are many others styles that exist between these two extremes, the message remains the same: the use of dynamics varies greatly across the musical spectrum, and doing something that works for one style may not be appropriate for another. Apply the kind of processing you hear in pop to a jazz mix, and you will certainly end up with some frightening results.
Getting a punchy, dynamic mix starts with setting the right levels at both the recording and mixing stages—commonly referred to as gain staging. Once upon a time, engineers needed to record instruments hot to avoid capturing the tape hiss present on tape. DAWs and modern converters offer us a huge dynamic range and this is no longer an issue, meaning signals can be recorded at lower, more reasonable levels and still sound pretty great.
Despite this, its common to receive sessions with instrument tracks that are massive bricks of sound. If you make record everything as loud as possible, the wonderful ebb and flow you get from dynamics doesn’t occur and headroom (the buffer zone of gain between your highest peaks and 0 dBFS in your DAW) gets compromised.
When it comes to gain staging in the mix phase, decide which elements are the most important to the song and make those the loudest, while tucking other elements underneath it. This leads to a richer, diverse mix that better communicates the musical story while avoiding clipping.
If you have trouble balancing levels, bring all your faders down, leaving only the dominant element playing. Slowly bring up the next most important part until you find that pocket where it belongs, and repeat this process until everything has its place.
While we generally appreciate dynamics in music, there can be too much of a good thing. A mix will sound sloppy and lack definition if one or all instruments are too dynamic.
A usual suspect here is the vocal, which has a naturally wide dynamic range. There are changes in level from word to word, phrase to phrase, and section to section. Because of this, some parts jump out of the mix and others trail off into the backing music.
While vocals are more audibly dynamic, some sounds are harder to catch. A good mix tip to suss out issues is to turn the mix up loud, then slowly go back down while listening to the overall balance. At lower levels, some instruments will start to disappear and others will dominate the mix—these cues point you to where your attention is needed.
Dynamics are also a consideration in the “big picture” of the mix from beginning to end. In most pop music, the overall dynamic structure is mostly predetermined. A song starts softly, does a slow build during over the verse, and explodes during the chorus, repeating this pattern a few times. Electronic music typically keeps a tighter, less varied structure to keep people continuously moving on the dancefloor.
The basic concern is to have enough dynamic range that listeners get to feel the impact of the ups and down, without having to adjust playback levels from section to section. If you need to turn up the verse to hear the details, but this same level fries your ears once the chorus comes around, people won’t be too happy. Conversely, a chorus or drop that unintentionally has less energy than the section before it is equally a bummer.
Compression allows us to focus dynamics so there is less difference between the quiet and loud parts and more overall consistency. It's a necessary tool for mixers, but one that is also easily misunderstood and misused.
If you squeeze too hard with compressors on multiple instruments, the mix will start to sound choked. Without any real difference in level between the quiet and loud parts, your waveform will look like a brick, and make for a fatiguing listening experience. If proper dynamics equal movement, then an over-compressed mix feels stiff and annoying. When you notice these signs in a mix, pull your compressor settings back to find a balance where you can preserve the original dynamics, but keep things tidy.
A big challenge with dynamic range compression, which leads to many mistakes, is hearing its effects in a mix. Unlike reverb and delay which get turned on and off during a mix to emphasize certain moments, we don’t get to hear the same sound uncompressed and compressed in a mix.
If this feels like a common situation for you, watch the video below, which provides a before-and-after of compression on a full mix and an individual instrument, along with notes for what to listen for.
For those just diving into the realm of mixing, you might want to use the visual feedback of a meter, like Insight 2. Training and trusting your ears is invaluable, but it's helpful to have some assurance or warning from an outside source.
In addition to the “count up” dBFS scale built-in to your DAW, a meter gives you some alternative ways to assess dynamic range and headroom.
In the LUFS meter up top, which measures the perceived loudness of audio material, you will want to direct your eyes to the loudness range (LRA) readout. It shows you the difference, in loudness units, between the quietest and loudest parts of a mix, and when placed on the master output, is great for getting an idea of the overall dynamic range.
In the Level meter, you get two readouts: RMS level (average energy of a mix over a 300 ms or so window) and Peak level (the highest level of audio in a mix) that allow you understand the dynamics of your mix. A very high peak compared to the average level is a good hint to bring those peaks down with dynamic range compression.
To get a sense of what you should be hitting on the meters, play up a few great reference songs through Insight and see what the readouts display. How does your music look in comparison? When you have a familiarity with dynamics targets common to the styles of music you mix, you can more easily make music that competes. Learn more about metering in mixing and mastering.