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The balance of level and frequency is what gives a mix it’s emotion and power, while a lack of balance can leave mixes sounding like demos. For new engineers, tonal balance can be a major challenge to get right when mixing and mastering. That’s why today we’re looking at five tips to improve the tonal balance of your mix.
What is tonal balance?
In his excellent article, fellow iZotope contributor Phillip Nichols explored how engineers, musicians, and recordists interpret the term “tonal balance.”
Though each interpretation differs slightly, they all come back to the idea that music with sophisticated tonal balance has a pleasing mix of frequencies across the spectrum. For mixers, if a song has too much low-end, we say its “boomy,” but if there’s not enough we call it “thin.” There are similar bounds for mids and highs. Music that is tonally balanced is then somewhere in the middle.
Now let’s go a little deeper into the specifics of how to improve tonal balance.
1. Don’t think in terms of individual tracks
As you take note of the various issues in a mix, you’ll often find they span the entirety of the frequency spectrum. There might be a masking war between low-end elements, bloating in the mids, and uncontrolled transients in the highs that just about rip your ears off. This begs the question, how does one remedy them all?
An excited new engineer might jump from track to track in search of things to do, tackling issues as they hear them.
A typical approach in YouTube mixing tutorials is to condense lots of moves into short video clips. But actually working in this way is rarely productive, since the decisions we make in one frequency range often have unintended consequences in another.
Roll off some low end and the highs become brighter in response. Reduce those highs and the mix might feel muddy. If you go wherever your ears tell you, you end up putting out one fire after another, instead of alleviating the core problems.
For this reason, I have found it's often easier to resolve tonal balance issues by splitting a mix into frequency ranges and investigating each one from the bottom up. Don’t think in terms of individual tracks, but rather as whole groups of similar frequencies. Setting up busses and track groups can help conceptualize your mix this way.
By attacking groups of frequencies rather than individual tracks and instruments, by attenuating the boominess of the kick and bass, for example, you’ll find that it’s far easier to manage the relationships between competing mix elements. With a plan in place, you reduce the number of decisions you have to make, use less processing, and save time trying to figure out why things sound the way they do. Granted, there will be some back and forth, but if you deal with the big issues in an ordered way, things will go smoother overall.
2. Reference with your ears AND eyes
As a means of sonic guidance, it's common practice for engineers to keep a few reference tracks nearby, occasionally checking in to compare if their mix stacks up to professional standards.
It's generally a very helpful practice, as long as the reference bears some similarity to your mix. We’ve discussed the merits of track referencing before so I won’t dwell on this point much longer except to provide you with an iZotope-curated Spotify playlist, the contents of which are bound by their excellent balance in frequency across the spectrum.
There are other ways to reference your mix too. Since many of us spend our time mixing while looking at a screen, it’s no surprise that plug-ins have been designed to give us visual feedback on the quality of our work. One of them is Tonal Balance Control 2, which juxtaposes the frequency content of a mix (as long as it's placed on the main output channel) with a customized target. This target can be a genre, a single song, or a collection of songs to represent an era, aesthetic, or artist.
Since we are dealing with music here, you should ultimately judge your mix based on what’s coming out of the speakers. But in less-than-ideal studio spaces and with new engineers, trust isn’t always there. For this reason, TBC can be very helpful to draw our attention to mix problems we’re not hearing or to simply confirm our mix is as balanced as can be. Learn more about TBC in the video below:
3. Get mix suggestions with Neutron’s EQ Learn
Like Tonal Balance Control 2, Neutron 3’s EQ Learn suggests mixing decisions based on the frequency content of your song. Accessible from the EQ window in either Neutron 3 or Neutron Elements, EQ Learn analyzes your audio and places nodes at areas of interest, like rumble, sharp resonances, and other unpleasant build-ups. On a single track or submix that draws too much attention to itself, run EQ Learn (it only takes a few seconds) to see where you need to focus your EQ efforts. After the nodes settle, all you need to do is choose whether to boost or cut.
This is particularly useful on instruments like piano, guitars, and vocals that span a wide frequency range and can easily overlap or overshadow other parts of the mix. A few strategic EQ moves are often all you need to balance things out.
Since EQ Learn works on busses as well as individual instruments, be sure to try this technique in conjunction with technique #1 to locate areas of overall resonance to solve tonal balance issues.
4. Verify your mix with headphones
Unfortunately, the walls in my apartment are thin and incapable of absorbing sound well. I imagine many of you are in the same position; most apartments (both old and new) are just not designed for music production and mixing.
If you need to remove your room from the mixing equation, try using a pair of headphones for reference. By eliminating the distracting reflections and resonances hitting your ears, you’ll get a more accurate reading of the tonal balance of your mix and be able to make judgments with more confidence. For obvious reasons, you’ll want to avoid models that hype low-end or alter frequency response in a significant way.
To get the most out of your headphones, spend some time listening to well-balanced music to calibrate your ears when you’re not mixing. Once again, the iZotope playlist is a great starting point, though I imagine you have a few songs you know well too.
5. Play with playback levels
During long sessions, we can easily nudge things up just a bit until our home studio sounds a lot closer to a club. Not only is this a direct ticket to ear fatigue, but we also have a preferential bias for loud tunes over quiet ones which influences our perception of sound quality. With our monitors cranked up, it’s also a lot harder to gauge differences in level between individual tracks, hiding what could be hazardous gain staging mistakes.
Simply turning down the playback dial will reveal a lot about the tonal balance of a mix. As you return to safer listening levels and even further below, you’ll find certain elements that were once bold and powerful slip into the background and others are way overdone and in-your-face. I find this to be a humbling experience after getting carried away with loudness, as my attention is re-focused on what needs to be taken care of.
Another approach is to switch your playback output to your laptop speakers or a pair of earbuds, which have a more restricted frequency response and dynamic range. Don’t do any mixing and just listen to how your mix sounds. You will notice some sounds really poke through and others get buried.
Return back to your monitor output and you will likely now hear these same imbalances in your music. When perspective is lost, this is one way to get it back.
6. Use smoother EQ curves on low-pass filters
When setting the cutoff on a low-pass filter, many plug-ins default to a steep curve. Though sometimes this is what you need to trim sounds that belong in a narrow, defined frequency range (808-style hi-hats come to mind), too many steep cuts can leave your mix sounding unnatural and thin, disrupting the tonal balance.
A little bit of masking isn’t such a bad thing, as it can bring character to your music and connect the disparate sounds in a mix. So before cutting the low-end on everything that isn’t a kick or bassline, try some bold panning moves or just turn the level down.
If you do need that EQ, opt for a 12 or 6 dB slope instead of a 24 dB slope; if 10 minutes pass and you still find the sound irksome, make the slope more aggressive.
With the tips and videos in this article in hand, you should have a good foundation to approach tonal balance on your next mix. To leave you with one final piece of advice, remember that improving tonal balance is not solely an engineering task. The recording, production, and arrangement stages of a song all play into the way frequencies are distributed across the spectrum, and if you can influence this in a positive way, it's all to the benefit of the song.