Sound Tip #5 – All mixes are NOT created equal.

When mixing audio for media, it is very important to know your media’s mix standards. This is where the majority of people who start in music production and move into audio for visual media go horribly wrong. Typically, when mixing audio, you have to think about your projects final destination. Much like the movie “final destination”, if you’re not careful you can kill your project just with the mix.

Here’s what I mean. When you are producing music for an artist album, CD, itunes, you are hoping to get “on the charts” right? That happens by selling a ton of records and over the course getting on the radio. Once Mr. “Big Voice” radio man is spinning your tunes, that’s when the dollar bills show up in your mail box (if only it were that easy). The person mixing your project knows this is your main goal, or at least should be. The person mixing is going to try to get your musics overall volume mix as close to 0dBu as possible.

0dBu, in music, is the highest possible volume obtainable without risking clipping and distortion. With todays digital world, music mixing has sacrificed dynamics for the ability to compress the audio and become as loud as possible.

The resulting wave forms look like this:
Notice how the waves shape is almost perfectly uniform? There are very few variations in the peaks and  depicts a fairly flat line. Considering that the audio contained in the wave form has vocals, drums, and various other instruments, the dynamics of this audio has been lost in the hopes of reaching 0dBu and being as loud as possible.

Why would music WANT to do this? The new mixing techniques of compressing and limiting the wave form have cause serious criticism towards pop music from serious music listeners. However, it has a purpose and like all things that value quantity over quality… it’s all about money.

I have worked in radio broadcast for years, and if I know ANYTHING from my time in FM radio, it is this; “It is NOT about sounding the best, it is about being the LOUDEST” (or the loudest you can be, while retaining FCC regulations). Radio stations are all about being louder than their competition. Pushing that limit all the way to the hilt without breaking FCC rules is the goal. If your music helps them do that, you stand a better chance at getting played on their station. I have seen beautifully mixed songs not get radio play because if they play it next to louder mixes the song would all but vanish in volume.

Even oldies stations have started re-compressing their music libraries in order to gain this “loudness” and retain listeners. I am not going to take a side as to this being a good or bad thing in music… I am simply saying that, as of right now, this is just the way it is.

Rule #5A: Music gets mixed at 0dBu and as loud as possible without peaking or distorting.

As for video, TV, and film this is completely different. Ever notice that when the TV show cuts to commercial, the commercial is a tad bit (or a lot bit) louder? Yes, that is annoying and there are many who are trying to fix this problem in the FCC. However, this is because the mix in audio for video is significantly different from music. Typically, the acceptable audio mix volume is -6 dBu and is currently in talks of dropping to -12 dBu as the master volume format. Tie that with the fact that most of audio for video is vocal speech and foley with a lower music background, your wave form is going to have much greater dynamics.

The resulting waveform can look like this:

Ambient scene noise with a low music bed mixed with a vocal speaking role gives a MUCH greater range of dynamics in the wave form.

 

 

When the mix is finished for the production, the master volume gets set to either -6 dBu or -12 dBu depending on the affiliates broadcast standards.

This is where so many audio producers go wrong. When transferring talents from music production to audio for video, many mix engineers continue to try to hit that 0 dBu instead of videos -6 dBu or -12 dBu standards. This results in loud and awful sound quality on playback. You can see this most often in low budget or public access productions. Turn on the TV at 4am one night when you can’t sleep and you will hear EXACTLY what I am talking about!

Rule #5B: When mixing audio for video, aim for -6dBu or -12dBu on your master and confirm this level with your affiliate.

I first learned this when I started working at the Dave Ramsey show with the Fox News Network back in 2008. Prior to this, I had worked exclusively in music and radio broadcast and was always hitting 0dBu. I learned quick to set the mix for which format of media I was producing. That same year, I entered into the 48hr Film Festival in Nashville. This was my first (and to date only) time in the film festival, I happened to win “Best Sound Design” on my first attempt. Please, understand this is not bragging, I was shocked. However, this accolade does prove my point. I didn’t win because the sound was recorded better or on super expensive equipment that no one else had, I didn’t have better sound effects or stronger music (ok, actually the soundtrack was pretty killer… but I digress). The secret was simply mixing my audio to -6dBu (industry level at that time). When they judge the videos in private, they watched the entries on a standard TV and commercial grade DVD player. The results were obvious, all of the other entries were REALLY loud, and our entry was just right… that’s it.

All this to say, know your format and mix your master levels to the medias accepted standard. You will be shocked how much better and more accepted your work will be in the professional community.

-Lee Kebler

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