Mixing Within Decibel Limits


I have been trying to write this post on and off for almost two weeks now, and have been continuously disappointed with the direction I wind up going.  I keep finding myself caught up in the “should there be decibel limits” conversation, or “what is appropriate decibel limits”, or “how to set decibel limits.”  But I am not in a situation where any of those conversations are necessarily relevant.  They are all things that should be discussed, but in my case, the discussions have already been had and the decisions have already been made.  So, instead of writing about what “should” be or “could” be, I want to focus on how to create the best sounding mix within decibel limits.  I can cover the should’s and could’s in another post if anyone is interested.  Let me know in a comment or through the contact page.

Like many churches I have heard of, my church leadership has put decibel limits in place to create consistency, and try to create a positive worship environment for as much of our congregation as possible.  I personally wish the level was a little louder (actually personally, I wish it was a lot louder, but I know that is not what is best for our church).

But the limit is what it is, and my job is to create the best mix within that limit.  How do I do that?  I live by these simple rules:

  1. Know and respect the limits: Whether you agree with the limits that have been set or not, they were set intentionally.  Respectful and honest conversations about limits are great, but remember, at the end of the day, the final decision is not ours.  Our job is to respect and obey.  So know your limits, remember them constantly while you mix, and respect them.
  2. Get a good decibel meter:  Without a calibrated decibel meter, specific decibel limits are meaningless.  So make sure you have and use a good decibel meter.  Also, understand how your meter works.  Make sure you use the correct settings to get the measurements you want.  Know what weighting and range settings to use in your environment, and use them consistently.
  3. Understand hearing safety: You must know how the OSHA safety standards relate to your specific decibel limit.  Often noise complaints will include concerns over hearing safety.  Being able to address those concerns with your specific decibel limits and OSHA standards will assuage safety concerns (and reveal the preference concerns that underly the safety complaints).
  4. Know your room: Walk your room with your decibel meter.  I do this while playing pink noise through the system.  This will give you a steady reference, so you can find any hot or cold spots in the room.  For example, the main entrance of our worship auditorium is a hot spot, and is about 2 decibels louder than anywhere else in the room.  Knowing this, I can walk this area during sound check to make sure things don’t get too out of hand.  Discuss your findings with your church leadership.  Perhaps in the future they might be able to address problem areas, but that is more of a long term solution.  In the meantime, ask anyone complaining about volume levels where they sit.  If they are in a hot zone, a new seat may solve the problem.

(Wow…. 4 points about mixing within decibel limits, and we haven’t even mentioned mixing yet… I am doing well aren’t I?  But really…. how do I mix within decibel limits?)

  1. Always use your decibel meter: This may seem obvious, but make sure you pay close attention to your decibel meter during rehearsal and sound check.  Nothing is worse than dialing in a great mix, then looking down at your dB meter, and realizing you are too loud.  I have my meter on from the first moment of sound check.  And I am constantly monitoring my levels even while setting up everything else.
  2. Beware vocal spikes: In my situation, in my room, it seems like the biggest problem I have are with vocal peaks.  Typically they happen when singers jump octaves, or during loud portions of the song.  One thing that really helps this is properly setting vocal compressors.  Even then, I often have moments where the vocal will peak 5 dBs.  The saving grace is that with good singers the peaks are normally in the same places. If you pay attention, you can anticipate when these peaks are coming, and adjust accordingly.  I note these peaks on my cheat sheet to ensure I don’t miss them.  (Look for a post in the near future about how I setup my cheat sheets).
  3. Limit stage volume: One of the biggest factors in a muddy mix is too much stage volume.  When I first stepped into my current role, I muted the house speakers, and I was measuring about 75-80 db at the sound board, with just stage volume.  If you are trying to create a great mix within difficult decibel limits, reducing stage noise can make the battle much easier, and the results much better.  I can write an entire post just on this topic (and I hope to in the near future), but for now, I will mention a couple of things: Work with musicians to turn down amp volumes, work with drummers on dynamics, and consider drum shields or cages.
  4. Watch the balance: Turning down the volume is not as simple as lowering the master fader.  Changing the overall volume level will change the low to high balance.  So, instead of limiting volume with the master fader, I always use my VCAs (or groups, if that is what you use).
  5. Grouping is your friend: On my board, I use VCAs, but find a way to group similar channels together.  I run all my drum mics through one VCA, so I can adjust the overall drum mix, without messing up the balance of the individual pieces.  I do the same with background vocals.  How many VCAs or groups you have really dictates what you can do with them.  I can share my setup if it is helpful, but I have 8 VCAs, so I don’t know how helpful that might be.  Let me know.
  6. Less is more: When working within volume limits, it is especially important to mix by subtraction rather than addition.  If you want to highlight a particular instrument, often you can get the same effect by lowering another sound or two.  That way, you can still mix with style, taste, and interest, but stay below your decibel limit.
  7. Don’t loose the energy: When limiting volume, the hardest thing to maintain is energy.  Softer sounds naturally sound like they have less energy.  When I need more energy, I always look for a driving sound.  Sometimes that is the kick drum, sometimes bass, sometimes rhythm guitar.  You just need to find a sound that is pushing the song forward, and give it a little more prominence.
  8. Know what is peaking your meter: Most decibel meters will tell you the volume of the loudest frequency at the mic.  So, it is imperative to know what is peaking your meter.  If you are passing your volume limit, you need to know what to turn down, so listening is just as important as watching.  If your lead vocal is peaking the meter, dropping the volume of the rest of the band might get you below the magic number, but it won’t sound good.  Know what is peaking your meter, and how to make it work.
  9. Carve your EQ: Rather than boosting volume on vocals and other items you need to hear clearly, make room for them using EQ.  For example, I typically create a boost around 1khz in the lead vocal, I will then carve out that space by making a 1 khz cut for other instruments.  I do the same thing for my piano at about 2 khz.  Generally speaking, each instrument should have it’s own sonic space.  This will allow you to hear everything more clearly without having to crank the volume.

I hope you have found these basic tips helpful.  Sorry this post got so long… Just kept thinking of more things.  If you have any thoughts, comments, or questions, please feel free to share them.

Happy mixing,