026 MixCoach Minute-How loud should a kick be in a mix?

This is the first of several questions from MixCoach Member Stone Walters. In this episode, he asked about where the kick drum should be relative to the VU meter.

Raw Transcript:

Kevin: Hey, guys. It’s Kevin from MixCoach. It’s time for another episode
of The MixCoach Minute. Today, and for the next few MixCoach Minute
episodes, I’ve got my friend Stone Walters from the UK. Stone has been a
MixCoach member for a while. And Stone always has great questions. You’ve
probably read some of his blog posts on levels demystified and, what was
the other one Stone? Loudness…

Stone: Compression.

Kevin: Compression and loudness demystified.

Stone: That’s right.

Kevin: Stone is writing some really great articles for MixCoach and Stone,
thank you for that. But Stone had a great question the other day and I
thought, “Hey, Stone. Why don’t we just get together and do a couple of
episodes of The MixCoach Minute?” And he agreed to do this. So Stone,
thank you for showing up today and I think you had a couple of questions
that you wanted to ask. I guess I’ll just throw it to you.

Stone: Cool. Firstly Kevin, thank you so much for allowing me to put these
questions to you. I think one of the things that I find interesting about
the mixing process where whether you’re learning to mix or as you kind of
progress is, I guess the more you mix, the more you start to do things
intuitively. But when it comes to setting levels, I was thinking about, if
you could find a level that you start a mix with, what would it be? For
example, if you were to say start with a kick, what level would you set
that kick at? So that you could build the entire mix around that level.
So the kick almost acts like an anchor point.

Kevin: Right. Okay. It’s funny that you ask this because when I first
started mixing, I think I was the same as about every other mixer in that I
was very drum-centric. I was very driven by how great drums sound. I had
mentors that I would strive and I would copy and try to make sure my drums
sounded like theirs. As a young mixer, I wanted my kick to be first and
foremost. Even better than the vocals. I didn’t care. As long as my
kicks sounded great. That’s all I cared. I actually had another mentor to
say, “If you’re going to make the kick drive the mix and you’re going to
set everything relative on the kick, then set your kick at minus three.” I
have since found out that, and that was VU or RMS. It was on the Studer
A880 and a Tascam, not Tascam, a Soundcraft console and it had VU meters on
it.

Stone: Right.

Kevin: So I found that if I made the kick go to minus six on the VU meter,
that my mix tended to happen a little more easily. So I did minus six on
the kick and then I would add all the other drums to it. Pulling down the
drums if the kick got too loud or too soft. I would pull down the other
drums. And once that…

Stone: So you keep the kick static then, more or less.

Kevin: I would keep the kick static and make the other drums. And one
thing I found is that, if you can’t seem to get the drums loud enough, turn
the control room monitor up. That will make you mix the kick or the drums
at the level that they should be. But I did find that if I pulled the kick
up to minus six, that the mix did tend to happen. Sometimes it would
happen on the light side. In other words, I would have to gain up things
just a little bit at the very end of a mix. But to me, that’s always
better than pulling things back. At least psychologically speaking that
was. Now, I guess these days since not a lot of people are using the VU
meters, I found that the meters on Pro Tools, typically if you do the same
approach with the kick and you go to minus, where is it where the level
goes from green to yellow?

Stone: I think it’s around minus 12, minus 10. Peak.

Kevin: Okay. I found out, and as a matter of fact I’m in the middle of
opening a session to verify that, but I remember soloing a kick the other
day and thinking, “Well, that’s like at the top of the green.” So I think
that if you are gain staging your mix from the kick perspective, if you
gain stage it, you solo the kick and it’s at minus 10 or 12 or right where
the yellow turns green, you’ll usually be about right. As far as an anchor
point, as far as kick is concerned. Now as far as vocals or anything else,
I couldn’t tell you. But I happen to know the answer to this question
because I was one of those young mixers at once that wanted everything to
be, I wanted people to comment on my kick sound first and my drum sounds.

Stone: So then do you think if you’re going to use a different instrument
as a start point, or as an anchor point for example, the vocal or maybe
sort of a base trim in track, do you think if you took the same approach
and started with the vocal or the base at that level in the mix, everything
relative to that, you would still have healthy levels and a relatively well
balanced mix?

Kevin: Well, I’m assuming, Stone, that the reason that you and probably
anybody else would answer this, is to kind of build this into a workflow.
If you know that you go to an instrument first and that’s your pivot or
your anchor instrument, as you’re calling it, I would say the best thing
that you could possibly do is to find your best mix where it’s gain staged,
everything, nothing is peaking, everything seems to be flowing from one
plug-in to the next without a lot of peaking, you’re not killing your
master bus compressor. Then I would say to do some forensics on that mix.

Solo the kick and find out, okay, the kick is around minus 12, minus 10.
The vocal tends to be soloed around this particular point and the bass
tends to be around this particular point. And then because I might like to
mix the kick a little lower than some people, I might like to mix it a
little louder than some people. Then you can dissect your mix and you can
find out what those anchor gain levels are for your mix. To me that would
be the absolutely best thing that you could do. If you’re wanting to build
speed into your workflow and you know that kick needs to be at minus six,
snare needs to be relative to that and then the hat and the toms and the
bass. So that you can build a static mix that is pretty much right without
you having to pull everything down. To me the absolute best thing that you
can do is to work on your perfect mix and then find those anchor points
after that.

Stone: And in your experience, when you start off with the kick as the
anchor point, where would your bass come in, for example, relative to the
kick? Would it be coming in a little bit lower than that? Would your
vocal be above the kick? I know it’s a difficult question.

Kevin: No, it’s a good question because I’ve actually experimented with
this because I worked with a client a few years ago and one of the things
he made me do, which I thought was a little silly, but it made complete
sense when I heard what he was talking about, a lot of times when I get the
mix in, I’ll mute the kick drum and make sure that the base carries the
mix. In other words you don’t miss the kick so much. You wish it was
there, but you don’t miss it. So that’s how loud I need the bass. Then
I’ll mute the bass and un-mute the kick and make sure that the kick can
also carry. Then what you may end up with is both of them being too loud,
but relative to each other they are codependent and independent at the same
time. Make sense?

Stone: Perfect sense.

Kevin: I’ve done that and that’s something that I do actually do if I got
questions about if the bass should be louder, I’ll mute the kick drum. If
the bass can still carry the mix and the bass player’s mother wouldn’t
complain about the level being too low, then I count it as a win as far as
level is concerned.

Stone: Brilliant. Than you so much, Kevin. That’s incredible.

Kevin: It’s a great question, Stone. And I hope this question and the
answer helped you guys watching The MixCoach Minute. I appreciate you
tuning in everyday. I’m sure that Stone will agree that MixCoach Member is
the best membership site for learning to mix and getting valuable insight.
Not from just me, but from a lot of really great mixers. We get a new song
every month. We get different styles every month. And I really think you
should check it out. Stone, thanks for the great question and I’ll see you
guys tomorrow.

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MixCoach,Kick,VU Meter