What is Pink Noise Mixing?
If you’ve ever found yourself sitting in your chair staring at your computer wondering how you let yourself be bamboozled into mixing a track that appears to have hundreds upon hundreds of layers, you’ve come to the right place.
It happens…what you thought was going to be a quick and dirty 4 piece rock recording, snowballed into a session with extensive layering of guitars, massive vocal arrangements, overdubs out the wazoo and what seems like a million mics placed around the drum kit. When it comes down to your to mix it, extensive layering can be a tricky thing especially when all the tracks are at different volumes. Usually, the best practice is finding a core to mix to, and building all the layers upon it. Depending on your genre, most mixers tend to start with instruments like the kick and snare, or vocals, and build everything else around it.
But there is an easier way to find a more balanced mix, and it’s through the use of something called pink noise.
You’ve most certainly heard of white noise before, but pink noise is something different, and comes in handy when you need to find the right balance in your mix. But to understand how to use it, let’s first let’s examine what it is.
Pink noise is the energy in every octave, whereas white noise is the energy in every frequency. We perceive sound in octaves, therefore we hear noise in pink noise! The interesting thing about octaves is that they don’t change even as frequencies get exponentially higher as they ascend.
Consider this: there’s actually the same number of notes in a scale between 400 Hz to 800 Hz, and 5 KHz to 10 Khz. If you think about it, the number of keys on a piano doesn’t change between C to C anywhere on a piano, but if you were to play those note after one another and look at them through a frequency visualizer, you’d notice they get considerably larger as the ascend.
Because white noise has a flat response and maintains constant energy across throughout the energy spectrum this makes it a great tool for fine tuning your audio equipment. Alas, when it comes to mixing, we are balancing sounds for the human ear, not the mechanical one which is why pink noise is key.
So how does this apply to mixing? Well, since the human ear perceives sound as pink noise (think octaves) and not frequencies, this means that a ‘layering’ of pink nose works as a sound blanket that wraps evenly across your mix. What we’re going to do is use the pink noise as meter stick to measure the pitches we hear.
First things first, you’ll want to download a pink noise sample track. You can get them from about anywhere on the web, but we’d recommend this one. Open your track and bring every track’s levels all the way down. It’s time to bring in your pink noise on a new track and solo it. Now you’re going to want to find a reasonable average to mix your track down to. There’s a lot of varying schools of thought about what that is, but we’d recommend between -9dB and -12dB. We’re not looking to blast the levels here.
Once you have your pink noise set to a good level, it’s time to start mixing. With your pink noise on solo, also solo the first track you want to mix. Bring up the level of the track until you can barely hear it against the pink noise. If the pink noise is a house, your track should be like snow sitting atop — just barely. During this process, it’s best if you turn all send-effects off. We’re looking for true sound here, so turn those off until the entire song is mixed down.
One by one, bring in the rest of your tracks and repeat the process. Remember those ‘core’ layers we mentioned before? Start with those. Work on your kick drum, snare drum, vocals and bass before you get into layers like guitars, keyboards and auxiliary percussion.
You might run into a bit of an issue when it comes to balancing vocals against pink noise. Depending on your singer, they might have a pretty dynamic performance, at which will be hard to nail down. What you don’t want to do is against the singer’s ‘attack’, rather you should be listening for their softer words. Measure the lower parts of their performance against the pink noise level.
Now that all your tracks are mixed to the pink noise, you should have a fairly well-balanced song. However, don’t bounce it and walk away, you’ll still need to fine-tune a couple things and work a bit of your professional magic. Give yourself a break and come back to it.
Resist the temptation to start tweaking a bunch of layers that you think should have huge emphasis. Even when mixed against the pink noise you will come to certain instrument tracks that will sound higher or lower in the grand scheme of the mix. In the end, it is ultimately up to you but part of the pink noise mix is believing in the process.