I’ve written quite a few blog posts and articles about audio mixing methods in Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro. But over time, methods evolve, change, or become more streamlined, so it’s time to revisit the subject. When you boil down most commercials and short-subject videos (excluding trailers), the essence of the soundtrack is just voice against a music bed with some sound effects. While I’ll be the first to say you’ll get the best results sending even a simple mix to a professional mixer, often budget and timeframe don’t allow for that. And so, like most editors, I do a lot of my own mixes.
My approach to these mixes is straightforward and rather systematic. I’m going to use Premiere Pro examples, but track-based mixing techniques can be universally applied to all NLEs. Even FCP works with track-based mixing if you properly use its audio roles function. I will almost never apply audio effects at the individual clip level, unless it something special, like simulated phone call voice processing.
All dialogue clips usually end up on A1 with crossfades between to smooth the edits. Add room tone between for consistency. This also helps the processing of the track effects, especially noise reduction. If I have more than one voice or character, then each goes onto a separate track. I will use clip volume adjustments in order to get the track to sound even across the length of the video. With this done, it’s time to move to the track mixer.
In this example from a recent product video, the reviewer’s voice is on A1. There’s a motor start-up sound that I’ve isolated and placed on A2. Music is on A3 and then the master mix bus. These audio plug-in effects are the ones I use on almost every video in a pretty systematic fashion. I have a nice collection of paid and free, third-party audio plug-ins, but I often stick to only the stock effects that come with a given NLE. That’s because I frequently work with other editors on the same project and I know that if I stick with the standard effects, then they won’t have any compatibility issues due to missing plug-ins. The best stock plug-in set can be found in Logic Pro and many of those are available in FCP. However, the stock audio effects available in Premiere are solid options for most projects.
Audio track 1 – Dialogue – Step 1 – noise reduction. Regardless of how clean the mic recording is, I will apply noise reduction to nearly every voice track recorded on location. My default is the light noise reduction preset, where I normally tweak only the percentage. If you have a really noisy recording, I suggest using Audition first (if you are a Creative Cloud subscriber). It includes several noise reduction routines and a spectral repair function. Process the audio, bounce out an export, and bring the cleaned-up track into your timeline. However, that’s going to be the exception. The new dialogue isolation feature in Resolve 18.1 (and later) as well as iZotope RX are also good options.
Step 2 – equalization. I apply a parametric EQ effect after the noise reduction stage. This is just to brighten the voice and cut any unnecessary low end. Adobe’s voice enhancer preset is fine for most male and female voices. EQ is very subjective, so feel free to tweak the settings to taste.
Step 3 – compressor. I prefer the tube-modeled compressor set to the voice leveling preset for this first compression stage. This squashes any of the loudest points. I typically adjust the threshold level. You can also use this filter to boost the gain of the voice as you see in the screenshot. You really need to listen to how the audio sounds and work interactively. Play this compressor off against the audio levels of the clip itself. Don’t just squash peaks using the filter. Duck any really loud sections and/or boost low areas within the clip for an even sound without it becoming overly compressed.
Audio track 2 – Sound FX – Step 1 – equalization. Many of my videos are just voice and music, but in this case, the reviewer powers up a boat motor and cruises off at the end of the piece. I wanted to emphasis the motor rumble, so I split that part of the clip’s audio and moved it down to A2. This let me apply different effects than the A1 track effects. Since I wanted a lot of bottom end, I used parametric EQ at full reset and boosted the low end to really get a roaring sound.
Step 2 – compressor. I once again applied the tube-modeled compressor in order to keep the level tame with the boosted EQ settings.
Audio track 3 – Music – Step 1 – equalization. Production music helps set the mood and provides a bed under the voice. But you don’t want it to compete. Before applying any effects, get the volume down to an acceptable level and adjust any really loud or quiet parts in the track. Then, apply a parametric equalizer in the track mixer panel. Pull down the level of the midrange in the frequencies closest to the voice. I will also adjust the Q (range and tightness of the bell curve at that frequency). In addition, I often boost the low and high ends. In this example, the track included a bright hi-hat, which I felt was a bit distracting. And so in this example, I also pulled down some of the high end.
Step 2 – stereo expander. This step is optional, but it helps many mixes. The stereo expander effect pushes the stereo image out to the left and right, leaving more of the center open for voice. However, don’t get carried away, because stereo expander plug-ins also alter the phase of the track. This can potentially throw some of the music out of phase when listened to in mono, which could cause your project to be rejected. If you are mixing for the web, then this is less of an issue, since most modern computers, tablets, smart phones, not to mention ear buds, etc are all set up for stereo. However, if you mix is for broadcast, then be sure to check your mix for proper phase correlation.
Mix bus – Step 1 – multi-band compression. The mix bus (aka master bus or output bus) is your chance to “glue” the mix together. There are different approaches, but for these types of projects, I like to use Adobe’s multi-band compressor set to the classical master preset. I adjust the threshold of the first three bands to -20 and a compression ratio of 4 across the board. This lightly knocks down any overshoots without being heavy-handed. The frequency ranges usually don’t need to be adjusted. Altering the output gain drives the volume hitting the limiter in the next step. You may of may not need to adjust this depending on your target level for the whole mix.
Step 2 – hard limiter. The limiter is the last plug-in that controls output volume. This is your control to absolutely stay below a certain level. I use the -3 or -6 preset (depending on the loudness level I’m trying achieve) and reduce the input boost back to 0. I also change it to read true peaks instead of only peak levels.
Step 3 – loudness meter. The loudness meter keeps you honest. Don’t just go by the NLE’s default audio meters. If you have been mixing to a level of just below 0 on those, then frankly you are mixing the wrong way for this type of content. Really loud mixes close to 0 are fine for music production, but not OK for any video project.
The first step is to find out the target deliverable and use the preset for that. There are different presets for broadcast loudness standards versus web streaming, like YouTube. These presets don’t change the readout of the numbers, though. They change the color indicators slightly. Learn what those mean.
Broadcast typically requires integrated loudness to be in the -23 to -24 area, whereas YouTube uses -14. I aim for a true peak target of -3 or -6. This tracks with the NLE audio meters at levels peaking in the -9 to -6 range. Adjusting the gain levels of the multi-band compressor and/or limiter help you get to those target levels.
©2022 Oliver Peters