The core controls is a term I use for the attributes that every track and every piece of audio have, and that in the end play the most important role in making the song sound the way you want.
The members of this core group are: volume, panning, timing, tempo (& metronome) and automation. While not really in the same category, I will I also mention some things about record and monitor enabled. But that is all for the next chapter, let’s first go over the two most important ones: volume and panning.
Volume (or gain)
Every track has a big vertical slider (or button) for volume. This is by far the most important button, as you probably don’t want all instruments (or any instrument at all) at the same volume. The fact that it’s impossible to record every instrument at the exact same level of loudness, and that you only want a few instruments to take the lead in your mix, make volume adjusting a very necessary tool.
Because of that, changing volume can usually be done in lots of places in the software (or audio interface itself, but I recommend only changing stuff in the software). And all you have to do is pull a slider down to make the sound softer, and push it up to crank up the volume.
DAWs have an at first sight unusual way of representing the volume: in negative dB. When you record a something, the track is set to a volume level of 0 dB. This means the standard operating volume of the system you’re working on. You can see that the volume slider in software is usually about (1/3) down the slider by default, with a 0 next to it. This means that there is a small amount of dB you can increase your track, but I will never allow you to do that!
Instead, if you want something to be more prominent, you should lower other instruments that overwhelm it. That’s the reason that most tracks are set to a negative decibel level, which only means that it is a certain amount softer than the standard volume, and not that it creates some sort of anti-sound or whatever.
Why should we lower other instruments if we want one to be heard more? Well, because increasing volume if you want something louder in the mix is a never-ending process. You might think ‘hmm, let me increase the volume on the guitar a bit’, and then think ‘well, now I cannot hear the piano anymore, lets increase that one too’, and so it goes on and on. When you can’t hear something, it is usually not because it isn’t loud enough, but because there are other instruments fighting for their spot which should be tamed.
A last general volume guideline: if you can hear the bass, it’s probably too loud.
Panning is the control making the difference between mono and stereo sound. With mono sound, every instrument is panned to the same spot: center. With stereo sound, you get the possibility to place certain instruments or tracks more to the right and/or more to the left.
Usually, this can be done moving a horizontal slider to the left or right, and notation for panning level is L or R, followed by the amount of panning (higher is further to the side).
Here are some general panning guidelines:
- The base drum and snare should be dead center. All other parts of the drum kit can be spread out a bit to the right and a bit to the left, just like a real-life drum kit.
- The bass line and lead vocals should also be dead center.
- The rest of the instruments and audio can be distributed left and right, although it is preferred to have them in a logical position. For example, if you have one track that plays low piano notes and one that plays the high ones, it is somehow more pleasant to have them distributed left and right respectively, because that is also their place on a real piano.
- Balance is key here. Your left and right sides should be balanced, preferably by using the same amount of instruments. If that is somehow not possible, you can pan all instruments on one side more away from the center than on the other side to compensate.