Setting background music levels is an essential task that can make or break your content.
There is no target audio level for background music as this number will vary, however, to ensure your background music does not impede the clarity of speech or narration for those with hearing problems, most experts agree that background music should be between -18dBs and -20dBs lower than the main dialogue, narration or speech audio.
How Should I Set My Background Music Volume Levels?
The best background music is the music you don’t notice.
Background music in content should add atmosphere and enhance your message, but it should never be prominent enough to make the viewer listen to the background music and ignore any speech or narration that may be happening.
Here are some suggested background music volume levels from international bodies:
World Wide Web Consortium
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), is an international community that develops open standards for the World Wide Web and advises on mixing audio sounds so that the non-speech sounds are 20dBs lower than any speech sounds.
Setting your background music 20dBs lower than speech sounds will make the speech audio four times louder than the background audio.
Here is a great example from the World Wide Web Consortium of how they suggest it should be done. You can check out this page for more in-depth examples.
This example demonstrates a voice with music in the background in which the voice is the appropriate 20dB above the background. The voice (foreground) is recorded at -17.52 decibels (average RMS) and the music (background) is at -37.52 decibels, which makes the foreground 20 decibels louder than the background. – W3CWorld Wide Web Consortium (W3C)
For traditional TV or terrestrial broadcast, here in the UK the BBC is our go-to for audio standards.
The BBC is extremely strict about the audio levels of content supplied to them. In the event that a TV show receives a significant number of complaints regarding audio, the BBC will ask for the sound to be remixed at the expense of the content provider or production house.
Regarding music levels in content, when the final mix is complete the BBC recommends taking the music down by 4dB.
So basically, mix your audio as normal, then take your background music down a further 4dB.
They have found from their research that this can make an enormous difference to their audience without degrading the creativity and ambience of the production.
This BBC audio mixing guide reports that viewers never complain about background music being “too low”, however, there is a tendency for content creators and producers to turn up the music a fraction to squeeze as much out of the background music as possible.
I think as content creators and producers, we all understand the temptation to turn background music up as loud as possible as loud sounds good. However, we should be careful when doing this when speech audio or narration is also present.
What dB Should My Audio Levels Be At?
Audio Levels for General Mixing
Suggesting that background music should be approximately 20dB lower than speech or narration is a great starting point, but what level should your speech and other audio levels be at?
Once again, there are no hard and fast rules; audio levels will vary between content. However, below is a good general “ballpark” range to help set up a good audio mix in your content.
|Description||Audio Level Range||Comments|
|Overall Audio Mix Level||-10dB to -20dB||This is your total audio mix level. Note: Never let your total audio mix level exceed 0dB.|
|Main Narrator or Dialogue Levels||-6dB to -12dB||This is a good audio level range for your speech or dialogue audio. For YouTube, most YouTubers stick at -12dB max.|
|Background Music||-18dB to -20dB||This will vary, but using the guide of 20dB lower than your speech audio is a good starting point|
|Sound Effects||-12dB to -18dB||Sound effects will vary depending on the sound effect, but ensure they do not impede or interfere with your main speech and dialogue.|
Why Should My Audio Levels Never Exceed 0dB?
Your overall audio levels should never exceed 0dB, as your audio will distort.
As soon as your audio levels exceed 0dB, they will distort and, once exported from your video editing or audio editing software, this cannot be fixed.
The only solution is to turn your audio down and re-export, ensuring that your master audio fader in your software NEVER exceeds 0dB.
Therefore, when mixing audio for your content, keep an eye on the master volume meter to ensure your overall mix does not exceed 0dB.
How Can I Be Sure My Audio Mixing Levels Sound Good?
Audio is subjective – what sounds good to me might sound terrible to you. Therefore, it can take a lot of practice to build up the experience and confidence to produce great-sounding content.
At the end of the day, all audio level guides are just that, a guide. It is important that you use your ears to make the final decision.
Here are a few things you can do to help improve the audio quality and get good audio levels in your content consistently.
1. Listen To Your Final Mix On A Variety Of Devices
Ensure you listen to your final audio mix on a variety of devices, from desktop speakers to car speakers to your mobile phone to your laptop and any other speaker system you have to hand.
This is a technique that professional audio mixing engineers have been using for years and it should be implemented by content creators who are eager to get a good sound in their content.
It is most important to listen to your audio mix on a device that your audience will normally use. For example, if you are a YouTuber, you may want to check how your audio sounds on a laptop, mobile phone, and TV, as the vast majority of the YouTube audience consumes media on one of these devices.
This will help you hear what your audience will hear.
2. If In Doubt, Turn Your Background Music Volume Down
When mixing speech and background music, there is always the temptation to turn up the background music.
Try to resist this if possible. Very few people, if any, will complain if your background music is too low, but if it is too loud, they will just switch off.
If it is too loud and affects how we hear the main speech or dialogue in your content, very few listeners can tolerate this.
3. Test Your Audio
If you are unsure about the audio levels in your content, produce a test YouTube video and make it private.
There is nothing wrong with experimenting with audio levels, posting your video on YouTube privately, and listening to how it sounds.
You could try setting your background music at 20dB lower than your speech, then turning it up in 3dBs steps to see how it all sounds.
This experimentation with sound and physically testing is the best way to gain experience in sound mixing and design as at the end of the day, so much of audio mixing is learned by trial and error.
When it comes to background music, less is more. You don’t want your audio levels to exceed 0dB or else your content will distort.
Always use your ears to make the final decision on what sounds good.
And finally, experiment with different audio levels until you find what works best for you and your content.