Your program needs to be loud enough to be easily heard by your listeners. If they can’t hear you, they will go somewhere else.
Most radio station board operators are somewhat spoiled. Because the station likely has several pieces of equipment that specifically keeps the volume levels maximized, while at the same time guarding against distortion from being too loud. The actual position of the mixer’s volume faders are not so critical, since the processing gear will take care of it.
But the small station, internet broadcaster, or podcaster doesn’t usually have all the processing toys that the larger stations do, so it’s up to the board operator to be aware of the level of audio that’s coming through the mixer.
Each mixing board has meters that show the audio level. Some boards just have one set of meters at the final output. While other mixers have meters at each mic channel, and maybe other places, too. Check the instructions for your particular mixer, and follow their procedure for optimizing the audio levels for each area of the mixer. Simply put, the audio leaving each portion of the mixer should be the loudest possible, just short of distortion (usually indicated by a red “clip” light of some type).
Start with the mic preamps. If you use a condensor mic, the gain trimmer control will likely find it’s optimal position between 1/3 and 2/3 of full rotation of the gain knob. Dynamic mics will require more… in many cases the mic preamp gain knob will need to be at full clockwise rotation to give enough gain for a dynamic mic to work properly. It is crucial that the mic preamps are set correctly, as it will affect the operation of compressors, effects units, gates, telephone hybrids, and other processes further down the line. If it’s not correct here, those other devices won’t be able to do their job properly.
After the mic preamps are set correctly, you can set up any compressors, gates, and other devices. Once everything is set, avoid random changes to these controls. Routine mixing will be done by adjusting only the level controls at the bottom of the mixer for each mic and other sound source.
Adjust the input controls so the meters light up at least to the middle of the scale (usually marked as “0 VU”) or the transition between green and yellow lights. It’s OK for the yellow lights to flicker… just stay below the red. If the red meter lights flash, locate the source that’s too loud, and reduce the level until the red no longer lights.
Adjust the controls for the individual sources. Do not make adjustments to the MAIN MIX level after it’s been set.
Sure, we have compressors, mic processors, and program audio level controllers that will do most of the work automatically (and any of them would be a fine upgrade for your studio). But proper level setting is still important for them to do their job well.
Say it loud. Say it proud. But stay in control.