Gain Staging – Better Mixes in 5 Minutes
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Old 01-02-2017, 12:03 PM   #1
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Gain Staging – Better Mixes in 5 Minutes

Hi y'all...I've recently been experimenting with gain-staging and thought I'd put together a post on it. Let me know if you find it useful

...

Although it doesn’t sound like the most exciting topic, “gain staging” is one of the most overlooked, simple, and important concepts of getting the best from your mix. Once understood and implemented, it can take your mixes to the next level, giving them more clarity, punch and loudness.
In a nutshell, gain staging is simply ensuring that an audio signal is at an optimum level from one stage to the next in the signal path, giving your sounds enough room to breathe and maximise dynamic impact.
Here’s an example: Your drum sample is set at the best level to go into a plugin (like a compressor or EQ), which is set at the correct level to go into the mix channel, which is set at the correct level to go into the master buss. Simple!

...

It turns out that recording and mixing at high levels actually makes your final mix QUIETER (not to mention muddy and/or distorted). Read on, and I’ll show you how to overcome this problem once and for all…
This is primarily due to a lack of what is known as “headroom”. Headroom is simply the name for the amount of available gain you have between your current audio level and the maximum level your system can reach before distorting.

This maximum level is called “0dBFS” (which stands for “0 decibels full scale”) and your audio will distort at this level.

The master channel (aka “master buss”) in your DAW will have numbers displayed next to it, and these show the peak level of your audio in relation to 0dBFS. (In Ableton Live, the brighter green bars display the average level – RMS – and the darker green the peak level).

So, if your audio level is peaking at -10dBFS, you have 10dB of headroom. The nearer you are to 0dBFS, the less headroom you have.

Headroom is important as it allows the music to “breathe”; to have more dynamic range and not put such a strain on the system. It effectively provides a buffer zone to accommodate unexpected transients or loud sounds without risking clipping (unwanted distortion).

...

**ACTION STEPS**: So what levels should you record, produce and mix at?
Below are some gain staging action steps you can implement in your tracks straight away. We’ll go through a standard audio signal path in reverse – from the end to the beginning – because if we know our goal, it will help inform the previous gain staging steps:

...

.5. MASTERING STAGE:
When a track is mastered, the audio level will be increased to 0dBFS (or fractionally below to avoid distortion) – typically using compression and limiting plugins. This means we need to use a much quieter audio signal (with plenty of headroom) at the beginning of the mastering chain to avoid crushing the dynamics, or causing distortion.

.4. MASTER BUSS (MIX):
You should aim for your pre-master mix to hover at about -18dBFS average, with peaks of around -10dBFS. These figures aren’t exact – and some DAWS meter levels slightly differently – but it’s a good, safe level to aim for. If you mix is sounding a bit quiet, don’t be tempted to turn up the master fader (leave it in default position); just turn up your monitors or headphones. Why -18dBFS? Well, it’s the equivalent of 0dBVU on analogue equipment. That’s the level that every engineer would aim for when recording – averaging around 0dBVU with the peaks going a bit higher.

.3. CHANNEL FADER:
When working with audio (as opposed to MIDI), most DAWS will allow you to change the gain of a clip before any other signal processing. Alternatively (and also with MIDI channels), simply add a gain or trim plugin on each channel at the very beginning of the plugin chain. Adjust the level so the signal for that channel is peaking at about -18dBFS. In electronic dance music (or even pop or rock), the loudest sounds will generally be the kick and the snare, so If you set the gains for these first and mix everything else relative to them, you should avoid any problems.

.2. PLUGINS – THE SWEET-SPOT:
Similar to above, make sure the audio level is about -18dBFS BEFORE it enters each plugin. You can usually do this with the plugin’s native input control. If your plugin doesn’t have I/O gain controls – no problem – simply use a separate gain or trim plugin before-hand. This will avoid the plugins getting pushed too hard and will render the best results. For every plugin you add, you’ll need to check that you aren’t increasing or decreasing the level of the channel. If you are, simply adjust accordingly, e.g. Applying heavy EQ cuts will decrease the level of a channel, so to compensate you can raise the output gain.

*N.B. This is also important to take into account when referencing plugins. If something is louder, it generally sounds better – which can be misleading. To make sure you’re actually improving the sound with a plugin (not just making it louder) make sure you’ve set the gain controls so the audio is at the same level when the plugin is activated as when it’s bypassed.

.1. AUDIO OR MIDI:
Your audio clip or MIDI instrument should output at – you guessed it – about -18dBFS. But what if you’re recording vocals or an instrument through a microphone? Well, this is too broad a subject to cover in this post, but basically – as with the other stages (and for the same reasons) – try to record the average level as -18dBFS with peaks up to about -10dBFS.
...

If you like the balance of levels you have in your mix (but they’re peaking too high in your master channel) simply group select the individual faders and bring them down (leaving your master fader on 0db). (This is why I strongly recommend any volume automation takes place BEFORE the mixer channel, e.g. with a gain plugin. Automated mixer levels will make tweaking your mix much harder than it needs to be)!

And there you have it! Why (and how) to gain-stage properly and breathe life into your mixes. If anything's unclear (or you disagree) let me know

P.S This is an adaptation of a post from my blog. If you would like to read the original blog post, leave a comment below and I'll post the link

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Old 01-02-2017, 04:58 PM   #2
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Re: Gain Staging – Better Mixes in 5 Minutes

Thanks

I've been becoming more aware of "less (gain) is more" in my mixes - but this might help give me a better idea of where exactly I am shooting for and where gain-creep may be setting in.

Will be mindful of this in my next project.
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Old 01-02-2017, 06:12 PM   #3
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Re: Gain Staging – Better Mixes in 5 Minutes

Just a note--and I admit I only skimmed this--if you are actually recording audio, especially from hardware synths and drum machines, I wouldn't recommend recording things too quiet. You don't want to clip your inputs or distort the signal, but you can always turn things down once they are recorded. However, if you recorded audio too quietly this can cause noise issues later that can't be fixed w/o recording the take again.

Actually recording something at -18dbfs seems really low to me, especially if you want to make it louder later. I really just don't think this applies to recorded audio. Even if I was bouncing to audio from a plug in I probably wouldn't do this. As long as nothing is clipped/distorted you can turn down an audio track as much as you want, but making things louder once they are recorded is a bit more of a trick.

I'm not an expert, but I've been recording line level signals from synths and drum machines for more than a couple years now. Maybe I'm wrong and its a fault in my mixes.

All the rest seem like good "best practices" to me--except I would probably also add, as to not confuse absolute beginners, that you probably aren't going to set everything at -18dbfs and leave it there. That would make for a pretty flat mix.
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Old 01-02-2017, 07:31 PM   #4
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Re: Gain Staging – Better Mixes in 5 Minutes

I'm pretty good about following most of that, with the exception of the -18dbfs for my master mix buss. To me, that leaves too much headroom as you head into mastering and it's really hard to compress/limit that much headroom out without it making the music sound bad. I have a bitshift gain (free airwindows plugin) as the last step in my mix, which adjusts only the least significant bit of a signal for zero distortion on volume change, but can only adjust in 6db increments. I get my master buss level from -20-30 dbfs at the start of the channel up to around -10dbfs at the end because that's easier to work with as I master. Essentially, it's the first thing I would do while mastering something that quiet, but already done in the mix so that I don't have to push my amps as hard (only twice the volume rather than 3-4 times for un-mastered material).

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Old 02-02-2017, 02:52 AM   #5
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Re: Gain Staging – Better Mixes in 5 Minutes

-18 seems a bit much to me, but what do I know. Usually I'm sitting around -8

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Old 02-02-2017, 03:12 AM   #6
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Re: Gain Staging – Better Mixes in 5 Minutes

Quote:
Originally Posted by WillDarling View Post

.2. PLUGINS – THE SWEET-SPOT:
Similar to above, make sure the audio level is about -18dBFS BEFORE it enters each plugin. You can usually do this with the plugin’s native input control. If your plugin doesn’t have I/O gain controls – no problem – simply use a separate gain or trim plugin before-hand. This will avoid the plugins getting pushed too hard and will render the best results. For every plugin you add, you’ll need to check that you aren’t increasing or decreasing the level of the channel. If you are, simply adjust accordingly, e.g. Applying heavy EQ cuts will decrease the level of a channel, so to compensate you can raise the output gain.

*N.B. This is also important to take into account when referencing plugins. If something is louder, it generally sounds better – which can be misleading. To make sure you’re actually improving the sound with a plugin (not just making it louder) make sure you’ve set the gain controls so the audio is at the same level when the plugin is activated as when it’s bypassed.
I think this is the most important part of this because it gets overlooked the most. If you start piling on plugins on your channels, one of them can introduce digital distortion somewhere. But since other plugins further in the chain can attenuate the signal, by the time your meters can measure it, it's within a normal range and not clipping. But it's too late, since it clipped somewhere earlier and the already clipped signal got brought down. So you need to be diligent about checking the levels coming in/going out in every single plugin. Most plugins nowadays have dedicated input and output parameters, so those need to be adjusted both to keep from clipping and also to level match your changes. Otherwise, the only reason that throwing that compressor pre-set sounds good to you is because the signal got louder and for human brain "louder = better" and not because the compressor settings are the appropriate ones for the material. Which becomes easily apparent if you properly level match the signal and do a quick A/B with muting/unmuting it.
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Old 02-02-2017, 03:49 AM   #7
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Re: Gain Staging – Better Mixes in 5 Minutes

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Originally Posted by iDoG View Post
I think this is the most important part of this because it gets overlooked the most. If you start piling on plugins on your channels, one of them can introduce digital distortion somewhere. But since other plugins further in the chain can attenuate the signal, by the time your meters can measure it, it's within a normal range and not clipping. But it's too late, since it clipped somewhere earlier and the already clipped signal got brought down. So you need to be diligent about checking the levels coming in/going out in every single plugin. Most plugins nowadays have dedicated input and output parameters, so those need to be adjusted both to keep from clipping and also to level match your changes. Otherwise, the only reason that throwing that compressor pre-set sounds good to you is because the signal got louder and for human brain "louder = better" and not because the compressor settings are the appropriate ones for the material. Which becomes easily apparent if you properly level match the signal and do a quick A/B with muting/unmuting it.
Agreed. People get all fired up about how you can't clip digital etc etc...dunno if that is actually true, but I've read all kinds of crazy shit I 1/3 understand about digital audio and DAWs...yea you can slam the master of your DAW pretty hard, but a lot of plug ins clip/distort pretty quickly. Using the output gain on FX and especially compressors has really been a game changer for me personally.
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Old 02-02-2017, 04:11 AM   #8
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Re: Gain Staging – Better Mixes in 5 Minutes

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Originally Posted by Chaotix View Post
-18 seems a bit much to me, but what do I know. Usually I'm sitting around -8
I think the confusion here is that you are looking at your peak values. The whole -18 dbFs thing is often repeated is because it's roughly equivalent to 0 dBvu meter on the analogue boards. However, that's measuring something closer to RMS levels because they were specifically designed not to react to peaks (kind of like a slow attack on the compressor). Which is very different from DAW meters, which typically display peak values.


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Old 02-02-2017, 11:08 PM   #9
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Re: Gain Staging – Better Mixes in 5 Minutes

LKFS or bust.
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Old 02-02-2017, 11:28 PM   #10
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Re: Gain Staging – Better Mixes in 5 Minutes

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LKFS or bust.
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Old 03-02-2017, 12:10 AM   #11
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Re: Gain Staging – Better Mixes in 5 Minutes

Except it actually addresses the issues you mentioned, namely RMS vs peak and the k-weighting smoothing out relative levels over time.

LUKS/LKFS wasn't meant to be a universal standard, it was meant to fulfill a specific niche. I personally like it a lot better once I understood it and got used to how it works, and my shit sounds better for it. YMMV, obviously.
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Old 03-02-2017, 12:59 AM   #12
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Re: Gain Staging – Better Mixes in 5 Minutes

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Originally Posted by Artificer View Post
Except it actually addresses the issues you mentioned, namely RMS vs peak and the k-weighting smoothing out relative levels over time.

LUKS/LKFS wasn't meant to be a universal standard, it was meant to fulfill a specific niche. I personally like it a lot better once I understood it and got used to how it works, and my shit sounds better for it. YMMV, obviously.
I was referring more to the fact that LUKS and LUFS are pretty much the same thing now (though they didn't start that way) and LUFS seems to be more commonly used. But, yeah, I certainly agree with you that it's much more useful than focusing on peaks.
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Old 03-02-2017, 12:12 PM   #13
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Re: Gain Staging – Better Mixes in 5 Minutes

You're welcome!
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Old 03-02-2017, 12:15 PM   #14
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Re: Gain Staging – Better Mixes in 5 Minutes

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Originally Posted by relic View Post
Just a note--and I admit I only skimmed this--if you are actually recording audio, especially from hardware synths and drum machines, I wouldn't recommend recording things too quiet. You don't want to clip your inputs or distort the signal, but you can always turn things down once they are recorded. However, if you recorded audio too quietly this can cause noise issues later that can't be fixed w/o recording the take again.

Actually recording something at -18dbfs seems really low to me, especially if you want to make it louder later. I really just don't think this applies to recorded audio. Even if I was bouncing to audio from a plug in I probably wouldn't do this. As long as nothing is clipped/distorted you can turn down an audio track as much as you want, but making things louder once they are recorded is a bit more of a trick.

I'm not an expert, but I've been recording line level signals from synths and drum machines for more than a couple years now. Maybe I'm wrong and its a fault in my mixes.

All the rest seem like good "best practices" to me--except I would probably also add, as to not confuse absolute beginners, that you probably aren't going to set everything at -18dbfs and leave it there. That would make for a pretty flat mix.
Cheers for the reply. I mean, with recording audio of course you want to get keep the noise down (so record loudly), but if your signal's peaking at about -8 (averaging about 18), it's not so quiet. It also help ensure any unexpected loud bits don't clip. So many times I've recorded an awesome vocal from a powerful singer, then they really belt out a section and it clips so I have to record that bit again. Not good!
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Old 03-02-2017, 12:20 PM   #15
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Re: Gain Staging – Better Mixes in 5 Minutes

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Originally Posted by Chaotix View Post
-18 seems a bit much to me, but what do I know. Usually I'm sitting around -8
Is that peak, though, or RMS? -18 is for RMS. If your RMS is at -8dBFS, I'd have thought you'd be clipping on the peaks?
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Old 03-02-2017, 03:18 PM   #16
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Re: Gain Staging – Better Mixes in 5 Minutes

Ah yea. Got confused when I replied. Peak of -8 might be a tad hot but again you can always turn it down.

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