Gain staging for mixing (in layman's terms)
Old 10th January 2014
  #1
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Gain staging for mixing (in layman's terms)

I understand the difference between dBvu and dBfs ...analog and digital ... different ways of metering etc. etc. But can someone enlighten me to as what is the BEST level in the digital world to be Trimming down to for mixing? And also I guess recording? I've read that some say -20 dBfs... others say -18 dBfs is the digital equivalent of 0 dBvu (optimal mixing/recording level)

I am so terrible at math and numbers just usually make my brain hurt and therefore shut down lol... hence some of my confusion when people start rattling off numbers and math equations hah.

I mean I would think if there was an "optimum digital level" to record to or to Trim up/down to for mixing that it would be all over the place but that doesn't seem to be the case =\

Can someone shed some light on this for me? Thanks!
Old 10th January 2014
  #2
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If I understand you correctly, then, you're right, there's no "optimum digital level" in the sense that audio will sound best when recorded so that it lands at such-and-such a digital level. I mean...even what a "digital level" is, is a rather abstract and impractical concept in that sense.

Generally speaking, the only reason to consider analog -> digital relative levels when recording is that the analog stages of AD converters are designed to operate optimally at a certain signal level.

So, generally speaking, a converter is designed to function best with average levels around 0 dBVU. "Calibrating" your setup so that 0 dBVU results in an input level of -18 dBFS is generally considered good practice in that the average expected analog input level will result in a converted digital level that strikes a good compromise between digital resolution ("using up the bits") and headroom (18 dB is a fairly safe amount of headroom between average level and peak level for most music).

Of course, you may for some reason be recording insanely dynamic source material with peaks 30 dB above the average level. Probably not, but maybe. That's why a lot of people in this 24-bit age recommend erring on the side of lower "digital level" calibration relative to the 0 dBVU analog input level.
Old 10th January 2014
  #3
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1 bit = 6db
therefore if you record at -12 you have left 2 bits "free" for possible overs.
if you record at -18 you have left 3bits free.
if you record at -20 you have 3 and a bit bits left over..
because of this i record at -18 leaving 3 bit per channel for possible overs.
when 20 trax (full rock band for example) recorded at -18 are playing together they add up to about -3/-4/-5 on the master buss...
gain staging for me means if i record at -18 then send to a comp/eq..i make sure the final output of that channel is still -18...i can drive the input for distortion and turn the output back down to achieve -18..
my own research has shown that there is no fixed best recording volume but it seems to be between -12 and -20....
for the type of trax i record if i recorded at -12 i would end up having to turn my master fader down when theyre all playing together...
make sense??
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Old 10th January 2014
  #4
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Quote:
Originally Posted by City Beats View Post
I mean I would think if there was an "optimum digital level" to record to or to Trim up/down to for mixing that it would be all over the place but that doesn't seem to be the case =\
To be honest there is no true ideal. -18dBFS is a reasonable level and the modelled plugins from Waves and the like are typically calibrated to work well at this level. In practice, trimming the input up or down a bit might be needed to get the best results for any given source. -18dBFS gives you a reasonable amount of headroom to sum a lot of channels and not go over on the master channel but it's possible that this isn't actually backed off far enough. So you might need to trim down a bit.
Old 10th January 2014
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First of all, thanks everyone for the replies! I appreciate it greatly.

Second, the whole reason I asked this was because I was given a session to mix by my drummer's dad who comes from the old analog, slam everything to Hell and back days... literally every single channel is clipping, and I mean I can always turn them down but I would end up having to turn down the faders damn near completely... plus it won't stop my plugin's from clipping. So it just got me thinking as to what the best digital level was to be striving for... I know analog gear was (and is still) designed to operate at 0 VU and I read somewhere that plugin's are still designed the same way, the difference just comes from the number difference is 0 dBfs and 0 dBvu

So, would you all say in your humble opinion, that as a general area to reach for then that -18 dBfs will be "optimum digital level?" I know there is no clear cut black and white kind of answer to this, just a guideline. If analog plugs are still modeled after 0 dBvu I'd like to come as close to this as possible.. or at least stay in the general ballpark.

Once again, thank you all for replying.
Old 10th January 2014
  #6
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Quote:
Originally Posted by City Beats View Post
Second, the whole reason I asked this was because I was given a session to mix by my drummer's dad who comes from the old analog, slam everything to Hell and back days... literally every single channel is clipping, and I mean I can always turn them down but I would end up having to turn down the faders damn near completely... plus it won't stop my plugin's from clipping. Once again, thank you all for replying.
what source did you bring the analog session in from? and are you operating at 24 bit?
Old 10th January 2014
  #7
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FWIW, to keep it simple when I'm recording an analog source, I typically set my preamps so that the source stays in the green on the meters in Pro Tools. If it occasionally pops up into the yellow, I'm okay with that, but when recording into the system, I aim for green. When I go to mix, I trim everything down from there to get my static mix.
Old 10th January 2014
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Originally Posted by skillz335 View Post
what source did you bring the analog session in from? and are you operating at 24 bit?
It was given to me in .wav track out's... I wasn't there for the tracking of it though.. and yes I'm operating at 24 bit.
Old 10th January 2014
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Originally Posted by sheltone60 View Post
FWIW, to keep it simple when I'm recording an analog source, I typically set my preamps so that the source stays in the green on the meters in Pro Tools. If it occasionally pops up into the yellow, I'm okay with that, but when recording into the system, I aim for green. When I go to mix, I trim everything down from there to get my static mix.
I also do the exact same... if a source is hovering right at the top of the green with a few peaks into the yellow I'm fine with it... but with different versions of PT the metering visuals are slightly different. PT 9 and below has -18 at about 1/4 of the way down the meter, while PT 10 and up has it about half way up the meter. I just wanted to make sure I'm recording in the general ballpark of the "best level possible" if that makes sense.
Old 10th January 2014
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Originally Posted by City Beats View Post
It was given to me in .wav track out's... I wasn't there for the tracking of it though.. and yes I'm operating at 24 bit.
that sucks man, If they were cliping digital and committed that to .wav there is really nothing you can do except turn the clipping down at that point. Other then going to them and tracking out again with better balanced levels.

unless your only seeing clipping, then you could try outputting the tracks to a mixer hitting input low from PT and garnishing more manageable level out of the mixer back into PT. sucks you'll have to waste a trip of DAC on that though.
Old 10th January 2014
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Originally Posted by skillz335 View Post
that sucks man, If they were cliping digital and committed that to .wav there is really nothing you can do except turn the clipping down at that point. Other then going to them and tracking out again with better balanced levels.

unless your only seeing clipping, then you could try outputting the tracks to a mixer hitting input low from PT and garnishing more manageable level out of the mixer back into PT. sucks you'll have to waste a trip of DAC on that though.
Exactly... thankfully it's not really a mix I'm getting paid for, it's more of a "hey can you do me a favor and mix my sons old band for old times sake" type of deal... so it's not something I have to hand off to a paying client or I'd be having a miniature heart attack right now. Lol.

But this is what got my mind thinking of just Trimming down the gain or actually using the Gain plug from AudioSuite and just printing my tracks with -10 dB or however much of a gain cut it needs. Which lead me to the "what level should I even be Trimming down to?" question lol... which now leads me into my next question (my brain works a mile a minute... it's a gift and a curse haha)

Alright so, saying I'm going to be trying to Trim down to achieve -18 dBfs to keep my plugs from clipping, is it going to be enough of a CPU hog on a regular 30-40 track mix, nothing out of this ballpark... I'm not working with an HD rig... but is it going to be enough of a CPU hit that it should warrant me just processing the gain cut through the Gain AudioSuite plugin?

Thanks for all that are bearing with me through this... I really do appreciate all of your answers!
Old 10th January 2014
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So is there clipping on the audio files, or is it clipping in Pro Tools? If you trim the gain on the track (not the fader) will it stop clipping?
Old 11th January 2014
  #13
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No problem,
If thats the case then(clipping in print) why even set the levels low just to mix them again. Id just keep the levels out of the red like you said with a trim insert or clip gain, eq, move things around a bit, maybe add some processing, then push the 2bus through a limiter to squeeze a bit more level out of it. give them that see if they like it, and if they do tell them if I recorded it I could achieve even better quality. though time is money

Also the default PT trim insert barley uses any resources so I wouldnt worry about that all that much. And you could always just print the tracks after level adjustment. though again if it was me, I wouldnt bring it all the way down to -18dbfs, because i dont think clipping warrants that much work to just bring it back up again.
Old 11th January 2014
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If you mix outboard, like me, I can't see a reason to mix as low as -18. I track at -8. I like my analog gear to run hot...just like it's meant to.
Old 11th January 2014
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Joeywhat View Post
So is there clipping on the audio files, or is it clipping in Pro Tools? If you trim the gain on the track (not the fader) will it stop clipping?
Both I'm pretty sure... you can hear the preamp distortion on the vocals loud and clear... in fact if you even just look at the waveform it's been recorded SO hot that it's lopping off the top half of the vocal transients and looks as if it was limited in a heavy mastering session! As far as the guitars I'm not sure, because they're incredibly distorted anyways because it's a harder rock kind of song and the guitars weren't recorded the greatest.. so I can't tell if it's preamp distortion or what. The drums are going to just be sample replaced (or enhanced depending on if I can polish the original files enough to make it work.. the kick is just extremely flabby) so I'm not entirely too concerned about them... although I can hear some slight extra SSSSS hiss in the OH's that I assume is from being slammed too hot. Overall it's just one big mess like I said, but I figured to try and tame the beast I could at least NOT clip and distort my plugs since everything else is clipping all over the place.

Also, thanks for all the insightful replies.. I really do appreciate everyone being so helpful on here... glad I finally signed up and started contributing rather than just lurking around lol.
Old 11th January 2014
  #16
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Originally Posted by burns46824 View Post
If you mix outboard, like me, I can't see a reason to mix as low as -18. I track at -8. I like my analog gear to run hot...just like it's meant to.
I have mixed OTB but now I'm doing more of a freelance type of gig until I can find another paying studio job, so I'm strictly ITB for the time being... I loved recording analog gear extremely hot also... there's nothing better than tracking heavy guitars through a super hot API pre... but that's another discussion for another day haha.
Old 11th January 2014
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I've done a ton of analog transfer work from 2 inch tape - if you do a direct transfer from analog tape into a digital work station it will come nowhere near digital clipping, even if all the VU meters on the analog machine were pinned at +3 VU. Therefore whoever made the wav files somehow bumped it up during the transfer to digital and more than likely added that clipping and distortion. Tell your friend's Dad if they paid for that transfer to digital then it needs to be redone as it was not done correctly. The proper way to do it is a direct transfer from analog output to digital daw input with zero manipulation of the original source material in terms of changing levels, eq'ing, anything. Then you have what is known as a "flat transfer". That means you have maintained the integrity of the original recording as much as is possible and then that gives the mix engineer as much scope as possible to do what they want during mixdown

Edit: to stop your plug ins clipping and to get optimum fader levels, the trick is to put a gain plugin in the first insert slot of each channel and drop the level down until it's hitting your meters in a reasonable spot. That won't fix your distortion issue but at least your fader won't be all the way down at the bottom of it's travel
Old 11th January 2014
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Thanks for the reply bigdoghat!

Just called my drummer and asked how it was tracked and he said it was recorded into some kind of digital recording console... one of those all in one kind of deals. He texted his dad and was told it was tracked into a Korg D3200.

So it was actually recorded digitally, but still was slammed to Hell.
Old 11th January 2014
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That's a pity!! Well, you work with what you have then and live to fight another day - and use the gain plugin trick above to get your fader in a workable spot and not overload your aux sends
Old 11th January 2014
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Quote:
Originally Posted by skillz335 View Post
No problem,
If thats the case then(clipping in print) why even set the levels low just to mix them again. Id just keep the levels out of the red like you said with a trim insert or clip gain, eq, move things around a bit, maybe add some processing, then push the 2bus through a limiter to squeeze a bit more level out of it. give them that see if they like it, and if they do tell them if I recorded it I could achieve even better quality. though time is money

Also the default PT trim insert barley uses any resources so I wouldnt worry about that all that much. And you could always just print the tracks after level adjustment. though again if it was me, I wouldnt bring it all the way down to -18dbfs, because i dont think clipping warrants that much work to just bring it back up again.
Also thanks for this reply, skillz. You've been extremely helpful, my friend!
Old 11th January 2014
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Originally Posted by bigdoghat View Post
That's a pity!! Well, you work with what you have then and live to fight another day - and use the gain plugin trick above to get your fader in a workable spot and not overload your aux sends
Exactly... it is a shame, especially since the band has long since broken up and there's really no way of re-recording it at all... it's sort of a dead horse at this point... this is just sort of a way to look back and say "well at least for those few years that this band was around we have a some what professional sounding album." Although I might be able to get the vocalist in on re-recording it... which is really the only track that is audibly distorting in such a terrible way lol.

I am going to talk his dad/the old band members into giving me a bit of money for the project for some new plugin's though...
Old 11th January 2014
  #22
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Quote:
Originally Posted by City Beats View Post
Thanks for the reply bigdoghat!

JHe texted his dad and was told it was tracked into a Korg D3200.
If thats the case maybe they still have the audio on the korgs HD? you could always ask them, if there wernt slammed into input you might have a salvageable mix! no problem man, I try to help with what little I know
Old 11th January 2014
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Good idea! I'm actually supposed to heading up there to record some scratch guitars here soon ... I promise it will be at a much more conservative level though lol

Thanks to all who replied
Old 11th January 2014
  #24
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As far as recording level there are also analog stages to consider. In theory you get most out of your bits by recording as loud as possible, but depending on your converter it may not actually have analog stages that can handle that sort of level and many don't, so doing that would sound worse because those analog stages cave in at those levels. Plus, at 24 bits you get away with recording lower without much loss, so generally people now say record lower. I reckon go as high as you converter analog stages let you and that doesn't jeopardise the recording workflow with overs.

As far as mixing, buy yourself whatever headroom you need by trimming everything down in the first plugin slot with something like Sonalksis FreeG. Think of it as the gain pot on the mixer. Stick the faders at zero and trim down so you run within your window. In doing this, thinking of -18 as 0 on a console is useful on the separate channels. Where the master ends up doesn't much matter if you are ITB. If you sum analog and record back in, same applies as to any recording. Ultimately go in as high as your converter still sounds good at and is practical.
Old 12th January 2014
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Originally Posted by burns46824 View Post
If you mix outboard, like me, I can't see a reason to mix as low as -18. I track at -8. I like my analog gear to run hot...just like it's meant to.
Hmmm! Here is a good reason.

I track through analog gear into a digital system and then mix out of that digital system into the analog world and recapture the stereo mix into a digital system. If I run a test tone through my outboard gear at 0dBU and capture that tone in PT/HD it will come in at -18dBfs. I will then send that -18dBfs tone out of PT...and what do you know, it hits my analog gear at 0dBU and then I can return my capture to PT/HD through a fully calibrated system. i.e. UNITY. I am not adding or taking away any gain when recording at these levels.

Now if I want to push something, I can, if I want something to be sensitive, it is, but without the calibration and knowledge of these levels, I cannot make these choices. If I shove everything through hot, then it is difficult to attenuate this later and I do not want everything hot. Just because it is analog does not mean that everything that passes through it should hit it hot. Contrast is what makes mixes exciting.
Old 12th January 2014
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I track using analog gear and console into my convertors/DAW with levels ranging any where from -10 to -6. Then I send back out from digital back to the console.
No issued here and sounds good to me. As long as I am not clipping the convertors and DAW on the way in then all is good I say. This is just the way I do it now after many tests.
Old 12th January 2014
  #27
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Originally Posted by Looneytune View Post
I track using analog gear and console into my convertors/DAW with levels ranging any where from -10 to -6. Then I send back out from digital back to the console.
No issued here and sounds good to me. As long as I am not clipping the convertors and DAW on the way in then all is good I say. This is just the way I do it now after many tests.
Have you ever ran tone through it to calibrate the path. Then you will know what unity is. It is simple and definitive.
Old 12th January 2014
  #28
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Aisle 6 View Post
Have you ever ran tone through it to calibrate the path. Then you will know what unity is. It is simple and definitive.
No I have not actually.
Was reading your post and said I should try that.
Old 13th January 2014
  #29
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just to keep it easy to understand.
if your in pro tools 10 .
just get a hot green signal bumping into the yellow but not so its always yellow but peaks no more than half way into the yellow.( for drums) because of the extream dynamics they can have. for vocals peaking just over yellow but a nice hot green signal , guitars the same as vocals , bass with alot of dynamics will be somewhere in between.

I KNOW THOSE ARE NOT TECHNICAL TERMS AND CAN BE RIPPED ON FOR THERE INACCURACIES but i gave a gain staging for dummies answer he could understand and use.

Basically just make sure the upper half of yellow is clear and you will do fine.

He wanted a explanation he could understand so thats what that is.
hot green with a bit of yellow good, hot yellow BAD
Old 13th January 2014
  #30
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Quote:
Originally Posted by phatbeatstudio View Post
just to keep it easy to understand.
if your in pro tools 10 .
just get a hot green signal bumping into the yellow but not so its always yellow but peaks no more than half way into the yellow.( for drums) because of the extream dynamics they can have. for vocals peaking just over yellow but a nice hot green signal , guitars the same as vocals , bass with alot of dynamics will be somewhere in between.

I KNOW THOSE ARE NOT TECHNICAL TERMS AND CAN BE RIPPED ON FOR THERE INACCURACIES but i gave a gain staging for dummies answer he could understand and use.

Basically just make sure the upper half of yellow is clear and you will do fine.

He wanted a explanation he could understand so thats what that is.
hot green with a bit of yellow good, hot yellow BAD
Sounds good to me!!!
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