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Gain Staging: Plugin Creep

Plug-ins have become a de-facto part of modern mixing, regardless of whether they’re VST, RTAS, AAX or one of the less common flavours.  Watch any mixing video and I guarantee you’ll see someone using plug-ins, either the stock plug-ins that come with their DAW of choice or a selection from the bewildering array of third party items. (As an aside, is Cubase the only DAW you can mix in without plug-ins, due to its inbuilt Channel Strip – or is that just a mega plug-in?). However, plug-ins can have an unwanted impact on your mixes, as they can introduce extra level into the signal path and, if you’re not careful, you find that the plug-ins didn’t make your mix sound better, they just made it sound louder.

 

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Gain Staging: Setting Monitoring Levels, Part 2

In the last few videos, I’ve looked at the steps I’ve taken to try to ensure that the gain structure of my mixes is such that I have plenty of headroom when I’m mixing, without running the risk of clipping the master output buss all the time. That’s all well and good, but it’s easy to undermine all that good work when your single emerges into the real world and has to ride the Fletcher Munson curves.  Setting a predictable level in your studio so that you know what is too quiet and too loud is as important as not overdriving your output bus.  Equally important is knowing that what you’re hearing is the same volume whether it’s on different speakers or headphones, so that you don’t kid yourself into thinking your mix has improved when it’s just got louder.  With that in mind, (and a handy little app for your phone), here’s how I set up my studio.

 

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Gain Staging: Setting Your Meters

The visual nature of computer-based DAW software has given rise to the axiom that you should mix with your ears, not your eyes, a temptation that’s easy to understand as we buy ever bigger monitor screens to view our mixes in glorious Technicolor – why else would plug-in manufacturers go to such lengths to make the front panels of their products so visually distinct and appealing?  However, when you’re actually recording into your DAW, there’s a way in we can turn our tendency to sometimes trust our eyes over our ears into an advantage.

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Gain Staging: Setting Mix Levels

We can set out with good intentions, but sometimes, the tracks we end up with after recording are “hotter” than we want.  Perhaps that spontaneous performance wasn’t at a technically correct level, but capturing the feel of it again would be nigh on impossible.  Or perhaps, more prosaically, you’re mixing a track someone else has recorded and you need to pull the levels back to a point where the sum of the parts doesn’t light the clip light before you’ve started to mix, (not, of course, that any of your mixes would ever do such a thing!).  Setting a good gain structure at the start of your mix can go a good long way to ensuring that you don’t face an uphill struggle by the end and, one way or another, your DAW has everything you need to make that easy for you.

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Introduction to Gain Staging

When you record in a DAW, most of them give you a give image of your waveform on the track.  The louder you record, the more visible the waveform, so there’s a sub-conscious visual cue that’s telling you that “more=better”.  If, like me, you started in the era of tape machines where you wanted your recorded signal well above the noise floor, this is perfectly logical.  Only, in this digital age, it isn’t logical at all, it’s comparing apples and oranges.  In this video, I look at the issue of levels and where I suggest you set your recording level at may surprise you…