I’ve already covered the topic of gain staging before but since it’s been 2 years and I’m now using Pro Tools, my work flow has changed a bit. I wouldn’t say it’s a night and day change but enough to warrant an article on how I now approach gain staging.
Now try not to look at this article as a technical masterpiece on the topic of gain staging because I honestly don’t look at it that way. I have one ultimate goal – Make sure that my channels and master fader aren’t clipping. That’s it; it doesn’t get any simpler than that.
There are times when certain channels benefit from clipping but that’s for another article.
Now because technically (in most cases) 0dBVU in the analog world is calibrated for -18 dBFS in the digital world, there are beliefs that -18 dBFS should be your level for each channel. I honestly don’t subscribe to that when mixing ITB (in the box) but I do understand why it may be useful.
Now these are things that could potentially help your mix tremendously however it could also hurt your mix to be rigid with these levels.
Some plugins are designed to add compression, limiting or pleasing distortion to a sound once it hits the output at 0 dB. By limiting the output to less than 0 dB you might actually be missing out on some magic in your mix.
Well we could start out with a fairly conservative level for our channels and then when we need to get aggressive on a plugin output, we could always adjust either the input or the output on that plugin accordingly. This is exactly how I would do it.
But just keep in mind every channel doesn’t have to be at any specificlevel (ie -18 dbFS).
I would normally start out with everything at some consistent level like -18 dBVU or -12 dBVU, for example, but as the mix goes on and plugins are introduced, each track level will most likely change. After I set my initial levels I actually don’t worry too much about where they end up.
When I’m mixing and I’m minding my gain staging, my only real focus is to make sure that my clip lights are not flashing red. On one track the level might be at -6 dbFS and the other might be -18 dBfs.
Let me give you a scenario. Lets say you’ve got the balance all set up and then you add an EQ to the piano. You add a couple dB’s at 3 kHz and now it stands out perfectly in the mix. But the piano VU meter is now averaging about -10 dB’s and everything else is -18 dB’s. Does it really make sense to adjust the EQ output to -18 dBVU and then push the fader up to get it back up to the level it was previously?
I don’t think so.
As long as we aren’t in the red and it blends well with the rest of the mix, who cares? Just continue to mix and if you notice something peaking, then make the effort to adjust your gain staging on that channel so it’s out of the red zone.
There are a couple of exceptions however. If you are intentionally peaking the channel (digital clipping) to get more character from a plugin or it peaks once in a while but isn’t effecting the sound in a negative way, than being in the red is perfectly fine.
Almost every plugin these days has some form of input and output adjustments so really you can gain stage with almost anything. That being said I have 3 ways that I usually approach the levels of my channels, 1 of which I almost never use anymore because it just doesn’t make sense to me.
But between the 3 techniques I tend to use The Satson and The Clip Gain the most. Sometimes I will combine the two of them together to get my initial levels.
The reason I would use the clip gain is to get the visual aspect of the audio track up to where its easy to see and then the Satson just makes sure my levels are set more accurately.
Another thing I keep an eye out for is my plugin output levels, especially when using something like an EQ. Any time you boost an EQ your output level is going to change – usually it will increase – so I keep an eye on the output meter to make sure I’m not clipping and then I would adjust accordingly.
I always start out with a quick blend of my mix and get my output to peak at a set level. Normally I would just use the Satson Buss because it’s easy to read. I have my peaks averaging about -18dbFS or 0VU. That is my starting point but again I don’t honour it until the very end, usually what happens is the Satson plugin is pushing in the reds and my output levels get closer to -10 to -6dbFS once I’m finished.
As a result the Satson is adding in some extra secret sauce (harmonics) to my mix.
I’d love to hear what other people are doing with their track levels in their DAW – Leave a comment below!
YouTube Video Source: Gain Staging In Pro Tools