Riddle Me This
What is the traditional recording level back in the old true analog days? You know, the level at which one was supposed to shoot for in order to maximize signal to noise?
Answer: 0 dB, on the VU meter.
Good. Now, what is the equivalent reading of 0 dB on a VU meter when viewed on the fader meters in your DAW, a reading which is in dBFS (Full Scale, the edge of digital distortion in 16-bit).
A lot of people don’t know this, the answer is -18 dBFS.
Last one, what level do FX plug-ins, particularly emulations of old analog gear, expect at their input?
If you said -18 dBFS, then you’re right. Solid advice is to aim for -18 dBFS, with peaks no higher than -6 dBFS, whether you are recording real instruments or using virtual instruments.
Purrrfect Gain Staging
Getting these levels on each and every track can be cumbersome. Fortunately, as if you have not already guessed, there is a plug-in designed with exactly this and only this in mind. I have been playing with it for a couple weeks and for me it is a game changer: Structure from Audio Vitamins.
What you do, with every fader set to 0, is put an instance of Structure as the very first plug on each track and hit play. In about two measures time Structure is automatically set and it has adjusted the volume level of every track. Simple? Yes. A great time saver? Absolutely.
Note: do this at a loud part of the song. If you do this at an unusually quiet area then all your tracks will be set too loud. Common sense prevails.
So you put Structure at the beginning of a track, and after that you might have various other FX plugs that mess with the volume. So now the track is out of whack volume wise. This is why Structure should also be the last plug on each track so you are sure to have a nice volume going out to a Stereo Out or Mix Bus. You could get ridiculous and put an instance of Structure every other plug throughout your chain, but that should not be necessary unless you are doing extreme manipulations and don’t bother with approximating the output volume with the input volume.
Holy sweaters, Batman, there’s more than one button!
Yep, there’s five buttons in all, three different volume levels, and two function buttons below them.
Using a sine wave generator at concert pitch — A 440 — the three volume settings come out as follows:
And using real music on a track I get regular minor peaks of:
1: -18 (what a coincidence!)
I need to explain. “1” is intended for all instrument tracks. “2” is for vocals and lead instruments, whatever you want to be more prominent. “Master” is for going into your final processing. It is hoped that with these simple settings you can start with all faders at 0 dBFS and need to move things very little from that position. With my tests in various projects I find this to be true.
Personally, I put every instance of Structure on “1” as the first plug, and then any tracks that obviously need to be brought forward I put on “2” for the last plug. (Remember, two instances of Structure is ideal on each track, as both the first and last plug.)
Heads or Tails?
The other two buttons are “Analyse” and “All”. Analyse is for resetting one instance of Structure in the event that you have changed things prior to it. “All” is for telling all instances to re-analyse. I shy away from the “All” button because I have two instances of Structure on every track and I don’t see the second instances waiting for the first instances to reset. I don’t trust it.
Remembering Adam West
“I never had to tell anyone I was Batman. When I walked into a room, everyone knew I was Batman.”
You shouldn’t have to tell people what a great mixing/mastering engineer you are. They should hear your music and know how good you are. Get your gain staging right and your plug-ins will work and sound better, and so will your music. Be like Batman.