Helpful ReplyGain Staging in DAW's

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Jeff Evans
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2017/06/17 22:24:06 (permalink)

Gain Staging in DAW's

I have written a little article which I posted over on the Presonus forum. The topic of gain staging came up and I responded with this article. It of course applies to any DAW.
 
Note:  In Sonar the rms meters are showing a further 3 dB value down from the industry standard which is showing the very peak of a continuous sine wave as being the actual ref level.  Not a point 3 db down from that.  It is actually technically correct as rms is 3 db down from peak in normal electronics circles.  But once you start using third party VU meter plugins inside your DAW they will be showing the correct readings and scale defections while calibrating etc..
 
 
https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B_2Jb7O_b5BkODRTMXNjX29IaEE/view?usp=sharing
 
The above is a link to my Google drive which will link you directly to the article.
 
post edited by Jeff Evans - 2017/06/17 23:32:17

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interpolated
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Re: Gain Staging in DAW's 2017/06/17 22:40:18 (permalink)
Thanks Jeff. I could do with some clarity on this subject right now. 
 
 

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Jeff Evans
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Re: Gain Staging in DAW's 2017/06/17 23:13:02 (permalink) ☄ Helpfulby jacksop 2017/06/19 15:17:00
Thanks, it is a pleasure. I do mention Personus VU meters in this article but only because it was originally written for a Studio One user in mind.  We have some free VU meters over there which can be pressed into service in this role. They are not perfect for a few reasons but effective in keeping an eye on rms levels everywhere in your production.
 
There are of course free VU meter plugins out there and they are OK as well.  While they will show a ref level sine wave accurately,  they often don't have the best ballistics and that is where a quality VU type plugin comes into play.
 
You guys may have some Pro Channel modules too which have VU metering on them.  Just be aware of what any reference levels might be with any built in VU meter.  Test with some signals to find out! What ref level are they showing you?  
 
It is nice to have some nice VU plug-ins on hand to simply insert wherever you need to know what the signal rms level is at any point in your production.  Klanghelm VUMT comes to mind. Very cheap and exceptional.  It has now had a total refresh and available as V2 and also a deluxe version of V2 is also available for not much more. 

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Re: Gain Staging in DAW's 2017/06/17 23:51:28 (permalink) ☄ Helpfulby jacksop 2017/06/19 15:05:06
I haven't read your article Jeff, but to me there is no need to worry about the real world and real world meters if you are staying in the box...I have a simple formula for using and setting the meters in Sonar, and it seems to work. This is all tracks start roughly at -18rms then as the mix takes shape, the tracks which need to be at the front of the mix are lifted closer to 0db rms. Final master Lufs the new standard is always within range, as is the K14meters...this is 0 to +4.
 
From my research, and apparently I am a qualified researcher (hmm Wednesday next week lol), the issue seems to be we have been misunderstanding the medium of both analogue and digital. Neither of which are perfect in regards to being a storage and transmission medium, both have desirable aesthetics. This is one the of dichotomies of the avant-gardes'...they introduce new materials and mediums into the art cannon, but reject the formalist art tradition, which means we don't have a great understanding of the digitized medium. :)
 
The real problem is, and the only reason why you would need to do all the real world calibrations, is if you are going in and out of the box all the time. Something that I now believe is a big no no! Proper gain staging in the box is still paramount, but the digitized medium requires a different mind set to the one originally taught in the early noughties. This is particularly true if you are using the analogue emulation aesthetic. Not so much, if you're using the digitzed medium as a storage only medium ;). What I think analogue audio engineers need to understand is, if they're going to be making an analogue product...then the signal chain has to be quality from tracking to storage to distribution. Whereas if you're making a digital product, then the signal chain has to be lacking character as much as possible. This allows the digital engineer to put the flavour back in as he or she sees fit. What we need to start to do is, separate the sonik creations into digital and analogue...much like a painting...I'm painting an analogue sonik work or I'm painting a digital sonik work. I've actually written a paper for an academic journal (waiting for the outcome) on the topic of the ethereal material of sound, so it might sound funny to use the term 'paint', but sound is a material albeit an etheareal one, and one that can be painted or sculptured. This will be even more apparent when and if augmented reality become the defacto input device for our computers...think about it virtual gloves will allow us to shape sound in our hands and there is even tech coming which will allow us to feel this sound as we shape it in our hands.
 
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Re: Gain Staging in DAW's 2017/06/18 00:41:34 (permalink)
Thanks Jeff. I always appreciate your insight.
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Jeff Evans
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Re: Gain Staging in DAW's 2017/06/18 03:46:14 (permalink) ☄ Helpfulby jacksop 2017/06/19 15:05:21
I feel there are some differences in regards to gain staging in the digital world but there are also some concepts that carry over rather well from our previous eras. Using VU meters to keep an eye on rms levels is one of them.
 
The type of calibration I am referring to is the type staying all ITB but just making sure all your VU meters agree on the chosen reference.  
 
Going In and OUT of the box to external gear also requires a different form of calibration where a certain ref level will equal an actual AC voltage present at the outputs from your interface.  The interface itself determines what these voltages will be.  But important though.  If you are wanting +4 dBu to leave your interface, you need to know what ref level you have to be at in order to achieve it.
 
 
post edited by Jeff Evans - 2017/06/18 05:14:13

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Re: Gain Staging in DAW's 2017/06/21 17:45:49 (permalink)
Thanks Jeff! It's starting to sink in. I've been thinking about metering for some time now, just haven't gotten around to it. Now I see the value of using them in all those in between places.
 
Very helpful.

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Re: Gain Staging in DAW's 2017/06/22 19:41:57 (permalink)
Since "Many plugins are calibrated to work at -18." If I have a few guitar tracks that all go to a "Guitar BUS", and I want to use the PC4K Bus Compressor on that guitar bus, should I trim the bus so that the signal is entering the compressor at -18 ???                                                                                                                                                                                                                   Jeff, Thank You for the article!!! It has been very helpful !!
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Jeff Evans
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Re: Gain Staging in DAW's 2017/06/22 21:23:06 (permalink)
Only if you are working at an rms ref level other than -18 = 0 dB VU.  Then it might be a good idea to adjust signal levels going in and out of some plugins relative to the ref level you are working at.
 
That brings us to the next thing. What rms ref level are you working at?  One simple way to find out  (and I suspect many others may not actually know what rms level they are working at) is to insert a Klanghelm VU meter over a nice mix that you have done. But a pre mastered mix though.  Simply keep adjusting the Cal level control until the VU needle rises and reaches and hovers around 0 dB most of the time.  There will be a point where the needle does this. Then note your Cal level and that is the rms level of your mix.
 
(Note: the ballistic of the meter is important here. A cheap or free VU meter plugin won't move properly and it may swing more wildly and therefore it may reach 0 dB VU at a lower cal level than what is really happening. The Klanghelm meter while not as perfect as real VU meters, is very close)
 
The reason many have no idea about rms and what rms ref levels that are operating at is because we have been too pre occupied with peak meters.  But they tell you nothing about the real stuff e.g. the rms levels underneath that peak.  Peak metering is critical in the fast transient sounds for sure. We need them.  We need both.  A VU meter takes 300 mS to reach 0 dB VU so any fast transient is not even going to move the VU needle.  But for a great majority of signals, the rms indicator is fine.

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Re: Gain Staging in DAW's 2017/06/22 23:12:26 (permalink)
THANKS Jeff !!
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Re: Gain Staging in DAW's 2017/07/11 06:15:39 (permalink)
I had a look at your article. I'm a neophyte when it comes to understanding RMS meters, so I'm not so sure I understood much. But let me ask one question. I think I read somewhere in your article that with practice one can make gain staging adjustments by visually observing the wave.  When visually looking at a wave I see the peaks. I also see the condensed energy, which is often well below the peaks. Is RMS the average of this concentration of energy below the peaks? 
 
Thanks for the article.
 
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Jeff Evans
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Re: Gain Staging in DAW's 2017/07/12 21:14:40 (permalink)
Hi Dean. Sorry for being slow in responding.  Yes many signals consist of two parts.  The transient peak at the very start of the sound followed by the rms component which follows.  The meat of the sound say.  The rms component is longer in time and often by a much longer time.  The peak component is often very fast and short lived but it does rise to a higher value also as well.  Some sounds may not have a transient peak at all such a cello note for example with a slow attack.  It would have mainly the rms component only.  So all of the waveform (once it settles down to a value that is) would be the rms part of the sound.
 
The rms VU meter type measures the rms part and is also slow in responding too.  It takes 300 mS to reach 0 dB VU on the scale so peaks slip past a VU meter and make it move very little which is actually a good thing.  The peak meters in our DAW's are fast and they can show the peak values very well.  Or show how high the peaks or transients can go which is also a good thing.  The two together work well.
 
By eye what I am meaning there is say there are a bunch of audio clips on a track.  In Studio One the gain of each clip can changed and the waveform height changes as you make these adjustments which quite frankly is better and faster too.  This means it is possible to make rms components of various waves look at a similar height.  Of course I still would run a VU over them all to confirm and fine tune.
 
I just prefer to keep all the rms parts of the signals everywhere at a consistent level in the Daw system. 

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Re: Gain Staging in DAW's 2017/07/13 15:31:16 (permalink)
Article was also linked with Recording Hound online magazine.  Good stuff Jeff.

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Re: Gain Staging in DAW's 2017/07/13 17:25:13 (permalink)
Thanks for agreeing to let me post your article Jeff. Good stuff for sure.

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Re: Gain Staging in DAW's 2017/07/14 15:34:31 (permalink) ☄ Helpfulby Starise 2017/07/14 16:44:57
The more the merrier.  Maybe Cake can sticky the article so when someone asks about gain-staging we can tell them to read Jeff's article. :-)
 

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Re: Gain Staging in DAW's 2017/07/15 04:21:56 (permalink)
Jeff Evans
 
I just prefer to keep all the rms parts of the signals everywhere at a consistent level in the Daw system. 




Jeff, thanks so much for taking the time to respond to me. You made understanding what RMS is very clear and I get it now.
 
I have a few more questions, if you have the time.
 
1) what would be an ideal RMS level, and should all track signals in a project be set to this recommended level to achieve what is refereed to gain staging?
 
2) If I set the RMS at the recommended level there may be some peaks that hit the ceiling. What do you recommend to do regarding taming the peaks? Compression or limiting?
 
Thanks so much Jeff! You cleared up some of my confusion and I will re read this great article on gain staging again. I'm am sure I'll get more out of it this time around.
 
Dean.
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Jeff Evans
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Re: Gain Staging in DAW's 2017/07/15 07:39:45 (permalink)
I like to work with K System levels which are -12, -14 and -20.  The often used industry standard is -18.  Even when I work at -14 I rarely clip with the transients.  If you are concerned -18 or -20 will work great.  You will rarely clip at those levels. 
 
With drum sounds though and very fast percussive sounds I don't use the VU meter.  It is too slow and things can easily clip.  I let go of the VU meter in these situations and use peak metering instead and just ensure that the loudest hits are only reaching -6 max.  Once you send a bunch of fast transient sounds e.g. drums to a buss you will find the VU will start move quite well over a buss.  There is enough rms information in an overall drum sound to make a VU move almost normally.  Especially if some of the drums have more open tunings and hence longer decay times.  Once you tame the dynamics with a compressor of an overall drum sound, the transients will drop down a little more and the rms part of the sound will start to come up. 
 
I work at various ref levels depending on what I have to do.  My Yamaha digital mixer is calibrated for -14 = +4 dBu at the output so that is a common level for me.  All the metering in the mixer matches the DAW for me at that level, so I call it a general workhorse level.  It seems to combine both transients and being fairly loud at the same time.  For more pristine and transient type stuff definitely drop down to -20.  But you have to recalibrate the VU meter when you do this.  (and everything in my mixer will be 6 dB lower now)  No biggie though.  Once I select a ref level I stick to it for everything. Tracks, buses and the main mix.
 
But if you do a -20 production and you want to end up with say a loudish master e.g. -10 rms mastered, then you have got to bring up the rms level of your premastered mix a whole 10 dB which is quite a lot.  Can be done though.  But if you are already at -14 then you only have to lift your overall rms by 4 dB now which is easier in mastering.  Nothing has to be pushed real hard in order to gain an overall 4 dB of rms level in your mix.  I try and think a head a little before choosing the ref level. 

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Re: Gain Staging in DAW's 2017/07/18 06:04:07 (permalink)
Do mix engineers traditionally set different VU calibration levels for individual tracks, effect buses, group buses, and the master bus? Or should all be kept at the same level? 
 
And thanks for posting that article. Coincided with my current interest.

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Re: Gain Staging in DAW's 2017/07/20 10:14:30 (permalink)
Thanks, I'll have to keep this in mind.

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Jeff Evans
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Re: Gain Staging in DAW's 2017/07/20 10:28:04 (permalink) ☄ Helpfulby Resonant Serpent 2017/08/07 17:57:50
I prefer to keep the calibration levels constant in all areas. At -20 for example it is easy to track your tracks there. It is also easy to send multiple tracks to a buss but each track will be at some point a bit below unity often. The buss level can also be at -20. Multiple buses can also often be sent to the final mix and for me that ends up at -20 as well.  This keeps the headroom consistent all the way through.  Another reason is if you have hardware VU meters for example if you monitor a track it is just hitting 0 dB VU nicely.  If I monitor a buss the VU will also be just reaching 0 dB VU and when checking a whole mix the VU's will also be hitting 0 dB VU.  Nice consistency for the VU meter too in all these parts of your production.
 
Another good reason for consistent ref levels in your key production points, is for SPL levels too. If you tie your ref level to a specific monitoring SPL level, e.g. 85 dB SPL then when monitoring tracks, buses or the final mix,  you will be hearing each of these at the same SPL level. The tracks sound a little louder at the same ref level but as you are wanting to listen in a little deeper with them it is not a bad thing. Buses are starting to contain a few tracks so the more stuff in there, the slightly lower it may seem in volume. The mix has got everything so when it is producing 85 dB SPL, it all seems at a slightly lower level again in SPL's.  The mix ends up brought back so it is easy to listen to.  All that is going on here is that as you monitor areas with more music present, the SPL levels are being maintained at these points.  It all starts make sense.
 
But no harm in using different calibration levels either. The VU's planted there would need to be re-calibrated.  Not so good for the hardware VU's in my case.  (that prefer to remain on a single cal level at least) The ref level that reduces the headroom will set that headroom from there on. You could work at progressively louder rms levels though from one stage to the other. e.g. tracks at -20, buses at -14 and the final mix at -12. When you mix into something like Waves CLA for example, it is somewhere between a pre mastered mix and a fully mastered mix.  Great for sitting things up at -12 or even up to -10 dB rms.  It is quite good to mix into something like CLA for example. You could print two versions of the mix, one with and the other without CLA.
 
For an album it is good to mix each track to the same rms level. They will then be in good position for mastering.
post edited by Jeff Evans - 2017/07/20 19:51:02

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