How to get the best out of your DAW. The Gain Staging
What I am about to explain to you is one of the most basic and still the most unknown things in the world of digital audio. Surely you are using a DAW to produce your songs and you are soaked in many forums and articles of the differences between the analog and the digital, all the benefits of the analog sound and that you will never get those results working in digital and with plugins. All this may be true or not, but the really important thing is how you are using the tools at your disposal.
Surely you have read that working in digital the absolute limit is the famous 0 DBFS, from there the sound is distorted in an unpleasant way. I see you excitedly mixing your next song, imagining how it will sound and monitoring the peak meters of your DAW on all your tracks and mixing buses so as not to exceed that 0 DBFS. Using all the tools at your fingertips, wonderful plugins that will give you that warm sound sometimes necessary in styles like Rock.
Tell you that if you are working like this, taking care not to exceed 0 DBFS but getting dangerously close to it, it is very possible that you are «destroying» your tracks, you will most likely be supersaturating your plugins, especially those that model real units of the physical world, such as consoles, compressors such as 1176 or LA2A, fx units, etc …
And all this why? Go ahead and you’ll understand.
Our modern DAWS were created in the image and likeness of what an analog studio would be. A studio with its mixing console, its analog recorder, its compressors and reverbs. All these elements have an optimal input and output level in which their qualities are 100% utilized. In addition to this we have the Headroom level of each device. What is the headroom? It is the margin we have in an apparatus from its optimum level of work to where the distortion begins to appear. And this is a very important fact in the mixing process.
Do you remember the vumeters? Apart from being beautiful and giving that analog appearance to your plugins they have a very interesting function. In many cases although it depends on the equipment in question, the headroom of many devices is around + 24 Dbu, this means that from that level we enter the world of distortion. And this is where the vumeter can be of great help in our mix.
When we adjust the input to a plugin and see that the signal «hits» the 0 Dbu or the +3 Dbu we still have 21 Db of margin until saturation. If that plugin is a recreation of a real device like Kramer Master Taper or Softube Tape it is very possible that it has been created to work at -18DBFS, that means that by attacking the input of the plugin at -18DBFS we are working at the optimum level at which it was designed. And you still have a lot of margin up to 0 DBFS. Did it happen to you that you tried a plugin, passed a mix with peaks at -3DBFS and it sounded broken and distorted? Surely yes and you will have thought «what a shit of plugin and worth 200 bucks». Not so, you just weren’t using it as correctly.
The same goes for the tracks you record and the buses in your DAW. When you mix your songs do not do it with the tracks hitting near 0 DB since you will saturate all the plugins that you place in the chain and also the buses through which you pass your signal.
Example: If your bass drum hits -5 db, your box at -3 db, your Toms at -4 db, then you will have spikes on your battery buss, and when you place a compressor you will most likely saturate its input. Result, digital distortion, this does not sound good.
How to solve this? Easy.
Set your channel fader to 0db and play the track, bass drum for example. Look at your peak meter for the level, if it marks -6 DBfs we need to lower the level so that it hits between -15 Dbfs and -13Dbfs, no more. When hitting in – 6DBfs we need to lower the signal of the drum by 9 db but instead of doing it with the fader of the channel what we do is insert a plugin such as the Sonalksis FreeG Fader that is totally free. If we do this in all the channels of our mix we make sure we have a dynamic range (remember, Headroom) of about 15db to 0 dBfs, you know, the limit working in digital.
In this way all the plugins that we place later will work in the way and at the optimal levels to which they were designed and you will notice that your DAW sounds in another way, more musical, more natural and even more analog. Of course, if you place a compressor always try to compensate for the reduction of gain at the output of the plugin, to always be at the optimal levels, remember -15DBfs / -13 DBfs. And then continue mixing as usual, raise and lower the fader of the channel if you want to highlight or lower that track.
What will you notice in the first instance? You will have to increase the volume of your monitors when mixing, but this is not bad, remember that you are working in the old-fashioned way, in the way in which professional analog recording studios and their machines were created.
Watch that in your master mix buss the peaks are between -12 DBfs and -6 DBfs, that your mix is in those margins and you will be getting the best out of your home studio. It can also be a good option to place a plugin on your buss master that simulates the behavior of a Vumeter to have a visual information of the optimal levels of work. Apart from this, the levels of response at the time of the vumeter are similar to those of the human ear, so remember, the vumeter is your friend.
And this is it, you just discovered something that many professionals do not know, the famous Gain Staging. I am sure that the results you are going to get from now on will be very satisfactory and you do not need to spend a single euro. Of course once you have that new mix that sounds more organic, more cohesive, more dynamic, in short, better, you could hire a good mastering service like the one I offer to finish getting the best out of your music and get results completely professionals.
If you have any questions you can ask and I will try to resolve any doubts that may arise.
Here is a list of plugins that can help you in this process, some free and others paid.
Sonalksis FreeG Fader Plug-in Free
Airwindows PurestGain Free
HoRNet VU Meter MK4 (Vúmeter & auto gain staging)
Sonimus Satson (Console emulation & gain Stagin)
Sonimus Britson (Console emulation & gain Stagin)
Tbproaudio mvMeter2 (vumeter) Free
Lsr audio LVLMeter 1.1 (vumeter) Free
Text: Alvaro Delgado.
Mixing and mastering technician.