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It's Your Gain!

A guide to mixing music - Part 8
  • 8
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Thematic Forums Getting Started

In this installment, we will examine the first practical task of your mix, which also happens to be the last purely technical one. Once you've done it, you will finally be able to confront your vision of the song with its "reality" in order to establish a mixing strategy.

View other articles in this series...

Gain staging

I have no intentions of discussing yet again the importance of Gain Staging. It has been addressed several times on Audiofanzine, especially in articles like "Levels in the digital world" and "Why Headroom is Important." So, there's no point in reinventing the wheel!

When mixing, it's important to verify and, if needed, adjust the gain structure of each of your audio tracks. To do that, you''ll have to make use of the "Trim" function of your sequencer, or a gain control plug-in as the first insert on every track. There are heaps of the latter, both free and paid, like Blue Cat's Gain Suite or FreeG by Sonalksis. For the following procedure, you'll also need a virtual VU-meter, like the excellent Klanghelm VUMT, for example, which also has some gain utilities.

This way of doing it is very easy, quick and effective and you don't even need to turn on your speakers. First of all, make sure that all the tracks are at unity gain, which means, all faders ought to be set to zero. Also check that the pan controls of all tracks are in the center. Activate the "peak hold" function on your DAW, which will display the value of the highest peak for each track, after playing back the entire song.

Now, focus on the tracks that have a significant peak factor ─ put simply, the difference between the peak level of a signal and its mean value. Sounds with a high peak factor are usually percussive, like the elements of a drum kit, percussion instruments, etc., but also a groovy slap bass, for instance. Take these tracks and look at their respective maximum level, as indicated by the peak meter of each track (thanks to the "peak hold" function). Adjust now the "trim" of the track (or the gain control plug-in which I mentioned earlier), so that the highest peak reaches -12 dB on the peak meter. For example, if a track reaches -4.7 dB, you need to reduce it by 7.3 dB.

Once done, move on to the other tracks. This time around we'll use the virtual VU-meter inserted on the Master track, whose 0 VU mark is calibrated to -18 dB. Now, solo a track and adjust the trim so that the needle of the Master track's VU-meter never exceeds 0 VU. Once that's done, move on to the next track.

All this work might seem long and tedious at start, which is why it makes no sense to have your speakers on while you are at it, at the risk of stressing your ears for nothing. However, once you get used to it, this procedure shouldn't take you more than 15-20 minutes per song and the result is well worth it! In fact, if you listen to your song now, it should have a maximum peak level close to -6 dB, which guarantees enough leeway to work comfortably.

Okay, the time has now come to confront the vision of the mix you put to paper last week and the result you got today. Does your "mixing plan" seem realistic/feasible? What can you learn from listening to your mix this way in order to fine tune your original vision? What strategy should you use to meet your goal? We'll talk about all this in the next installment!

← Previous article in this series:
Start Small, Think Big
Next article in this series:
Critical Listening →
  • Mike Levine
    Mike Levine
    AFicionado
    1064 posts
    Hi Bryan,
    Quote:
    This is an individual drum per track mix using "Superior drummer". The level of -12db was obtained with the instrument at max velocity of 127, but the result following that did not have enough level when trying a mix.

    I would suggest turning up the SD master to start with. Since you're not getting enough level from the instrument, and it has some headroom (which it does since you said the master is at 2 o'clock), then by all means turn it up higher. You should be able to get plenty of gain out of SD. As for the "test velocity," I'm not entirely sure what you mean. I will say that you do want SD to be able to produce notes using its full dynamic range, so I see no reason to limit it to below 127 (unless you're trying to achieve a compression effect using velocity).
  • Congadude
    Congadude
    New AFfiliate
    4 posts
    Hi Mike,

    Re Gain-stage

    I have a PC Laptop Win 7 running Reaper, and work almost exclusively within the midi format.
    My plan is to create the perfect starting template within Reaper covering the dedicated instrument tracks.
    I am following the short tutorial "It's Your Gain" in your series of articles.

    All tracks at 0bd, + or - gain to -12db max

    This is an individual drum per track mix using "Superior drummer". The level of -12db was obtained with the instrument at max velocity of 127, but the result following that did not have enough level when trying a mix.

    Here is the question
    Should the test velocity be lower?
    The software "SD" master output is about 2:00pm which should be more than enough.
    Using the same process with piano achieves a similar result, so clearly I am missing something.

    Look forward to your comment
    Cheers
    Bryan
  • Congadude
    Congadude
    New AFfiliate
    4 posts
    Thanks Mike, will sort that tomorrow, even as it was the result was cleaner so looking forward to this ..
    Cheers
    Bryan (kiwi):D:
  • Mike Levine
    Mike Levine
    AFicionado
    1064 posts
    Quote:
    Does (all faders) include the Master fader? ( this would be a different result ) Master currently -12db.

    Hi Bryan,
    Yes, the master should be at 0.
  • Congadude
    Congadude
    New AFfiliate
    4 posts
    Quote from Congadude:
    Hi Mike,

    Quote
    " First of all, make sure that (all the tracks) are at unity gain, which means, (all faders) ought to be set to zero."
    Unquote

    Does (all faders) include the Master fader? ( this would be a different result ) Master currently -12db.

    Cheers
    Bryan
  • Congadude
    Congadude
    New AFfiliate
    4 posts
    Hi Mike,

    Quote
    " First of all, make sure that (all the tracks) are at unity gain, which means, (all faders) ought to be set to zero."
    Unquote

    Does (all faders) include the Master fader? ( this would be a different result )

    Cheers
    Bryan
  • Mike Levine
    Mike Levine
    AFicionado
    1064 posts
    Glad you liked it. I haven't seen the next installments yet, but my assumption is that like this most recent one, they'll be focused more on the practical and less on the theoretical than were some of the early articles in the series.
  • greypoupon
    greypoupon
    New AFfiliate
    3 posts
    The other parts of this series have been too abstract for me relative to the Mastering series, but this article is much better, thanks!

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