Gain Staging - Plugins

Hey Folks,

Gain staging came up in class today and I’m going down the rabbit hole here and would highly appreciate your insight. With gain staging I understand that before we start to mix we get each track bounce around -18. But then I read (see below) that we should be going into each plugin at -18. Do you all do this. I defiantly have not been doing this. What about in the mastering process. How is this even possible when mastering?

Thanks so much

Here is the blub I read

Similar to above, make sure the audio level is about -18dBFS BEFORE it enters each plugin. You can usually do this with the plugin’s native input control. If your plugin doesn’t have I/O gain controls - no problem - simply use a separate gain or trim plugin before-hand. This will avoid the plugins getting pushed too hard and will render the best results. For every plugin you add, you’ll need to check that you aren’t increasing or decreasing the level of the channel. If you are, simply adjust accordingly, e.g. Applying heavy EQ cuts will decrease the level of a channel, so to compensate you can raise the output gain.

Gain staging is important of course but -18dB RMS into each plug-in is not a good way to mix. UAD plug-ins are calibrated at -12 but sometimes it is better to go into them harder or softer, dpends on the sound you are after.
I agree, it is good to start a mix with the raw tracks not being to hot or you will overload your plug-ins and master bus.

I use Hornet’s VU Meter MK3 on every single channel and bus, which will take care of whatever RMS (and peak) you want going out of it. It has completely changed my workflow. The -18 RMS default is great for the Slate stuff, which usually follows for me, and if you’re driving that into anything else, like some UAD stuff that is normally calibrated to -14 or -12, it’s easy to dial in at each stage.

Great info guys😊

I might be way off an over simplifying things, but if I’m using Slate emulation on all channels and -18 db is the ideal starting point. My first thought would be to put a utility device on -18 db, and put it on each channel before all third party plugins? Or maybe even on the groups or master channel. Does that make sense?

@steso you should read Paul’s comment above…

Hah! Replying to my own post :slight_smile: Can’t figure out how to edit it. Just wanted to correct myself in that UAD is almost always calibrated to -18dBFS, except the following:
Ampex ATR-102: -12dBFS
Manley Massive Passive: -14dBFS
Studer A800: -12dBFS
Neve 33609: Selectable -14, -18, -22dBFS

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Ah, I thought they were all -12dBFS apart from the one with the headroom knob. Thanks for the heads up!

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Hi guys, I have some questions maybe you can shed some light on

btw i’m using pro-Q2 as a reference usually or the track meter, and will also use pro-Q2 as a trim if the plug-in does not have great or any in/out staging

  1. coming out of/bouncing a AU or vst I should aim for -18dbfs? (I’ve been aiming for -10dbfs but thats only for the initial bounce and its free for all after in the mixing chain haha, prob not good). so if like my kick is somewhere at -1dbfs I bring it down via the plug-in master volume to -18dbfs and then bounce? so if a pad is somewhere at -22dbfs do I bring it up? or just leave it alone and when adding there next plug-in bring it up to -18dbfs and leave it there, or do it via the master volume in the pad before turning it into permanent audio?

so now we have a kick wav at -18dbfs,

side note,if I’m not mistaken clearly the track fader is left at 0 all the way through the process until the end

  1. now after each plug-in we pile on from channel striping all the way down we should be aiming for -18 dbfs? so as the saying goes never leave a plug-in different from how you enter it? so now at the end of the chain we are reading -18dbfs correct? and this would go for all the tracks?

  2. so if my understanding is correct, all of the tracks after all of their mixing chains are coming in at around -18dbfs, and all of the track faders at 0?

  3. so now we would start with the track faders correct? as pulling everything down and starting with the kick? my question is what -dbfs are we aiming for on the master buss when bringing up the kick? --6dbfs? am I way off?, I figure since the kick is most powerful the other tracks will do little changing the -dbfs leaving me close to -3dbfs, because once I bring the kick up, I tend to close my eyes and listen where I want the sounds/tracks to be level wise, so I want to know where I should aim for with the kick, or if this entire process is not correct

  4. Vocals, I find coming in at -18dbfs gives a thin sound, not enough preamp crunch but maybe I’m wrong, do you guys really record your vocals at -18dbfs and follow suit all the way down the chain?

  5. so all of the tracks have been staged at the end of the mixing chain at -18dbfs and also leveled via the track fader to obviously make things louder or quite when you need them, lets say the master buss is showing -4dbfs, is this a healthy signal to start mastering?

  6. not sure if mastering is the same In concept but if I’m at -4dbfs and start with a channel strip just to run the audio through then cut then the atr-102 should I make sure after I’m at -4dbfs? I don’t normally use the limiter workflow but even if I did would I be monitoring inside after every plug-in to keep that -4dbfs until right before the limiter? basically do i use the leave every plug-in as you came in method?

sorry if my question are not clear or easy to understand, this is really important for me to nail and understand so if you need help in clarifying a question let me know, thanks in advance

btw I’ve been finishing my mix close to 0dbfs and then throwing a channel strip on the master buss and bringing down the level, or I would select all the tracks and bring down the track faders until I got around -4dbfs, but would like to finish without need to do either as I really don’t like doing either to make headroom

my biggest problem lately is getting as loud as my reference track without sounding like crap, although I am getting really close

I think you are over thinking this.
If you are starting with the kick, say get that to -18 then move on to snare etc and balance that to the kick. I rarely balance the output of a plugin to the input. Even if a plugin is calibrated to -18dB that does not mean it sounds best with a -18dB input. Many of the analogue emulations sound best when driven. I have heard of engineers who do not move the faders but that was a long time ago, perhaps when DAW mixers were lest than adequate. I highly recommend you use the channel faders to balance tracks.
Although noise floor is less of an issue with 24-Bit recording I still would shoot for about -6dB as highest peak (on average) when recording.
I would probably set kick at between -12dB and -18dB when starting a mix depending on how loud you want final track to be.
Leaving the top bit (6dB) free when mix is finished is good for the mastering engineer to do their magic.

hey Paul, thanks for the insight on that! I think I figured out how to get the results I was looking for but wanted to say

I definitely started overthinking, never was bothered before it all came about with my one of my beats I was able to get to right up there with my reference and going back and laying vocals and treating, everything mix down wise was cool, then when going back and mastering again everything was ruined, I mean not completely but couldn’t get as loud without vocals starting to break down(and yes I did adjust in mastering for the extra levels the vocal were producing). So then I spent several days rethinking and redoing my whole process including this crazy notion of leaving plug-ins the same as you came in, that I heard from some people that seem/seemed like they know what they’re talking about, I did this at -18 dbfs and -12 dbfs and all the way through and results were ok but not what I wanted even when laying down some proper mastering, I was getting better results my original way without leaving plug-ins the same but being more tame in mastering which allowed my Vox not start breaking down but compromised my loudness a great deal and ended up being lower than even some of my conservative references, so what was the problem? or what was my problem as some people might be perfectly fine with the levels I was getting, not me though. I did try double limiting like Danny shows in his “get your song as loud as knife party video” but results were not as good as jus t maximizer by itself at the end, anyways

I did a few more aggressive cuts but this didn’t help the situation and solve the problem fully but did about 10 percent of the job I would say, and every time I would trim a plug-in down on input or output in mastering(as Danny does on his musical compression mastering video where he goes from the gbus to proc2) it would kill the final result I was trying to achieve, super annoying. Also I really wanted to hit the ampex atr 102 at a certain point that gave me the level/sound/saturatiuon I was trying to achieve with the plug-in and it was literally at about -1db haha, not much to work with right, and if I would trim the gain down it just took away from the final result no matter ho w I compensated later in the chain. So I took out the gbus(which was truly the plug-in that had taken my masters to another level recently, just want to mention was not having great success with danny’s slow attack fast release side chain setting as would have to trim extremly and effected the final results, was using more of a fast attack fast release setting) out of the mastering chain and threw another instance of of pro c2 in its place with no make up gain, messed with the settings and started getting a huge smile, it was working!

so here’s what I got

coming in -1/-1.5 db headroom, no channel strip but proQ2 rumble cut before atr102, out of atr102 straight into pro c2 with no make up gain took my -1/-.5 db now and brought it down down about -4 db but very breathy compression and even, sweet! set to clean btw. Now another proC2 which I’m using parellel compression as in one of danny’s videos and it gives me super boost with about -1.5/2db headroom, now some deessing and then maximizer, and the result is super stable and loud, vocals hold up under all systems and headphones and full volumes which I could not achieve before, I will be adding a touch of eq and maybe some imaging but thats it, and maybe not even depending on how it sounds. I also went back and tried doing the same thing using the gbus, using it with no make up gain (I was only using very little before anyways to match what I was compressing) but just could not get the warmth or clarity I desired but closer than before, seems another instance of the proC2 really helped, I’m sure some of you on here could probably get some crazy amazing results using pro MB and countless other plugs but I just didn’t have the best results using it(not the plug-ins faults, but my inability to unlock its true potential, but let me just say i know how to use it and familiar with it, but again, its pseudo mastering haha so make of that what you will) and as far as the proC2 with no make up gain(not just auto but manually as well) this goes against what I was taught by practically everyone who claims to know what they’re talking about as you should make up for what you compress(i’m sure there are people who do all types off things that are not common or maybe they are common and I was just trying to stick to the basics) when in this case I used it to compress, even things out and send it to the next pro c2 with more reasonable headroom and it really worked like a charm, I did not get the same results trimming the headroom after and using make up gain, just wanted to throw that out there

my old mastering chain went

channel strip/proQ2/Atr-102/gbus/proC2/pultec/exciter/imager/desser/proQ2/maximizer

my new mastering chain

proQ2/Atr-102/proC2/proC2/Desser/Maximizer, gonna throw a musical and technical eq in there tastefully most likely and possibly a touch of imagining

sorry for the huge run on sentences

Your process sounds good, sometimes certain plugins just don’t work on particular tracks.
Adjusting the output to be near enough the same after processing is considered good for a/b’ing, I personally don’t do this often, especially for processing that significantly changes the sound, since modifying energy or power is difficult to compensate for with a siimple gain change. There are no rules though. if a plugin does not have an input it is good to drive/attenuate the output of the previous plugin for desired level.
Saturation is always good for making a song louder, as often, saturation will increase the average level and soften transients. If this is done judiciously throughout the mixing stage, you will be in a good position when it comes to mastering.

yeah, one of the best things I’ve learned from danny’s videos has been saturation, never would have thought its ok to use up to 3 saturation plug-ins, and channel strip is technically a saturation plug-in. Noticed those heavy harmonics in your 1176 analysis, really nice, this latest track has instances of trash 2/tape saturate preset all throughout tailored to each track, along with varying instances of studer/saturn/exciter all throughout

I did an analysis(if I can call it that, not as in depths yours) of the neve 1073 which I use as a channel strip even though it’s not a traditional strip it can be used that way and even listed under channel strips at UA, I really like it because the eq is a game changer and I sprinkle it on all tracks, I think there’s like 4 harmonic bumps running a sine wave through it dry, as the ssl channel strip looks to have 1, so my question is maybe the Neve 1073 isn’t the best as a channel strip and over saturating my tracks and just better to use it on the unison slot when recording? do you have any thoughts on it?

There are specifications for audio output depending on format of the material and delivery specs for the company, etc. I have not heard of a recommendation for input level to the plugin. It is all subjective depending on the sound you are hoping to achieve. Keep in mind that sound designers sometimes will clip a channel/plugin when producing a composite gunshot effect for film because it creates a concussive snap. Nothing in the rulebook says to intentionally overdrive a digital signal, but there you have it.

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Hi…I presume you could have one distinction of plugs that emulate level based effects, and those that are clean independent of level. That could lead to considerations as to where they were placed in the chain, and when or where we push things up into 'higher levels. (A 'vocal or other sub group (bus) for example doesn’t necessarily mean or have to be particularly 'hotter than nominal for example.