Today I would like to talk about the biggest epiphany I had when it comes to recording entirely inside a computer. If you take one thing away with you by reading this blog this should be it. In 1996, Steinberg released Cubase VST which stands for Virtual Studio Technology. For the first time, someone with a limited budget and a PC could record audio to the hard drive and have access to a virtual effects rack and software synthesizers. People today call this mixing “in the box”. This had profound implications, so much so I would compare it to the release of the Tascam 4-Track Portastudio. Recently, laptops have become so powerful that they themselves can be full virtual studios anywhere you are.
Almost weekly I am asked for mixing advice. Usually after a few probing questions I discover that 90% of the people unhappy with their sound are making the same mistake. They are completely overdriving their internal summing bus! Take all your song’s individual channel faders and bring them at least -12db and keep the Master fader at 0dB at all times.
Look at your DAW’s mixer. Now imagine the volume of your individual channel fader’s adding up from left to right heading to your Master. If you keep your channel faders close to zero surely your Master will go over odB and clip. As we all know any clipping in the digital realm is very bad.
Why not keep your channel faders all hot and turn the master down? Because you will still be overdriving cheap plug-ins. Well written plug-ins can handle a hot signal but some of the coolest freeware and to be honest some big name effects clip internally when even a warm signal is shot at them. The worst part about this happening is there is no visual warning. All you know is your mixes just sound like crap.
If you ran a test overdriving one plug-in and pushing a channel fader too hot you may not notice anything. But keep your levels low in a complicated song with over 10 channels and you will definitely notice a major improvement.
If this is news to you don’t stress about it. It took me a while to wrap my head around it. To give credit where it’s due I first came across this advice when reading an article in EQ magazine by Craig Anderton. After I read it I emailed him to clarify some questions I had. He was graceful enough to answer me and I then did some searches online and found this was huge discussion on several high end pro-audio forums. Forum members at Tapeop, Gearslutz and the Digidesign sites were rambling on about audio levels and mixing ITB. Most of the threads were over 50 pages. Everyone was learning the same lesson.
How did I choose -12db as a start point? First, each DAW has a different summing engine so your own number may differ. I use Ableton Live and originally I was starting projects with channel faders at -6db. However, I constantly had to adjust them all down as I built the songs up. I settled at -10db but recently I noticed something very interesting. In Live 7 they introduced Drum Racks and a Slice to Midi feature. A group set of faders becomes automatically available to you for the individual drum sounds of audio slices the new features create. Guess what? The channel faders are automatically set to -12db! It seems Ableton headquarters has also caught on how to make their DAW sound better. Interesting no?
In Ableton Live if you hover over the Track Volume slider you can see the exact dB it’s set at by looking at the Status Bar located bottom left of the screen. If you click on a channel faders small left facing triangle you can then use the up and down arrows to nudge the volume in small increments.
As I mentioned in this post something to keep in mind is when you add EQ to a sound you add dBs. If you add +6db of high end EQ to a vocal you may want to adjust the channel fader. Lastly, I add a limiter to the Master and set it at -0.1 to catch anything that manages to spike a little too loud. Anyone with a Mac has Apple’s free AU limiter built-in.
I think you will really enjoy mixing quiet a lot more once you try this method.
photo credit: oooh.oooh