Saturday, July 27, 2013

HEADROOM AND GAIN STAGING! a guide for dummies PART 1/2

Hello and welcome to this week's article!
Today we're going to talk about Gain Staging!
Gain staging means finding the right level for our tracks when recording, mixing and mastering, in facts we must think of all those different phases as parts of one single workflow, therefore the decisions we make in the beginning will be crucial and increasingly relevant further in completing the job.

Why do we need to watch carefully the gain structure of our mix? It's simple: with any modern digital audio interface (even the cheapest) we have plenty of headroom, which means that we can record at not too high levels, in order to preserve all the dynamics and the transient of our instruments; then, in the mixing phase, we must decide how much to compress the single instruments and wheter or not to use a Mix Buss Compressor.
In the Mastering phase we must decide wheter to use a single band or multiband compressor (or more than one), and finally a Limiter.

All those choices will impact on the final sound of our mix: it can sound very natural with a lot of headroom (with "headroom" we refer to the free space among the highest peak of a track and the ceiling of the full scale of decibels before clipping) or on the opposite side extremely compressed, on the verge of clipping, and sometimes it's also hard to go back finding what we have done wrong to obtain this unpleasant result.
My suggestion is to use these tips from the early stages of our production up to the latest steps of mastering, in order to have clear in mind what could go wrong and avoid it.

First off, the Recording Phase. When recording, we must make sure (using the Gain knob of our interface) that there is enough incoming signal, which means that for example the gain knob of the preamp of our audio interface is set properly: when recording a source, the ideal peak would be -20 to 10 dbFS (decibel full scale, the level before the maximum limit), as you can see in the orange circle on the picture above.
A lower level could translate in loss of data, since, some sound could be so low to fall below the noise level.
The peak of dbFS is the one in the orange circle, and we should adjust the gain knob in the audio interface to make sure that the peaks of our instruments stays on that range, without touching the virtual fader of the DAW. We will move it later on, in the mixing phase.
Plus, everything we put between the source (instrument or microphone) and the preamp will increase the noise, so it's better to place every other processor after it.
Before completing this phase it can be good to take an additional step: Trimming.

In the Mixing Phase, once that we have all instruments recorded at the right level it's time to make everything sound properly, and as we have already seen there are many tools of the trade, but the two most relevant ones about gain staging are Compressor and track volume fader.
The idea would be to use a compressor on the tracks with the highest volume excursion in order to lower the peaks (for example if we have a song with a vocal track in which the singer alternates quiet singing to loud screams): a properly configurated compressor would lower the higher peaks, leaving some headroom to raise the volume fader, in order to make the quieter parts to be heard better.
If we wouldn't compress, by raising the volume fader we would make inevitably the screams to distort.
I like to mix my projects at -12db to -10db (someone mixes at -6db, but sometimes this leaves not enough headroom for a powerful mastering)
An important rule when mixing is that if we have more than one plugin on our track and the final gain is too high, we should go back to the first processor (for example a compressor) and lower it, it's not a good idea to adjust the final gain with the gain knob of the final plugin, it will damage the gain structure of our sound.


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