Home studio 101 -- Gain Staging/volume levels?

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Home studio 101 -- Gain Staging/volume levels?

Post by Jeffcon0 » Tue Jan 28, 2014 1:37 pm

Hi all,
After a couple years of screwing around and not really paying attention to mundane matters like gain staging and recording levels I've decided that I should finally learn some basics.

I've just recently purchased a Mackie Onyx mixer and realized I don't really know on where I should be setting my volume levels along my signal chain. Many of the articles I've found online focus more on recording a band, mics, preamps, etc. whereas I'm looking solely at synths and line level inputs.

I'm wondering, though, how you all set your volume levels when everything in the chain has volume.

For an example:
  • On a synth you have the master volume on that device, that goes into the mixer where there's a gain control, there is then a fader for that track, then a master volume. On top of this there's volume knobs on the monitors as well.
In practice, how would one set this up for optimal levels both for recording and monitoring?

I tend to set synth close to max, channel gain on the mixer around 12o'clock (unity gain), master level at around 9 o'clock, and then adjust the track fader on the mixer. Monitors I put at about 50% volume.

This sounds fine in the room for listening but it results in some crap levels when recording so I know something is wrong.

Any suggestions? Care to share how you set levels? Thanks!

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Post by Michael O. » Tue Jan 28, 2014 2:08 pm

Let me take a shot at summarizing this, we'll start with the beginning of the chain: the master output volume of the synthesizer/sound source itself can be left at maximum -> the gain of your preamp/lineamp/mixer channel should be set high as possible while maintaining a clean signal (in order to achieve an optimal signal to noise ratio, which is generally speaking one of the main considerations to keep in mind); the major caveat to this being tha, it's actually okay to clip an analog circuit (like a preamp) with a hot signal in order to achieve a desirable amount of coloration, i.e. harmonic distortion. This all depends on context and what's being recorded -> lets now assume you're recording to a digital medium: you want to adjust the output gain/channel fader of your preamp/mixer channel so that the signal present at the analog to digital converter's input is about -6dbu (this may seem low to someone used to solely analog gain staging, but it's the ideal level for an ADC amd provides both adequate level and headroom within the computer).

That's basically the gist of it; as far as how you set your levels once recorded (i.e., the mix), you set the desired levels per channel with each channel's associated mixer fader. P.s., within a digital mixing environment it is okay if individual channels clip, however clipping of the master buss is to be avoided.

Hope that's all clear enough and covers what you wanted to know, good luck!

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Post by memes_33 » Tue Jan 28, 2014 2:23 pm

one additional thing to add- i usually turn the source gear (synths, CD players, etc) to about 75% of the max gain (or 3 o'clock on knobs). for some reason, a lot of cheaper gear (and some expensive gear) get a lot noisier in that last 1/4" turn. for example, my moog slim phatty volume knob i always leave at 3 o'clock.

also, on my soundcraft board, i notice a ton of noise on the last 1/4 turn on the preamps. same with my old behringer boards. so i try to keep those at 3 o'clock as well.

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Post by Jeffcon0 » Tue Jan 28, 2014 2:25 pm

Thank you! That's very clear indeed. So it sounds like my mistake is that I need to focus more on the gain control and less on the channel volumes since, if I understand correctly, what gets sent to the computer for recording comes after gain but before the channel level on the mixer (at least in my case).

I have a tendency to record everything way too low as I typically do my composition at low volume (apartment living and all). By the time its in my computer it's all kinds of muffled and botched up.

I think I need to mentally separate what I'm hearing with what levels reach my computer which sounds like is where the gain comes in.

Much appreciated!

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Post by memes_33 » Tue Jan 28, 2014 2:26 pm

also, be sure to use your ears! just because it is distorting doesn't mean it sounds bad! i remember a when the bug came out with 'london zoo' a few years ago, he said he gets a lot of his sound just by pushing the levels going in to his soundcraft ghost board, and that album sounded great!

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Post by Jeffcon0 » Tue Jan 28, 2014 2:49 pm

memes_33 wrote:also, be sure to use your ears! just because it is distorting doesn't mean it sounds bad! i remember a when the bug came out with 'london zoo' a few years ago, he said he gets a lot of his sound just by pushing the levels going in to his soundcraft ghost board, and that album sounded great!
Thanks and yes, I agree. Some of my favorite bits are happy accidents. I actually tend to not want everything super clean in my mix but I also think it's important to understand how to do it right before I break the rules. Walking that line between something intentional and an accident can lead to musical magic.

I guess my original question could also be applied towards EQ and how much the source should dictate the sound vs how much the EQ should.

I have a feeling that the right EQ is what really can elevate something to "pro qualty" sound but that also seems the realm of audio engineers and that I'm opening a Pandora's box even mentioning it.

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Post by Michael O. » Tue Jan 28, 2014 3:10 pm

Jeffcon0 wrote:
I guess my original question could also be applied towards EQ and how much the source should dictate the sound vs how much the EQ should.

I have a feeling that the right EQ is what really can elevate something to "pro qualty" sound but that also seems the realm of audio engineers and that I'm opening a Pandora's box even mentioning it.
There are different schools of thought as it's pretty subjective, but it's generally a better idea to use eq in a subtractive manner (that is, cutting rather than boosting) and as minimally as the task at hand allows. Of course, as with intentionally overdriving a circuit or using an exaggerated amount of compression etc., there are always artistic reasons to occasionally, or even often, deviate from these standard practices.

My best advice is to get your source material, whether it consists of a single synthesizer or a mic'd up big band or anything in between, sounding as close to what you would want it sounding on record as possible. Nowadays I take a very minimal approach, especially in terms of eq, in that, aside from using a shelving filter (to cut lows) or what not on a lot of non-bass-critical material, there is very little corrective equalizing needed. If you get your source material sounding the way you want you will be way ahead of the game, so to speak, and you will make mixing a much more fun, natural, and productive process.

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Post by h4ndcrafted » Wed Jan 29, 2014 1:51 am

Michael O. wrote:
Jeffcon0 wrote:
I guess my original question could also be applied towards EQ and how much the source should dictate the sound vs how much the EQ should.

I have a feeling that the right EQ is what really can elevate something to "pro qualty" sound but that also seems the realm of audio engineers and that I'm opening a Pandora's box even mentioning it.
There are different schools of thought as it's pretty subjective, but it's generally a better idea to use eq in a subtractive manner (that is, cutting rather than boosting) and as minimally as the task at hand allows. Of course, as with intentionally overdriving a circuit or using an exaggerated amount of compression etc., there are always artistic reasons to occasionally, or even often, deviate from these standard practices.

My best advice is to get your source material, whether it consists of a single synthesizer or a mic'd up big band or anything in between, sounding as close to what you would want it sounding on record as possible. Nowadays I take a very minimal approach, especially in terms of eq, in that, aside from using a shelving filter (to cut lows) or what not on a lot of non-bass-critical material, there is very little corrective equalizing needed. If you get your source material sounding the way you want you will be way ahead of the game, so to speak, and you will make mixing a much more fun, natural, and productive process.
Wise words indeed! What about plugins? I use Fabfilter's Pro Q, but whenever I roll off bass freq, say I roll a kick drum off at 70hz to make room for a sub bass, I get clipping on the Pro's out in live.
I never understood why reducing the bass , which should lower volume, Infact raised it.

Is it something to do with a slight Rez boost at the cutoff freq, and is it idiosyncratic to Pro Q or do all eqs do this ?

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Post by Hainbach » Wed Jan 29, 2014 6:26 am

Its seems the Pro-Q has a resonance boost at cutoff. Check it with an analyzer. For high pass I like the free Airwindows DC Offset. Very clean and effective.

Else I have nothing to add what has been said before - make everything sound good before hitting record, use eq sparingly but effectivly, keep your levels at the volume you want them to be in the mix.

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Post by matttech » Wed Jan 29, 2014 7:12 am

i've always found that rolling off bass can make the output of an eq plugin clip - when the initial source material is at a high level. dunno why, but in DAWs this isn't necessarily a problem, as the visible "clipping" will be ignored at the main outputs, as long as THEY aren't clipping

also, when working with an analogue mixer, always make sure that you keep your main output fader at unity gain (ie: not adding or subtracting any gain - it is usually marked by the side of the fader where this should be). then adjust you various channel faders so that the cumulative output at the master fader is not clipping


if you have all your channel faders too high, and merely use the master fader to turn down the output level, you are effectively overdriving the master BUS/ channel....and turning the fader down is just making this clipped signal quieter at the outputs, not addressing the clipping.

think of the master channel as having an INPUT - like all the other channels - and this input must not be overloaded by the various channels feeding it. keep it at unity gain and you will be able to tell if you are overloading it, as the main output will go into clipping.

didn't realise this for ages - not until i was doing a load of live sound for my college, and we kept getting clipping on the main mix even though the main faders were brought down. doh! the limiters were kicking in on it the whole time, and horrible clipping could be heard.....

DAWs work differently, in the turning down the master fader WILL get rid of the clipping. i still work to the same principles as an analogue mixer when setting levels though, and keep my master fader at 0db, making sure that i do not feed too much level into it (within reason...although these days i tend to mix the whole time with a limiter and often a multiband limiter in place....but youy DO have to keep checking it every now and then to make sure you aren't hammering your mix with them)

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Post by h4ndcrafted » Wed Jan 29, 2014 12:47 pm

Great info guys thanks. Thinking of the Master on an analogue desk in this way does seem obvious , I should know this from dealing with gain on Dj mixers too, as they're the only analogue ones I have used.

I've just started to mix with a limiter on the master too, especially helpful in dance music, but yes it freaks me out a bit and you are for ever cheaking how hard you are hitting it.

Good thread this for the uninitiated , thanks!

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Post by Bath House » Wed Jan 29, 2014 2:04 pm

You're asking the right questions!

Depending on which Mackie Onyx you got (I use the 1640i), the master fader may not actually control a recording level. Read your manual! Mackie make pretty good manuals that tell you everything you need to know.

I always keep outputs on synths, etc. set to the maximum, since they tend to not really be "boosting" the signal but rather just attenuating it down from unity. I think of those volume controls as being for quick adjustments when playing live or jamming with other people and just leave them at max for recording because I'll attenuate elsewhere.

Setting gain properly on the mixer - check your manual for the proper gain-setting procedure - also allows your faders to have the most effect, since you're not only setting the circuit for best quality but essentially setting up your fader to essentially be matched to the signal you're bringing in, if that makes sense. In other words, if you're overdriving the gain stage, your signal is going to be distorted and pulling down the fader will just make the distorted signal quieter but still distorted. On the other hand, setting properly at the gain stage means that you can pull the level way down or boost it up and you'll be fine, or you could push that fader all the way up and overdrive the channel (if you wanted to for some reason).

Powered Monitors tend to be a "what you hear" setting - in other words, only set them as loud as you're comfortable with them going in your room. I tend to like to feed monitors the max signal I can and use their gain to attenuate down to a sane level, instead of setting the monitors to max (which I'll never use) and attenuating the signal I'm sending them. The reason? It just sounds better. I used to set my monitors at max at then attenuate the signal coming out of my audio interface, but that meant that 1) my monitors were always hissing audibly because the gain circuit was running at max 2) I was using the mixer's digital mixer to lower the output digitally in software using math instead of just using the analog gain circuit built into the monitor and 3) if anything bumped the output trim knob on that interface or if I accidentally bypassed its digital mixer (easy to do), suddenly the volume in my room was BLASTING at the maximum possible by my speakers. Ouch, and a real pants-shitter.
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Post by Bath House » Wed Jan 29, 2014 2:09 pm

The other thing to be aware of is that 0 in "analog" - on a VU meter - is equal to about -18 in digital/your DAW. So even if you've set your channel trim at 0 on a mixer and get a nice, healthy signal, that's going to show up in software at -18. This is a good thing - that means you have 18db of headroom to work with before you're worried about digital clipping. 24 bit recording means you have the freedom to record way lower signals and you'll still be WAY above the noise floor compared to 16 bit.
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Post by thresholdpeople » Wed Mar 05, 2014 2:57 am

Mixing is about getting all the sound sources running through a mixer simultaneously as close to unity gain on the master output of the mixer as possible, while still allowing for the creative decisions -- quieter sounds, panned sounds, etc -- to read as intended amidst everything else.

For optimal signal to noise ratio, the master fader on a mixer should set, and left, at unity. What Matttech said - if your master channel is already overdriven, turning the fader down will just make the already distorted signal quieter.

The channel gain is used for is to dial in the nominal gain-staging for the specific instrument, mic, or whatever signal. Any deviation from this is a subjective choice. This is why line-level gain knobs usually start at -10dB, and when used with a signal coming from a -10dB output -- i.e. a delay module.. you shouldn't have to move the gain knob, unless it's for added boost -- in the guitar pedal sense, a bit of distortion.

The channel faders on a mixer are primarily for further attenuating -- lowering -- the signal after the gain stage. Typically after you set the gain stage, the fader gets brought below unity, to mix with the other signals going through the mixer. They go higher, as when a gain level is set on the mixer, it is typically done in a way to still allow headroom, just in case your loudest sound isn't as loud as it needs to be, it's a bit more practical to boost it as opposed to lower everything else. However, it is far better practice to lower everything else, as opposed to raise the volume on the one specific thing.

EQing is typically done in this vein. If there are frequencies that you would like accentuated, lowering those, or related frequencies of other sounds will help bring them out on the specific sound.

Of course all of this is the "good practice" way of doing it, in a way that achieves the lowest signal to noise ratio, and minimizes distortion.

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Post by Jeffcon0 » Wed Mar 05, 2014 10:51 am

Thanks for all the info, guys. I've read my manual a few times and with your advice I have been setting my synth master volume to max, soloing each channel on the mixer to get them hitting around the top of the green/bottom yellow LEDS (that's really scientific, I know) when at unity gain. From there I try to match those same levels in Logic. Then, if I'm recording a live jam, I use the channel faders to bring the volume of the various elements up and down.

I'm finding this is working pretty well so far but also that there's no hard and fast "rule" since different ways of working obviously produce different results. To get a baseline decent recording, though, I've found paying attention to the unity gain is very important.

My recordings are definitely sounding cleaner than they have in the past.

Thanks guys!

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Post by StoneLaw » Wed Mar 05, 2014 7:54 pm

matttech wrote:i've always found that rolling off bass can make the output of an eq plugin clip - when the initial source material is at a high level. dunno why, but in DAWs this isn't necessarily a problem, as the visible "clipping" will be ignored at the main outputs, as long as THEY aren't clipping
If a digital recording hits 0 (or clips at any point in recording) then any operation (ie plugin) will create clipping. EQs cause phase distortion, which means even a clean hi pass filter will bring it above 0 slightly in some place. You may not hear the clip but it's there. I don't know why something like a trim plugin might do it but supposedly it would too. I would really avoid this and aim for headroom when recording but it may not actually make any difference.
Last edited by StoneLaw on Wed Mar 05, 2014 8:12 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Post by StoneLaw » Wed Mar 05, 2014 8:07 pm

ie in theory it should make a difference but I'm not certain it actually does.

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Post by pianoscope » Thu Mar 06, 2014 2:07 am

not a fan of mixing but I had to learn, this helped me.

"have been setting my synth master volume to max, soloing each channel on the mixer to get them hitting around the top of the green/bottom yellow LEDS (that's really scientific, I know) when at unity gain.
Good!

From there I try to match those same levels in Logic. Then, if I'm recording a live jam, I use the channel faders to bring the volume of the various elements up and down."

not good, aim for -18 0r -12 in logic. Use your trim pot.(gain plug) use a proper meter plug! completely disregard Logic meters. gainstage between any plug in.

get a meter that you can adjust the k-scale
brainworx, k-meter (the cheapest) dorrough (expensive) with these you can set zero to -12, -18, -20 etc.

my mixes went from mush to sparkle when i stopped treating digital like analog

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Post by spacessound » Thu Mar 06, 2014 4:38 am

Good advice here I think. I'd Just add you probably need to connect your monitors to Monitor Out on your Mackie, not your Main Out so you can leave the master fader where it meeds to be.

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Post by Paranormal Patroler » Wed Dec 17, 2014 9:02 am

Sound advice so far, thanks from me as well.

I'm bumping this thread as I have irritating issues with the Send/Return path of my Xenyx console. It seems like guitar pedals aren't expecting the levels it outputs and I get distortion quite easily. Obviously I'm neglecting something obvious (apart from the fact it's a Behringer).

So how should I go about setting the levels including the Send Master and Channel Send? Any ideas?
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Post by synthysynth » Thu Dec 18, 2014 4:45 am

I have a simple setup of analog synths and drum machines going into a 16 channel sound craft.(no computer). I like to do lots of live mixing by sliding the individual channel faders up and down but I always set them all to unity so that I know exactly where to bring them all up to. I also set the main LR outs to unity.

I don't really find myself using the preamps to boost my signals except for when a synths cutoff/resonance setting make it quieter or to make my 808 snare sound a little thicker from clipping. Should I be using my preamps more and lowering those individual channel faders? I understand wanting the color of a nice preamp but its a cheapish sound craft? This thread is extremely helpful, thanks!

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Post by Paranormal Patroler » Thu Dec 18, 2014 6:00 am

Nah, it seems the proper way is to have everything set to unity.
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Post by StoneLaw » Thu Dec 18, 2014 11:45 am

You want to set the preamps with the faders at 0, then when you are mixing, you mix with the faders. A pre-amp is an amp (ie performs gain) and comes first in the chain usually, a fader is an attenuator and comes second.

You don't want to under or over drive the gain--unless you actually do for color, which i wouldn't even recommend unless you are getting wild... Like for instance, higher end pre's get a lot of color based on different gain levels, and I'll play with gain occasionally on external pres, but when I mix on real boards (api, trident, ssl etc) I don't really mess with the pres on the board like that, I just set them properly. And those are high-end consoles... I certainly wouldn't be doing that on a mackie (although who knows... maybe it sounds awesome on a particular board or with your particular music or with a particular instrument you have... feel free to use your ears or be creative).

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Post by Paranormal Patroler » Thu Dec 18, 2014 1:27 pm

Any advice on the Send/Return path gain staging?
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Post by artilect99 » Tue May 30, 2017 2:01 am

Paranormal Patroler wrote:Any advice on the Send/Return path gain staging?
The problem may be due to the impedance and level mismatch between the mixer aux sends and the pedals.

Most aux sends are +4db line level / low impedance (~600 ohm) whereas the pedal that is distorting on you is probably expecting an instrument level / high impedance signal (e.g., the output of an electric guitar).

Most newer pedals are able to handle line level signals, but especially older ones are wanting a guitar-level input signal.

The "professional" way to feed stomp boxes from line level sources is to use a dedicated reamping box that takes a +4db/low impedance line level signal and converts it to a instrument level/hi-Z signal. Up to you if you want to spend the money, I guess I would if I had $200 or so that I absolutely could not find anything else to spend it on.

Otherwise, just back off the aux send fader (or channel sends if there is no aux fader) until it stops clipping. (although I understand there is still some low frequency roll-off associated with heavy impedance mismatches).

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