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Advanced Compression – The Attack Control (Part 3)

In the final part of this series on ‘Advanced Compression – The Attack Control’ we’re going to take a quick look at a few real-world applications of fast attack settings.

In Part One, we looked at using the attack control settings on a compressor to ‘soften’ a sound and make it more (or less) present.

In Part Two we unpacked Bruce Swedien’s statement, ‘The groove is in the transient’ as a way to understand that not all transients are created equal.

With this in mind the question that remains is, in what scenarios can fast attack settings be appropriate?

1.  Multi-Mic’d Instruments

A fast attack setting can be really useful when processing multi-mic’d instruments. A common example is the room mic of a well-recorded drum kit.  When processing a room mic it is often desirable to use faster attack settings to ‘soften’ the transients of the sound, making it less present and appear further back in the mix.

This has the net effect of allowing the close mics to really shine by presenting the transient information and groove, while leaving the room mic to add depth and body to the overall drum sound.

2.  Parallel Processing

Parallel processing is also another time you may want to experiment with faster attack settings, for the same reasons and benefits derived from using faster attack settings on drum room mics.  You’d be surprised at how creating a parallel track and applying faster attack settings on the parallel track creates body, space and dimension to a part.  All of this is achieved while still allowing the transient information to cut through the mix courtesy of the source track (which would have slower attack settings or no compression at all).

This approach can work great on parallel vocals, bass, guitars, as well as drums.

3.  Front-to-Back Transient Panning

Left to Right panning is something that is relatively easy to grasp and implement in a mix.  However it can also be helpful to think about panning transients.  What!?  Yeap…panning transients!

Have you ever been in a group photo in which everyone (in hope of their 15 minutes of fame!) rushes towards the front of the picture filling the camera lens with copious amounts of ‘them self’!?   Well in today’s digital recording world transients often act in the same way (more on that in the next point).

When all the audio in a mix has been recorded in such a way that the transients are crisp and well defined, it is the sonic equivalent of a group of people rushing towards the camera lens.   In such an instance a little ‘crowd control’ is in order!  This is where the whole idea of panning transients from front-to-back comes into play.

In the same way a pan knob can send a signal either left or right in the stereo field, fast attack settings are a useful tool to pan a sound front-to-back – sinking a sound further back into a mix. There are of course many ways to achieve this ‘sinking back’ effect each with their own pros and cons, and faster attack settings are just as valid as any other approached when used judiciously.

The questions to ask when considering front-to-back transient panning are:  What needs to be present at the front of the mix?  What could afford to be sunk further back?

4.  High Definition Sound

Whilst a topic worthy of a whole series of articles in it’s own right the whole analog vs digital debate is worth mentioning here.

When music is recorded digitally into a DAW through converters (i.e. no analog consoles, compressors, or tape machines in sight!) the problem isn’t making things sound present.  It’s the exact opposite!  This is because modern digital recording equipment is great at capturing the transient information of an instrument – detail a console or tape machine would have ‘rounded off’ or ‘softened’.  As a result you end up with a recording that has pristine and well-preserved (some might say ‘cold’ and ‘hyped’) transients.  Come mix time the handling of these transients will now need careful attention if a warm and 3D mix is the desired outcome.

Once again the appropriate use of fast attack settings could be just what the doctor ordered to cure the chilling effects of digititus.


So there you have it.  Whilst not appropriate for every situation fast attack settings can be used in unconventional ways to do anything from softening transients that are hyper real to adding dimension to a mix.  As with all things the trick is knowing when to use fast attack settings, which is something that comes with trial and error.

When do you use fast attack settings in a mix?

The Attack Control,Part,Attack

If you missed the last two parts of this series be sure to check out Part One and Part Two here. 

If you have any questions or topics that you would like to learn more about or see more of on MixCoach, be sure to comment below or write us at

Advanced Compression – The Attack Control (Part 2)

    In Part 1 of this series we looked at how a compressor’s attack settings could be used to ‘soften’ the transient of a sound so it is perceived as being further back in a mix. But the real question is, why would you ever want to do this? Shouldn’t your goal be to preserve the transients of all the sounds in a mix?  The answer is (like most things when it comes to mixing) – IT ALL DEPENDS!

Groove Control

Bruce Swedien, famous for his engineering work on Michael Jackson’s ‘Off The Wall’ and ‘Thriller’ albums, once said, ‘The groove is in the transients.’  Now that’s a statement that packs punch!  But what does it mean?  Here are a couple of interpretations to consider:

  • Interpretation #1 – If you want your music to groove, you need to protect the transients – that’s where the groove is.  In other words the transients are literally what help make the groove ‘groove’.
  • Interpretation #2 – Put the groove in the transients!  In other words allow the element/elements that you feel carry the groove in your mix to retain as much transient information as necessary.

Real World Applications

When taken together these interpretations offer great insight into potentially unconventional uses of attack settings to craft professional sounding mixes.

For example if you decide that the kick, snare, hi-hats and bass are carrying the groove in a mix, you may want to use a slower attack to preserve the transient information of these instruments.  However you may also opt to use faster attack settings on other ‘non-groove’ elements  so they don’t get in the way of the groove.  Faster attack settings will take the ‘edge’ off these non-groove elements, often pushing them further back into a mix, with the result that they are free to achieve other mix objectives, all while playing a supportive role to the groove.

This is not to say you should completely kill the transient of everything other than the groove (unless of course this works for your mix!).  On the contrary, you should deliberately use attack settings to manage the transient information of your mix in such a way that every element serves the emotional goal of the mix.

Under Attack!

I recently ran into a scenario that required some serious attack management!  The groove (which was being carried by the drums) sounded great but was a little too defined and ‘present’ for comfort.  It was literally jumping out of the speakers and slapping me around the face!

To resolve this I simply left the kick and snare tracks as they were and changed the attack setting on the OH drum mics from a slow to a fast setting.  The results were amazing!  The OH drums lost their edge, sunk back into the mix, and created more space for the kick, snare and hi-hats to cut through.  The fast attack setting on the OH drums also had the added benefit of providing additional body, dimension and cohesion to the overall drum sound.

The end result was the groove opened up and felt more natural – kind of like I was in the room with the drummer rather than listening to a hyper real and over-defined version of events.

Not All Transients Are Created Equal

One of the implications of Mr Swedien’s ‘The groove is in the transients’ insight is that not everything in your mix has to be THE groove – in the same way that not every instrument in a mix carries the tune.  Therefore it is not essential for absolutely every element to have it’s transients preserved, accentuated, and presented at the front of the mix.  Some transients will need to be kept forward for sure, but others might benefit from being ‘softened’ or pushed deeper into the mix with faster attack settings. You get to decide.

One Control Amongst Many

At this point it is also worth remembering that a compressor’s attack is just one of the controls that can be used to shape the envelop of sound.  When used in conjunction with the release, ratio, threshold and knee controls, a myriad of effects can be achieved.  For now we’re just focusing on the contribution a compressor’s attack settings make to the overall mix.

In the final part of this series part we’ll look at a few more useful uses of the attack control.  Until then don’t forget, ‘The groove is in the transients!’


What other interpretations/applications can you think of for ‘The groove is in the transients’

What’s your strategy for attack settings when mixing?  I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!


Advanced Compression – The Attack Control (Part 1)

The skillful and deliberate use of compression in the mix process is something every engineer worth his or her weight in salt has a knack for.  While some grasp the basic concepts of compression relatively quickly, many engineers readily admit that the nuances of compression can take a little longer to master.

So if you are comfortable with the idea of using compression to control dynamics let’s take a look at some more nuanced concepts and applications of compression, starting with the humble ‘Attack’ control.

Using The Attack To Create Depth

In addition to its day job as a ‘dynamics controller’ most compressors can also be used to create subtle levels of depth, adding dimension to a mix.  In fact the skillful use of the attack control can turn compression into a form of reverb.  Let me explain.

All sounds have a volume envelop.  This envelop is made up of the attack (or beginning) of the sound, the sustain, the decay, and release.  Percussive instruments, like snares and bass drums, usually have a well defined attack, with relatively short sustain, decay and release times.  Keyboard instruments can have well-defined attacks, with longer sustain, decay, and release times.  Strings instruments can have longer attack and sustain times, with medium to short decay and releases.

As a general rule, the more defined the beginning of a sound (professionally know as ‘the transient’), the more ‘present’ or ‘forward’ the sound is perceived as being by the listener.  The converse is also true, the less defined the transient, the greater chance the sound will be perceived as being further away from the listener.  By shaping the transient of a sound you can therefore cause the sound to be perceived as closer to you or further away.

Listen For Yourself 

Take a listen to the clip below.   Clip 1 is an OH Drum track with no compression.  Listen to the transients of the HH and snare in particular.  They are crisp and defined.

Clip 1 – Overhead Drums (No Compression)

Now listen to Clip 2.  Clip 2 is the same clip but with a Fast Attack engaged  on a SSL Channel strip.  Once again pay careful attention to the transients of the HH and snare.  How do they compare with Clip 1?  Is the snare in this clip in the same position or is it further forward or further backward than the uncompressed snare in Clip 1?

Clip 2 – Overhead Drums (SSL Channel Fast Attack Compression)

When comparing Clips 1 and 2 the differences are extremely subtle but definitely noticeable.  For example the transients in Clip 2 lack the crispness and definition of those in Clip 1.  The snare in particular is also noticeably further back from the listener, lacking the presence and forwardness of the uncompressed snare in Clip 1.  Notice also the perceived size of the drum kit and room in Clip 2.  With a fast attack setting the drums and room seem larger!

Softening Sound

These clips reveal another interesting feature of a fast attack setting on a compressor.  When in use not only does a fast attack setting push a sound further back into a mix, it also has the effect of ‘shaving off’, ‘softening’ or ‘blurring’ the transient of a sound.

A fast attack setting can therefore be used to take the edge, presence, definition and bite off of a sound which has the effect of reducing the perceived presence of the sound, pushing it further back into a mix.  In fact fast attack settings often do all of these things at the same time!

Training Your Ear  

Below are some additional examples of a fast attack setting in use.  Whilst these examples are subtler than the first two clips, by listening to the transients and comparing the uncompressed with the compressed versions, you can hear how a fast attack can be used to achieve anything from taking the edge off a sound (as is the case with the bass in Clip 6) to noticeably pushing a sound further back in a mix.

Clip 3 – Snare (No Compression)

Clip 4 – Snare (SSL Channel Fast Attack Compression)

Clip 5 – Bass (No Compression)

Clip 6 – Bass (SSL Channel Fast Attack Compression)

At this stage we’re not making a value judgement as to whether the compressed or uncompressed clips sound better – we’ll touch on that in the next part!  We’re simply training our ears to hear what a fast attack setting on a compressor can do to a sound.

Build Your Own Compressor

In Part 2 of this article we’ll look at creative reasons and ways to use a compressor’s attack control in the context of a mix, but for now I have a little challenge for you!

Imagine you have been commissioned to build your own compressor.  Rather than label the attack control ‘Attack’ as many compressors do, you decide to come up with your own term for ‘Attack’ based on what you perceive the attack control actually does to sound.  What will you call it?  The ‘Presence’ control?  Or ‘Forward’ knob?  Or maybe something else entirely?  What will you call it?

Until next time I’d love to hear your thoughts, comments and discoveries in the comments section below!

[NB: Audio clips are from the ‘Where It All Comes From’ mix session available exclusively for Mixcoach Pro Members at  MixCoach Member!]

Demagnetizing The Mix (Part 2)

In Part One of Demagnetizing The Mix we noted that most mixes begin ‘stuck’ inside an imaginary box between the speakers. We described this phenomenon as the ‘Magnetized Mix’.  One of the first tasks of an engineer is to take concrete steps to ‘demagnetize’ the mix, or ‘unpack the box’, so it can have a dimension, clarity, and warmth appropriate for the emotion of the song.

Demagnetizing the mix

Demagnetizing the mix unglues and separates each instrument from every other instrument in the mix, creating the sense of openness, groove and vibe essential to a great mix. Failure to do this at the beginning of a mix will result in a mix that will never sound big and open no matter what you do to it.


Three Strategies For Demagnetization

When in comes to demagnetizing a mix the first three weapons in your arsenal are the following:

  1. Faders and Panpots
  2. Phase Coherence
  3. Subtractive EQ & Filtering

Now while this may come as no revelation to many the secret to demagnetizing a mix is found in the following:

  1. The order in which these steps are applied
  2. Knowing exactly what to listen for as you make adjustments
  3. Understanding that small and seemingly insignificant adjustments at this stage yield big results later in the mix
  4. A/Bing your ‘demagnetized’ mix with your ‘magnetized’ mix to compare, appreciate and build on the results

Bearing these points in mind as you begin any mix will pay huge dividends when you get to applying compression, additive EQ and FX processing to further solidify and ‘inflate’ your mix.

All You Need To Know About Creating An Initial Mix Balance Inside the Imaginary Box

Before reaching for a fader it is important to understand that generally speaking:

  • Faders move sounds front to back ‘inside the imaginary box’
  • Panpots move sounds left to right ‘inside the imaginary box’

Because of this the majority of your initial fader and panning decisions will still only move your sound around ‘inside the imaginary box’.  This is in reality a good thing as you will want some instruments to stay inside the box (i.e. parts of the snare, kick and vocals) otherwise there would be a big whole in your mix!

However while initial fader and panpot settings may not appear to do much to demagnetize your mix at first, this couldn’t be further from the truth!  Whilst seemingly insignificant, the initial separation achieved with faders and panpots will be magnified later with phase coherence, subtractive EQ, filtering and eventually compression and FX processing.

The results of effective fader and panning levels will be subtle, but absolutely critical for the success of your mix!

Your Personal Guide To Setting Levels

To help in your quest to demagnetize your mix we’ve put together a free download called The Mixcoach Guide To Setting Levels.  It should get you well on your way to demagnetizing any mix!

In the final two parts of this article series we will look at the powerful role phase plays in demagnetizing a mix, as well as how the deliberate use of subtractive EQ and filtering completes the demagnetization process.  In fact after phase has been checked and subtractive EQ and filtering have been applied to the initial separation and openness achieved with faders and panning, your mix will for all intents and purposes be ‘demagnetized’!

Next Week, we’ll discuss more ways to mix inside the imaginary box.

demagnetizing the mix, demagnetizing, imaginary box

Demagnetizing The Mix (Part 1)

Most mixes begin life ‘inside-the-box’.  By this I don’t mean ‘inside a computer’.  No.  In this instance I mean something completely different.  Most mixes begin life inside an imaginary box in between your speakers, and when a mix gets stuck inside this box you have a ‘magnetized mix’.  This imaginary box has a limited frequency range (usually around 200Hz – 5k), very little depth, and when instruments get stuck inside it they are difficult to pan effectively.    demagnetizing the mix, demagnetizing, box

The Invisible Force

Unfortunately most mixes begin in this box.  Just pull the faders up on any session you are about to begin mixing and you will hear what I mean.  It is almost as if there is an invisible magnet pulling, holding and forcing every instrument in the mix into this imaginary box.

demagnetizing the mix, demagnetizing, box

Try It For Yourself

The best way to understand the concept of a ‘magnetized mix’ is to experience it for yourself.  So if you have a few spare moments here’s a little experiment for you to try.

  1. Listen to an unmixed multi-track mix session with all plugins bypassed and faders at zero (unity).  Notice that the entire mix seems to be coming from ‘inside-the-box’.  This ‘unmixed’ mix is almost guaranteed to sound muddled, overcrowded and dimensionless, with every instrument fighting to be heard.
  2. Now listen to a commercially released reference mix by one of your mixing heroes in the genre of the unmixed session you just opened.  Notice how every instrument exists in its own space and how the mix seems to have clarity, power, presence, punch,  depth, width and height.
  3. A/B the unmixed session with the reference track and try and hear ‘the box’.

Now unless you were comparing your unmixed session with a mono recording(!) you probably noticed that the reference mix had a width, height and depth that the unmixed session lacked.  In other words it was not stuck ‘inside-the-box’ like the unmixed session.

Life Inside The Box

So what is it that causes the instruments in a mix to get stuck ‘inside-the-box’?  Put simply, a mix gets stuck inside-the-box when each element in the mix, i.e. vocals, bass, drums, etc., lacks separation from other elements.  When this happens the instruments blend together in a way that robs each instrument of its unique contribution to the mix.

Lack of separation between instruments also produces another interesting effect – instruments gravitate to the area of the frequency spectrum where they have the greatest concentration of natural energy, which for most instruments is between 200Hz to 5kHz.  200Hz to 5kHz also happens to roughly be the part of the frequency range we most perceive as coming directly out of our speakers – hence the reason we perceive an imaginary box in between our speakers!

Unpacking The Box

If our mixes are to stand any chance at living a full 3D life out in the big wide world one of our first tasks with any mix will be to ‘demagnetize’ it and unpack the imaginary box (that is of course presuming you want to create a mix with clarity, punch, depth, width, height and dynamics!).

This means we must find a way to allow instruments with:

  • low frequency information, i.e. bass and kick, to drop below the box and speakers
  • mid frequency information to occupy the area covered by the box and between the speakers
  • high frequency information to rise above the box and speakers, adding heightdemagnetizing the mix, demagnetizing, box

When we do this effectively the pan knob is also freed up to extend the width of a mix in a way it is unable to when sounds are stuck inside of the box.

So.  How exactly do you go about the process of demagnetizing a mix?

Check out Demagnetizing The Mix (Part 2) to find out more!

What Makes A Great Mix?

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to complete my first mix evaluations for the incredible team of engineers over at MixCoach Member.

For those of you unfamiliar with what this is every month MixCoach Member subscribers are given a new song to mix, along with tutorials on how to approach and mix it.

At the end of the month everyone is encouraged to submit their mix for evaluation by the community leaders.

Firstly, I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Not only was it really cool listening to and learning from quality mixes of the same song, but the process of evaluating these mixes got me thinking about mixes in a whole new way.

For example, when evaluating a mix what exactly should you listen for? What makes one mix sound great and another sound mediocre? What is the difference between the mixes of experienced engineers and those of guys just starting out?

So before beginning my evaluations I grabbed a sheet of paper and made a list of words that described what each stage of the mixing process (i.e. setting levels, panning, phase coherence, compression, EQ, etc) contributed to the final mix.

Faders Are For More Than ‘Balance’

For instance take the process of setting initial fader levels. This step doesn’t seem that important when stacked up against more interesting tasks like creative compression and adding dimension with delays and reverbs, but it is crucial to achieving a great mix.

You see, setting and adjusting fader levels is not just about ‘balance’, it is also about deciding the focus of a mix and which elements will play a more supporting role. The relatively simple task of setting fader levels therefore contributes to three crucial elements of a great mix – Balance, Focus and Contrast.

The Qualities of a Great Mix After my ‘brainstorming’ session was over I had the following list of qualities that are common to most great sounding mixes.

  • Contrast (Sameness & Difference) – Density – Clarity – Focus – Solidity – Localized Imaging
  • Depth – Distance – Dimension – Width – Height – Movement – Tone
  • Momentum – Energy – Emotion – Contour (Emotional journey) – Punch
  • Dynamics – Balance (and imbalance!)
  • Warmth – Presence

The Wisdom of Charlie Brown

Once completed it occurred to me that this list could actually be useful as a list of goals or objectives when crafting a mix. It kind of reminds me of a story about Charlie Brown.

Charlie Brown was practicing archery in his backyard and instead of aiming at a target, he shot an arrow at his fence, walked over and drew a target around it. When Lucy asked why he was doing it, Charlie remarked: ‘This way I never miss!’

Sometimes mixing can be a lot like this….turning knobs until we stumble on something we think sounds good and then saying ‘That’s what I was aiming for!’

The truth is it is better to have some idea of what we are trying to achieve before reaching for any plugin, otherwise we may not produce a mix that best serves the emotion and intent of the song.

A Little Challenge

So I have a little challenge for you. The next time you reach for a fader or compressor or EQ ask yourself this, ‘What am I trying to achieve with this compressor, EQ, reverb, etc.?Density? Presence? Warmth? Depth? Balance? Something else?

By keep these attributes in mind you’ll stop yourself twisting knobs just because they are there for twisting. Instead you’ll be crafting a great mix on purpose.

What other attributes do you think best describe a great mix? How do you go about building these attributes into your mix?

Logic X Has Landed!

For those of you who have waited with baited breath for Apple to release Logic X, you can now breath a sigh of release!  Today Apple released Logic X for $199 (available from the Mac App store).

Logic X includes:

  • New clean interface design (think Final Cut Pro X)
  • New ‘Track Stacks’ feature, allowing users to group and route similar tracks (i.e. drums, vocals, etc.)
  • Smart controls making it easier to edit common parameters
  • All new ‘Drummer’ Instrument
  • Flex Pitch
  • New guitar, bass and MIDI plug-ins
  • FREE Logic remote for iPad (this is seriously cool)
Whilst a definite step forward in terms of design and new features the new Logic X has a few minor draw backs that might keep some from enjoying the party, including:
  • No support for 32-bit plugins
  • A minimum of OS X 10.8.4
  • No upgrade path for previous owners

For more information check out Apple’s website here:

Let us know what you think of Logic X!

Apple, Logic X

Vintage Compressors vs. Stock Compressors . . . What’s the difference?

Compressors, Vintage, Stock

Having never had the opportunity to work my way up from teaboy to head engineer at a world famous recording studio, the closest I’ve come to being in a room filled with vintage analog compressors is the Universal Audio Plugin Store!!!

That said the sheer number and quality of vintage analog compressors available as plugin emulations put some of the most revered compressors right at our fingertips. In fact with so much choice it’s now possible to get a great idea of what these beauties bring to the mix process without the need for a big-budget recording studio or degree in tea/coffee making!

But why would anyone want to reach for vintage compressor emulation plugins over the stock DAW compressor plugins? What exactly are all of these vintage compressors famous for and what do they bring to the table when mixing a record?

Sonic Character.  The first thing to point out is that vintage compressor plugin emulations promise to give you one thing above all else – TONE.  Lovely, guey, analog tone to cure all manner of digital ills!  This is achieved not only through emulating the way the compressor compresses audio, but also through emulating harmonic distortion, transformer and tube warmth, as well as other non-linear artefacts.

Compression Character.  Another feature of vintage analog compressors is that they often compress audio in different ways depending on their circuitry.  So, for example, the characteristics of a FET compressor are different from those of a VCA, Optical, Tube or Transformer based compressor.  And it is the unique way each of these compressor behaves that makes it more suited to certain tasks (more on that in a moment!).

Location On the Stage.  Another interesting reason for reaching for one vintage compressor plugin over another is that they are useful in helping lock instruments into certain frequency ranges. For example the bluestripe 1176 compressor is known for adding mid-range presence to sources, whereas the blackface 1176 compressor adds density and warmth to the low-mids.  So you might reach for a bluestripe 1176 for vocals, while assigning a blackface 1176 to the bass guitar.

Understanding the unique sonic and tonal characteristics of these compressors is useful as it allows you to match the compressor most suited to the compression task at hand – and for better reasons than you simply like the way it looks!

So now…what exactly are some of the more common vintage compressor types and how might you use them in a mix context?

FET Compressors (the 1176 Compressor)

Qualities:  Reacts very quickly to audio. Fast attack and release times.  Can be very clean sounding or aggressive when pushed around bit!

Great For:  Vocals, guitars and drums.


Optical Compressors (LA-2A, LA-3A)

Qualities:  Responds slowly to audio, allowing transients to creep through.  Slower than the 1176.  Can have a glassy and ‘polished’ sound.

Great for:  Vocals and instruments with soft transients, but also acoustic guitars.  (The LA-3A is also known to be great with electric guitars.)


Tube Compressors (Fairchild, Manley Vari-Mu)

Qualities:  Adds warmth in the low and low-mid frequency ranges.  Also known to add high frequency fizzle.  Can therefore add body, depth and presence to a part.

Great for:  Vocals, mixbus compression


Transformer based Compressors (Never 33609 and PYE)

Qualities:  Great at adding low-mid frequency warmth and density to a sound.

Great for:   Adding warmth to instruments or a mix that needs it.


VCA Compressors (dbx 160, API 2500, SSL Channel, SSL Stereo Compressor)

Qualities:  Can be very aggressive when pushed.  Edgy.  Also pumps and breathes really well.

Great for:  General purpose use but also drum bus and mixbus compression duties.


So the next time you reach for a vintage compressor emulation to help massage a mix into shape, think about the sound you are trying to achieve and then make your selection.

How do you use vintage compressors?

Compressors, Vintage, Stock

Mixbus Meets Pro Tools

Do you love the sound of Mixbus but find Pro Tools essential to your workflow?  Well don’t worry.  Now you can have the best of both worlds!

The guys over at Mixbus have posted a video showing you how to route your Pro Tools session into Mixbus for that extra analog flavor!

Check out the video here.


Levels Demystified – 10 Tips For Setting Levels (Part 6)

Well my friends we are nearly at the end of our time together.  I hope the fog has begun to lift and the whole topic of setting levels is a little clearer.  But before we go I thought I’d offer up some suggestions for setting levels in real life situations.

Now remember these are only suggestions.  You are the master of your ship and are free to do whatever you like!  But if you consider the following guidelines you may find it easier to get the most out of your equipment, plugins and sessions.

So here goes.

  1. Gain stage everything – your recording sessions, mix sessions, laundry sessions and shopping trips!
  2. When recording into a DAW set your levels so they are hitting around -18dBFS (RMS).  Your mix engineer will thank you for it!
  3. Remember the -18dBFS Magic Number applies to average levels (RMS) and not peak levels.
  4. Use a ‘Peak & RMS Meter’ plugin to gain stage instead of your built-in DAW meter.  I use the meter bridge in iZotope’s Ozone 5 but there are plenty of other options.  Most DAWs also ship with additional metering plugins.
  5. BEFORE you begin mixing your recorded masterpiece set all your levels to around -18dBFS (RMS) with an input trim or gain plugin.  This will mean your signal is correctly gain staged to hit the first plugin in its sweet spot range.
  6. When in doubt check your plugin’s manual to find your plugin’s sweet spot.  Most manufacturers tell you exactly what it is.  They want your music to sound good too!
  7. If using more than one plugin on a track gain-stage each one.  In other words use a trim plugin or the plugin’s input to hit the plugin at its sweet spot.  Then adjust the output or makeup gain of the plugin so the outgoing audio hits the next plugin at its sweet spot.
  8. Do not use your ITB faders to gain stage for plugins as most ITB faders are POST plugin.  This means that lowering the fader lowers the volume but does not lower the level going into the plugin.
  9. If you have gain-staged everything correctly and still want to hear everything louder…turn up your speakers!!!!  This way you wont back yourself into a headroom corner.
  10. Once you know all the rules feel free to break them!  Afterall it is YOUR record and/or mix!

Wrap Up

So there you have it.  Gain stage just about everything at approximately -18dBFS (RMS) unless your plugin’s manual tells you otherwise and the world will be a better place!

Now…fire up your DAW and make some sweet music!!!!


If this little series of posts has wet your appetite for more I have good news for you.  This is just the beginning!

Join me for ‘Loudness Demystified’ where we apply everything learned so far to the beautiful art of mixing.  Plus we analyze the finished mix stems of artists such as Coldplay, Adele, Bruno Mars, Rihanna, and Maroon 5, to see the exact levels used by world renowned engineers to craft award winning mixes.

Now you wouldn’t want to miss that would you!?!

For a FULL Course on Gain staging, Click Here