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!!!!

PS

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

11 comments

  1. So, by ‘hitting around -18dBFS (RMS)’ do you mean the average should hit in this area, or should it never go above -18dBFS? I’m checking levels, its jumping from -22dBFS, then to -18dBFS, then up to -13dBFS, constantly moving just like peak metering. Which is correct?

  2. Hey Chris. You have it right, the average level should hit around -18dBFS RMS. This number is just a guide but if the average level dances around -18dBFS RMS pat yourself on the back…you’re doing a great job!

    The key thing to remember, as you correctly pointed out, is that -18dBFS is the target for the ‘average’ level (or RMS) and not the Peak. So if your average levels are coming in at around -18dBFS RMS your peak levels will most likely be higher, usually around the -12 to -8 dBFS Peak range. Don’t forget most DAW’s meters only show peak levels so you may need to reach for a Peak & RMS meter to get an accurate RMS reading if you haven’t already.

    As an aside because of the quality of most of today’s convertors you can actually record at a lower level than -18dBFS RMS and still not run into any problems with the noise floor when you turn your signal up later for mix processing.

    Hope this helps!

  3. When I gain my snare track (for example) to -18dbfs RMS then it’s clipping! Peaks are above +6db… And what will happend in Master Bus when when all tracks will gain to -18dbfs RMS ??.. As I know it used to be -6dbfs Peaks (not RMS) at the highest level of incoming signal with target level around -12dbfs Peak. Usually.

  4. Hey Anton. Have you solved this yet?

    If your snare is hitting around -18dBFs RMS that should leave plenty of headroom to avoid clipping. You could always turn in down further, but -18dBFs RMS is a very conservative recording level. I would love to get a little more info on your setup if possible, mainly what meter’s you are using, and maybe we can figure this out together.

    Let me know when you get a chance. Thanks!

    Stone

  5. Stone. I am trying to implement this into my recordings and was wondering which meter to base off in Cubase 7. Right now I’m using the mixing consoles Digital Scale -18dbfs. On the bottom there is a RMS Max and a Peak Max. If I get the RMS Max to continue to read -18dbfs with Peak Max varying is that the right idea? Is there any scale this works best for recording? EBU, DIN, British, Nordic,K20,K14,K12 or AES17. Or should I being using their loundness meter and watching the integrated LUFS?
    Thanks.

  6. Hey Anthony. I’m unfamiliar with the precise details of Cubase’s metering as I work mostly with Pro Tools and Logic. However you seem to have figured it out!
    If you are getting a reading of around -18dBFS RMS your peak reading will definitely vary depending on what you are recording/mixing. For example a snare drum would most likely have a much higher peak reading than say a string part. Your peaks will also have a higher reading than your RMS levels (and by that I mean your Peaks will be closer to odBFS than your RMS readings.)
    The main thing to remember is that a reading of around -18dBFS RMS is a healthy signal and should leave you with plenty of headroom to avoid clipping as well as get the most out of your plugins.
    As you experiment with this it becomes easy to figure out exactly what a healthy signal looks like on your DAW’s meters. For example in Pro Tools I know that as long as my peaks are hitting around -12dBFS to -10dBFS, my RMS level will usually be OK. It can be a process of trial and error but one that doesn’t take long to master.
    When it comes to the various scales that you mentioned I’ve found that RMS/Peak metering is more than sufficient for the majority of recording tasks. However when it comes to mixing I often reference K-Metering (K-14) and LUFS readings in addition to Peak/RMS readings so I can also measure the ‘perceived’ loudness of the parts I am mixing.
    I’m currently putting together a series of articles on loudness and how to set levels when mixing, which I hope will shed more light on this is greater depth.
    I hope this helps and please comment here if you would like to discuss this further.
    Stone

  7. Stone. Thanks for the feed back I look forward to your new articles. I downloaded the Sonalksis Free G and the Voxengo Span and was wondering if you knew anything about them. They both appear to be nice looking Peak & RMS meters for gain structure but don’t read identical to each other which is why I’m having trust issues. I want to use a plug in for recording so I can see the channels individual RMS levels. Then I plan on using Cubase meter with K-14 scale for mixing. I know you mentioned you use the iZotopes meter but was wondering if you knew of any others that were trust worthy. Also on another note I use UA Plug-ins and was wondering if the sweet spots were -12 & -18 dbfs Peak or RMS. For instance the Studer and Ampex manuals just say -12dbfs and don’t mention if that means Peak or RMS. Lastly if I go from a compressor, EQ, or other plug-in that has a sweet spot of -18 to a Studer which is -12 (or vice-versa). Are you saying to use a gain plug-in or turn the output of the previous plug-in up or down 6 db to hit the sweet spot or am I misunderstood?
    Thanks.

  8. Hey Anthony! I have used Free G before and have heard of Voxengo Span but haven’t used either plugin enough to offer a valid opinion. From what I remember Free G is a solid little plugin and ‘free’ is always good! On the ‘free’ front I used to use the TT Dynamic Range Meter plugin exclusively and only stopped once I switched to iZotope’s Ozone and Insight. It is also free and you can find RTAS, AU and VST versions of it here:

    http://www.gearslutz.com/board/music-computers/635979-tt-dynamic-range-meter.html

    I have also come across the same problem you encountered with different meters being calibrated different. Whilst I’m sure there is some good explanation for this I have no idea what it is! However the great thing about -18dBFS is that it is a ballpark setting. So if your RMS levels are a little above or below because your meters aren’t giving you the exact same readings you should still be fine. That is of course unless your meter readings are way off from each other.

    On another note I too have read through the UAD manuals to get clarification on whether their levels are RMS or Peak. If you haven’t done this already the best thing to do would be feed one of their plugins, i.e. the Studer, a level of -18 dBFS RMS and see what it does to the VU meters in the plugin. Adjust the level going into the plugin from there until you are hitting around 0VU. This is what I did to get used to their LA-2A compressors which are also -12dBFS (if I remember correctly.) Once you are comfortable with this approach, forget everything you’ve learned and trust your ears! I know this probably sounds like contradictory advice but the -18dBFS RMS number is just there as a guide to keep you out of trouble. Once gain staging becomes second nature trust your instincts and ears.

    As to your last point you’re right on the money again! Use the output of each plugin to set your level so you hit the next plugin in your chain at its sweet spot, be that -18 or -12dBFS or whatever the plugin’s manual says.

    I know the whole issue of gain staging can seem a little boring, mechanical and tedious at first, but it is something all great engineers do instinctively and is much like riding a bike – once you’ve got it, it stays with you for life!

    So keep up the good work and let me know if there is anything I can do to help!

    Stone

  9. What if you I have additional so-called return tracks (Ableton Live) – which I bet are implemented in every other DAW – and which I route my tracks through?
    Say, I double track guitars, have a separate track for the left guitar no. 1, separate for the right guitar track no. 1 and both are routed to a return track guitar no. 1. Where should I be measuring the RMS, on the left and right tracks or on the return track?

  10. Hey Peter! The short answer is…it depends! If you simply want to check that each guitar track is around -18dBFS before then I would measure each track separately. Of course there are a couple of ways to do this: 1) by sticking a metering plugin on the guitar track itself, or 2) metering the guitar return track (by soloing the track you want to measure. ) Personally I prefer to place my metering plugin on my ‘group track’ and then solo each track to check levels. This saves having to put plugin meters on every track. Don’t forget that the -18dBFS RMS reference is there simply to check that your signal is gain-staged correctly before it is feed through any plugins. I mention this because if you send 2 or more guitars to a group track, the combined level will most likely be more than -18dBFS RMS. This is usually OK.
    I mentioned in an earlier comment that I’m currently putting together a series of articles on loudness and how to set levels when mixing which I hope will shed more light on this topic.
    I hope this helps!
    Stone

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