“What Volume Should I Have On The Master/ Stereo Out, When The Mix Is Ready?”

"What Volume Should I Have On The Master/ Stereo Out, When The Mix Is Ready?" - Featured Image

What volume should I have on the Master/ Stereo Out, when the mix is ready?”


Keep RMS around -10-12dB, ceiling -1dB and you are done:)

To make use of this short statement in practice we need to clarify some things like the difference between gain, volume, level and loudness and also some other questions need answering.

  1. Ready for mastering? (proper balance, enough headroom, proper dynamic range)
  2. Ready for burning onto CD ? (good balance, no clipping, mastered, dynamic range i.e. loudness fitting the genre…)
  3. Ready for converting ? (to other formats like MP3..)
  1. Ready for broadcasting on TV, Radio….?
  2. Ready to publish on media like Soundcloud, Spotify, iTunes….?

Answering 1, 2, 3, I am familiar with:)

Answering  the 4th I have lack of knowledge regarding nowadays standards

Answering the 5th I am at a loss since I have found a bluegrass song (we have had the honor to mix in

fig. 1
(Fig. 1)

Mixcoach, too) that had 0, I mean ZERO,  dynamic range on iTunes and was a horror to hear:(

Downloaded wave looked like this… (see Fig. 1)


 

Since I am mixing in order to get enjoyable music at the end, I would prefer not to dig in the nowadays “even loudness” issue  of iTunes, Spotify and the like:(

GAIN:

It is an input signal level. The strength of which a signal hits the channel, a bus, a plugin, the master channel inputs. It can be set by the input gain  (if any) on the channel strip, by the input knob of a plugin (if it has) or by an inserted gain plugin.

Important to know that the fader on a channel has nothing to do with the input gain on this channel!

VOLUME: 

It is the level or strength of a song/signal/track at which we are listening to it. Can be low volume at home dancing with your sweetheart beside the fireplace:) or extremely high volume at a death-metal concert after which you keep restarting your car engine because you cannot hear it is already running):

Faders take care of the output signal strength of the channel. The master fader also changes the volume at which you listen to. In mixing and mastering practice the master fader should be left alone at its default 0 position.

Want to change the volume of the output? Use the volume knob controlling your monitor and not the master fader.

LEVEL:

Generally refers to the strength of a signal, or some quality. To say “listen to a mix at low level” is not correct, “listen to at low/high volume level” is more correct.

LOUDNESS (also LOUD):

Since the loudness war, I dare not say “loud” as we used to tell when the volume of the music was high because loudness nowadays refers rather to the dynamic range or the RMS level (average amplitude value) of the mix.

It can be set or tweaked by compressors and limiters on the master.

To cover all the important things that take part in setting a proper output signal on the master the metering devices, plugins must not be forgotten.

They Can Serve Practically Two Goals:


Fig. 2
(Fig. 2)

Analogue or analogue emulation VU meter (See Fig.2)

  • Shows the output of your signal which is going to your monitoring system (coming out of your soundcard and going into an amplifier or active monitors)

For me, if it is hitting 0VU or sometimes jumping to +1-3 dB (like in the traditional tape recorders), I know my song or anything I listen to from any audio device connected to my monitoring system (CD, tape synth, internet, LP), sounds great.

Plugin inserted to show the signal strength in the master final out

Here the VUMT needles show the volume value OK, the leds are yellow so peaks are under 0dB. 

(Fig. 3)
(Fig. 3)

When you see this on the master channel output you may think the signal is not clipping and you are right. (See Fig. 3)

Needles can jump even into the red scale but LED’s remain yellow, so the digital peaks not clipping.

  • My VU reference level is set at -10 dB (down right corner).
  • VU meters show some average level of the volume we hear. Volume Unit (VU).
  • VU is not RMS, rather some similar perceived average of the signal our ears detect.

Good to remember that VUMT needles show VU levels not peaks, thus in your DAW it may happen that LED’s show the peaks clipping (LED’s red, needle also high in red) even if the signal stays below 0 ensured by a limiter. 

(Fig. 4)
(Fig. 4)

It is great because calls your attention to the fact that the VU level is near the peaks so the song is

very loud, the dynamic range (DR) is little

(See fig. 4)


Digging deeper into practicing with limiter parameters Threshold and Ceiling you will find that this mix can be “cured” by dragging the ceiling lower to-3-5 dB and then, and only then, the limiter will take care of the peaks and get them back under zero, so VUMT will show you a wonderful picture like in fig. 3: needle under O, leds yellow, we are happy….. BUT if you listen to or look 

(Fig. 5)
(Fig. 5)

at the TT DR meter it will show an over compressed garbage of DR4-5 What a horror 🙁

But how to understand this below? (See Fig. 5)


Needles at -4-5dB show values below zero, much less than above, so the VU level is low, but the red leds show the digital peaks are clipping!

The peaks far exceed the VU level, DR is higher but since the peaks are clipping the mix is useless.

In this case there is no brickwall limiter taking care of the peaks on the master, or it is bypassed.

If you engage the limiter here in normal settings (threshold -1 ceiling -0.3) you will get a wonderfully sounding song of fine DR. (around 10dB dynamic range)

The conclusion is that VUMT tells a lot more from practical point of view than we might think at the first sight. VUMT is more than “just another” VU meter:)

You may see now that only some values given on blogs and posts on the net are useless (even if correct) without a deeper understanding what information they can really cover and by what means they were obtained.

If you begin feeling “Brrr I think I had better choose cliff hanging rather than mixing”): sparing time for experimenting with the plugins is the key:)

This VU thing recalled an old joke about the professor explaining some science to the students at the university.

He is explaining and puts the question “Do you understand it?”. The students answer “No”.

The professor tells it again and asks “Do you understand it?”. The students answer “No we don’t”.

The professor explains it in another way and another way and again and again and the students still keep answering “We don’t understand at all”

The professor is getting out of rage and cries out “How is it that you cannot understand? Even I have understood it by now!”

In order not to fall into the trap of a “wonderful” VU like fig.3, nevertheless, mix sounding horrorful dilemma, I use this TT DR meter to check whether the loudness (dynamic range) of the mix is OK. 

(Fig. 7)
(Fig. 7)
(Fig. 6)
(Fig. 6)

TT Dynamic Range Meter Free (See Fig. 6)

(or Brainworx -bx_meter, not free, Just Click Here To Check It Out!)

If it stays yellow, sometimes orange but never or just rarely red you are having a great loudness level and the song will be a pleasure to listen to.


Finally, I always check the Dynamic Range of my finished and mastered mixes by this “standalone” DR meter . (fig.7)

Now measuring 11 dB I am happy with this jazz song I mixed.

After having clarified the main terms and got more familiar with the gears that help me let’s jump to the first question:


1. What gain and loudness level settings I think fit for mastering:

Since I am mastering on the go I have rarely checked the output of my master channel without my mastering plugins or using them bypassed.

Now I did and checked different songs to get a trustable average level to give the guys who master separately from the mixing stage or have their mixes mastered by a mastering engineer.

There are a lot posts on the net suggesting different numbers, headroom etc. Here I can give the values I always use and years of feedbacks have proved they cannot be wrong:)

My mix, as sum of all the tracks, arrives at the master input at 1.5-2 dB, rarely -3 but never more headroom. This mostly around -1.5-2dB seems a lot smaller than generally suggested, and seemingly “little” is left for my mastering plugins to take care of.

This rather small value -1.5 is due to the fact that I am mastering on the go, listening to my master output through my mastering chain, this way a part of “mastering” has been performed in all the channel strips while mixing. Listening through the final mastering plugins make me do different tweaks while mixing than without.

Remember this bold type sentence above when you are reading later in the next CD section that you might get different balances in the same mix depending on the mastering method. This “… makes me do different tweaks….”  is also a proof of it, just explaining it from backwards.

Thinking it over for the guys who master after mixing or send their mix to be mastered I suggest an average of -3 dB headroom to leave. Keeping it in mind that the bigger headroom you leave the more different masters you may get compared to your original mix balance.

Leaving less than -3 dB headroom can be good if you have taken professional care of your dynamic range while mixing. The mastering will give less changes in the balance. In both cases I supposed that no ovecompression was applied because if so, no mastering guy on earth even no aliens can take it out of your mix.

2. What gain and loudness level settings I think fit for CD:

The short answer is the same as I started with: Keep the RMS between -10-12 dB, Ceiling -1dB. Check it at the loudest section of the mix.   

The long answer:

In fig. 8 there is an example of a mastered mix DR12, RMS 12. Sounds pleasant.

The ceiling was set at -1 dB shown as “peak” at the top of the meter.

RMS  is the green bar but can be seen in numbers at the bottom of the plugin, also shows -12dB.

In fig. 9 a harder mastered song is shown. In spite of the fact that it was a commercial release mastered by a “professional” studio, the meter shows (at top) peak “over” means the mastering guy forgot to set the ceiling. No comment. 

The DR is 8dB, also the RMS is near around as you can read in the picture. (L= 7.9dB R= -8.1dB)


(Fig. 8)
(Fig. 8)
(Fig. 9)
(Fig. 9)

In pop, rock, country styles generally I aim at dynamic range DR 9. If dance DR8, if jazz or bluegrass and the like my goal is -10-12dB. (as rule of thumb I consider DR in TT meter similar to RMS)

Guys who skipped reading the introduction section may ask: “Why begin always with the dynamic range?

I can take care of it at the end by my mastering limiter.”

Only partly true!

A mastering limiter is doing its job from the material it receives on its input. Either if sending to a mastering engineer or mastering it on the go.

Therefore, DR level is the goal of the mixing to set and not that of the mastering process. Hmmm? Why?

– Yes it is, because even if the audio is having a headroom say -3-6 dB but was compressed to death by mixing, the mastering can never repair the dynamic range. The mix remains too loud for ever.

– Yes it is, because if the dynamic range is too high e.g. 15-16 dB as the master input the mastering limiter can make it louder, shrink it and result in even DR8, but the balance of the mix will also change. Different limiters and different settings and the different algorithms inside the plugin will result in different balances. One increases the lows the other the highs or treats the peaks and RMS differently.

If you do mastering yourself but separately, after mixing, you might feel an urge after applying a hard working limiter on the master to go back to the faders in order to hear the original balance you had been after. So why jump to and fro between the limiter and the faders. Better to take care of the DR (or RMS) in the mix. 1-2 db more than your goal is OK but even more or less I strongly suggest to avoid.

I have done experiments and the same song with a certain balance mixed loud and mixed of high dynamics to be mastered never sounded the same as the one I mixed to the desired DR that had the balance I wanted to hear.

To the mastered mix output on the master, for exporting, I apply the following settings:

My limiter ceiling -0.3 dB. DR 9-10 dB. Never clips, sounds great on CD players. 

Mostly opinions suggest  ceiling -1dB, DR rarely mentioned.

Why I use less than -1 dB ceiling is my personal decision. I would loose almost 1dB (0.7) dynamic range that I do not want to. I give my explanation in the following but do not take it as my recommendation, better keep the -1dB.

The other reason is connected to the next question the converting options.

3. What output on the master is ready for converting (to other formats like MP3, OGG, WMA, FLAC..)

General advice is to have this -1 dB ceiling not to get distortion in course of converting, compressing, encoding the wave file to MP3, OGG, FLAC etc….

Based on my experience it is not a question of the encoding itself, not the bad feature of MP3 format as often thought but the poor quality is due to the encoding algorithm and converting device. There are hundreds of converter softwares that cannot do their job well and more ceiling is needed to get something usable sound after converting.

For converting I use my old DAW Mixcraft (version 5, 6, 7 all alike in that regard) and its converting engine is fast and great. (Encoder L.A.M.E) No harm done to the original wave curve even if the wave file ceiling I set -0.2-0.3 dB.

This -0.2-0.3 ceiling takes care of the intersample clips as well and also enough for my MP3 conversion.

I checked the wave lines got by extreme low different settings and no chopping of the peaks or the top of the sine waves like to top of a soft boiled egg:)

In this way I can save a plus 0.7 dB DR compared to the -1dB ceiling option, and it is fine because I love to listen to dynamic songs:) And I give my client the MP3 as well.

I must tell that I do not recommend you to give a client a low ceiling wave because he or she might convert it somehow the result can be no good. This -1dB ceiling is a sure safety reason most pro studios suggest  so use -1dB ceiling and you can sleep calm and relaxed:)

DR is a double-edged sword. DR -9-11 sounds fine and pleasant to listen, but the market demand is also something to consider and may want it louder. I do not agree, but different people, situations, demands, clients need to make different decisions. You must balance the for and against things and make yours.


Hope it helps.

Best wishes,

Tassy   

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