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Fader Level vs. Volume Envelope Confusion and Gain Staging

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dpaterson
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Fader Level vs. Volume Envelope Confusion and Gain Staging

Postby dpaterson » Fri May 11, 2018 4:28 am

Hi.

I've been spending some time fathoming out gain staging. I'm a bit confused though. I load a VU meter plugin (more on this below) and then load an audio track (for example). The fader level for the track does not seem to affect the actual input going into the VU meter plugin. It only appears to affect the volume of the track as I monitor it while previewing the audio. The only way to drop the volume of the track to acceptable levels as being indicated by the VU meter plugin is to reduce the volume of the track by applying a volume envelope. Is this correct operation or am I doing something wrong??? In other words: I can slide the fader level all the way to the left (no audible audio) but the VU meter plugin is unaffected. Is this correct operation or am I doing something wrong???

With regard to VU meters for this purpose: don't waste your money purchasing one of the best punted VU meters around (Waves!!! No refunds!!!). There's a free meter that's WAY superior and it can be found here: https://www.tb-software.com/TBProAudio/mvmeter2.html.

By the way and if anybody is interested then this thread is what got me started on this: http://cgi.ikmultimedia.com/ikforum/viewtopic.php?f=13&t=13408.

Regards,

Dale.
Last edited by dpaterson on Mon May 14, 2018 12:18 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Mark Bliss
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Re: Fader Level vs. Volume Envelope Confusion

Postby Mark Bliss » Fri May 11, 2018 9:45 am

If you are putting your meter on the track, the inserts are pre fader, so the meter isn't telling you what the track output is.
Put your meter on the master or a submix that the track is routed to, and solo the track, then you are measuring the track post fader, if that's what you are trying to do........
If on the other hand, you desire to measure the tracks input level, the meter placed first in the chain of the track would give you that data.
And I agree on the Waves VU plug in. They gave it to me free and I tested it and dumped it. I like many of their plugs, but this one is a fail. 8)
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Re: Fader Level vs. Volume Envelope Confusion

Postby dpaterson » Fri May 11, 2018 10:07 am

Hi Mark.

Thanks so very much for the clear and concise explanation and the info. All understood clearly.

Now: when gain staging should one be adjusting all levels along the chain e.g. track input (pre-fader), track output (post-fader), and so on and so forth???

Also (and there really does seem to be some disagreement on this): should one be checking RMS or peak levels??? Some say RMS and others say peak.

I must say it certainly does make the world of difference to sound quality so far as I can tell i.e. even with me not quite understanding what was going on earlier I got things sounding real great / nicer by setting track input levels to -18dbfs (using peak levels) and then mixing. Maybe this is a rather overlooked or underestimated step in the mixing process???

Regards,

Dale.

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Re: Fader Level vs. Volume Envelope Confusion

Postby Mark Bliss » Sat May 12, 2018 8:13 am

dpaterson wrote: Maybe this is a rather overlooked or underestimated step in the mixing process???

:lol: Yeah Dale, I think you might be on to something there. 8)

I have to come back to this. Trying to come up with a shorter reply than what's brewing in my head. :lol:
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Re: Fader Level vs. Volume Envelope Confusion

Postby dpaterson » Sun May 13, 2018 2:10 am

Hi Mark.

Really keen to hear your thoughts on this as well as start a more in-depth discussion. That thread over at IKM doesn't appear to be gaining traction.

From my rudimentary messing about with this stuff thus far:

  • It would certainly appear that it's pretty easy to overload or "blow-out" a plug-in at the INPUT stage without even knowing it and while those little (input) meters that most plug-ins come with are present they don't really let you know where you are i.e. the best that they facilitate is the avoidance of clipping (ensuring that your peaks don't go into the red).
  • While I understand the concept of headroom on a mixer (live) it's not something I thought about in the context of digital until I saw that discussion on gain staging.
  • I use iZotope Neutron and Ozone almost always for mixing and mastering and I've noticed that by monitoring (now) I no longer have to reduce output levels to keep them out of the red even when pushed.
  • It appears to be much easier to play around with levels of different tracks or instruments without compromising the others e.g. having a drum track that you have to reduce on the output because you cannot push your bass track any further.
  • Lastly: I cannot really put into words the difference that I'm hearing i.e. it's almost imperceptible but it's there i.e. "fuller" or "rounder" or "spatial" (not sure of the right word to use).
Regards,

Dale.

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Re: Fader Level vs. Volume Envelope Confusion

Postby comedians » Sun May 13, 2018 5:12 pm

Hi Dale

I believe many, if not most, vst plugins have an optimum input level which is generally around -18db. If you use Izotope Ozone 8 I think you should also have Izotope Insight installed. Putting that on your chain will give as much information about your levels as you can possibly get.

You might be as well putting a gain staging vst as the 1st plugin on the tracks.
This will give you a good insight. https://theproaudiofiles.com/digital-gain-staging/

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Re: Fader Level vs. Volume Envelope Confusion

Postby dpaterson » Mon May 14, 2018 12:14 am

Hi comedians.

Hmmmnnn... Just checked. iZotope Insight is one of the few modules NOT included with Ozone 8 Advanced / Neutron 2 Advanced (and not sure if I can justify the $199 for it either especially given that I also have T-RackS 5 which, it would appear, also has all manner of metering available complicated as it may be).

Thanks for the link i.e. sure if useful information that I've not seen before. I found this statement particularly interesting:

The one thing to be aware of is that channels are not the only place where something can clip. Plugins also have a ceiling, so if you hit that ceiling in the plugin, you’re still clipping. Not that digital clipping is always a bad thing, it’s just usually better avoided.

Here's another link:

https://www.waves.com/gain-staging-in-your-daw-better-mix

Regards,

Dale.

P.S. Changed the title of the thread to include the words "gain staging" (given that we're way past my initial confusion and onto something more meaningful here).

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Re: Fader Level vs. Volume Envelope Confusion and Gain Staging

Postby comedians » Mon May 14, 2018 2:25 am

Strange I have the Advanced 8, Neutron 2 etc but I don't ever remember paying for insight - unless it was included with Ozone 7 when I bought that bundle.

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Re: Fader Level vs. Volume Envelope Confusion and Gain Staging

Postby rrichard63 » Mon May 14, 2018 10:52 am

comedians wrote:Strange I have the Advanced 8, Neutron 2 etc but I don't ever remember paying for insight - unless it was included with Ozone 7 when I bought that bundle.

Insight was included in Music Production Bundle 2, which also included Neutron 1, Ozone 7 and several other things. It is not part of the current bundle, Music Production Suite.

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Re: Gain Staging

Postby Mark Bliss » Fri May 25, 2018 9:40 pm

Well.... where to start?-
And yeah, no way to keep it short and sweet. Sorry! :lol:

Part of my delay getting back to this is because after reading the attached IKM forum thread, I wanted to do some experimenting with their stuff specifically. Basically I wanted to see what the poster(s) there were getting on about before I got into this reply.
What I found was that some of those compressors, as described, don't do much if you feed them the suggested nominal input levels.
In one example, at a ratio of 4:1 or less, I was struggling to get more than 1 to 1.5 dB of gain reduction out of it at most. At somewhat higher ratios, I was getting in the 3dB GR range with the compression cranked up.
Pretty much just as described.

Normal? Correct? Maybe.
Honestly, seems a little off to me, but not by as much as the people in that thread might have thought.

This is a broad and complex subject IMO, and perhaps I am already getting ahead of myself.

My typical disclaimer: I make no claim to be an authority on anything. I have been studying and researching this, have learned some interesting things and formed some opinions. Many of those opinions may change as I learn more. The only thing I can say with certainty is that for every answer I think I have found, it has created at least ten new questions.......

So the general topic is "gain staging"
It would be easier if I could simply get right to the point and answer the core question- "does it matter?" Or "how much does it matter?" Another maybe?

Some of this is technical. Some philosophy. Some shear opinion.
I have a narrow little bit of experience before digital. I had some hands on experience with one hardware compressor. We considered ourselves very lucky to have that. We used what we had. Now there are hundreds of free or inexpensive plug ins to choose from. And the way I see them used in tutorials often bears little resemblence to how we used it back then.

Does how we did things then have any relevence to how to work in digital? Another maybe.

Heres one thing to consider. Many a decent mix has been made largely ignoring even the rudimentary rules of "gain staging"
And if your method works for you, and gets good results, is it wrong?
We have all heard, and hopefully practiced not clipping the A/D converter when recording. Lower levels are good. But what level is ideal, and how critical is it?
Same thing goes for mix down. Avoid clipping the D/A converter. Watch your peaks.
But what happens in between? Hmm......

All this reminds me of a conversation I had with an experienced producer/mixing engineer recently. The topic was basically "why is mixing well so difficult?"
We agreed that it is in part because there are so many different ways to do it, no real roadmap because there is not really any one "right" or necessarily "wrong" way.
But also because the difference between a "good" mix and a "great" mix often consists of many little subtle things that even an experienced ear may not readily discern. The other side of this coin is that a collection of things you may not be able to really hear well can also add up to harm your results.
Where does your signal level fall into this? Is it possible chaingng the working levels can add up to some degree of improvement? Maybe?

I am told that with many plug ins, it technically really doesnt matter. Time based processes for example. Typically wouldnt be effected much by level. On the other hand, many emulation type plug ins are designed to operate at levels similar to what was done in hardware. Which brings up the 0vu = -18dB RMS etc discussion.
Some people take this to extremes and attempt to be so very precise..... Thats not really how it worked in analog exactly. I think this is yet another digital thing. We have the ability to meter and analyze to rediculous tolerances. And look, somebody somewhere is going to experiment far out of those tolerances and make something cool as a result. Some plug ins "clip" internally and it makes them sound very bad. Others might do something interesting.

Another thought. We know we don't need to record too loud. I have been told by people far smarter about this, that even high-end expensive A/D converters have a range or even "sweet spot" where they function more accurately, and that level is not only well below clipping, but actually may corrospond to... 0vu
Hmm.....

And heres even more fuel for thought. We see people talk about "mixing into compression".... well how do we set up that compressor unless we anticipate a range of the level thats going to be hitting the input.....

Then theres templates. If you mix a lot, templates are an awesome time saver. But if you set up an advanced template with your go-to preffered routing and processes already set up, what are the signal levels expected to be?

So while we are thinking about all that, heres another thing to consider.
Prior to digital, I had never heard the term "gain staging" put quite like that. And some of the early explanations and methods I heard made me think it must be largely a digital thing. Until I finally heard an explanation that began to sound familiar and make more sense.
We didnt call it "gain staging" but heres a partial explanation of how we would "calibrate the studio"
First of all, any tube gear was "warmed up" as tubes change a bit after they have been on for a while. 45 minutes minimum was typical for me. Others seemed to think longer was good.
In the next example, I would mute my monitors. (Monitors were always muted except when you wanted to hear them. Turning things on and off, signal spikes, accidents, all could do expensive damage.)
With the sound off I would route a calibrated sine wave signal at 0vu into my compressor. I would set the compressor at -1, or perhaps -1.5 vu as desired. This was how the level of compression was set. And it was left there for the duration of that particular portion of whatever we were working on.
I think the more current trend of higher levels of GR is another digital era thing. I never saw that before. 3dB GR was considered "extreme" to us.
And FWIW, I think there is a case to be made for not using a great deal in any one step now, but thats another subject.

So, the lingering question. Does "gain staging" improve the sound? I think it often may. Does it make a big difference in sound? Not in my opinion. Is it the great answer to better mixes? No.
For me, its a bigger workflow thing than anything.

Some more things to point out. More opinion I guess.
If the desired level going into your inserts is a nominal 0vu or -18dB RMS..... What range should we typically be recording in?
I have loaded a fairly large number of other peoples stems or projects for mixing, or for the purpose of evaluating and advising them on how they might improve their methods. I'd conservatively estimate at over 200.
As of yet I have yet to see one single example where the levels didnt need to be trimmed down IMO for better results.

But maybe its just me, and I admit- still and always experimenting and trying to learn more! 8)
Stay in tune, Mark

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Re: Gain Staging

Postby aj113 » Sat May 26, 2018 3:16 am

Mark Bliss wrote:...So, the lingering question. Does "gain staging" improve the sound?..
That is the wrong question. Gain staging is not about improving the sound, it's about preventing the recording from sounding crap due to incorrect input levels. There is nothing difficult about gain staging. Just make sure that the level is sensible at each step of the input chain.

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Re: Fader Level vs. Volume Envelope Confusion and Gain Staging

Postby trevlyns » Sat May 26, 2018 6:45 am

Just another perspective from my other DAW Reaper, but applies to all DAW's with floating point math...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5efick6yJA4
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Re: Fader Level vs. Volume Envelope Confusion and Gain Staging

Postby Mark Bliss » Sat May 26, 2018 7:30 am

Good point Trevor-

Yes, Kenny. Gives. Some. Useful. Information. And. Advise. There. As. Always. lol!

But to me, that just shows how you cant technically clip by simply having hot levels within the DAW itself. That doesn't address the plug in functions, or my intended overall point, the workflow.
Developing a pattern that consumes less hours, less hair pulling, and more repeatable outcomes is really the result I am trying to get at.

The point is made that you cannot "clip" the converters except when processing through a converter.......
But thats a slightly different point, and may confuse some into thinking levels are entirely irrelevent maybe?
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Re: Fader Level vs. Volume Envelope Confusion and Gain Staging

Postby Mark Bliss » Sat May 26, 2018 8:31 am

OK, thinking about how I might have explained part of this better, and realizing the point about 32 bit float and levels actually reinforces what I really meant to express. So thanks again Trevor!

Sorry for coming at this a little sideways but its a broad topic.....

The issue I failed to mention is headroom on the master bus.
Yes, you could have the track levels in the red, and it doesn't negatively effect the audio. With the already explained exception of possible issues in the processing of some plug ins.

But.... Using an example: If you have tracks that are recorded a little hot, Use some loops and or samples which are consistently hot. And you end up with a project where the summing to the master bus has no headroom....
A workflow that created a useful amount of headroom to start with, in my opinion is a good idea, instead of addressing it at a later point. Its nice when it "just works out" if that is possible.

Some people use different nominal levels where necessary. They find they get excessive headroom on certain kinds of projects. I know people who work at -12 for example instead of -18.

The goal is to find what works for you, and spend less time fishing around......
Stay in tune, Mark

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Re: Fader Level vs. Volume Envelope Confusion and Gain Staging

Postby dpaterson » Sun May 27, 2018 4:52 am

Hello.

Wow. Some SERIOUS discussion going on here!!! Nice!!!

Well before I begin: just purchased Insight (yeh I'm a sucker i.e. it's on a special so I figured why not). NO idea what I'm looking at but it sure does look impressive!!! LOL!!! On a serious note regarding Insight though: I notice there's a preset called "Headroom Warning" and so far as I can tell this uses "Peak" in dB and "Loudness" in LU to monitor / indicate / warn as opposed to RMS at -18dDBFS??? If that's not confusing enough then check this link out https://www.gearslutz.com/board/mastering-forum/1142602-lufs-really-better-than-rms-measure-loudness.html and then check this document out https://www.tcelectronic.com/media/1017421/lundt013011.pdf!!!

Alright. Now to the simple stuff!!! LOL!!!

Well first I found this rather basic definition of gain staging in one of the docs. supplied with my Alto PA:

What is Gain Staging?

Gain staging is the process of ensuring that the signal is being sent and received at an appropriate level for the next piece of gear to be happy.

Correct gain staging can do lots of things to make the performance of your system better, including:

Improving the signal-to-noise ratio to get more sound out of your speakers, and less noise.
Reducing input/output distortion.
Increasing the life of your speakers.

Important: In any scenario, if you hear distortion or clipping sounds coming from your Alto Professional Truesonic series speaker, immediately stop the audio and re-examine all of the levels across all of your equipment.


I had to laugh at the "happy" part but I reckon it gets the point across!!! LOL!!!

Here's the link to the full info.: https://www.noterepeat.com/products/alto-professional/pa-speakers/truesonic-series/919-alto-pro-gain-staging-and-setup-with-the-ts2-series (site went down while I was posting this but hopefully will be back by the time somebody else tries to view).

Now:

Thanks for all the posts and info. and explanations and ideas and opinions. Really a nice discussion. And yeh: I too love learning about something new such as this (new to me I mean). This being said: I don't REALLY know what I'm talking about here BUT I can say the following (not in any particular order of importance):

Much as I like distortion (guitar) I have to say that since I've been monitoring the INPUT levels (albeit only with the TB Pro Audio meter) i.e. monitoring the INPUT levels going INTO Mixcraft I believe I can hear a noticeable increase in clarity or definition of the distorted sound (if that makes any sense). And the same with drum plug ins. And this applies whether I'm using a guitar amp. sim. plug in (which I hate really) as well as to the sound being recorded by Mixcraft coming from my micd. up amps.

Up until I started researching this: I sort of set all inputs just short of clipping for whatever was being recorded and on every device e.g. my ASIO sound card and in Mixcraft. What this has shown me is that even although I've been very careful to ensure no clipping being indicated by a particular device or Mixcraft this did not necessarily mean that my levels were correct per track or when it came down to the final mix.

I notice that using the other iZotope stuff: in the final mix these plug ins are no longer being pushed to the limit no matter what preset I use. Up until now: I'd always find that I'd have to manually lower the output gain to stop an indication of clipping. Things seem to "flow" better for want of a better word.

The odd thing about all of this is that even although I'm acutely aware of distorted sound and and don't believe I've ever actually heard any of my stuff being distorted: it's way clearer now (that may not make any sense I know).

Maybe your statement here (Mark) explains what I'm trying to say above (more eloquently):

But.... Using an example: If you have tracks that are recorded a little hot, Use some loops and or samples which are consistently hot. And you end up with a project where the summing to the master bus has no headroom....
A workflow that created a useful amount of headroom to start with, in my opinion is a good idea, instead of addressing it at a later point. Its nice when it "just works out" if that is possible.


Anyways. Lastly (for now) here's another fantastic (in my opinion) article: https://www.soundonsound.com/techniques/gain-staging-your-daw-software.

From the article above:
... because it's perfectly possible to increase the loudness of a mix during a mastering process, but it's not possible to rescue an overloaded mix by turning it down.


Man!!! I love this stuff!!!

Regards,

Dale.


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