By far, the number one mistake made by music producers is overloading the master bus. Or, having turned down the master bus to compensate for overloading it. While it is a relatively common issue, thankfully, it’s rectified rather easily. It all comes down to understanding gain staging and how to approach the concept inside of your D.A.W. correctly. If you don’t understand the gain structure, you may be undermining your mixes without even realising it.
I want to keep this post as straightforward and non-technical as possible. This will not be a complete breakdown or overview of gain staging, but instead just my thoughts and best practices on how to approach it.
I like to explain the concept relating it to the analogue world as I believe this gives a better picture of the issue. In a nutshell, gain staging is rather simple: you ensure that you are feeding an appropriate level from the first ‘stage’ of your signal path to the next, this repeats from the second stage to the third, and so on. Imagine each stage as a typical piece in a recording chain, starting with the first stage as the instruments, the second as the microphones, third as the preamps to the final stereo mix bus. The appropriate level is mix dependent, but the goal is to ensure a healthy signal-to-noise ratio (the difference between the wanted signal and the noise floor), while at the same time leaving enough headroom that you needn’t worry about any clipping related issues with the signal.
The problem with some plugins is that they’re just not designed to operate well with a ‘hot’ signal level. This issue isn’t limited to your free, or even ‘cheap’ plug-ins either, even the expensive plugin manufactures products are going to suffer heavily if you choose to overload them. I’ve found some analogue-modelling plug-ins to start to break down when you push them past the normal operating range of their hardware counterpart.
As I previously stated, this is a very simplified look at the issue, the fix, on the other hand, is rather simple.
Mix your tracks at -12 dB. I’ve created a custom template for this but some D.A.W.’s such as Ableton Live, allow you to create a ‘default channel’ in where this could be your standard channel configuration. In practice, this just means instead of leaving all of your channels set at 0dB, turn them all down to -12dB upon starting a new project. This ensures that you’re never going to overload the master bus and that your plugins will have the appropriate headroom to work with. Because the signal coming out of your D.A.W. will be significantly reduced, you’re going to want to adjust the output on whatever you may be monitoring your project on. Another benefit to this approach is that when it comes to the mastering stage for your project, the mastering engineer will have plenty of headroom to squeeze the most dynamic range out of your track. So by mixing at a lower level inside your D.A.W., you will end up with a louder record, with an increased dynamic range!