To get a better mix you should monitor your levels throughout, but proper gain staging starts before you apply any processing to your sounds.
Gain staging isn’t the most glamorous part of mixing, but it’s still essential to a successful mix. But remember, if you’re using distortion or clipping creatively, then these tips may not apply. It’s always up to the mixer.
Proper gain staging also gives you plenty of headroom to work with during your mixing.
Having to go back and fix volume faders every time you apply a process is a sure fire way to get yourself frustrated. So, use the following tips to make sure you set your mix up for success and avoid the frustration:
1. Listen To Your Tracks Collectively
Keep your master bus visible to be sure you’re not clipping. A common mistake is to keep your master bus as close to the red as you can without going over, but keeping your levels reasonable before you start mixing will give you enough headroom to work with later on when you’re applying effects.
If your master bus is clipping right away (way in the red) it means that your raw mix needs some attention before you start processing. Allowing for room before mixing means you won’t have to keep going back and adjusting the levels. If you think things sound better louder, then just turn up the master volume.
2. Turn It Down
To get within that -10dBFS to -18dBFS sweet spot, you’re going to need to adjust the volume faders on some of your audio tracks. To know which one to turn down just monitor the specific track levels and see which one needs work.
Sometimes ALL your tracks need to be turned down to find a good consistent amount of headroom. Don’t be afraid to be extra conservative. Your waveform may look small at this point, but don’t turn things up. If you want to see it bigger for editing, just zoom in.
3. Create a Rough mix
Mix your raw audio as far as you can without processing. That means finding the best balance possible without pushing your levels.
Have an idea of how you want your final mix to sound while you’re still in the gain staging phase. If you want a certain drum track to be the loudest part when you’re doing your mix, have that drum track as your loudness benchmark. Experiment with panning during this phase too and find a good place for everything before you start processing.
4. Keep it Balanced
If you’ve balanced all your audio tracks to a place that you’re happy with but your master bus is still clipping, don’t worry. Most DAWs have a track grouping function. Use it to turn down groups of tracks that all need to come down. That way, you’re not compromising the balance you created while you were making your rough mix.
The main purpose of gain staging is leaving room to work in. If your mix is gain staged properly from the start, you’ll have a much easier time applying effects and other processes that are frustrating to use when there’s no headroom.
Don’t limit your mix potential just because you didn’t take 5 minutes to prepare it for mixing. If you gain stage your next mix you can stop fighting the reds the whole time. Your overall signal will sound cleaner and more focussed. Plus your final master will sound better. If your mix is staged well there will be more room for mastering to do its thing.