People tend to go on and on these days about summing mixers and headroom and I find myself scratching my head at times wondering if many of us know even remotely what we’re going on about. Let me preface all of this with the following: I really loved recording to tape. Deeply. It was such a fragile and delicate thing, you know? Generally the step that followed getting drum sounds together on day one of a record was to throw up a reel of tape and see how said drums were going to come back. You’d listen, discuss...probably ask the assistant engineer to adjust your tape machine alignment a time or two before ultimately wheeling a different model machine in before the day was out. Nuance and subtlety, perhaps total self-indulgence; but above all, it was CARING. It was REALLY listening to how the equipment colored the sound and sorting out what would be deemed as appropriate. And once everyone settled on the aesthetic for the album, each and every track printed would be a similar process of choosing a mic, getting the appropriate chain together (preamp, eq, limiter) and then seeing how that track was going to come back from tape and making adjustments from there. Print a couple dB too little and tape hiss will be a problem later if you want to whack a couple dB of 10k on that guitar in the mix. Print too hot and transient stuff like drums and acoustic guitars come back all mushy and over saturated. Recording was an actual art...Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the art is gone in these days of mac-based workstations and summing mixers, I am just re-remembering the days when a blatant attention to fine detail was not a choice but an absolute necessity if you wanted to keep working. Remembering the feeling of dread when you just knew you should have notched the preamps up across the entire desk on that gentle song because you knew the mixer was going to be cursing you as he tried to get some sparkle in to the track without creating a shit-storm of tape hiss. So, I’m rambling slightly. Let’s get back on track here. Gain structure. I had an amazing mentor, early in my career in Los Angeles, named Jimmi Mayweather. He had been making records for what sounded like 700 years when I met him in the early 90s at Grandmaster Recorders where I was a studio assistant. I remember the first day he rolled in on a tracking date, I walked in to the control room having set up his fairly minimal mic setup on a drum kit and saw him putting every single fader on the console to unity gain (or the zero mark). Dude hadn’t heard a note yet and here he was setting fader values? I walked over to the patchbay and asked him what compressors he’d like patched and he rolled his eyes somewhat and went back to what he was doing without saying a word. He asked me to patch a few busses and channels to tape but made no mention of other outboard gear. He then asked the drummer to go out and knock around a little but quickly did a scan around the room at all the unpatched limiters and began spinning input and output knobs to what looked like entirely random places, again having not heard a note. WTF!? I then watched this man spin up a fairly insane drum sound touching only mic preamps and phase buttons. He walked out and moved a couple mics, came back in and fiddled with the phase buttons some more, went back out and moved the room mics a little, more phase button fiddling...wow. I was totally perplexed. I didn’t really know about phase buttons at that point and I couldn’t believe a man could be near so much gear and not USE it. Finally, he asked me to patch a few
He explained that if you had the fader on a channel at 10dB. This is called unity gain: a piece of gear having at its output the exact same level as its input. And I started realizing immediately that drum sounded really open and alive because transients were not getting squared off due to overdriving the circuits of the other pieces of gear in the recording chain. And it was all so immediate! Just let the mic preamp do all the “work” of getting the signal to the appropriate level. They’d been pre-tweaked somehow? WTF!?? This was not in the book. Hmmmmm. which feeds a bussing matrix all via patchpoints in the patchbay..and unity gain is all we’re striving for.. you would simply boost the incoming microphone level to 0VU at the mic preamp and patch the output of the preamp to tape. I asked him about the faders. every day.. At Grandmaster. So. Apparently.And what was crazy was watching all these other engineers roll in and just spin the shit out of every knob in the room and then wonder why things sounded small and sort of crappy. you’d only do so once your mic preamp level was set directly to tape and you’d adjust the input and output levels of said limiter so that you had the appropriate level still getting to tape with it patched and functioning as desired. you would have to drive everything that was patched before the fader in the recording chain 10dB hotter than necessary to get that same 0VU to the tape machine. every single piece of outboard gear and module of the console operates most efficiently when passing audio at an average amplitude of +4dB (measured approximately 1. This sounds pretty simple. To know what 0VU is all times at all points of the chain. If you wanted to add a limiter. all day. These consoles are really just a big chassis full of separate equipment modules that feed one another via the patchbay. IT’S THE EXACT SAME PRINCIPLE HERE! ProTools doesn’t magically remove the necessity to be a decent engineer and to be mindful of gain structure.23V AC on a multimeter or 0 on a VU meter). after the session I was able to ask him what the deal was? Did he dislike faders? Maybe he was just showing off with the whole dialing in the compressors before the session thing? Maybe this was all a big joke? And what I got that evening was an explanation of gain structure that totally changed everything I had thought about recording equipment. So. if I just left the fader at zero and adjusted the mic preamp so the Bass DI level to tape was ideal.. Folks start blaming the tools when actually they just don’t know how to use them. and then color the sound with all of these wonderful boxes but be mindful of keeping the level of the instrument you are recording at 0VU at each and every point of the process.compressors here and there and damn if he didn’t touch one of them. Who could think that?
. And it was pretty simple really. The mic preamp feeds an EQ. (light bulb) That ideally. He said that it was like driving a car pressing the brake and the gas at once. How does this all play in to workstations and summing mixers? I hope you aren’t ACTUALLY asking that of course. which feeds a fader. I could totally do that. I could then add a limiter and adjust the input and threshold knobs of the limiter so that I was getting the wanted effect and then adjust the output knob so that I was still reading the ideal level to tape. I learned these ropes on a Neve 8028 console. I’d know that the limiter was operating at unity gain and therefore inducing the smallest amount of noise and distortion possible while doing its job as well as it possibly could as it was operating as designed.
What? Remember all those years of 0VU being the standard? Remember how every stick of equipment on Earth was designed to operate at 0VU. A strange thing happened back then. 10. overdrive my equalizers. recording hotter would fill more bits and therefore give you more dynamic depth. What that means is all that space you aren’t using is a little something we call headroom. I’d wager you’d be reasonably surprised at the width and depth possible within today’s in the box mixers. I’m getting all worked up here. A standard even emerged which made the “red” level on a digital scale way up there at like 8 or 10 dB over zero on a VU meter. The space in a circuit that exists above the nominal operating level which allows things like spiky transients and deep rich bottom and sub-human artifacts pass and affect a listener. not the workstation! How can you have your stereo buss fader pulled down 9 dB and meter all in the red and feel like a Dangerous 2 Bus is the answer to the mix feeling a little folded in on itself? I just want to slit my wrists sometimes! If you were to print the tracks at a reasonable level.We all attempted to record some drums to ProTools and listened and tried some more. a crazy idea started floating around that the way to get more depth of field (so to speak) in digital audio was to record your tracks as hot as humanly possible. There’s this funny idea that a digital mixer lacks headroom and I have to just finally be the one to say it: Bad engineering and ass-hat style gain staging is the route to headroom problems. In my world of analog mixing... that is just below where the meter turns yellow. induce crazy level mismatches in my outboard gear or utterly ruin what headroom my mid-level console does have. It was hard. way. Seriously. Eventually. In ProTools. It’s about half of the level one is able to print.. I’m not done yet: I mix on an analog console. I just like it that way. My first step in any mix is to open a trim plugin across every single track and get the signal down to a respectable 0VU level.I remember the early ProTools days. We over-compressed everything trying to get some depth and space to the recording and eventually some of us gave up in those early days of multitrack digital audio. Seriously. it’s absolute necessity to trim those tracks down to where they should be in order to function but gain structure is also a deep consideration in the digital domain as well. The thinking was that if you only had 16 bits to fill. way too hot. ProTools 3 in fact. Can someone please explain to Jimmi and I how it’s entirely acceptable to print all your tracks at 8. I understand all too well how there is something vaguely
. most of us keep our A/D converters aligned so that -16 on the digital scale equals 0VU. You know those little red lights you keep lighting up on your plugin limiters? Maybe think about those and do that way less. 12 dB hotter than any gear was ever meant to operate? Am I on crazy pills? Maybe I missed the memo that suggests all this lovely analog outboard gear doesn’t distort and squash transients the same way now that there’s a ProTools rig in the room? Did I miss that? Oh man. operate you plugins at a reasonable level.. You know what all of your plugins are designed to operate at or near? 0VU. I remember 16 bit audio and it was a total bum-out.this is an actual rant. What that means is that you should be adjusting your mic preamp so that the average peaks of any given track hover around -16 on the tracks’s digital meter. Damn. and build a mix who’s cumulative energy equalled a reasonable level at the stereo buss. Listen. Nearly every project I receive from people as a ProTools or Logic session contains tracks that are printed way. I am not looking to blow up the front end of my console. I have a workflow.
please! If your panties get all soggy thinking about driving a circuit harder with that particular acoustic guitar because you think it reminds you of the Kinks.but that's my job. You didn’t get a second chance. Plus. you’d just get fired. Spin the shit out of that 1176. If you printed too hot or too little there were immediate consequences. Prove me wrong. the tape machine would very immediately dictate precisely what level you were to print. your mother might give you the attention you always craved. and not get called again. Hotter is absolutely less rich and smaller. which amount to dynamic range. I realize . Seriously dudes.We’re all getting really lazy. When the band nailed a pass. but seriously.testosterone inducing about printing rock music louder. don't get me wrong. I know that I sound like a bitter old fart here.. go home. If you want to overdrive a mic pre for effect. and elastic time some other shit but it takes grace and touch and little bit of know-how to capture music. Your faders will ride nearer zero as you mix which will mean those precious lower bits. by all means don’t hesitate.but hotter isn’t louder. Winning! In the old days.. if you were sitting in the control room mumbling something about how you didn’t know they were going to play quieter and maybe they could do a few more takes once you had the preamps adjusted.. beat detective some drums. I take great pride in looking across the meters of a song as overdubs come along and see that each and every track is beautifully and uniformly printed at just the right level. I mean that with my heart. Just treat -16 on the digital scale of your DAW as the place you're aiming for as opposed to the top of the meter.. I dare you. I'm a freak. And listen. will actually make it through the stereo buss and in to your listener's earholes. chill out a little.
. I am suggesting here that having a consistently even and “proper” gain structure on the majority of your recorded tracks will have a cumulative effect across the entire song or album that is simply higher-fi. THAT IS WHAT I AM HIRED AND PAID TO DO. I’m just putting this out there: Can we all stop thinking the next summing mixer is going to make our records finally sound like records and go back to being mindful engineers? Anyone can melodyne a vocal. help yourself. Your plugins will sound better.