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Gain staging in Logic for better mixes and masters

Getting the output of your channels right from recording to mixing and then mastering is crucial if you want your music to sound great.  miL looks at the best way to gain stage you tracks for both mixing and mastering. So, set up your session and follow the signal flow!

How much headroom do you have?

It’s a well-trodden path but in some ways can’t be stressed or even repeated enough, make sure you have plenty of headroom. In mixing it’s even more important in some respects than mastering, the reason being is you are dealing with multiple channels of audio maybe up to 70 or 80 tracks.  Let’s say for example you have imported two loops from Logic Pro’s loop library and both loops peak at -1dB around the same time.  When those two tracks playback at the same time at the same level your output meter is going to peak.

Now think of a mix with 30 plus sounds all playing at the same time, you can see that things can quickly get out of hand when gain staging the mix.  I tend to find that keeping all the channel strips very low keeps the mix in check and the headroom a plenty!

Logic by default loads track channels either mixing or mastering at 0dB. If you keep adding new tracks you are quickly going to pile on the volume if you leave the track channels at 0dB so one suggestion might be to drop each channel fader by 8 to 10dBs or even 15dBs of gain.  This might sound a lot but trust me when you’re in the middle of mixing and adding EQ compression and other plugins, which might increase the volume the 8 to 10dBs, will soon disappear.

Why not use the Gain Plugin?

I have seen it suggested that when you import a loop from the loop library it’s a good idea to load Logic’s Gain Plugin and drop the level by 10-15dB. This could also be done by the clip gain level found in the top left corner of the arrange page. I think this is a great idea and could work really well but I have to say it’s not for me.

I find it too time consuming loading plugins just to drop the gain and therefore 9 time out 10 will opt for simply using the channel slider to bring the level down. It’s quicker and much easier, also I’m often loading other plugins that have gain controls so if I really need to while I’m compressing or EQing I can reset the gain at that point to.

Limit While Mixing?

Should you place a limiter on your project whilst still at the writing and mixing stage? Of course I freely admit that there are no rules and if there are they are there to be broken and made to work for some but for the majority I wouldn’t recommend strapping on a limiter during the writing and mixing stage and here’s why.

It’s human nature to want something to sound better and adding a limiter to hype the sound does just that but limiting the dynamic range of your mix whilst mixing is going to mess with the tonal balance of you music. If you’re not sure this is true load up one of your mixes that is half finished put a limiter on it and finish the mix. At the end take the limiter off and I bet the mix loses all it’s power and not just because it’s quieter.

Limiting the mix limits the dynamic range of your music and will therefore alter the tonal and dynamic balance of your mix in a negative way. If you mix early on with a limiter there’s a good chance you might end up with a smaller mix than if you started without it and focused on getting a great sounding mix without anything hyping the volume.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with loading the Adaptive Limiter from time to time and seeing how the mix responds to limiting in order to get an idea of what the final master will sound like but once you’ve checked switch it off and carry on mixing.

Finally once you have finished the mix Bounce the session and start mastering in a new Logic session separate from the mix project. This way you can reset your ears and focus just on the mastering stage of the production process.

I have seen a lot of people on Facebook ask the question why shouldn’t I master during the mixing stage? Again it comes back to what you want to do, if it’s your song and you’re working on in your own time you can do what ever you want but I would argue there’s good reason to master in a separate session.

  1. If you’re only working with a stereo file you’ll be less inclined to tweak the mix constantly.
  2. Setting up a new session means you can focus on one thing, resetting your ears to balance the music rather than mix it and you’ll focus will be on one thing mastering.
  3. You may want to set up multiple tracks to master or do special processing like parallel compression on a bus send which would be made harder if everything is on the mix bus chain.
  4. A mix bus chain and mastering chain are two different things. The mix bus chain brings and glues the mix. The mastering chain adds the final polish to your music, helps to balance the frequency and iron out any last imperfections

Overcoming Automation Problems

Ok so automating your mix in Logic isn’t a problem in itself but I have found automation can be a problem when I realise I need to bring the whole track level down by a few dBs, especially if I’m running out of headroom. It is made worse if you have multiple track that need to come down equally in level.

This is where I’d say the Gain plugin can come in handy. If you have automation on a channel that you don’t want to touch load up the gain plugin and bring the level down by how ever many dBs you need. This mean you can leave the automation well alone.

Master Bus Gain Levels

Getting the level right for the track channels can be one thing but you can soon blow it all on the master out if you load plugins and don’t pay attention to the fact that you may well be increasing the volume further. I like to use a VU meter at the very end of my mix bus master chain. This gives me the ability to look at the level and ensure that everything I’m doing on the master bus is not adversely affecting the output level and that I’m keeping the levels healthy for mastering.

Yes I could use an LUFS meter and I sometimes do but I’ve worked with VUs my whole career so I”ve always trusted them, even though they aren’t perfect. Keeping your mix at 0vu is also good because it keeps it at a level that your converters will like. Audio interfaces have analog components, they convert your signal back to analog when the signal is pushed out to your speakers and therefore 0vu is always a good call. Plus it gives you plenty of headroom for mastering.

It’s common knowledge the Nasa is on a quest to find habitable planets trying to find enormous rocks that orbit distant stars that are within ‘the Goldilocks’ zone. You could think of your levels as the same thing. If your mixes and levels are too close to 0dBFS (the sun let’s say) then your mix will burn up, if it’s too far away though, it will become distant and cold and could be clouded with all sorts of other space junk and noise.

You need to find the Goldilocks zone for your mixes and I’d say that’s anywhere around -22dBFS RMS to -18dBFS RMS. Get your mixes in that zone and you’ll have a very habitable piece of music worthy of any NASA investigation!


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