There are a lot of ways to measure the levels of sound in your music production. Meter scales vary widely, and there are many misconceptions about what are the correct levels. Here below is what I have found currently works best for me.
Last updated: 09-January-2021.
There’s another, more current post about this: Levels in Mastering for the Various Streaming Platforms (and what happened to the K-system of metering)
Gain staging is just getting the proper levels in each instrument and bus before the sounds get to the master bus.
Instruments route to individual channels that route to busses that route to the master.
Here, below, is how I have done it for the main mass media and to compete effectively with others on Soundcloud, iTunes, Bandcamp, etc., with rock, pop, EDM-type music:
Individual Instruments and Audio Sound Files
For sound files, I listen to the loudest and make their peaks between -12 and -18dBFS by adjusting their input volumes to the channels.
Same for instruments such as synths. Note that these are often velocity sensitive so choose a velocity you think you would have in playing them and use that as your guide. Again I shoot for -12 to -18dBFS peaks by adjusting the volume knob on the synth plugin/vst and not on the channel or any effect. I want the level going into the channel set from the instrument itself. That is important.
I shoot for an average level of -18 dBFS in my individual instrument channel outputs, with peaks of -8 to -10 dBFS. Inputs from the actual instruments vary depending on the processing that is in the channel.
In the case of drums, I shoot for the peaks of -8 to -10 dBFS and the average level can be whatever.
When combined in a bus, I like the average level of my instruments combined output from the bus to be around -18 dBFS RMS if possible, and the peaks to be -10 to -8 dBFS maximum.
The synth bus gets a ducking input from either a compressor side-chained to the kick/drums, or an LFO with the profile needed. This allows the synths and other instruments to sit in the mix with the drums.
I usually have two busses feeding into the master input. These are the synths bus and the drums bus.
Each is at -18 dBFS RMS with peaks of -10 to -8dBFS. I process the signal and my main final effect is the limiter.
My average level is -14 dBFS RMS with peaks going up to the limit of -1 dBFS where my limiter is set.
Analog Instrument Simulations
I need to pause here for a brief word about the analog instrument. Analog instruments are simulated in vst form often. I like the analog sound, so I use a lot of these vst emulations. Take the tape machine for example. It is designed to have an input that is high enough to get the analog tape saturation effect. This means that the input to it must be high enough to cause the instrument to actually work and get that saturation. Keep that in mind when setting levels. Usually, these instruments have a gain input knob and a gain attenuation knob on the output. You will have to set the input high enough to trigger the instrument and then bring it back down on the output side of that instrument. This can be in your instrument channels, bus channels, or on the master. I give an example of this in my master channel described below.
The master channel is where all of the buses feed into.
My buses are at -18 dBFS average with -9 dBFS peaks maximums.
Let’s say I have two busses feeding into the master input – the synths bus and the drums bus. I need to know how the levels of these two buses will combine. I put a meter on the input of my master, so I know what is going into it. But, let’s say I want to do this by hand. dB addition is not challenging if you know the method. Here is the formula:
In this equation, i is the counter for each dB level. So Li is one of the levels you want to add. It is easy to make an Excel sheet that can do this addition.
Here is an Excel spreadsheet to do the decibels addition function for you: decibels addition
-18 dBFS + -18 dBFS = -14.9897 dBFS. This is the average level that my master input is seeing.
-9 dBFS + -9 dBFS = -5.9897 dBFS. This is the peak level that my master input is seeing.
That is exactly what I want. I want about -6dBFS peak at the input of my master.
If I had three busses summing together, I would want my peaks out of each bus to be -11 dBFS because -11 dBFS + -11 dBFS + -11 dBFS = -6.23 dBFS
Again the magic -6 dBFS is where I want the summation of my busses coming into the master to be.
O.k. but without the math: Adjust the peaks of each of your busses outputs to obtain -6dBFS on the input to your master. Do this with a volume adjustment on the ends of each bus (my way) or by changing the levels internal to the bus. Do not move faders (at all throughout this whole process), and do not adjust the instruments or audio file volumes themselves.
For average levels, I may have the two buses of -10 dBFS peaks each combining to an average peak input of -6.9897 dBFS.
Working our way to the output of the master bus, the last effect in my master is a limiter. A limiter stops (limits) levels from exceeding a specific mark. I do not want levels to exceed -1 dBFS for me. Others may go right up to the 0 dB mark, but for streaming music, I like the -1 dBFS level. I set my limiter to attenuate or fold-back levels that exceed -1 dBFS.
I can fold back the peaks to make it “sound louder” by upping my gain on the limiter, but I risk having some distortion.
Keep in mind also that it is far less of a problem to limit peaks from transient sources such as drums and percussion than it is from melodic sources. I find that when I limit drums it works well and I don’t hear much distortion. But, when I limit a synth, for example, I hear a bad sound.
I use meters throughout my mixing and mastering to know what levels my effects in each are seeing.
I like the Klanghelm meters in VUMT Deluxe. I use the RMS level meters (uncompensated) that show me both the average level and the peaks. This is important for me to be able to set the levels in each channel correctly. Also, I like to look at the Bob Katz scale K meters to see the loudness in the K level scale. More on that later.
Various effects will also show me the levels in their embedded meters. These are all different and not always the most accurate. I use them, but also will put an instance of the VUMT meter before or after them temporarily throughout my mixing and mastering process to know what is going on at various points. I like to think of the level meter as a probe that I can use to probe around and know where my levels are at any given time.
Loudness Metering – Loudness Scale
Fabfilter L2 has a loudness meter. I use this to get -14dB average loudness for streaming, with my limit set at -1dB (True Peak) and 8x oversampling.
- Instruments coming into a channel: Input peaks -18 to -12 dBFS RMS.
- Instruments leaving a channel: Output peaks -18 to -12 dBFS RMS.
- Into a bus: Input peaks -8 to -10 peaks w/some over o.k.
- Leaving a bus: Output peaks -8 to -10 peaks. -18 dBFS RMS if possible. If there is only one bus, then -6 dBFS peaks max.
- Into the master: -6 dBFS peaks max. (Sum of busses.)
- Leaving master: Loudness Metering, then increase the level into your limiter until -14dBA is the average. Don’t foldback too many peaks or too much (3dB foldback is a lot, for me).
- Loudness: -14 LUFS on the Loudness scale.
- Loudness Range as shown on the Loudness Metering scale (dynamic range): LRA 3-15 dBA for pop music. Wider for classical.
- Range too small = decrease compression somewhere.
- Can’t control peaks = increase compression somewhere.
- Check your work by the limiter or meters (last in the master chain).