Gain staging in mixing and mastering

What was it that gave analog such a ‘warm’ sound? Was it only the use of hardware instead of software in the process? Or was it something a little more than only that? Working with digital environments for a number of years now has brought me to the very clear realisation that pushing levels to just below clipping because ‘I can’ has also brought with it some real disadvantages. I believe that this is one of the reasons for music developing that brittle sound that many associate with the greatest disadvantage of the digital environment compared to the analog environment. Yet many also seem to miss the solution to this. Gainstaging and working to levels well below 0 in both mixing and mastering. Analog emulators such as the Kramer and J37 tapes, AR plugs and many of the others in the Waves catalog provide great assistance in achieving this solution.

Next time you’re working on a project try this: On each of the channels, or their submix auxiliaries, make sure the final plug is, let’s say, a Kramer Tape. Turn off the noise, set the input to -6 and the output to +6, set the metering to -18 and make sure wow, flutter and delay are disabled and also make sure that the flux is set to the default value. Now save this as a preset.

Work the channel so that the VU on the Kramer is working as close to the ‘sweet spot’ as possible. Let those sum out to the Master channel and put the Kramer on last there (in a mix) or just before the limiter (mastering). Work the Master channel to the same level where the VU is working sweetly and NOT pinning at any stage. Use compression gently if the music requires gentle compression and sure punch it if the music needs it. I work mainly with acoustic folk or country and always use compression gently. Even with electronica, hip hop or ‘wilder’ genres of music this approach will still work.

Once you get your project working like this you will immediately hear a difference in your output. If mastering install a compressor in the final chain and work the compressor so it’s not pumping/sucking. In fact work it so it is gently ‘tickling’ the audio. If you do the work before getting to the final compressor using for example a linear multi-band and perhaps a RenComp as the first plug in the total mastering chain set at low ratio with slow attack and release you shouldn’t need to do more by the time the final compressor is reached. I usually have the final comp attenuating by no more than 3-4 db.

Once the Kramer VU’s are showing you that all is working well in the ‘sweet spot’ just below the red line and not pinning on the louder sections (I find allowing the needle into the ‘red’ on occasion is fine so long as it doesn’t pin), the limiter (being the only plug remaining before output) is what then gives you the loudness. With most music genres and especially those that are acoustic, setting the limiter ceiling to -0.3 and taking the threshold down to where you are getting ‘clean’ levels at ‘radio ready standard’ will give you the final result.

What you’ll find is that the brittleness often characteristic of music that has been pushed hard in the digital environment is no longer there and your music will have a warmth and depth that brings many people to say ‘best mixes I have ever heard’. Just because digital environments allow you to push the limits, there are no reasons why you should do so. Allow dynamic range and headroom to be the order of the day and only push the gain right at the final moment and see if you like what you hear. Don’t forget it’s the ears that must be the final arbiters and Waves plugs are by far the dominant force in my mixing and mastering.

Have a great time. Experiment when you have time to do so and keep the love alive.


Interesting, Thanks you @BlueMountainSound !

I for one miss analog only for one thing, Dynamic range.
Whether we wanted or not it forced everyone to maintain decent DR and the “crash” (if any) happened only at the end after summing which gave the final product a deep full body and character.
These days almost no one respects dynamic range any more and all everyone think about is “make it louder” then blame digital.
We have some amazing tools Today that I couldn’t even dream of 30 years ago, we just need to shift the focus from Volume back to Creativity.


Absolutely! And I think you’ll find what I suggest gives you exactly that but with the benefit of as much volume as you need but right at the end of the gig and just before the final bounce out in the mastering process.


Nice thread, words of wisdom.
We should teach the young generation how to mix mainly with faders and how to use plugins as a helpful tools instead of lean of them as a ideology .

The whole idea behind music and mixing is how the different elements are communicates with each other, not how they sound alone or how “load” they are.

Most of the mythical albums was made with no more than 2 or 4 compressors and the desk eq, but with great arrangement, performance, and of course -an amazing balance.

The other issue is that most young guys does not working aligned to a clear target level (mix bus VU meter) so they are not getting the consequences of their balance and processing decisions. thats why they don’t get how “load and aggressive” became “flat and lifeless” at the end result.

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This has become one of the problems with DAWs being able to handle a tonne of plug-ins and, just because they can, users load up far more than they need. The best plugs to use are the ‘sweeteners’ with light use of compression to achieve a good result rather than squashing mixes into lifelessness. Sometimes people will hear a mix straight after recording when all that is done is some panning and leveling of the tracks and some reverb and they sound great and then they go on to add plug after plug until they lose the magic of the original sound. The rule always is, for me, when doing acoustic work: 1. get the original sound right with good mic placement and sensitivity to the music. Once you have that the rest is a lot easier and you don’t have to worry so much about adding plugs to the mix. The biggest mistake you can make is to work on the belief that you can record carelessly and ‘fix it later’. There is no substitute for getting it right in the first place. Thanks for replying Shai! I have heard your work first hand and it is great.

Very True, the lack of commitment is one of the biggest problem in our era.

Thank you for the kind words Andy! i can say the same thing on you, since your mastering for this album was very flattering to the mixes.

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