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Mixing Meter Madness
-bridging the digital/VU meter gap
by John Vestman
The Discrete Monitor Module levels the metering field.
Many of you have had the experience of happily completing your mix on a digital
audio workstation (DAW) and being disappointed by how low the volume was on your
CDR copy next to a commercial CD. Yes, mastering takes your mix to that "next" level,
but in the meantime wouldn't it be nice to eliminate the doubt that comes along with
those level differences? Correct meter settings can help a lot especially when you
have digital peak meters and analog VU meters to look at.
Q) Some engineer prefers to have their signals as close to digital zero as possible
- what do you recommend? -Jarno (from Finland)
I prefer -2 dB in digital recordings, maybe -1 at the most. Headroom in digital is
a good thing, and you often need it at mix time. ..and keep it around 0VU (which is -16 in digital scale?)
0VU can be -16 (digital) if the output of your digital audio converter (DAC) is calibrated to give you 0VU
(line level). But people have different settings on different systems. I've seen "0VU" be anything from -10
to -18. The important thing is to stay away from the digital clipping in any digital recording system (DAW,
Masterlink, DAT, etc.). Tip: Leave out the master fader buss (but some systems require it). Your tracks
- when sending out to a mix - should be mixed so that the digital output signal has no clipping. Then,
set the gain for your speakers/amplifiers to operate at the SPL (sound pressure level) you need.
One of the things the Discrete Monitor Module (DMM-8) does is give you a meter range switch, which
is a mastering feature brought into the recording studio. This bridges the gap between digital and
analog metering. These different meters are like an apple and an orange. They're both good, but different.
Why the confusion, you may ask?
Secret: VU meters were designed around analog tape recordings, where there is really 14 dB of
invisible headroom above 0VU that is not displayed on the meters. But digital meters show all
the way to the top - no invisible headroom! Why can analog have invisible headroom and digital
can't? Because analog tapes smoothly compresses (or rounds off) those tiny peaks that you don't
see on the meters. Analog tape sounds pleasant when it's performing this smooth, invisible compression.
Digital, on the other hand, turns those tiny peaks into harsh square waves when you exceed "0" and
those clipping lights start flashing. Ok, so you don't hear it at first. Those chopped off peaks
cause subtle irritation - so in most cases, we trust the meters and keep levels from clipping
Problem: Assuming we're still talking about a DAW situation, the RMS (overall) level is
low when you see it on an analog VU meter. This low level corresponds to the low level on your
CDR copies (so long as you haven't put it through a Finalizer or "mastering" pluggin to address
this issue). When engineers (in all good intention) try to compensate for that low level, they can
unknowingly get into trouble and lessen the quality of the mix.
One common method I see is when the engineer puts a compressor on the stereo buss, enabling him
(or her) to bring up the level. The compressor can even out some RMS surges that don't show up
on digital meters, so when used carefully, it can be a good thing. But from my perspective, it's
better to compress the individual tracks that are causing those surges instead of pushing down
the whole stereo mix when that surge occurs. This is why RMS VU meters are a good tool to have
(at least) for your stereo mixes. But how do we make the two kinds of meters match so that you
get the benefit of each without that Finalizer to approach a more "mastered" sound?
The DMM's meter range switch is designed to help this exact problem. You set your workstation
to operate normally, and visually calibrate the VU meters to match your DAW. Now you can watch
the digital peak meters and see RMS levels on the VU meters. This helps the engineer make better
mixing choices in case some vocals or other non-peak sounds surge out (even though the peaks
aren't going "over"). The engineer can now adjust the compression on voices, bass and other
instruments more accurately by being able to see both kinds of meters in a matched context
(situation). This is an entirely new idea only found on this monitor module.
What average level do you recommend for tracking?
If I had VU meters on every track, and the tape was aligned to +5, I would set the kic level
to -2 VU, snare to -1V, hi hat to -6VU, toms to -1VU, overheads to -3VU, bass to -1 or 0VU,
vocals to 0VU or +1 occasionally, guitars to 0VU, keyboards to -1 or 0VU, high percussion like
tambourine to -10 or -8VU, conga or low percussion to -2VU, strings to -2VU, brass to -2VU. Hi
frequency peak material needs more headroom.
On digital, just stay -1 to -2dB below clipping.
I thought that I have to get some audiophile cables that I can take all the advantage out
from the Discrete Monitor Module
Better cables are a good way to improve the sound, but regular cables won't damage the good qualities
of the DMM-8. Sometimes we have to take upgrades in steps - sometimes big steps, sometimes small.
The DMM-8 will still be a big advantage even with regular cables. With every improvement you make in
the chain, it will be more evident (you'll know it more) because the DMM-8 is giving a better signal
to be revealed.
You wrote on one of your webpages that you donīt like active speakers, because the electronics
are in movement, but Genelecs have these rubber "holders" for the electronics, and while the
subwoofer is connected all the lower frequensies are coming out from the sub, so the speakers
are not "shaking" too much.
I have my power amp 6 feet away from my speakers, and when I use heavy brass weights on top of
the amp to stop vibration, it helps the sound! The power amp inside the Genelec speaker,
regardless of isolators, is vibrating a lot.
I have two kind of sticks (wooden) under my speakers and I think it clarifies the sound, what
do you think, could it help or am I just imagining? (I didn'tīt find those glass marbles anywhere)
You're using the same idea, which is to disconnect (decouple) the speaker from the stand. Trust
your ears! Pet stores should have some flat-style glass marbles... like Petco I guess. If you want
easy enhancements for your sound now, check out the high end power cords that open up the top end,
extend the bottom, and focus the sound of any gear... Plus vibration isolators and more!
American engineers are great people, always so helpful. I have e-mailed to engineer called Bruce
Miller too and he mailed back in 2 hours! I was really pleased! Iīve wrote several and several e-mails
for Finnish engineers and studio staff and nobody have replied, and Iīll bet they are not that busy
that you are!
Many of us know the good feeling of helping our fellow engineers. I hope this helps.
John Vestman is a veteran mastering engineer with over 26 years in the industry.
His credits include: Hole (Courtney Love), Juice Newton, Ambrosia, Andre Crouch, The Wynans,
Great White, Candyman, Billy Davis Jr./Marilyn McCoo and more. John Vestman Mastering is located
in Orange County, California, and his web site http://johnvestman.com offers over 40 pages of
information about successful studio recording techniques and sound philosophy.