Before getting into any mix, it’s wise to check your gain staging of your tracks. Now I know I am definitely guilty of not doing proper gain staging for a good couple of years in my music productions. But when I learnt what it was and how it worked it, changed up my mixes completely.
Basically what gain staging is, is checking the input levels of your tracks before starting any mix processing and mix adjustments. If the input coming in on a track is too high, and you apply mix processing to it like a an EQ or Overdrive effect, you might make the track too hot with the bundled gaining in the effect processing, plus you will also have limited headroom with work with, especially if numerous tracks are too high in their input levels as well. So the summing of all the audio tracks in your project could cause your master output to be too high.
So what you want to do is have an optimum gain level, so that when you start adding your effects and start mixing the tracks, you’re still leaving headroom for yourself to work within your mix.
Now in the digital world you do have more headroom available to you than in the analog world. But there is one difference, when you pushed your tracks a bit hard in the analog world the analog gear would clip the audio in a pleasing way because of the way that the analog circuitry soft clips the audio. Where in the digital world if you push your tracks to hard you get digital distortion, which isn’t to pleasing. So no matter if you’re coming from an analog background, or work entirely in the digital domain its good practice to understand gain staging in your mix process.
Ideally, you want your tracks to sit between -12db and 18db. So you can either use the meters on your tracks if they have a good decibel read out, or look at using a dedicated decibel reading plugin on your tracks, like a VU Meter plugin. TB Pro Audio has their freeware MV Metter plugin.
Then go through each track and check if they are sitting between this range.
The reason for this -12db to -18db range, is when you start introducing numerous tracks into your project all at around this level, the sum of these tracks will be louder through the master output, but still headroom left to work with.
And another reason for the audio in this range is that it’s a good input level to work with to push through your audio plugins. It won’t be pushing the effects too hard or too soft. Therefore, giving you a good guide when you start applying your effects.
So that is gain staging for you in a nutshell. I found that by applying proper gain staging before starting a mix I got better results, so try this out in your next mix project and see how it works out for you.