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VSTs at different levels out of the box

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On 10/6/2019 at 12:43 PM, Robert Bone said:

Some VST instruments really peg their preset volumes way louder than they should be - there is no standard, so from one instrument to the next initial plugin instrument volume can be all over the place.  Lots of plugin authors like their presets to sound 'punchy/loud' and they are set to initial values that are way too loud.

Whenever I load a plugin instrument or live instrument/mic, I always set the combo of the plugin output volume and the assigned/associated audio track(s) gain setting to a peak of around -18, so that I have lots of room to work with.  

Bob Bone

 

So just to clarify, for a VST instrument for example, you set the associated audio track/s gain so it's peaking around -18dB? Or do you lower the fader the on the synth audio track?

Amongst the the things I've read/watched this week one suggestion has been to set the audio track/s level at -10dB either in the composing (MIDI track) stage or at the mixing stage (in a new project after exporting all MIDI tracks to audio); then I'll have plenty of room to play with when mixing/mastering the final product. Does that make sense to you?

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Just to be clear - I am NOT an audio guru - I am a keyboard player that does his best with the music production process.  All I can do is tell you what I do.  I do try to confirm things I write about, but still sometimes get things wrong.

I suggest looking at some articles/videos about the topic of Gain Staging, which is the process of managing gain through the path of the signal from the input at the top of the channel strip, through the output at the bottom of the channel strip.

Here is a pretty good one, from Sound On Sound: https://www.soundonsound.com/techniques/gain-staging-your-daw-software 

It also helps to have an idea of how signal flows through Cakewalk.  Here is a link to that (the basic flow through a channel strip is from top to bottom): 

https://www.cakewalk.com/Documentation?product=Cakewalk&language=4&help=Mixing.07.html

Gain is the level of the input signal and volume is the level of the output signal, for a gain stage, and the term Gain Stage refers to every point along the signal path, where the gain can be set, so Gain Staging is the process of setting/managing gain at each gain stage along the signal path. 

This is true as well, through each effect in an effect chain - each effect has an input gain, the effect processing, possible make-up gain, and output, and on through the next effect om the chain, etc.  Gain Staging is best done in a top-down fashion, following the signal path.

Basically, I want to end up with a clean mix, with no clipping or noise, so I try to properly set gain at every point along its path (  If the signal is too high, it can cause clipping, or not get the best result from an effect (even if not clipping it can be too hot for best results when going through an effect), and if the signal drops too low, I may have to add a bunch of gain back in, which can introduce noise.  (not like back in the analog/tape days, because the digital noise floor or balance of signal to noise, is just amazing these days in the digital world).

I start with faders at Unity, and I leave them alone when setting gain staging.  They control volume after the signal has already gone through any channel effects, and they are most precise within the vicinity of unity, so I do not involve them in gain staging - they are for balancing relative volumes of the different channel strips. .  start by looking at the loaded instrument's own main output volume - this is often set really hot, so I start by dialing that down in the instrument, if needed, sometimes by a bunch - to get it down to somewhere around -14 to -15, and then dropping it down some more with the track gain knob, to get it initially set to about -18.  This usually leaves me plenty of room for using additional mix buses without bringing the signal too high by the time it gets to the master bus.

I do an A/B (before and after) comparison of what affect an effect has on the signal, by turning that effect off/on and making sure I haven't either raised the signal or dropped the signal, as a result of going through that effect.

The earlier gain is set properly, the better, (meaning as high in the signal chain as possible), and that starts at the instrument output volume.    If you try to manage gain using your faders, you are too far down the signal chain, as your faders come in after your signal has already gone through and returned from your effects.

Others can do a far better job than I, at explaining the above, I also haven't had any coffee yet, so apologies for any confusing or ignorant statements above. :)

Bob Bone

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2 hours ago, CDK said:
On 10/5/2019 at 7:43 PM, Robert Bone said:

Whenever I load a plugin instrument or live instrument/mic, I always set the combo of the plugin output volume and the assigned/associated audio track(s) gain setting to a peak of around -18

So just to clarify, for a VST instrument for example, you set the associated audio track/s gain so it's peaking around -18dB? Or do you lower the fader the on the synth audio track?

Note that Bob said he sets the combination of instrument Output and audio track Gain to get the desired input level to the track. Ignoring  live hardware inputs for the moment since they aren't affected by track gain, and  this thread is about soft synths, the Instrument output level will be determined either by a fader/knob in the synth GUI, or - as I described earlier - by the MIDI track Volume.  Gain is the knob at the top of the track Inspector or the fader labeled 'Gain' in and audio/synth track header (when showing Mix or All controls). Note that on a Simple Instrument track that hasn't been split into separate MIDI and audio 'Synth' tracks, you have to use the Audio tab of the track Inspector to access audio Gain.

Usually when people say 'fader' without any reference, they mean the output Volume fader.  What Bob and others are advocating is to get the input Gain level  (what you see when an audio/synth track is armed for recording) to some nominal value like peaking at -18dB), and then use the output Volume level to control the level of that instrument in the mix.

There is no fixed rule for where to set the track Volume fader to start. The more tracks you have, the lower each one has to be for the sum to stay under 0dB on the Master bus with Gain and Volume controls at unity (0dB). In a DAW, buses effectively have unlimited headroom at the input so, if you want, you can control the summed level by simply pulling the input Gain on the bus down, and not worry about the fact that somewhere in the DAW's floating-point math inner workings, the summed level is theoretically above full scale.  But in order to get a good feel for how it all works, it's a best practice to  pull your track output Volumes down to keep the sum peaking  under ~6dB at the input to the Master bus.

More food for thought. I would suggest you close your browser at this point, and go play with all the controls in Cakewalk to see what they do.  ;^)

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25 minutes ago, David Baay said:

Note that Bob said he sets the combination of instrument Output and audio track Gain to get the desired input level to the track. Ignoring  live hardware inputs for the moment since they aren't affected by track gain, and  this thread is about soft synths, the Instrument output level will be determined either by a fader/knob in the synth GUI, or - as I described earlier - by the MIDI track Volume.  Gain is the knob at the top of the track Inspector or the fader labeled 'Gain' in and audio/synth track header (when showing Mix or All controls). Note that on a Simple Instrument track that hasn't been split into separate MIDI and audio 'Synth' tracks, you have to use the Audio tab of the track Inspector to access audio Gain.

Usually when people say 'fader' without any reference, they mean the output Volume fader.  What Bob and others are advocating is to get the input Gain level  (what you see when an audio/synth track is armed for recording) to some nominal value like peaking at -18dB), and then use the output Volume level to control the level of that instrument in the mix.

There is no fixed rule for where to set the track Volume fader to start. The more tracks you have, the lower each one has to be for the sum to stay under 0dB on the Master bus with Gain and Volume controls at unity (0dB). In a DAW, buses effectively have unlimited headroom at the input so, if you want, you can control the summed level by simply pulling the input Gain on the bus down, and not worry about the fact that somewhere in the DAW's floating-point math inner workings, the summed level is theoretically above full scale.  But in order to get a good feel for how it all works, it's a best practice to  pull your track output Volumes down to keep the sum peaking  under ~6dB at the input to the Master bus.

More food for thought. I would suggest you close your browser at this point, and go play with all the controls in Cakewalk to see what they do.  ;^)

One slight addition to the notion of why it is suggested to do all the Gain Staging with faders set to Unity and left alone at that point. 

If you look at a fader, they are purposefully created so that the closer it is to Unity, the more precise the adjustments are, as the fader is moved.  In other words, the scale of movement is quite different, near Unity, than it is if you look at, say, -30 dB.  SO, it is generally recommended to get all your Gain Staging set while leaving the faders at Unity, so that when you DO start to use them to actually adjust relative volumes between tracks, very precise adjustments can be made.  They build them this way for that very reason.

Bob Bone

 

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To solve the issue of different VST's having this crazy all over the map outputs I use custom presets for the ones I use the most. I also have track templates saved where I've already tweaked them to my liking. The default levels are normally a bit loud. I think they do this because of the "Everything will sound better if it's louder" rule.  

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11 hours ago, Cactus Music said:

To solve the issue of different VST's having this crazy all over the map outputs I use custom presets for the ones I use the most. I also have track templates saved where I've already tweaked them to my liking. The default levels are normally a bit loud. I think they do this because of the "Everything will sound better if it's louder" rule.  

EGGGGGZACTLY!  Yup - I absolutely LOVE track templates, and in addition to setting up one for every drum kit I use, I also have some standard ones for individual synths with specific presets, including associated audio and midi tracks and settings, and some commonly grouped instruments I use with Kontakt - like Piano, Strings, Bass, and Organ.  It is nice to have all the levels, tracks, sounds, and assignments set up and brought into projects as needed, with just a couple of mouse clicks.

I also have some standard Project Templates set up, that I can quickly select from and launch one, when I get some noodle running around in my head, and want to capture it in some fashion - prior to it evaporating from my brain.  These would include the whole raft of stuff connected to a Battery 4 drum kit or AD2, as well as a few flavors of instruments - all done to speedily get me up and running in a pre-fab project to record my noodles.  (I often tap out odd-metered rhythms on the steering wheel when out and about, and will launch one of these noodle templates as soon as I get back home, before my brain switches to another channel).

Life is SO much easier when levels are saved with already reasonably set output levels - so rather than having to do identical gain staging anytime I load the same Kontakt piano, I will - (ahead of time) - get the desired one loaded up and its output volume dropped down in the neighborhood of -18 dB, and then save it in the same folder as it would normally come from, with a new name - (nothing fancy - I just add "00-GS", without the quotes, to the front of its original instrument name).  That way, whenever I want to open the folder for that piano, to see the available instruments to choose from, any of the ones I already set levels for show up alphabetically at the top of the instrument list, so I see those first.

I just LOVES Me those Track and Project Templates in CbB.  :)

Bob Bone

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3 hours ago, Robert Bone said:

EGGGGGZACTLY!  Yup - I absolutely LOVE track templates, and in addition to setting up one for every drum kit I use, I also have some standard ones for individual synths with specific presets, including associated audio and midi tracks and settings, and some commonly grouped instruments I use with Kontakt - like Piano, Strings, Bass, and Organ.  It is nice to have all the levels, tracks, sounds, and assignments set up and brought into projects as needed, with just a couple of mouse clicks.

I also have some standard Project Templates set up, that I can quickly select from and launch one, when I get some noodle running around in my head, and want to capture it in some fashion - prior to it evaporating from my brain.  These would include the whole raft of stuff connected to a Battery 4 drum kit or AD2, as well as a few flavors of instruments - all done to speedily get me up and running in a pre-fab project to record my noodles.  (I often tap out odd-metered rhythms on the steering wheel when out and about, and will launch one of these noodle templates as soon as I get back home, before my brain switches to another channel).

Life is SO much easier when levels are saved with already reasonably set output levels - so rather than having to do identical gain staging anytime I load the same Kontakt piano, I will - (ahead of time) - get the desired one loaded up and its output volume dropped down in the neighborhood of -18 dB, and then save it in the same folder as it would normally come from, with a new name - (nothing fancy - I just add "00-GS", without the quotes, to the front of its original instrument name).  That way, whenever I want to open the folder for that piano, to see the available instruments to choose from, any of the ones I already set levels for show up alphabetically at the top of the instrument list, so I see those first.

I just LOVES Me those Track and Project Templates in CbB.  :)

Bob Bone

+ 10,000

All that right there! 😊

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Huge time saver for me when making backing tracks. I have over 200 now and I need them all to be exactly the same mix. 

I get weird glitches where even though there is no volume controller data my Ample bass will jump to a louder level than the pre set. I will catch that right away by the level in the meter. 

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Thanks for all your replies, everyone. I'm a very experienced MIDI programmer but not as experienced in audio processing. I appreciate all your help :)

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Actually one last question for today/tonight.

Can anyone suggest a good tutorial on using compressors/limiters (in BandLab) to get my finished track up to a volume level similar to commercially produced tracks, please?

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On 10/6/2019 at 9:23 AM, lapasoa said:

Instead to speculating about every single VST gain, it would be much better in your mixing to use your ear and your creativity and you'll be fine.

Solid gold advice.

When confronted with hugely varying signal levels coming from multiple virtual instruments, rather than wasting your time trying to get them in the same range, fire them all up with whatever's coming out, whether they're almost pegging your meters or barely audible, and use your ear and your creativity to make that mix happen.

All that other speculation about gain staging and whatever, it's just superfluous. Who cares? It's all digital. Same with compressors and limiters. Even if you've never used them before and have no idea how they're supposed to work, or even what the function of any of the knobs is, just use your ear. Keep adjusting the controls until it sounds like you want it to. Then you're done.

You think I'm kidding? Darn straight I am.

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On 10/8/2019 at 12:33 AM, Robert Bone said:

I do agree that using one's ears is a critical part of the whole music production, from start to finish, however I have seen many sources give -18 dBFS as a good target peak for digital audio recording.

From a Sound On Sound article on Gain Staging: "If you take the sound with the highest peak levels and set it so that it peaks at between -12 and -18 dBFS, you shouldn't run into problems with plug-ins or summing on the mix bus".

In any case, I initially set instrument volume and gain to a target of around -18 dBFS for my digital audio recording projects, without involving faders at that point.  (Avoid using faders for initial gain staging, because they affect signal after the plugins, and by adjusting instrument volume and gain, you are setting appropriate levels for sending signal to the plugins).

Bob Bone

If we're talking virtual instruments for a moment - so when you get to the mixing stage (after you've done all your gain staging), do you export your audio into a new project and begin adding eq/fx etc from there? Would you normalize your tracks first?

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