Digital Tape: Recreating Analog Signal Flow in the Box

In an earlier series, I wrote about the power of gain staging to structure your mix and shape your sound. I wanted to touch on that again and lay out a plugin chain that recreates an analog workflow. In short, it looks like this:

  • Clipper
  • VU Meter
  • Console Input Stage
  • Tape

You can use any of your favorite plugins for this, but below I’ll go through the ones I like and how I’m using them to shape the mix.

Clipper // TDR Limiter 6 ($60)

DAWs work in 32-bit floating point resolution, which means they’ll let you get away with murder as far as gain-staging goes. Placing a clipper first in the chain simulates how analog gear responds to peaks; come in too hot and it shaves them right off.

Keep in mind that if you’re gain-staging properly, you should only be clipping off a peak or two across the whole song; this is just a safety to catch the big spikes. Vocals and sustained instruments should’t be anywhere close to clipping; as such, I only use this on percussive tracks such as drums & slapped bass.

tdr

Limiter 6 is an incredible plugin, and a full-fledged mastering tool in its own right. Here, I’m just using one of its modules to clip off incoming peaks. You can tune it to focus on LF & HF content, and you can set a soft or a hard knee as desired; I usually set it to a -6dB threshold with a 2db knee. Continue reading “Digital Tape: Recreating Analog Signal Flow in the Box”

Digital Tape: Gain-Staging Drums

Note: the following post makes use of Klanghelm VUMT and TDR Limiter 6. To get the most out of these posts, head over to their sites and support some awesome developers!


drums

In our last post we covered how to apply analog gain-staging practices to melodic material. However, our ears respond much differently to percussive material, which is composed of transients instead of tones.

ppm

A PPM meter responds much more quickly to level changes, and as such it’s better suited to drums and percussion. Using VUMT, pull up a DIN meter and apply it to a snare or kick track. Adjust the pre-fader clip volume so that the needle is reading a little under 0.

Here’s an example of a snare track after I’ve adjusted the gain:

snare

You’ll notice that while the hits are fairly consistent, there are couple hits around the 1/3rd mark that are much louder than the rest. In our last post, we dealt with this problem by manually adjusting the volume; while this is a completely valid approach, it’s not always an option to go through hundreds of hits by hand. Instead, let’s take an analog approach. Continue reading “Digital Tape: Gain-Staging Drums”

Digital Tape: Gain-Staging Vocals

Note: the following post makes use of Klanghelm VUMT, an incredible plugin that costs about $15 USD. To get the most out of these posts, head over to the site and support an awesome developer!


vocals

Hugh Robjohns begins his article on VU & PPM meters with the following quote:

These are both, strictly speaking, obsolete analogue metering formats! In short, the VU meter shows an averaged signal level and gives an impression of perceived loudness, while a PPM indicates something closer to the peak amplitude of the input signal. However, in our modern digital world, neither meter really performs adequately.

He has a point; if you’re mastering for broadcast, you want a digital meter that’s able to respond with pinpoint accuracy. However, I’d like to focus on part of that quote:

The VU meter … gives an impression of perceived loudness.

While digital meters do a great job of letting you know if your signal is clipping, they don’t correlate much with what you’re actually hearing. One of the reasons people love mixing outside the box is that analog meters move the way the music does. So let’s set up some analog meters.

meter

Klanghelm VUMT is my favorite meter plugin, and it has far more features than we’ll need today. For now, just bring it up as a simple VU meter and apply it to a vocal track. Adjust the track volume (pre-fader) in the DAW so that the meter is reading around 0VU for sustained vocal phrases. Continue reading “Digital Tape: Gain-Staging Vocals”

Digital Tape: Analog Gain-Staging in the Box

gear

In my opinion, gain-staging is the most important step of the mix process. Properly preparing your audio sets the foundation for your mix; unfortunately, this step is often neglected or misunderstood. So in the hopes of simplifying this process, I’m starting a series of short posts on how to apply analog mixing practices to the digital domain.

One of the biggest differences between analog & digital is the way the equipment responds to level. When recording through tape & tube equipment, there’s a sweet spot in the middle of the range where fidelity and signal-to-noise is optimized. Get the level too low and your signal gets lost in hiss; get the level too high and it’ll distort. 24-bit digital is an entirely different picture; get the level too low and it’s not much of a problem, as long as your peaks aren’t clipping. Compounding this problem is the fact that digital meters don’t do the best job of representing what we actually hear.

Because we’re not fighting for a smaller sweet spot, we tend to be more relaxed when it comes to gain-staging in the digital world. This is fine for recording, but it creates big problems when you enter the mix stage, because:

  • if your levels aren’t consistent, your faders won’t be representative of the actual mix.
  • if you have multiple tracks that are close to peaking, they’ll clip your master bus when combined.
  • saturation, distortion, and analog-emulation plugins are level-dependent just like analog gear.

What we want is tracks whose levels are consistent in relation to each other, high enough to optimize signal-to-noise, low enough to leave plenty of headroom on the master bus, and gain-staged for use with analog emulations. How do we do this? Read on.

>> Digital Tape, Pt. 2: Gain-Staging Vocals

Gear Talk: Quality Over Quantity

Noname


I’m a firm believer in using a small set of tools that you know inside & out, and this applies very strongly to my audio workflow. Rather than downloading massive plugin bundles, I’d highly recommend learning to work with just one DAW, one EQ, one compressor, and one reverb until you’re intimately familiar with the principles of each. 90% of my work is done with 4 very powerful pieces of software that I’ve listed below, and I’d highly recommend them to anyone who’s doing audio work at any level.

DAW // REAPER ($60)

Your DAW is your workflow, and workflow is the most important part of the mix process. I’ve been using REAPER for years, and I wholeheartedly recommend it for everything from editing podcasts & recording live shows to mixing & mastering studio albums. REAPER isn’t just cheaper than Pro Tools & Logic; in my opinion, it’s better. There are so many things I love about this DAW; free updates for life, incredible stability, fast & intuitive clip editing tools, flexible audio routing, great hardware integration, and perfect audio quality. I was able to use it competently after a few days of experimentation, but 2 years later I bought a hard copy of the manual and realized how many incredible features I hadn’t even discovered. Continue reading “Gear Talk: Quality Over Quantity”

Gear Talk: Buying Used Software

It took me a while to realize this, but you can buy audio software secondhand. Used software is the same as new software, but with a little patience you can buy your plugins for far less than their sticker price (usually about 50% off). Here’s a list of places where you can buy licenses; all of these are reputable communities with checks & balances to make sure you’re not paying for pirated software.

I’ve been buying from these forums for years now and I’ve only had good experiences; that said, make sure you pay through a service that allows disputes in case anything falls through.

Mixing Live Music: Hippocratic Filters with Bessel Curves

Noname


Around a year ago I came across an enlightening post by Bob Macc on the consequences of treating your tracks with aggressive filters. You should go check it out yourself, but the big idea is that using steep filters causes phase distortion that reaches all the way up and down the frequency spectrum. Phase distortion removes clarity and impact from your mix, so it’s not good. With that in mind, I’ve come up with some points of good practice for filtering your audio.

First, use gentle filter slopes. 6db/octave is my go-to for LPFs, and 12db/octave is my go-to for HPFs. This lessens the impact of phase distortion, but most importantly, it sounds more natural and there’s less risk of accidentally cutting out the good stuff.

Second, use a Bessel curve. Bessel filters are linear phase, which means there’s near-zero phase distortion when they’re implemented correctly. While some EQs have linear phase DSP options, remember that if you’re using steep filter slopes, linear phase will cause distortion too; it’s the combination of gentle slopes and Bessel curves that’ll preserve your audio.

This advice is in line with the Hippocratic philosophy of mixing, e.g. “do no harm.” I’m mixing mostly acoustic music, hut it doesn’t matter if you’re mixing orchestral, folk, punk, or EDM; phase distortion from filters is rarely something you want. Following the two points above will save you a lot of mix clarity and let you put the distortion where you want it.