Let’s talk about gain staging plugins. How much attention do you pay to the input and output level of your plugins? Managing the level that your signal arrives to, and leaves a plugin at, makes a huge difference to your mixes. This is the case for three reasons…
1. Maintaining headroom:
As you start to process signals through plugins, levels will likely start to leave your plugins louder than they arrived. Because of this, your signals can gradually get louder and louder. If you’re not paying attention, levels may creep up without you noticing and result in your audio channels peaking above 0dBFS.
2. Unmixing your mix:
Secondly, this causes a problem if, like me, you like to set your levels before you add your plugins. If you’re not gain staging plugins, levels may leave your plugins louder or quieter than they arrived. This will alter your mix. For this reason, it’s really important to manage the output level of your processed signal, and compensate for any changes.
3. Plugin sweet spots:
Thirdly, many plugins, especially those modelling analogue equipment, have an optimal level at which they’re designed to receive signals. This level can vary somewhat. But you’ll want the signal to reach your plugin at this optimal level if it’s to sound its best.
How to gain stage plugins:
Luckily, many plugins have an input and output control, as well as input and output meters. This makes gain staging plugins easy. Using these controls allows you to attenuate or boost signals as required. This ensures that plugins receive, and then output signals, at suitable levels.
When boosting frequencies on an EQ plugin, it stands to reason that the output level of the plugin will increase. Accordingly, you must reduce the output level of the plugin. This avoids the boost altering the levels of that track in your mix. It also reduces the risk of clipping in an instance where a number of frequencies have been boosted.
Similarly, a number of cuts to the frequency spectrum may cause the output level of an EQ plugin to drop. In this case, the output must be boosted to compensate and maintain the levels of your mix. The same is true in an instance where compression is applied to reduce loud parts of a signal. Often, after applying compression, the overall level of the compressed signal is turned up. You must set the output to an appropriate level. I generally bypass the plugins to see if the level has risen or dropped, and alter accordingly. I also monitor the plugin’s meters. Managing these input and output levels is an essential part of gain staging plugins.
What if my plugin doesn’t have an input or output control?
If your plugin doesn’t have an input or output control, there’s a simple solution. Add a trim plugin before the plugin to control the level at which the signal will reach the plugin. Add another after the plugin if you need to control the level after it leaves the plugin. I add a trim plugin to the beginning of every audio track in every mix to free up some headroom. Its part of the way I manage all of my mixing sessions.
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