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Meter Madness!!!

Many engineers go through the experience of happily completing mixes on a digital audio workstation (DAW) and being disappointed by how low the overall volume on a CDR copy is when compared with 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

DAW peak meters are effective for some things, not for all. I highly recommend getting analog VU meters at some point in your audio chain. Preferably at the mic pre/early compressor stage. Also in the stereo mix chain, it's essential.

Peak meters only tell you the Full Scale level (dBFS) of your audio. VU meters tell you the RMS (average - more "percieved by ear") level. Often, these two metering systems give users some confusion.

In the days of analog, every level was standardized. Today, it's anybody's guess, and it's too easy to over-drive your gear and/or your plugins.


Digital does not have "tape hiss" which largely drove the need for "hot" levels that gave better "signal to noise ratio," But now it's different.

If you have set your workstation's bit rate to 24, you can do better with tracking peaks from -10dBFS to -4dBFS -- forget trying to "use all the bits" unless you're in 16 bits (even then the analog gear shouldn't be "slammed" unless you must be a rule-breaker.)

Headroom in digital is a good thing, and you should have it for tracking and at mix time. Mixing is an art, and mixing for LOUD is an art too. When in doubt, listen musically, not competitively.

..and keep it around 0VU on your analog meters will look different on your workstation's Full Scale meters depending on the peak content of your audio signal. A tiny orchestra triangle will show big peaks, but very little VU level.

Remember, a reading on a
VU (volume units) analog meter (with those cool little wavy needles) is showing you the overall level -- and dBFS (decibels full scale) on a digital meter is showing you peak level. 

VU meters have a "bonus" area of +1, +2, +3 (in the red) but they were really designed with analog tape in mind.  When analog tape was around, there was actually 11 MORE dB of spec headroom above +3 before the tape distorted.  There is no such invisible headroom on a dBFS peak meter - it's showing you everything. 

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 when possible.

Meter levels pertain to a certain amount of signal strength that relates an amount of voltage to an amount of volume.  The signal strength and volume depends on what you put into it... so a test tone will show a certain reading (there's no peak information in a sine wave test tone) but music will show something else, depending on how much energy is in the signal.  Lows have more energy than highs --- but a peak is a peak is a peak - regardless of the overall output energy! 

A -16 dBFS sine wave test tone will in fact give you the standard (+4 line level) signal strength if the output of your D-A 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.

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 NEMO DMC-8 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 DMC-8

Better cables are a good way to improve the sound, but regular cables won't damage the good qualities of the DMC-8. Sometimes we have to take upgrades in steps - sometimes big steps, sometimes small. The DMC-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 DMC-8 is giving a better signal to be revealed.

You wrote on one of your webpages that you don´t 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't´t 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! I´ve wrote several and several e-mails for Finnish engineers and studio staff and nobody have replied, and I´ll 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.

Date created: 8/21/03 • Updated02/04/04
Some updating 7-28-11
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