Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) Gain Staging
Gain Staging is about controlling the levels of channels, busses/groups and master channel for a better mix process.
Why is it important
Controlling levels are important when you mix 40+ channels and do not want to end up with very little headroom to work with. It is easy to work your self into a too little headroom corner that forces you to restructure your mix several times in the process.
Channel faders sensitivity is best around unity/0 dB, so a channel meter reading at -16 to -10 dB is preferable with the fader in unity.
Gain Staging starts outside you DAW
- Synthesizers and instruments volume that goes into you DAW
- Preamps output gain
The first and most important stage is the input to your DAW. Pre Amps and Software Instruments can be output gained to help your DAW breathe. It is often enough to turn down the master volume on the Software Instrument to get a healthy input level on the mixer channel.
Lots of virtual analog emulated plugins are calibrated to -18 dB as VU 0. That makes -6 dB input very hot.
K-14 is a Gain Staging system invented by Bob Katz for managing headroom. K-14 means that 0 dB is moved 14 dB down from full digital scale so that yellow and red indicators start at 0 dBFS - 14 dB. In Bob Katz system actual listening levels are also included but we do not need that.
This is a fine metering solution for music production. It gives you a solid headroom and faders closer to unity, where the sensitivity is best.
24-bit audio has 142 dB dynamic range so leaving some dBs at the top makes no difference in a modern low noise floor digital production.
In the mastering process the mastering engineer will just turn up the input as needed.
Voxengo has made a free Spectrum Analyzer plugin named SPAN. It is one of the better free Analyzers and has K-14 mode.
Voxengo SPAN with K-14 metering, Correlation- and RMS Meters. Good gain staging plugin
In Cubase the master channel meter has a K-14 mode, where the 0 dB line is 14 dB lower than full digital scale 0.
In preferences you can change the behavior of the channel meters to match closer to K-14.
In Preferences Metering->Appearance you can set the metering behavior to match your preferred green, yellow, red limits to accommodate K-14 or your own preferences.