Today I have a boring piece of advice for you that many of your other home studio buddies are overlooking. It’s not flashy, fancy, or clever, but if you learn this concept you will get better results in your current DAW and be one step closer to being a home studio master. Which is why you’re here after all, isn’t it?
More Than Just A Clip Light
It’s scary to see that most home studio owners treat their DAW’s meters as nothing more than a clip light. They don’t pay much attention at all to what the meter is reading and how hot their audio is (not visually, but numerically). In fact, they only check in with their meters if they see a clip light go off. Then we have a problem. If that’s all you need meters for, then why have the meter at all. Just give us a clip light.
But you’re smart, and you realize that their must be a purpose for fancy meters in your mix window. You read this website so you know to stop recording everything so hot in your DAW. But did you know that there is a sweet spot for digital recording? Long story short, you want to be recording your tracks at an average volume (not peak volume) of roughly -18dBfs.
The Digital Audio Sweet Spot
That’s right people, there is a digital audio sweet spot. Why -18dBfs? Well because that measurement is the signal equivalent of -0dBvu in the analog world. You know all those fancy pieces of analog gear? Compressors, preamps, etc? They generally have that nice old school VU meter with the jumping needle.
When that needle hovers on or around 0dB on a VU meter that is the sweet spot of that piece of equipment. That’s what the meter is there for. To help the engineer know when he’s running audio through the hardware at the optimal signal level for that piece of gear. Well 0dB on your DAW’s meter is not dBVU. It’s dBFS (full scale) and it’s a very different 0. That 0 is clipping, which is not good.
So the point is that the way converters work, -18dBfs will be pretty darn close to the analog equivalent of 0dBVU. And since many DAWs and plugins are built to emulate analog gear, that sweet spot is still smart to shoot for to get the best sound possible.
But Here Comes The Problem
But the problem comes from the fact that ever meter reads -18dBfs at different heights in different DAWs. Take a look at four meters from different DAWs and notice where -18dBfs reads on each. (From left to right: Logic Pro X, Studio One 2, Pro Tools 10, and Pro Tools 11)
You can see the confusion here. Logic’s meter reads -18dBfs as just above the half way point. Studio One reads it at just below the half way point. Pro Tools 10 reads it at only 30% up the meter (no wonder people recorded so hot in Pro Tools 10 and below) and Pro Tools 11 reads -18dbfs as 60% up the meter.
They are all different, so you must pay attention to where YOUR piece of software measures the sweet spot. Don’t blindly record without regard to the meter. Learn to watch it for more than just clipping, but for healthy signals that will sound their best in the digital domain.
Learn Your Meters
Next time you sit down to record, open up your DAW and take a good hard look at your meters. Locate roughly where -18 lives on that meter (not on the fader, but the actual meter itself). Burn that spot in your brain. Then shoot to have your signals living around that volume.
Remember, we’re not talking about your tracks peaking at -18dBfs. In fact they should peak higher. We’re talking about the average volume (RMS) here. You can get a meter to measure RMS, or you can just eyeball it. Either way, now you know the goal and that each DAW is different.