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Gain Staging In Logic Pro

Apple Logic Pro Tips & Techniques By Stephen Bennett
Published November 2021

Giving yourself plenty of headroom when recording will help you get the most out of your plug‑ins and give you greater flexibility when mixing.

In the dim and distant days of analogue audio production, the limitations in the signal‑to‑noise ratio of contemporary equipment meant that engineers had to make sure that audio passing through each piece of equipment was as ‘hot’ as possible. This usually meant aiming for the VU meter bouncing around the 0dBu level in mixers, effects and tape machines. But that was until engineers found out that some equipment sounded wonderful when you exceeded these sensible levels!

Things are very different in the digital realm, and it’s taken quite a while for us to really understand what the ‘best practice’ might be when recording and mixing in the brave new world of ‘in‑the‑box’ production. Understanding how you might deal with gain at different stages of the recording, mixing and mastering processes is crucial — especially if you want to break any ‘rules’ that may exist!

Virtual effects have become much better over the years at modelling the nonlinear characteristics of analogue circuitry, and many respond in almost the same way as their hardware counterparts...

No Gain, No Pain

It’s important to be clear about the relationship between analogue (dBu) and digital (dBFS) levels, as these are not the same thing at all. While you can push an input signal into an analogue mixer to well over 0dBu until its electronic headroom is reached, if you exceed 0dBFS with an analogue‑to‑digital (A‑D) converter, you’ll get digital distortion — which is very nasty and usually unwelcome. There is no headroom over 0dBFS in the digital world and the signal is basically shorn off, or ‘clipped’. If you want to play about with this kind of distortion, it’s better to record cleanly and add clipping in post-production, where you have a chance to change things if they go wrong.

The very best A‑D converters have a dynamic range (ie. the difference between the loudest and quietest signals they can represent) of around 120dB, but 24‑bit digital recordings have a dynamic range of 144dB (16‑bit is 96dB), so there’s no need to keep your meters close to maximum any more to reduce noise levels. Giving yourself plenty of headroom when recording will give you greater flexibility when mixing. At the other end of the signal chain, you should never push levels right up to 0dBFS (or above) at your stereo output channel, as this will clip the digital‑to‑analogue (D‑A) converter. Perhaps perversely, some people appear to like the sound when this happens, but even if that’s the case, you need to be aware that some playback systems, especially CDs, can have problems...

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