Gain staging, or why you should record quietly

The volumes of your recordings are of utmost importance while you are recording, mixing, and mastering. In other words, it really matters how loud your stuff is. This affects the quality of your finished product and the ease by which you can manage multiple tracks and get the best sonic results.

The trouble is, it can be confusing at times to know how loud is appropriate. How loud should we record? How loud should we mix? What about the ever elusive mastering stage? That’s what I’m here to explain.

Two important facts

I was convinced that recording to a level of 0 dB was the “sweet spot” for recording when I first starting digital recording. The problem with this statement is lack of context. 0 dB is a sweet spot only if you’re recording to an analog system and you’re measuring average volumes. The first fact to realize is that analog and digital measurements for volume are very different.

A typical analog meter measures volume from silence to a maximum much higher than 0 dB. A digital meter measures volume to a maximum of 0 dB. If you line up the two meters, you can see that the “sweet spot” of 0 db in analog is about the same level as -18 db in digital.

digital vs analog meters
digital vs analog meters

But the nature of recording hasn’t changed from analog to digital. You still need a reasonably loud source to record at a conservative level. The difference lies in how the measurement systems work. In analog, volume is measured in dbVU (decibel volume units). In digital, it’s measured in dbFS (decibels full-scale).

Analog meters show average levels (also called RMS levels). Digital meters show peak levels. In the digital realm, peak levels are critically important for one simple reason. If your signal exceeds 0 dbFS in digital, digital distortion is introduced. This is not the warm, fuzzy distortion of analog tape or tube saturation. Digital distortion is nasty and not musical in any way. In other words, you want to stay way clear of peak levels reaching that 0 dbFS mark.

Here’s a sample vocal recording I did where the peak levels reached about -12 dbFS.

And here’s another sample where the peak levels exceeded 0 dbFS.

This brings us to our second important fact. A finished, mastered song peaks very close to 0 dbFS. This is how we hear songs on CD, on the radio, and on streaming services. They are loud. But this loudness is the result of mastering, not recording. All professional recordings are captured and mixed at much lower levels. Part of the mastering process boosts the volume to get close to 0 dbFS without going over.

Recording

So you’ve armed a track for recording in your DAW (digital audio workstation) software. Note that in most DAWs, when a track is armed for recording, the meter shows the level of the incoming / recorded signal. When the track is not armed, the meter shows the playback level; this can be lower or higher than the recorded level depending on fader position and/or plug-ins. There also may be a setting for meters to show average levels, peak levels, or both. I prefer to have all my meters showing both.

When you’re performing (guitar, vocal, whatever) pay close attention to the peak levels. Most meters will “sticky” the peak level, meaning it shows a little mark where the highest peak occurred and keeps it there until there’s a higher signal. This is important because you want to make sure the highest peak doesn’t get anywhere close to 0 dbFS. I usually shoot for peaks around -12 dbFS to give myself enough room, in case something does peak at -10 dbFS or -6 dbFS.

Only things in the analog world determine the recorded level: the volume of your performance (or output level of your synth or amp), the distance from the microphone, and the gain setting of your preamp (i.e. the gain knob on your audio interface). That’s it. If you exceed 0 dbFS in your recording (referred to as “clipping”) then there’s nothing in the digital realm that can fix the distortion. You have to re-do the take at a lower level by reducing the level of the audio before it hits the digital converters.

If the signal sounds too quiet in your headphones, increase the level of the headphones. If the waveform looks small on the screen, zoom the view to see it better. You can always monitor at whatever level you like, just don’t record too loud.

Mixing and Summation

Avoiding digital distortion isn’t the only reason to record quietly. As you overdub track after track, each signal adds gain to the mix. Compare the peak levels of the individual tracks against the summed master channel below; it peaks much higher.

mixing summation
mixing summation

If the level in your master channel is getting too high (sometimes referred to as “hot”) then reduce the levels of your individual tracks. With projects having several or many tracks, they can be playing back at much lower levels than the recorded audio.

Plug-ins like compressors and EQs are optimized to work at conservative levels, usually around -18 dbFS or -12 dbFS. The specifics here don’t matter as much as just making sure your tracks are playing back at a reasonable level.

Sonic Clarity

Recording and mixing at conservative levels can result in mixes that are more dynamic, open, and detailed.  Plug-ins and your DAW have room to breathe, and perform all their complex algorithms in their optimized zones.

In the final mastering phase, a limiter is applied to achieve the final volume. A limiter is a plug-in that limits the volume to a prescribed level (usually just shy of 0 dbFS) without letting anything clip. For most mixes, the limiter can apply several decibels of volume, making the mastered song much louder than the mixed version. This is the only time in the production any level gets close to 0 dbFS; the final glossy coat that finishes the recording and prepares it for release to the world.

Write a Song Together Meetup

In September, I hosted a new event at my Meetup group, The Songwriting Supermarket. I invited members to get together and collaborate on writing a song in two hours. Three other talented songwriters showed up, and we had a blast writing and recording a new song, Don’t Fix Me.

Before the session, I asked each member to state their songwriting and instrument playing skills. Together, we had the bases covered in terms of lyrics, chord progressions, guitarists, singers, and one pianist (me).

I came up with a simple chord progression on the piano while Carole suggested an idea for a song that expressed a message of “It’s not up to you to try and fix me or my problems.” She came up with the title “Don’t Fix Me.”

Meanwhile, Layla, guitar in hand, suggested my chord progression was too complex, so we opted for something simpler. As it turned out, the chords we picked ended up being for the chorus. I wrote a slightly more complex chord progression for the verse.

Layla and Bruce came up with great phrases and rhymes, with some critical input from Carole to make sure we kept to the theme. Together they settled on lyrics for two verses and a chorus. Bruce worked out the melodies as I played the piano.

We collectively decided the song also needed a bridge. Since the verse and chorus were both in major keys (starting on the I and IV chord, respectively), I tried the relative minor for the bridge. Bruce jumped in with a melody that fit perfectly to finish the writing off with a short, 4-line bridge.

We recorded two takes on my Zoom recorder, with Bruce on vocals and myself on piano. For a two-hour session, we focused on getting something done, perfect or not. We managed a complete song, chords, melodies, lyrics, and structure all coming together. Kudos to Bruce, Layla, and Carole for a great session!

How to use the Circle of Fifths to write songs

I know many of you don’t care for music theory. It’s clinical, it’s boring, and it sucks the soul out of songwriting. Well, news flash: you’re using music theory whether or not you intend to. For myself, I know my theory pretty well, as I learned it at young age. I couldn’t tell you if I’m playing in a Mixolydian or Phrygian mode, though, except that it’s fun to throw “Phrygian” into normal conversation.

Case in point: the Circle of Fifths (the Circle). Download a hi-res copy here. I’ve been asked before if a certain chord progression is an example of the Circle of Fifths. The question is missing the point. The Circle of Fifths isn’t a technique like modulation or chord substitution. It’s a way of understanding the essential elements of western music: the notes, the intervals, the chords, and the relationships between them.

It’s the relationships between chords that make a chord progression. Referring to the Circle of Fifths can help you discover interesting chord progressions, particularly when you’re stuck for what the next chord wants to be.

Just like clockwork

The Circle looks much like a clock. Just like there are 12 hours on a clock, there are 12 notes on the Circle. (If you haven’t downloaded a copy yet, you’ll want to so you can refer to it as you read the rest of this article.)

Moving clockwise, each note is a fifth above the last one. A fifth, as we know, is the third note of a major or minor triad (3-note chord), and the fifth note of any major or minor scale. For example, the C-major chord is C-E-G. The G is a fifth above C, and one “hour” past C on the Circle of Fifths. Similarly, an A-major chord is A-C#-E. The E is a fifth above A, and one segment after A on the Circle. This pattern holds true for any starting point on the Circle of Fifths.  And it comes full circle; if you start on C and go up a fifth 12 times, you’ll be back to C.

But the Circle can also be used to represent chords. The outer circle refers to major chords, and the inside circle to their relative minor chords. Remember, the relative minor is always the VI chord in a major key.

For example, in the key of C-major, the 6 major and minor chords are:

I Chord II Chord III Chord IV Chord V Chord VI Chord
C-major D-minor E-minor F-major G-major A-minor

How many songs in C use a variation of these 6 chords? Many popular songs use only 3 or 4 of them. Now look at the Circle of Fifths. The chords touching the C-major are the other five major and minor chords in the key of C major.

Just like the notes, this hold true for whatever key you’re in, or your base starting point on the Circle. In the key of G, all the chords touching the G correspond to the other major and minor chords in that key.

There’s also a great youTube video that explains this well, specifically for guitarists.

Get experimental

Developing a chord pattern based on the six major or minor chords is tried and true. Even if you use the I, IV, and V chords in your verse and chorus, you could try starting with the II, III, or VI chord for your bridge. All the notes you’re using belong to the scale you’re in—i.e. you’re never going out of key.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever used a seventh chord. That’s the one that sounds bluesy or jazzy. It’s called a seventh chord because it’s a major chord plus a flattened seventh note. That is, the seventh note of the scale is taken down by one half-step or semitone. That note is out of key, technically, and it sounds Phrygian awesome (see? It works).

The point here is that going out of key is cool. It creates musical interest, adds tension and can really open up a song.

So how does this relate to the Circle of Fifths, you must be asking? Say you’re writing a song in the key of C-major, and you’re using the tried and true chords—the ones on the Circle that touch C. If you want to extend a little, say for your bridge, or heck, the third line of your verse, try a chord that’s “two hours away” from C. So, try a D-major, B-minor, Bb-major, or G-minor.  Just like the seventh chord, these chords have one note that’s out of the base key signature or scale. The other two notes of each chord remain grounded in the base key signature.

If you want to experiment further, try the chords that are “three hours away” from your I-chord. Once you start introducing chords that have two notes out of key, things start sounding weirder or more dissonant. The trick here is to stay grounded in your home base. It’s fun to travel to strange and exotic places, but it’s reassuring to come back home soon.

And of course, this holds true right around the clock. You can start on any chord and you’ll have five other chords that are guaranteed to work in consonant harmony with it. Try chords that are 2 or 3 hours away from your base, and things can get interesting.

A fine example

The Beatles were masterful at creating interesting changes in the songs without compromising catchiness. In other words, they did some weird stuff without making it sound weird.

Take A Hard Day’s Night as a fine example. The A part starts with G-major, F-major, and C-major. Even though it starts with a G-major, the section is clearly in the key of C-major. The G and F are either side of C in the Circle of Fifths. It’s very consonant (i.e. not dissonant). The second half, however, things start to shift. They introduce a D-major chord (“things that you do”). The D is “two hours away” from C. They quickly return to the G-C-G pattern they introduced at the top to finish off the section. It’s like you’re walking along the curb of a street, and just for a moment, you step on to the road (maybe into a puddle), then right back on the curb.

In the B section (“when I’m home…”) they shift to a B-minor. This is a great contrast for two reasons: it’s “two hours away” from the base C-major, and it’s the minor flavor (it’s also Paul taking the lead vocal from John). By the end of this section, they’ve returned to the D-major chord that we’ve heard before.

The twists are both subtle and noticeable. There’s no mistaking the B section for anything else when it comes in. They always return to base fairly quickly.

Light a new path to songwriting

I co-wrote a song called Light Your Way with Adi Aman for our band Beige Shelter. We released it in May for Mental Health Awareness month.

Download the chord/lyric sheet here.

The verse, pre-chorus, and chorus all remain in the E-major key with no dissonant chords. The pre-chorus introduces the F#m chord which wasn’t used in the verse. For the guitar solo section and bridge, we flipped over by “3 hours” to the C#-major chord. By the end of the bridge, we’re back on B-major which is perfectly consonant with returning to E-major for the final choruses. Sometimes when you step far away from your base key signature, it can be tricky to get back to base.

Writing with purpose

I don’t deny that sometimes you just stumble upon some magical moment when you’re writing; you don’t know why it works, but it sounds cool and different, and you go with it. For myself, I’ve been trying to embrace my intuition for writing more recently. Knowing about the theory doesn’t destroy your intuition; in fact, I think it strengthens it. If you practice writing with purpose enough, you’ll begin to forget the reasons you make excellent snap decisions, but you’ll make better ones and feel more confident that they’re right. Keep on writing.

Blair Packham and the Jitters show photography

I went to the album release party for Blair Packham, a top Canadian singer-songwriter who was the frontman for The Jitters a short while ago. He continues to write catchy, clever, and thoughtful songs and he also teaches songwriters at Song Studio in Toronto. I know Blair from his numerous appearances on Song Talk Radio (some of our best shows, thanks to Blair’s articulate insights into songwriting).

For this show at the Pilot, Blair performed songs from his new album Unpopular Pop with his band The Impossible Dream, and then took the stage with his old band The Jitters. I had a eureka moment when they played Last of the Red Hot Fools, as I recall that song being on the radio when I was a teenager, but I never lined up Blair (or the Jitters) with the song.

I’m glad I took my camera, as Blair really dug the photos (“Wow! Pictures of me that I don’t hate!”) I’ve been listening incessantly to the Jitters and Unpopular Pop since…

The (not so) secret ingredient to making your mixes sound good

When you start creating mixes, you quickly realize that the low and low-mid frequencies are problematic. Without care and attention, they can sound muddy, boomy, and unclear. Mid- and high frequencies are much easier to manage—you can have multiple instruments and voices taking up the same sonic bandwidth and still hear everything clearly. Try this in the low frequencies and it’s a mess.

We feel low frequencies in our bodies. It’s where the punch, the groove, and the drive of a track lives. It’s critical to your mix that instruments in the low frequencies be clear, full, and bold.

As with many mixing decisions, it’s not about increasing the level or power of bass elements; rather, it’s about eliminating the stuff that gets in their way.

The Secret

Enter the ubiquitous high-pass filter. The name is fairly self-explanatory; it filters out sound so that only high-frequencies pass through. The high-pass filter is sometimes called a low-cut filter. It’s easy to see how it works with a diagram. The horizontal represents frequencies, and the vertical represents amplitude, or volume.

a typical high-pass filter
a typical high-pass filter

In this example, the filter is set at 80 Hz, which means everything under 80Hz will be reduced in volume—just follow the slope of the line. For reference, 80 Hz is about the same as the low E string on a guitar. The low E string on a bass is one octave lower, about 40 Hz (that’s E2 and E1 on the piano).

For most instruments, including the human voice, there’s very little of value below 80 Hz. The bass guitar and thud of the kick drum usually live between 40 Hz and 250 Hz. So, the general wisdom is to high-pass everything except the bass and kick drum to 80 Hz or higher. The kick and bass will then have room to be heard clearly, which usually adds punch and groove to your mix.

Every single digital audio workstation (DAW, the software you use to record audio) has a high-pass filter. Usually, it’s a feature of your EQ (equalization) plug-in.

How high is your high pass?

The next question, then, is how high should you set your high-pass filters? That depends on your material. The rule of thumb is to dial up the filter during playback on a track until it starts sounding thin, then back down a bit. If you high-pass too much on guitars, pianos and vocals, you could rob the mix of warmth and body. If something sounds thin in solo, it could be just right in the mix; never judge your settings when listening to a track in solo—it only matters if the mix sounds good.

High-pass filters can also be used on bass and kick drum, but normally they are set very low. For dance music, you may want to include and emphasize the sub-bass (below 40 Hz). For most rock, pop, country and folk tracks, I recommend minimal high-pass filters on the bass and kick drum. Again, what matters is the kind of sound you’re after. Mix with purpose and you’ll get what to where you want to be much faster.

Microphones with high-pass filters

Some microphones have a switch for a high-pass filter. Usually it looks like this, where the crooked line indicates the “on” position for the filter. Usually they’re fixed at 80 Hz.

Microphone showing hi-pass filter switch
Microphone showing hi-pass filter switch

If you’re recording vocals or guitar (where there will be a bass in the arrangement), it’s advisable to use the high-pass filter on your microphone. Eliminating low frequencies you know you’re not going to need during the recording phase allows you to record a more consistent, louder signal.

Always mix with purpose

Finally, it’s easy to get carried away and high-pass everything judiciously. If you mix with purpose and subtlety, the overall effect can be dramatic. In other words, a subtle high-pass filter on 8 tracks, when they are all mixed together, can make a big difference.

I’ve personally found using high-pass filters to be the one technique that is universally effective on just about any mix, from a simple voice-over narration to a full band. Next to volume, it’s the move that makes the biggest difference to your mixes—in a good way.

If you’ve never mixed with using a high-pass filter, try it out on an old mix and see if it doesn’t clear out the muddiness and open up the sound. I’d love to hear your thoughts—leave a comment below.

Light Your Way collaborative songwriting

As part of the indie rock band Beige Shelter, we were approached to write a new song for a youth gang prevention event. Although we declined to perform for the event, we realized our new song was also a great message for mental health awareness and conversation.

My friend and Beige Shelter frontman Adi Aman had written a song a few years ago with a message to help out a friend going through some tough times. Adi sent me a rough recording and his lyric/chord sheet to play around with. In particular, he said he wasn’t very happy with the melody. Before I even got a chance to look at it, he followed up with a revised lyric that was more poetic and a bit more abstract.

The rewriting process

At the time, we were still involved in the youth prevention event, and I took this angle when rewriting the song. I thought a more direct lyric would be more effective in reaching young people. I also wanted to highlight the aspect of reaching out for help and getting it from friends and family. This, to me, is at the cornerstone of good mental health—people need to be willing to come forward and talk to someone they trust, and their communities need to be willing to listen, empathize and help as best they can.

I printed out Adi’s lyrics and chords and sat at my piano to work on the song. Starting with small edits, I quickly found myself rewriting entire phrases. I realized that using Adi’s lyrics as springboards, I could develop a much more direct song, and marry a melody to the words more easily. This is the sort of lyric I never would have come up with on my own, but using Adi’s original take as inspiration gave me the direction and focus I needed. Here are the working pages I used:

Page 1
Page 2
Page 3

I took care to develop a simple, flowing chord progression and catchy melodies. It was amazing how much mileage I could get from using C, G, F, and Am by playing around with the time between each chord change. I introduced a new, unheard chord to start the pre-chorus section. In other words, the Dm had not been heard in the song yet, but the rest of the pre-chorus chords were also used in the verse. This, along with the melodic centre change, was enough to give the listener a sign-post that the pre-chorus was a new section. For the chorus, I returned to the base C major chord but lifted the melody again.

Back and forth

I presented the revised song to Adi and he liked it very much. He had a few revisions for some of the chord changes, especially the unusual chords I used to end the chorus. Adi felt keeping it simple would be more effective, and once he sung it with his rich voice, I was compelled to agree.

Our bass player Tom made a suggestion for a lyric change at the end of the second verse:

Me: It goes “For your grief, but you know…” which is kinda cheap. We need a good word that rhymes with “grief.”

Tom: Believe.

Adi (singing): For your grief, but believe…

Me: And that flows great into the pre-chorus lyric “You have got the strength to carry on…” — well done, Tom!

Feedback from other songwriters

I presented the song at a Songwriter’s Cafe Meetup by playing back the recording from our latest rehearsal. Members found the song to have an inspiring message without being didactic, and with a good flow to the chords and melody.

We adopted two points from the group to improve the song:

  1. Revised the chorus lyric “And you think that there’s no way to see the light” to “And you think there’s no way out of your plight” so that the word “light” isn’t featured twice in the chorus.
  2. Extended the ending to repeat the main hook “We’ll be lighting your way” a few times before finishing the song.

Recording and Producing

We wanted to release Light Your Way as a single during the CMHA (Canadian Mental Health Association) Mental Health Week between May 1 and May 7. I knew this would be a tight schedule to get it arranged, recorded, mixed, and released.

During our first recording session, we were still finessing lyrics and making small changes to the chords. I used a rehearsal recording to set the tempo for a drum loop. I recorded Adi playing his acoustic guitar and then recorded his vocals.

Tom recorded a bassline at his home studio and sent it to me. Meanwhile, I developed a drum track and added some piano comping. Our lead guitarist, Karan, was busy with final exams and couldn’t commit to the recording session. I asked singer-songwriter and guitarist Paul Vos to contribute lead guitar based on some noodling I had done on my keyboard. Paul did an awesome job with the last minute crunch and played the part with great finesse.

During the mixing stage, I decided the piano track wasn’t helping and re-recorded an electric piano track with a little more interest than simple comping. I still wanted the acoustic guitar to be the main rhythm instrument—the electric piano was just there to add some weight to the track. I also added a string pad and a tambourine to thicken up the choruses. Finally, I recorded some vocal doubles with Adi for the choruses, again, to give them a little more thickness.

Final release

We wanted something unique for the cover art. Adi happened to see a canvas watercolour painting of tulips that my wife Hema had done a few years ago. He liked it enough to ask her if we could use it for the cover art. She gave us her blessing, and I took a photo of it to develop the cover. We kept it very simple, with the Beige Shelter logo and the title. A big thanks to Hema for her beautiful contribution!

Here’s the final track, which is available on Spotify, iTunes, Apple Music, Google Music and other digital retailers. It was a great joy and privilege to write and produce this song with Adi, Tom, and Paul. Enjoy!

Cherry Blossoms 2017: The Shadow Side

I always look forward to the arrival of the cherry blossoms at High Park. I don’t make it ever year, but each time go I try to think of a different way to capture their fleeting beauty. In 2011, I arrived with a photographer’s meetup at sunrise, in 2012, I focused on the people, and in 2015 I tried out daytime time-lapsed photography.

This time, I wasn’t sure what I was going to try, but after a few photos I decided it might be interesting to only shoot the blossoms on their shadow sides. Perhaps it was because the barrage of people shooting with their backs to the setting sun made it crowded to shoot from the sunny side—who knows?

In any case, I did find myself wanting to step around and turn direction to get the blossoms with direct sunlight many times. It’s easy to argue direct light makes for better photos. Each time, I managed to keep myself in the shadows.

There’s something about the translucency of the blossom petals that make shooting from this side interesting. Of course, this works best when the sun is low; I was shooting during the hour before sunset.

Every photo in this gallery except the first one was shot from the shadow side.

Melanie J. Fishbane website design

I worked closely with young adult novelist and writer Melanie J. Fishbane to develop her new author website in preparation for the launch of her debut novel, Maud.

Melanie is a bone fide Anne of Green Gables and Lucy Maud Montgomery expert. Her first novel is about the teenage years of the famous Anne author—her trials and tribulations of becoming a writer, her love interests, and family dramas.

I presented Melanie with a few design options, including a variety of colour schemes, backgrounds, and general look and feel. We settled on a template, and I continued to refine the style to her taste and the appeal of her audience, which includes readers, teachers, and other writers.

Check out the website at melaniefishbane.com.

One-stop shop

I also helped Mel with photography. We set up a classic typewriter with some of Mel’s Anne-flavoured memorabilia and miscellaneous stuff for her main homepage banner. I also took the photos for a few other banners and items for the website and accompanying media (e.g. bookmarks).

I appreciate that Mel refuses to use stock photography, preferring to instead use her own photos and memorabilia. This gives her website a very personal and intimate presentation. She invites her audience into her personal and professional life, and we even got her cat Merlin in on the action!

I also provided technical support, set up her domain name and a new email address, web hosting, and imported her previous blog into the new website.

Melanie also needed assistance with a small social media campaign. In preparation for the book launch, she selected seven quotes from the novel. I created social media cards which she posted each day for a week until the launch day. I used elements from the cover design to give her campaign a consistent look.

BS Fridays Radio Showcase photography

I was invited to take photos of a singer-songwriter showcase put on by BS Fridays in Toronto on April 7, 2017. The event took place at the Cameron House, and the organizers put on a great show of talented performers.

LHSC FMESS Year in Review

While at London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC), I developed a Year in Review for the new portfolio of Facilities Management, Environmental and Support Services (FMESS). The new portfolio encompassed many departments and support service areas. I focused on the changes over the 2016-17 year, the great work being done, and visions for the future. We also included friendly congratulations and recognition for staff members who played vital roles throughout the year. The Year in Review was intended for a general audience, both at LHSC and outside the organization.

I worked closely with the Vice-President to develop the framework, with other staff to conduct research and develop the content, and compiled and wrote the content for the report. I also took many photos, profiling the human dimension of support services as much as possible. I designed the final layout in a package suitable for offset printing and online distribution.

Download the FMESS Year in Review 2016-17.