Gain staging in the box/prep for mastering

Hi Michael,
Thank you for all you do at MWM. I’ve watched many videos and really enjoy learning from you and your colleagues.

My question is in regards to gain staging and leaving headroom for the mastering engineers or for doing a quick master myself. Mind you, I’ve only been mixing for a couple years.

Usually, after I do an initial balance, I’ll then pull everything down so that the highest level on the channels is at about -8dB or so. All my summing busses I leave at -7 and then the mixbus at -6 and master fader at -5. (From what I understand, -5 is sort of the standard amount of headroom to leave for the mastering engineer.) Then I’ll add my plugins and go to work.

If I do a quick master on my own to mainly raise the overall level, this impacts the compressors and plugins. So then I need to alter them to prevent clipping. This impacts the mix I previously did and I’m not sure how to get around this.

Am I on the right track here or is there something crucial that I’m missing? Can you speak to my process a bit, please?

I’m not really sure how to respond to your process. It seems like a lotta work and overthinking. Just put up the song and start mixing. it takes a lot of level to clip plugins. If it’s going too hot to the stereo fader, turn everything down with a submaster fader. Take the path of least resistance my friend.
i don’t leave the ME much playroom. I mix at around -7 to 8 lufts . Most of the time, what i’ve printed doesn’t need more eq or level. Give the ME a good finished product and he won’t need to do anything to it. Great ME’s improve only what needs improving and if it doesn’t need anything, they leave it alone. those are the guys I use.

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Haha! Well you got me there. I’m definitely a serial over-thinker.
Please allow me to elaborate.

The reason I do those things is because of what I was taught from multiple sources-that the original track faders need to be a little below the bus they’re going to and the those summing busses need to be just below the stereo bus which should be just below the master fader. Lastly, that the master fader should be at about -5 to leave headroom for the ME. So that’s where I’m coming from.

What I now see, is that I need to buy a loudness meter and mix to that at around -7 lufs. It sounds like I’m mixing at too low a level.

I only realized my problem when I gave my first client the completed mix.
But it didn’t get professionally mastered. When they posted it online it sounded considerably lower than other things they recorded and posted on their own.

So I had to go back in and raise all my levels and resubmit it to them, so it didn’t sound so low. But when I raised my levels, all the processing changed and I had put out a bunch of fires. So that’s what I’m trying to avoid.

Perhaps the solution is to go with -1.5 or -2 for the master fader instead of -5. From your previous response it sounds like that’s acceptable-to ‘not leave them much playroom’

I appreciated the response from this morning and am eager to hear your thoughts on this post. Thank you so much!

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Use your ears to determine the level. At each stage, get the faders where the music sounds best. Then go even higher until it doesn’t sound good anymore and then back off a bit or return to the level that sounded good to you. determining music by numbers is going to get you nowhere except down the rabbit hole of sonic masturbation.

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Okay, I understand. Sounds like I need to let go of those ‘guidelines’ about gain staging and just let it happen. Not sure why those people preach that methodology if it doesn’t matter at all. Interesting.

Thank you again for your time and insights.
Thanks to MWM for creating this forum.

It matters in the sense that it’s good to know the technical details and be aware when you get into the red zone. Let the sound of the music be your guide.

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I see. Makes sense.

It just ended up that I was in a pickle because I was trying to be really conscious of the relative levels of the tracks, sumbusses and mixbus to one another.

I’ll start to loosen my thinking on that and use a submaster fader too.
Great suggestions