One best-practice is to track at K-20. “Track” meaning to record, lay down, or sequence (with VST’s). “K-20” being the level (often referred to as “loudness”) standard proposed by mastering legend, Bob Katz.
By ensuring your VST’s are only just pumping into the reds of the K-20 range spec – overall not too much lower, overall not going too much higher into the reds and not ever clipping past zero – you’re effectively limiting the dynamic range. This seems counter-intuitive when you want an open, wide dynamic range mix, but here’s the thing: by performing this gentle limiting / compression upfront (to K-20), means you need very little (sometimes VERY little) during mixing and mastering.
K-20 seems like a pretty wide dynamic range spec, on paper, but it takes a surprising amount of engineering (compression / limiting) to get stuff to “fit” into it. It’s not always easy. This is because plugins can produce extremely hot and wide dynamic range signals.
Also, if you track at K-20 the summing of those tracks are really going hit at about K-14. And, K-14 is an AWESOME target for most electronic music. It’s open, punchy, has great transients, good RMS and doesn’t take much to squash into a Beatport-ready mix if you really need to push it to a dance floor commercial release specification (“loudness war” arguments aside).
Also, K-14 is a great level for a lot of the newer modeled plugins (like Waves) as they are expecting that input level and are actually modeling distortion at the inputs if you go too hot.
So, work on each track to get it to “just fit” into the K-20 spec. You’ll be amazed at how little buss compression you’ll need (other than some light “glue”) to get you into a good, punchy, mastering-ready mix.
Finally, K-20 stems, when they’re analog summed with a bit of high-gain “crunch,” can sound amazing and by having the tracks at K-20, you’re giving the mastering engineer (if you go that route) a good amount of headroom to work with, too.
The Waves Dorrough meters have “20” and “14” settings that work really well and have some insightful ballistic characteristics that other meters don’t have, but are also very compatible with the K-Metering system. The Brainworx bx_meter has awesome K-20 / K-14 / K-12 meters in it. The bx_meters also have a very novel “floating dynamic range” indicator that shows the true dynamic range regardless of absolute peak – this would be very helpful to you. It’s essentially “crest factor,” for all intent and purpose.
If you can get between 9 and 14 db of dynamic range, that’s really open (rock music); a.k.a. “DR14.” EDM is about 7 to 12db of dynamic range that you want to target for what would be considered good, open dynamics; a.k.a. “DR8.” By comparison most Beatport tracks that are ultra-compressed are only going to be around 6db, 4db, or even down to even 3db of dynamic range! A.k.a “DR4.” DR4 is super crunched – essentially, no dynamics at all during the loudest parts. “DR8” is considered by many dynamic range nerds that study this as the upper-end “sweet spot” to hit – I’ve done a bit of research into this for EDM styles and agree that DR8 is pretty awesome – hot, but not overly squashed (Bob Katz would disagree, probably, and would think that’s still too hot – he shoots for K-12 as the least dynamic [loudest] a track should get). Here’s the link for more on on DR8: http://dynamicrangeday.co.uk/challenge/
But again, the trick is to compress a bit (I recommend K-20) upfront, on each track, so that you don’t have to squash the whole thing on the buss.
(Sidebar: Another trick for getting a few more db of DR during mastering is to get the mastering compressor “pumping” nicely. Counter-intuitively, using a compressor like this, and at this stage, can actually add dynamics to the mix. I’ve seen hot EDM mixes at around DR6 get back into DR8 territory by simply getting a good pump on the 2 buss.)
James Wiltshire from Loopmasters talks about all this, the K-Metering system, K-14 to K-18/20 tracking. I’ve found K-20 works well, track by track, because your submixes (stems) are then going to be around K-14 when they get summed. So, K-14 is really the target for the pre-mastering-chain buss.
Here are some more references on the issue of dynamic range and fighting the “loudness war”:
the Bob Katz PDF: http://www.aes.org/technical/documentDownloads.cfm?docID=65
a good loudness war example video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Gmex_4hreQ
An interesting rebuttal to the loudness war from soundonsound: http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/sep11/articles/loudness.htm
I’ve tried them all and these are my personal favorite metering plugins: