Gain staging and signal level in plugs

What do others do?

When I gain stage all my tracks to -18dB I find the signal level in plugs to be lower than I would like. For example, using FabFilter ProDS desser on a lead vocal, the signal level within the plug is very small on the meters and hard to work with.

One solution is to use the in/out gain controls of the plug to set In +10dB and Out -10dB, so the plug now shows a decent level signal to work with, but returns a ‘gain-staged’ level signal to the track.

Is this good practice? Is there a better way? Did I miss something obvious?


Are you leveling your tracks to -18 dBVU or -18 dBFS?
When using -18 dBVU, peaks should be somewhere around-10 to - 6 dBFS and the level should be fine for most plugins in my experience.

I’ve always been taught to do gain staging to -18dBFS. I dont see the point otherwise. If VU leaves you with peaks of -6 to -10dB peaks, surely you still wont have the headroom gain staging is supposed to give you and your master mix will still be far too hot without all your faders being at -10dB of greater attenuation?

I can see your method will give better signal level for plugs, but it also seems to negate the whole reason for gain staging in the first place.

Every web tutorial I have ever seen shows gain staging done with peak meters as far as I can see.

This guy seems to understand it and seems to be saying 0VU, -20dBFS.

Or am I misunderstanding?

I think you’re misunderstanding the concept, you’re supposed to treat your levels as if you’re working in an analog console or tape where you have VU meters calibrated to 0VU = -18dBFS.
That way if you shoot for 0dBVU you have 18dBs of headroom and that should be plenty.
With percussive sounds like drums you should go somewhere around-6dBVU.
That’s what I do and have plenty of headroom in my master bus.
-18DBFS or peak is a very low level for sure and that’s the reason your plugins don’t receive enough signal to work with.

OK, so considering Cubase in particular, what should I use to meter each channel to 0dBVU, cos to my knowledge the built in track meters wont do it…?

Or am I wrong again? :slight_smile:

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If you’ want to measure to a vu scale you obviously would use a vu meter.

Get one that has the option to calibrate to -18dbfs or whatever you decide to go with. (Don’t get too hung up on this, you just want to get in to the ballpark of sensible levels, not micromanage every level minutely)

It’s no longer being updated but for the time being SleepyTimeDSP Mono/Stereo Channel would work and is free.

Thanks. Strangely, I just downloaded those very plugs! :slight_smile:

Right, off for another fumble.

Just to make sure I’m understanding finally, if I use the Sleepy-time VU meter on each track, I set the meter to -18 nominal level, then adjust the pre-gain on the track until:

a) it is peaking just below 0 on the VU meter?
b) the general playback level is around 0 on the VU meter?

Which is it?

For most things playing around 0 is fine…but also keep an eye on Cubase peak meter and if anything is really transient and peaks higher than you’d like just pull it down.
Honestly…I think this is a good exercise and helps to get you within a sensible level range which is a good thing, but I also think the value of exactly gain staging to -18 all the way through the DAW has been blown out of proportion.
Don’t be scared to push a level into a plug if you think it sounds better or if it needs the level before it’s acting as much as you’d like. Whether you do that at clip level, at input trim of the mixer, or at the plugin input makes no difference.

Set the reference level to 0dbVU = -18dBFS.
Adjust your recording levels or track (pre-recorded) levels to around 0dBVU, it doesn’t matter if levels are sometimes below or above 0dBVU.
As I said before, drums and other percussive sounds should be around -6dBVU, otherwise peaks are going to be too loud.
That should get you a very good level for plugins (especially the ones that emulate analog hardware behavior) and a good headroom in your master bus.
Pay attention to the levels after the plugins, ideally you should try to preserve 0dbVU after EQ, compression, etc. in order to keep your master bus headroom intact.
I hope that makes sense!!

This meter plugin is also good and free:

Thanks everyone for taking the time to explain this well. I think the whole gain staging thing has taken on a life of it’s own on the internet/youtube, and probably overselling it a bit, although the basic concepts are indeed good general practice.

Much appreciated.


Just mainly ignore it, as long as you are not clipping signals or feed analog modeled plugins too hot a signal, you will be fine.

Some plugins (like UAD) actually provide the input specification that the model was designed to emulate. Plugins like that tend to work nominally “better” when the input level is known. Various plugins then provide output gain to compensate. However, that can be a colored compensation. So, the answer as usual is “it depends”.

Sure. I think the main criteria is that plugs like distortion and filters are directly affected by the input level, whereas EQs and the like are not affected by overall level, well not unless it is extreme.

I’m not sure that’s true. Again, a lot of the UAD EQs are very sensitive to input level, and they definitely change their color dependant on output compensation. Even plugins like guitar sims (Amplitube, SGear etc…) sound very different at different input levels with the same settings.

Ok interesting thanks.

I’ve just found the gain at the top of the mixer channels.
Is it OK to add gain if the peak is too low ?
Haliom Symphonic Orchestra is very low so should i use the gain to increase the level or, render to audio and normalize ?
There’s a couple of other track i’ve found are low as well.

If HSO has output gain use that. Otherwise yes the channel pre gain is fine. And use VU calibrated to -18dBVU to judge your level, not peak.

“Is it OK to add gain if the peak is too low ?”

There is no right or wrong answer to this. As long as you don’t mind the increase to the noise floor, yes it is ok. But, this is typically not the right place for that type of adjustment. However, if it gets the job done for you … have at it. It’s just another tool.

HSO is not really all that quiet? Are you sure you just don’t have the mod wheel down?