How can I tell if the signal to my plug-ins is too hot?

Knowing Cubase itself cannot be internally “overloaded”, even if the signal is greater than 0dBFS, because of the math that results from 32 bit floating point calculations …

I woke up today and realized that I’m not as sure the same holds true for all the plug-ins I am using, and that I might be inadvertently messing up my sound with low (or not so low) levels of distortion from one or more of them. How can I tell whether a plug-in is “like Cubase” and can’t be overdriven, or is one that I need to keep the input below 0dBFS? I am not confident my inexperienced ears can reliably identify low levels of distortion well enough to depend on them alone.

(The literature for my plug-ins usually isn’t all that helpful - for example, I know all about the wonderful pedigree of my UAD-1 Fairchild 670, but not whether it is easily overloaded with a hot signal).

A corollary question is: how can I tell how hot the signal is that I’m routing to the plug-ins? A lot of times I route them there with a “send”, so can’t depend on the Cubase metering to answer the question definitively. The metering on the plug-in itself is not always great, for example even if there is an “IN” meter it is sometimes a VU-style one, which I’m not confident will tell me about very brief “overs”. Is there another alternative besides opening an instance of a plug-in just for metering to slap on the front side (I’d like to keep my plug-in count as low as possible).

Thanks for any help!

Aloha alexis,(old guy words here)

If the above statement is indeed true (and without hitting this too hard)

Why are you doing this?

If this is just a hobby or just to have some fun, then play on.

But if you are serious about competing with ‘the big boys’,
your chops have to be UP!

What this means when it comes to recording music on a pro level is you must have HUGE EARS!

If you cannot hear distortion, any distortion, It’s like a painter not being able to tell
‘yellow’ ochre from ‘yellow’.

You did say:

my inexperienced ears

It took time for me to be able to ‘hear’ what a good pre-amp or comp/limiter
really sounds like and what it can (and most importantly what it cannot) do.

Perhaps all you really need is a lil more time/life experience to round out your talents.

So my advice would be to exercise your ears.

Listen to all kinds of sh*t.

All types of music production etc.

Including machine noise.

Don’t just listen to it. Analyze it.

Pull up some old ‘Motown’ or ‘James Brown’
and listen to some of those distorted recordings
(and out of tune horns).
Don’t just listen to it. Analyze it.

Pull up some old ‘Blue Note’ jazz recordings and notice
the complete lack any any type of distortions (Rudy Van Gelder)
Don’t just listen to it. Analyze it.

Also listen to some Elvis and country recordings.
Much of this stuff is also super clean and distortion free.
Don’t just listen to it. Analyze it.

Get out more.

And mainly, just have fun.


Aloha, C!

Thanks for the kind words!
Yes, it’s a hobby … no big boy aspirations here … but still I want to be as good as I can be (is that a US Army slogan? Or a line from Rubber Soul’s “Wait”?).

I’m pretty much at the beginning end of this journey though, trying to learn my “tools” of the trade. All this came out of my having read that one way to learn what color any given compressor will put on a sound is to push it very hard. While doing that I realized that I wasn’t sure at that point whether I was hearing “color”, or distortion.

Distortion when playing live/analogue I know a bit about … but with digital equipment on my computer, I’m not as confident. I’m embarrassed to say that I went listening to a rough mix of mine for the longest time not realizing that somehow I had bounced a vocal so the whole thing was WAY over. The good news is that it sounded off enough for me to go looking for what the problem was, the bad thing is that it took me forever to get there!

Thanks C … I know it might not have been easy for you to write that … I appreciate it!

Oh, and PS: I dig the “listening, really listening” advice. I do it now so much that I have learned from experience that friends and family are usually NOT as interested in talking about those things as I am. It’s kind of like, “I like to eat sausage, I don’t need or want to know how it’s made, thank you very much!”.

Signed -

Auriculus Crescerus

Start off by recording everything at sensible levels. Just because the internal mixbus CAN take hot signals, doesn’t mean it has to and with 24 bit recordings the noise floor is so far below any reasonable concerns you can afford to keep your peaks at below or around -12dB

And if you are using VSTis (which invariably have stupid hot outputs) pad the input gain down so they are peaking similarly to your audio tracks.

Then you can mix with confidence with any plugins, and when this stuff comes back into your converters they will have room to breathe.

There was a thread about ‘digital harshness’ over on Sound on Sound forum recently, and the consensus was that much of what is perceived as harshness in digital recordings come from people recording and mixing too hot. And there really is no need with the huge dynamic range you have to play with these days.

A side note, some plugins need higher soundcard sample buffers. I found especially with UAD (whatever version I am on) when I was in mix stage with lower sample buffers, there was a distortion present that went away when I set the sample buffers higher. I don’t know if this distortion would be present if the buffers weren’t set higher in an offline export.

You can change your meters to show the input levels of channels too to keep an eye on overall digital levels. Beneficial when creating groups because that level can get up there fast depending on the content.

Thanks for all that, Tom! I usually mix at 2056 … should be OK? (I hope so, I don’t think my sound card goes higher!).

I would think so. IIRC, My experience of distortion was when the buffers were under 512 and the project was heavish.