Setting input levels when recording guitars or vocals - do it on the interface, in Cubase or both?

I recently switched to using DAWs instead of hardware (digital) multitrack recorders for recording (I am now using Cubase 11). I have a Tascam USB interface so I can record guitars, vocals etc into Cubase. My question - when you’re setting the input level of a vocal mic or a guitar, is it best to set it on the USB interface or within the DAW? The first method I used was using the USB interface, setting the input level so that it was just tickling the clipping meter to get maximum input level without unnecessary clipping. But now I’m thinking, does the input level also need to be optimised within the DAW also?

If the input level is not optimised, will recordings be lower quality and quieter than they should be? I guess this stems from the days of analog tape, where you had to optimise the input levels otherwise you would hear the tape hiss too much. But does it matter with digital too?

When I used to use hardware (digital) multitrack recorders, I used to set the input level of each track with a dial on the machine so that it was just about ‘in the red’ without going too far into it. I just need to know how to apply this same concept to DAWs - it’s confusing to know whether the input level needs to be set on the interface, DAW or both.

Finally, how do we set input level from within Cubase. I can’t find it. The mixer faders are output level not input, right?

Thanks.

I think it’s best to set the gain at the source. So set the input level with your interface.

If the input is low you can adjust it later in Cubase. If it’s clipped on the way in then there’s nothing you can do later to fix this. So it’s best to get the levels right with your interface. If your not sure aim for more headroom. You can always add more gain later. But fixing a clipped recording is not that easy, if possible at all.

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At recording I let the channel gain a 0 and adjust the gain at the interface. I do some playing tests and aim to be around -18 dBFS measuring simply with my eyes a mean value in the channel level meter. These -18 don’t need to be NASA rocket exact, you can be between -18 or -12 or something like that, taking care you are not clipping. That is an “eye” mean value.

After recording all channels I check again the levels. It can happens a singer or guitar player played louder or quieter than in the test playing. In this stage I adjust the channel’s PRE GAIN, trying that the level channel is again around -18 dBFS. That is a starting point. After that it starts the static mix. In this stage I work with the channel faders and this is now a creative and balancing process. That is, if the level of a channel changes dramatically, so be it.

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Ok yes that’s a good point. So when you say can ‘adjust the input later in Cubase’, do you mean with the pre gain control or the actual channel fader on the mixer?

Ok, so the pre gain can be adjusted after an audio track has been recorded, it’s not only for on the way in? Is this the same pre gain discussed here?.. https://steinberg.help/cubase_elements/v11/en/cubase_nuendo/topics/mixconsole/mixconsole_making_input_gain_settings_t.html?hl=pre-gain

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Yes, I mean this gain in the PRE section. The PRE section acts before anything in the chain, independently if you have your channel strip before or after inserts. PRE remains before all. Here you can adjust low cut and high cut filters, polarity (called phase) and (pre)gain.

I don’t touch this pre gain at recording and set the level with the interface gain, but after recording and before static mix I check if the recorded levels are ok. If not, I move the pre gain.

And more: if after recording you have more than one audio event in your track, it could be that you can’t reach a good level for all events. But you can modify a single event gain too, if needed, and, after that, set the pre gain.

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As said, what I would recommend here is that after recording you adjust the pre gain, checking if the recorded levels are ok. If you worked well in the recording stage you won’t need to work so much now in this stage.

After that, when you start the static mix, you work with the channel faders, without plugins, only setting levels, panning, grouping.

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@nksoloproject you should do a search on “gain staging” in this forum as there are several extensive discussions on this topic. The way you manage levels in a DAW is pretty different than in the analog world. This is mostly because internal to Cubase it is using 32bit floating point which has a huge dynamic range with as much headroom as you’d ever need. So there is no need to be concerned with getting a signal as hot as possible without clipping (or maybe even a little bit of clipping) like in the analog world.

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Ok, your advice was really helpful and I’ve looked into some posts on here about gain staging to get more of an understanding of it. I have a few more questions if you don’t mind. Now first of all, I presume when you talk about adjusting PRE gain, you do so on the Mix Console where I’ve circled in the pic below (I also circled the channel fader and meter - I was wondering, why not use a VU meter plugin instead? Or use the VU meter in Cubase Pro if I upgrade?):

Also, I noticed there is another ‘PRE’ control in the Equalizer - I was wondering if this is the same as the one in the Mix Console (see pic below, where I’ve circled it):

I went into Cubase and messed around with setting input levels. Now I noticed there are 3 types of Meter Positions in the Mix Console: ‘Input’, ‘Post-Fader’ and ‘Post-Panner’. (See attached screenshot here where I have circled these options in red.)

With ‘Input’ - if you: move channel faders or pre gain, the channel meter levels do not change. With ‘Post-Fader’ - if you move channel fader or pre gain - the channel meter levels DO move up or down, and same in ‘Post-Panner’ mode.

Now which of these positions do I need to select when I’m setting the input level as you describe (via my USB interface)?

Which of these positions do I need if I want to see the true levels of the guitar and vocal tracks I’ve already recorded? (I would presume the first one, ‘Input’, as these levels don’t change when the fader moves, but I’m not sure).

Ok, I’ve also been working on a song recently and I think I’ve recorded the guitar and vocal tracks with too much input level, so I wonder if they can be salvaged by reducing the PRE gain, or whether I will need to record them again? I’ve attached some screenshots below where I’ve circled the guitar, lead vocal and backing vocal tracks. - you can see the levels in the channel meters (what do you think of the levels of the waveforms in the events in these screenshots too?) These were played back with the channel meters displayed in ‘Input’ mode, so presumably this would give an accurate readout out the levels I recorded these tracks at (before I knew about all this gain staging stuff).

If you think these can be salvaged please let me know, otherwise if I have to record them again well let’s just say it’s a lesson learned!

Hello,

all your questions have simple answers:

-both pre sections you have found are exactly the same. Only the “acces” place is different. But, watch out: in your second image the pre section is not in the equalizer section. I know, they are together, and exactly that gave me headaches in the past, trying to understand why, exactly as you are now. Some people (Jedi master Chris Selim, see videos below) helped me in the past and now I try to help you. The pre section is independent of the eq and eq belongs to channel strip. Pre section don’t. For example, you could change channel strip position (eq included) to be pre inserts instead of post inserts. The pre section always remains pre ALL, but you will continue to see it together with the eq. It is not, “path wise” speaking. If you think Cubase is confusing here and manual is not 100% clear I say you are right.

Regarding VU meter, no, for gain staging I wouldn’t use VU meter nor master LUFS meters of the PRO version. VU meter gives you RMS reading and some of the very good master meters give loudness reading (similar with RMS, although not exactly the same). For gain staging you need the simple peak reading that you have in your simple channel meters. They are noble! They are fine and beautiful! You need to aim for an “eye mean value” of about -18 dBFS. For example, you could have a very dynamic recording where with your eyes you see that the reading is reaching several times levels of about -5 dBFS but your RMS reading of the VU meter gives you just -15. In this case, with the VU meter you wouldn’t move the gain, but you need to! VU meters and LUFS meters are great valuable tools, but not for gain staging (I have seen some gain staging tutorials where VU is used, though). You will need LUFS and RMS in another context, for example mastering. There they will be the kings.

-Regarding channel meter position: yes, you can set this up. Reasonable would be to set it at input when recording. I don’t care so much, as I set pre gain and fader at 0 at recording and adjust just interface gain in this stage.

-Regarding your last post: it is difficult to tell you if this level is too high, because channel meter is peak value, so what I see there is the exact instantaneous level that audio had when you took the picture and not an “eye mean” value. Please see the readings and if you find those levels are approximately a mean value that you see, then yes, you can solve that simply by lowering the pre gain, provided that your audio has no defects, for example a clipping. In this case you would need to record again. If this is not the case, simply less gain and The End.

I let you here an old video about gain staging from my favorite mix channel. That would be the after recording stage, but you can apply same concepts to the recording stage

And another, newer one

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Wow, that was an awesome reply, thanks so much for your help Knopf! I will watch those videos too. Let me try reducing the PRE gain on the audio tracks in my song and I’ll see if it works ok or if I have to record some things again. I’m sure with some time and dedication, I will become an expert at all this :slight_smile:

Now something else - we’ve mentioned audio tracks. What about gain staging for VSTs in Cubase? In my song, I use Groove Agent for the drums, and a bass guitar from Halion Sonic SE. But these are MIDI tracks, not only audio, so I don’t know whether the same principles apply about setting the input levels to -18 dBFS? If so, how would that be done? By adjusting the master level on the VSTs, or with the PRE gain control, or some other way? As they’re MIDI tracks, can clipping still occur?

Jedi master has the answer for you too

The better you go and visit his channel. I discovered it in 2016 and have watched all videos. For me it is the most didactic. He has a couple of very good paid courses too. I am not commercially related :smile_cat: but just an enthusiastic very amateur audio fan.

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Thank you. His Youtube channel looks excellent and he really knows his stuff. I have subscribed to his channel and I’m going to watch his videos properly. so I can learn from him.

Another point is how to gain stage when using plugins too, as this can add a lot of extra gain to a track. I see Chris Selim talks about this too in one of his videos about gain staging. - he says you have to bring down the output level of plugins. Now with the guitar tracks I recorded, they use VST Amp Rack for the amp models and distortion, and when I bring down the PRE gain in the Mix Console, it lowers the gain/drive of the distortion sound on the guitar, making it into a clean sound! Not what I want at all, as I want an overdriven rock tone on my guitar. So I think the solution, like Chris says, would be to lower the output level of VST Amp Rack. Is that correct?

First, gain staging is something you do at the beginning, before the static mix, without plugins at all. Later with plugins you don’t do gain staging anymore, it’s make no sense, as it is a starting point.

When you begin your static mix you work with the faders.

What Chris mentions regarding this kind of later gain staging is something he mentions someone could have because this someone didn’t do proper gain staging and then tries to solve the problem later, when you have used plugins already. That is, he shows a solution for something you did but the better would be you wouldn’t. And is exactly the problem you had: your guitar was too loud and it was already with a distortion plug-in. If you set the pre gain low you loose the saturation. So he says to solve that, don’t work with the pre gain, but with the plug-in output volume. So you have a correct level and don’t loose saturation. But he says it would be better you would have set the levels right at the beginning. To understand: this is a solution to this problem but not the normal workflow you should follow.

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What do you think about taking a readout of the track levels before and after each effects chain, to ensure everything is within the correct range? This enables you to control the gain level going into your plugins and the level going into your fader and mix bus. This video explains why this is a good idea, and you can use a plugin such as Trimmer by Slate Digital to do it.

I also accessed Chris Selim’s website to get the free templates and info he has on mixing. He mentions in this ebook that he creates a separate stereo out bus (ST OUT) separate from the DAW’s default master fader, saying ‘the reason is very simple: I don’t want anything on my master fader that will affect the sound’. I don’t quite understand this. Also, why does he label it ‘ST OUT’, when the master fader in Cubase is already called ‘Stereo Out’? So is he saying he essentially has 2 master/stereo output channels?

Hello,

at the moment I can’t watch the video. I’ll do it later or at weekend. But the problem I see in continuing to watch levels later is that at this stage you have already began to mix and in this stage there aren’t a priori right levels. The right levels will be given by the right balance that you need in you mix. I can’t go to the guitar anymore and say “I haven’t -18 anymore, I need to fix that”.

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The name that he or you will use doesn’t matter. What is intended here is to have a last master channel, where your mix go, but you could sent to this master a reference track too. Many people put processing plugins in the master, typically light compression, some eq, light saturation. If you send your reference track to a master with plugins, these plugins will affect the reference, of course, and that is absolutely not wanted. So he has a st out channel (or master 1 or what you want), where he sends only signals from the present mix and in this master 1 he can have processing plugins. Then he sends this to the final master and he sends the reference track to the final master. So the final master channel is clean and doesn’t affect the reference track. You can put metering plugins or analyzers if you want, as they don’t alter the sound.