A [Not-So] Modest Proposal for -14dBfs

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   Much has been written on the subject, but I thought I’d add to the litany of arguments one way or the other.

   Do you know where zero is on your A>D and D>A converters?  Do you know where it is on your analog gear, too?  If not, it’s time to find out, and this entry is to also strongly recommend you go for 0vu = -14dBfs on your converters (aka, “minus fourteen digital”).

   To start, a quick re-cap of the simplest, “how-to” on tweaking your DAW so that 0vu = -14dBs.  It’s easier if you have a friend help you  (Maybe this leaves room for a future entry: “A Modest Proposal for Not Handling All Aspects of Your Project Yourself”).  ;-)


   ”Calibrating your DAW I/O, (the Poor Engineer’s way)

   1.  Turn your speakers down.  Trust me.
   2.  Set up an aux on your DAW with a 1KHz tone set for -14 out of output 1 only.
   3.  Hook up your multi-meter (black/common to ground, red to hot).
         *Note: Make sure your meter reads “True RMS”.  If not, there’s some math involved.
           (Remember .707 times peak-to-peak value equals the root mean squared?
            And you thought you’d never use that information…) 
   4.  Adjust your output level so that the multi meter reads 1.228 volts.
   5.  NOW, your output is -14dBfs = 0vu = 1.228v.  That’s correct.
   6.  Repeat for all of your other outputs. 
   7.  Create enough tracks for all of your inputs.  
           (Spit ‘em out an internal bus or something, so you’ll avoid feedback; 
            all you’ll need to do is read the level.)
   8.  Using this (now correct) output level, feed the oscillator track’s output into input one.
   9.  Turn up the gain on your input until it reads -14dBfs.  
   10.  Repeat for the rest of your inputs.


   And…you’re done.  Congratulations.  Now, when your console or outboard gear reads 0vu on the meter, you should be seeing -14 on your digital meter....  
   .....So why go through all of this trouble?

   The number one argument for this is that if your DAW was cal’d to -18 out of the box, then just now you had to turn your inputs UP, allowing yourself to take advantage of the higher resolution at the top of the digital meter.  Remember that audio levels are logarithmic, so your resolution gets exponentially better the closer you get to 0dBfs before you go over.

   The lesser-heard argument (and my personal favorite), is that if you were previously calibrated to -18dBfs = 0vu, then the first thing you had to do is turn your outputs downto make -14 be 1.228v, which means you were originally hitting all of your outboard gear (e.g., your line inputs on your outboard compressors & eq’s) four decibels hotter.  Some analog gear doesn’t sound so good when you’re giving them a full blast of 0dBfs signal (+18!).  Giving them a 4dB break will make the sound a lot smoother and less “smeared” due to the distortion in the transients you probably weren’t hearing.

   Some people claim that the best resolution is when they’re recording material hitting the meter around -12dBfs, but the only people I’ve heard say that are people who are recording into a DAW with mostly analog outboard gear and consoles.  My argument is of course minus-12 sounds better to them; their analog gear isn’t crapping out.   

   ”So why bother?  Why not just record a little lower?” you might ask.  Well, are you recording every little thing that comes through your door?  Or are some people handing off stuff for you to mix through your beautiful console & lavish collection of analog outboard gear?  Or do they simply want to run their same mix through your board as a summing mixer?  You’d at least better know where unity is on your faders (and if “center” really is center on your pan pots!).

   One thing Jared & I lament about is how the industry’s expectation of standards has gone down since the advent of home recording.  You have no control over how screamingly hot some people are tracking their shit out there, so do your gear the favor of being ready.  Just try it.  The worst that could happen is that you go back and curse me for the time you “wasted” getting smarter about it.

   I’m telling you, though:  You might not hear a difference with one track, but cut a whole album at -14, and you’ll hear what I’m talking about.  

   Once again, just an argument against all the laziness out there with people not checking the levels on all of their gear.  Feel free to ignore me and never try something new because it’s just too complicated.  Meanwhile, I will track circles around your lazy ass.  

   As always, the lines of communication are open for you to share your thoughts, approach me with questions, or better yet, try your hand at a session with me.  Surf over to my credit listing on my page, which illustrates my long history of recording many artists from local to high-profile, and post-production for all manner of major and independent films.  All of my sessions include a free setup, free backups for two weeks, and free electronic delivery of your files.  Call or email now for a free consultation.

   And thanks for reading!

    - JW


Other articles you may find helpful:
Studio Interns Guide Part Two: Session Setup

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