I’m surprised there’s still so much confusion about this question. You’re starting a mix, and you need to know how to set up your gain staging so that your mix hits the ‘right’ peak or RMS level when you’re finished and it’s ready to be sent off for mastering. So what level should you aim for? Really, there are only two sensible answers:
- Whatever your mastering engineer told you
- Anything below 0dBfs (for peaks)
The first answer should be pretty self-explanatory. Your mastering engineer probably has a preference, likely based on how the mastering studio’s gear is calibrated. If your mastering engineer told you that the RMS level for the final chorus should be around -18dBfs, do that. Or if your peaks have to be at -6dBfs, do that.
What, you didn’t talk to (or choose) your mastering engineer until it was time to master? Try again. If you’re reading this blog, you know that your mastering engineer probably has something to say about your mixes. For example, you don’t want to have spent hours getting the mixes just right with piles of mojo on the mix bus, only to have to redo the mixes because your mastering engineer wants a naked mix bus and your mixes fall apart when you simply hit bypass. Similarly, you don’t want to feel like you haven’t done the songs justice by shying away from mix bus processing, only to have the mastering engineer tell you it would have been fine.
If that’s the case, simply aim to keep your mixes peaking below 0dBfs. The level makes no audible difference in sound quality so long as you keep it above -48dBfs (which should be pretty easy). So don’t sweat it. The only thing is: be careful when you get (very) close to 0dBfs because different meters will have different ways to determining whether the audio has clipped or not. Some meters will trigger a clipping indicator if there’s just one sample at 0dBfs. Some need two samples. Some need three. Some will trigger below 0dBfs (maybe even as low as -0.1dBfs). There’s no standard. So make sure you don’t hit 0dBfs. Keep your sound below there and you’ll be fine.
When I do mastering jobs, I ask the mix engineer to keep the peeks below 0dBfs. Character compression (including pumping or side-chained compression) or EQ on the mix bus is usually fine, but I ask that limiters not be used. The mix engineer’s job is to make sure the tracks are balanced and the overall mix is focussed. The mastering engineer’s job is to make sure that mix translates in the real world – usually by adjusting the tone and the level of the song as a whole.