Vance Powell Faders at zero

 

 

 

In this excerpt from Start to Finish: Vance Powell - Episode 5 - Getting Drum Sounds, Vance explains the “faders at zero” technique for recording sessions. He finds it particularly useful when he’s producing a tracking session that another engineer will mix.

The basic concept is that he keeps all the faders on his console and in Pro Tools at unity gain, which is 0dB. When the session gets opened at another studio, it will translate with the same mix that Vance created as long as the faders in that location are also set at 0dB.

The rough mix he creates will show any other engineers who work on the project afterward how Vance thinks the levels should be balanced—particularly in the drum mix. It simplifies the workflow because as soon as somebody opens the session, they have a rough mix as a starting point.

 

Vance has the console faders set at 0dB.

It’s also convenient for Vance when he works on a project in more than one studio. “So when we leave Blackbird tonight and go to Sputnik tomorrow,” he says in the video, “I’m gonna put the faders up at exactly the same place on my desk, and guess what, the rough mix is gonna be there.”

Mixing In

You might be wondering how Vance manipulates levels in his rough mix without touching the faders. The answer is that he doesn’t. He manipulates them during recording, adjusting the input gains of the various tracks on the way through the console and into Pro Tools.

 

Vance also has the faders at 0dB in the Pro Tools mixer.

In the excerpt, he’s recording through a console at Blackbird Studios, adjusting the send-to-tape knobs to set his levels. If you’re working on a DAW with no console, you would use the levels on the inputs of your interface, which control its preamps. Or, if you have a standalone preamp, you’d use its input level controls.

Rather than controlling levels with faders on playback, use the preamp gain controls—such as those highlighted on this Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 interface—to adjust levels on the way in.

“Turn the pre-amp down until you hear it do what you want it to do,” Vance says, “That’s the key.”

There’s another benefit to the “faders at zero” method. It encourages good gain staging. Because you won’t be trying to record everything as hot as possible, you’ll be less likely to overload the master bus with the summed track levels. It also means you’re less likely to send overly hot signals into the channel inserts and into any plug-ins.

 

Don’t Touch Those Faders

Here’s an example of recording a session with the “faders at zero” method. To keep it simple, let’s say you’re recording drums, bass, and rhythm guitar basic tracks. You’ll add your overdubs at subsequent sessions.

Start by setting the volume faders on your DAW’s mixer to 0dB. Next, use the preamp gain controls to adjust your levels to disk. An excellent way to start is with the drums. Begin with the kick and then start bringing the other drums up. Adjust their inputs until the kit sounds balanced. After checking that the guitar and bass aren’t overloading, record a test take with everyone playing.

 

It may be difficult to get a good balance if you’re hearing a lot of drum room sound bleeding into your control room, and it will be particularly tough if you’re in the same room with the drum kit. If that’s the case you’ll have to wait, and playback the test recording to get your inputs balanced the way you want.

 

When you play the take back, see which tracks seem too loud or soft and make an educated guess of how much to adjust their input levels. Have the band play more and repeat the process until you’re happy with the balance. Whatever you do, don’t touch the faders on your DAW’s mixer.

In order for your rough mix to translate to another studio, avoid putting plug-ins on the individual tracks unless you know that the studio where the session will next be opened has the same ones. Plug-ins can add gain, which could impact the “faders at zero” rough mix when removed from the session. Whoever is mixing can add plug-ins later in the process.

Reverse Engineered

If you like the “all faders at zero” method, you can retroactively apply it to projects where the tracks are already recorded by adjusting the clip gain on the individual tracks.

Changing the clip gain (aka “gain” in some DAWs) has the same effect as changing input levels when tracking. Clip gain governs the levels written to disk, so it’s functionally the same as changing levels on input, except that you’re doing it post tracking.

Pro Tools offers two different ways to adjust it. One way is to show the Clip Gain Line (View/Clip and select Clip Gain Line) and modify it like you would the breakpoint lines for automation data. The other method is to use the Clip Gain Fader. When you click on the Clip Gain Info button at the lower left of a Clip, a fader opens just to its left. If you don’t see it, open View/Clip and select Clip Gain Info.

The Clip Gain Fader in Pro Tools (highlighted) makes adjusting the gain level for an entire track easy.

The difference between Clip Gain and volume automation is that Clip Gain is pre-fader. Volume automation occurs after the Clip Gain in the signal chain.

 

Here are step-by-step instructions for adapting an existing session to a “faders at zero” configuration.

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  1. Make a new copy of your session to work in.
  2. Set all the faders in your DAW’s mixer to 0dB.
  3. Consolidate any tracks with multiple regions, so there’s only one per track. Otherwise, when you adjust clip gain, it won’t affect the entire track.
  4. Render MIDI tracks to audio, so they’ll be adjustable with clip gain.
  5. Render any tracks with tone-creating plug-ins like guitar amp sims.
  6. Remove other plug-ins and sends.
  7. Create a rough mix of track levels by adjusting their clip gain.

Make sure to consolidate all regions in your track before adjusting.

One caveat: don’t adjust the gain so high that it causes clipping on a track. If you can’t get one track sufficiently loud because it has some high peaks that would cause clipping when you turn it up, you have a couple of choices. You could compress the track using an Audiosuite compressor to lower the peaks before adjusting the clip gain, or bring down the clip gain of the rest of the tracks by the same amount.

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