This goes along with what MM said about avoiding recording too hot. A good friend of mine turned me onto this plugin as a means of tracking more effectively and efficiently back when I told him I'm going to get my hands dirty and try and learn a thing or two about mixing. It's really a great tool, but rather than tell you how to use it, I'll copy and paste what my buddy emailed me. It's very long, but contains great info for people who find themselves frequently messing with faders and tracking too hot:

Hey CaliMoose,

I forgot I was going to write you a summary of why and how I use that VU meter plugin.

So basically, it's a two part plugin, in that it is both an 'average level' meter and a trim plugin. The trim feature is pretty obvious, just cuts or boosts the digital gain of the signal, so softer or louder. This feature is really nice to have in a meter plugin, because it all takes up only one FX slot in your DAW.

The meter side of things is the good bit. So most DAWs as I've found out, only read Peak signals. This means they show you only the maximum level your tracks are reaching at any point in time, or in other words measuring the peaks. However, this is really deceiving and doesn't accurately portray the perceived loudness of the track. For example:

Say you have a distortion rhythm guitar and a lead guitar. You play them back and on your meters, the distortion guitar chugging along with power chords only peaks around -18 to -16 dBFS. Meanwhile, your lead guitar, doing some nice soloing is peaking a little higher, around -10 to -8 dBFS. Yet, for some reason the lead guitar with its higher peaks sounds even quieter. So you raise the fader or use a plugin with some sort of output gain to make the solo louder, but now the peaks are as high as -5 to -3 dBFS. It sounds right, but it doesn't look right, it looks too alarmingly hot. This is is the very situation that has always plagued me.

The VU meter sheds some interesting light on this situation. It reads the average signal, measuring between the peaks that are given by your DAW meters and the troughs, resulting in a measurement that is much more accurate in terms of telling you how loud something really is. In the situation above, chances are with the faders level, the lead guitar will have a lower VU meter rating than the distortion guitar, despite the lead guitar having higher peaks. To visualize this, look at the waveforms of each track on the timeline. THe distortion guitar probably looks like a solid bar with little fuzzy peaks. This tells us that it is heavily compressed by nature of the distortion effect and that there is little distance between the peaks and troughs. Thus there is less dynamics and the overall perceived loudness is much higher. The lead guitar on the other hand probably has a wave form with large peaks that are far from their respective troughs. Zooming out on the wave form, you can kinda get a feel where the main 'body' of the wave form is in relation to the peaks, a kind of visual average. You'll see it's actually quite smaller than the distortion guitar, thus is perceived as less loud. What the VU meter is doing is a mathematical/numerical average just like you did with your eyes. It's comparing the peaks to the troughs and telling the reality of how the loud the track is in your mix.

Thus, to save yourself a lot of hassle, it's a great idea to track with the VU meter! If you track all your guitars, bass and vocals using the plugin instead of you DAW's meters, you'll get a much accurate representation of how loud you are recording. The VU meter is adjustable, but I'd keep it at it's stock calibration, which deems 0 dBVU as -18 dBFS (the digital sweetspot so to speak where your A/D converters have the best signal to noise ratio). I would try and track all things to just under the "0 dBVU" mark. If the needle is moving around -2 or so, with occasional dips into the red, then you know your getting an optimal signal into your DAW. If the clip light is going off, before you get a level of 0 dBVU, particularly on vocals and lead guitars where you have a lot of dynamics, then record as far up the meter as you can before the clip light goes off.

In the instance of clipping before reaching your 'digital sweetspot' at 0 dBVU, this is where your friend the compressor comes in! The compressor serves to decrease the distance between the peaks and troughs, lowering the dynamic range and thus allowing you to bring an incoming signal closer to 0 dBVU before clipping occurs.

If by accident you've recorded something a little too hot or too quiet, the trim function comes back in as your friend. For example, if you recorded a vocal a little hot, then use the trim to pull it down a bit, this way it won't feed into your next few plugins at too high a level. Likewise, a little boost from the trim can help a weaker signal sound better, because it will run through any processing plugins after the trim at an optimized level.

I think if you experiment recording and mixing with the VU meter you'll find things sit a lot better in your mix. Also, you'll rediscover your faders as I have done! My goal when prepping a mix, is to get all of my individual sound sources sounding as good as possible, using the VUMT plugin to ensure they're right at the digital sweetspot. Of course, if everything is at 0 dBVU you'll clip the mix bus! But that's okay, now that your individual sound sources are at the sweetspot when their fader is at 0, lowering their faders will correct the issue (and because the fader attentuates volume after your plugins, it won't effect your gain staging between processors). From there, I'd simply select all the tracks, and bring all the faders down until your mix bus reads -2 dBVU (using the VUMT plugin on the Mix buss too), which is about -20 dBFS RMS, or average. Then I'd either inch up or down individual faders until everything was right in the mix. For example, when you pull all your faders down, everything is at the same level. Likely, you'll want to raise a few things to make them stand out, which you can now do because the faders have room to go up and you have headroom on your mix bus! So now you can feel more natural in pulling up say the kick drum or the lead vocals. In the end, as you raise a few things up, your mix will settle right around the the 0 dBVU (-18 dBFS) sweetspot, which is also the optimized level for exporting for mastering

I hope this helps! I can easily show you the next time we meet up this whole process. I really think this understanding of levels has transformed my mixing/recording and is the most essential thing!


CaliMoose's friend