Mixing gain structure and K-System levels with Buss Compression

Bob Katz Leave a Comment

From: Wayne Davis

   Hi Bob, I am working on a new RnB/Hip Hop project 
   that we plan on mastering with you. I have been diligently using the K-System 
   metering in Cubase. If I use K-20 to mix at is that too low? I find K-14 to 
   require more buss comp than I like. More drum snap at K-20. I am about to start 
   mixing and could use your advice on which ref level. Thank you. Wayne Davis 

Dear Wayne: This is a good question because we have to balance out the sound you are looking for in mixing, figure out what might happen in mastering if we’re trying to help the piece, and not produce a mix that’s squashed or vice-versa, doesn’t have enough punch or snap. It is clear to me that you are using the buss comp to get some of your punch. And the ratio of punch to snap is also critical as you said. The fact is that in a floating point system like Cubase, the level of the signal going into the bus comp combined with the threshold is what sets the action of the compressor. In other words, if you raise all of your faders by 1 dB and simultaneously raise the threshold of the bus comp 1 db you’ll get exactly the same results, just a hotter signal on the output of the compressor, and vice versa. K-20 is not a problem in these conditions. The key there is you have to adjust your monitor gain to end up listening at the same SPL. It’s all inter-related like a chain.

Your ears are the key, and you mentioned the drum snap is being lost. Clearly there’s either too much compression going on or too much of the wrong kind of compression. So you can either raise the threshold of the comp or lower the signal on all the faders. I think it’s easier physically for you to move one control than to lower 20 faders, so why not raise the threshold of the comp, which will result in a higher signal and take you closer to K-14 and more away from K-20.

If you have total confidence in your monitoring, then the K meter is unnecessary. But if you would like it as a guide, it pays to look at the ratio of the RMS signal to the peak. Once again: The higher the peak to average ratio, the more “snap” in the sound and the lower the P-A ratio, the more “punch”. I hesitate to give you a number, but for mixing, I would avoid ratios lower than 12 dB unless you are an expert mixer and quite confident in your results. What are you getting now where you feel you have lost some snap?

One more thing, of course if when you push it hotter towards K-14 the peaks overload, then you have to use the “drop faders” technique. However, depending on the kind of sound of hip hop that you are looking for, going for less compression may not yield the sound you are ultimately looking for even after good mastering. At that point I suggest you send me a current mix in the making and I’ll make some comments.

Perhaps some combination of parallel compression and downward compression with a longer attack may get back the combination of snap and punch you are looking for without having to drop the level. And so on, and so on, it’s a careful listening and juggling act.

Hope this helps,


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