Mixdown: Getting your Levels Right
Levels will not be the same between Voice and Studio Mode. Voice also has an automatic gain adjustment, so if you’re using a USB microphone and have to set the volume in software, remember that Voice mode fiddles with that. If you have to re-join a Hangout for any reason, you default back to Voice mode. Check your levels again immediately after switching into Studio mode.
Digital Distortion, DAC Performance and Streaming Codecs
First, I need to clear up a common misconception. Some think that with digital sound it’s clean until it isn’t, meaning that you either have distortion or you don’t, and as long as you’re not slamming the meters you’re fine. Eh…not exactly true.
With digital as well as analog, when you exceed 0db (the top of the audio meter) you get obvious distortion. Crackling/clipping in digital or fuzzy garbled sound on analog tape. But you can’t just push straight up to the edge and have 100% clean sound.
When a digital-to-analog or analog-to-digital converter is pushed at very high levels the resulting audio is not as clean. It doesn’t matter if you exceed 0db or not, you will be getting distortion. It just wont be as obvious as digital clipping. It has a cumulative effect of making a mix sound muddy, even if the individual tracks sound pretty good. 0db isn’t at the same signal level in all equipment either, though it’s usually pretty close.
But that’s with CD players and studio equipment. With a streaming audio codec like Studio Mode in the mix, when you push the levels too hard all hell breaks loose. The obvious distortion starts earlier and becomes really nasty once you start hitting 0db. With recording, it’s always advisable to keep your peaks at or under -6db. With Studio Mode, it’s a strict requirement.
Use a Limiter
If you have a limiter box, use it. If you’re streaming an entire band over Google+ Hangouts on Air, you absolutely should have a limiter. With solo artists, it’s not really as critical.
ProTip: make sure that your average level is about 75%-85% and your peaks don’t go over 95%.
Studio Mode analysis
I’ve run some tests on Studio Mode to examine the bandwidth and noise characteristics of the codec, viewable here.
Mixing and Signal Routing
Single Mic Setup
Important: When using a single microphone with Studio Mode, you need to run it out of both channels.
You can do this a few ways:
- Microphone into mixer and out a two-channel monitor output
- Microphone into your DAW software and out two channels
- Microphone into stereo effects box outputting into audio interface/mixer
If the single mono microphone signal goes straight into the Hangout in Studio Mode, there is a good likelyhood that sound will only come out of one side. If your audio interface has a software mixer, choose that as the Microphone in the Hangout settings instead of your interface’s multitrack input. That will give you a 2 channel stereo signal with your microphone panned to the center.
Though, sometimes to get a single mic setup to work you need to do a bit of creative software routing.
Acoustic Instrument Pickups
For acoustic instruments with pickups, you need to do the same thing. In one channel, out two.
Under-saddle acoustic guitar piezo bridge pickups can do with a little treble taken off the top and a bit of reverb to give it some depth.
If you’re performing with a single acoustic instrument with pickup (direct input rather than amplified) and a vocal mic, don’t worry about sound from the instrument bleeding into the vocal mic. For these purposes, it’s irrelevant. Nay, it’s probably beneficial.
Multiple Mic Setup
Use them pan knobs, people. Seriously. Stereo isn’t stereo if everything is center panned. No sense using that nice sounding stereo codec if you’re not going to be mixing in stereo.
A good starting point is to pan visually. Imagine (or maybe move) that mixer directly in front of the bandstand. Twist those pan knobs so they point to where the players are standing. What you might want to do too is pan the drum mics a little bit more aggressively to give them a pronounced stereo effect. If you’re using overheads for the drums, pan them about 35-50% to start and see how it sounds.
A little bit of panning left and right gives you greater instrument separation because your instruments aren’t all fighting for that same chunk of the audio spectrum.
Everything here is a matter of taste. If you have keyboards, maybe you want to run them in 2 channel stereo panned 75% left and right respectively, or 100%. You might want to try electric guitar in stereo as well. Up to you. Be creative. The mixer is just another musical instrument itself.
Unless you’re splitting a single microphone or instrument to two channels so you can output in stereo, I wouldn’t suggest panning anything 100% left or right. You don’t want to create a big hole in the middle of the soundstage. Your mix needs to be center focused but still spacious.
Again, if you’ve got a loud band, use a limiter if you’ve got one. Put a little compression on the lead vocal and touch of reverb. If the whole mix is very dry you can try adding reverb to the master output. Oh, and turn the gain down on the guitars a little bit.
Mixing with Headphones
If we were talking about mixdown for studio tracks here, I’d advise you to never, ever, ever, ever mixdown with headphones. Ever.
Chances are that you’re not going to have a soundproof mixing room and an audio engineer at your disposal for Hangouts. You and your headphones are probably it for Hangouts. Which is fine!
Keep in mind that when listening on headphones you’re always going to want the vocals to be a little bit hotter than they should and the bass a little bit heavier.
This effect depends on which headphones you’re using. Do not, under any circumstances, use cheap earbuds for mixing and performing. You wont be able to hear yourself properly. Same goes for any stylish headphones like “Beats Audio” with very colored presentations.
Speaking of not being able to hear yourself, that’s another reason why you might want to nudge those vocals up a bit more. The mix is the priority though and if you’re having trouble hearing your own voice, try pushing one of the headphone cups away from your ear. This is something I nearly always do when tracking vocals and it helps a lot. If you’re playing with a whole band, you won’t be able to do this. Though, if you’re playing with a whole band you need separate master and monitoring mixes.
Do this. Before every single Hangout on Air you do. Don’t try to get your levels right during the performance or between songs.
Just be careful in who you trust to give you advice on your sound. It’s just a matter of not knowing what their hearing or their audio setup is like. You never know what kind of weird surround sound processing they may have enabled on their computer that could be sucking out the vocals.
Things to keep in mind when you’re doing soundchecks:
- Did I remember to turn on Studio Mode?
- Am I getting sound from both channels?
- Is the left to right balance good?
- Is the balance of instrument to instrument good? Anything buried or too prominent?
- Are the overall levels good? Keep it under 95% for your peaks, average about 80%.
- Is there any strange hiss, hum or static in the signal?
- Are there any sources of background noise that can be turned off?
- Are all cables and jacks in good shape? Replace or repair immediately if not.
- Did everybody show up for the gig?
Make sure that you can switch into Studio Mode before the broadcast begins. Recently there have been a few glitches in Hangouts where users are unable to switch, being prompted with an error that says “Voice mode is being used” (pictured).
Next: My Personal Setup