How do you normalize your levels?

I’ve seen this touched on, but not to any depth.

I have a huge range of sounds I use on stage, and I’ve forever been trying to find a way to level things out. Since I want dynamics, I don’t want to just “pin” the meters @ -6db, but I do want to be able to have the sounds be relatively even. The only thing worse than starting a tune only to have to reach over to turn myself up is to play a killer part and not have it heard by anyone but me :frowning:

Back in the analog audio days, a FOH engineer taught me to use a compressor to level my sounds. Since I had multiple synth modules playing at the same time, I had lots of different levels to manage. Bill (FOH guy) taught me to use the gain reduction on the compressors VU meter to determine “evenness” from patch to patch. I would find a benchmark patch, and then watch the gain reduction “tick” the VU slightly. If it didn’t move I’d increase the individual volumes. If it jumped, then I reduced the individual volumes. I spent a day doing this, and it worked out really well - the side benefit of this was that I was able to concentrate on playing and not riding volume pedals.

My current project is a jazz/contemporary jazz/fusion quartet (bass/drums/guitar/keyboards). No vocals, and in most rooms we are running our own sound, so the better I can dial the sounds in, the better the chance I’ll be heard and avoid annoying people.

Obviously a patch where I’m playing melody on the piano, with no other sounds, will have to be treated differently from a screaming Brian Auger organ tune, but I’ve got to start somewhere…

Here are my questions:

  1. Are the Cantabile “Master” meters fast enough/accurate enough for me to use to 'set" the levels?
  2. I hear guitarists talking about adding 6db to their gain for solos. Is that a good place to start, or am I going to blow everyone out of the room if I do that?
  3. How do you normalize your volumes?


Thanks in advance…

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I just do it by ear. I step through all my patches for a song and set them to a good relative level as determined by what I hear and then adjust after rehearsal when I hear it in a mix.

Here’s the thing though- it’s all relative, dependent on the eq quirks of whatever system you’re playing through. You can achieve what you think is a great relative balance through headphones, or your monitor system in a rehearsal space but you may then get out live and a stage monitor system and/or PA will accentuate different frequencies and utterly change what you thought you set. No amount of tweaking or compressing will change that. So unless you always play through the exact same system be prepared to go a little crazy no matter what.

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Hey Patrick,

I generally calibrate all my individual sounds from my linked racks in a three-stage procedure:

  • setting a base level against a set of RMS and LUFS meters - I try to set my average levels to roughly -26dB LUFS. I know, this is pretty low, but with layering and solo boosts, I need a bit of headroom. Cantabile’s meters are nice for visual check, but to me not precise enough for level-setting. I like the LUFS meter; it gives me a nice averaged level (short-/medium-/long-range)
  • next, I set my main piano sound (my universal reference) on my lower keyboard and the sound I am calibrating on my upper keyboard and compare “by ear” and adjust for different overtone intensity (Rhodes needs to be louder to be heard in a mix)
  • last, I play both, piano and calibrating sound, against a “no-keyboard” playback (just a bit of straight 8-beat rock in A) in different octaves

I do all my calibrating with headphones or in-ears - I find that too-hot volume levels jump out far more dramatically at my usual in-ear monitoring levels (OUCH!) than on speakers, where I seem to be more forgiving.

This usually gets me to a good base level that I can then tune within the song, with all the layering in place. A quieter ballad will need lower levels than a full-out rock thrash-fest.

Solo boost is usually about 4 dB for me, 6 would mostly lift the solo too far above the mix for me; I like solos to still gel with the rest of the arrangement.




This also depends on the dynamic range of the sound. In my case if I do a solo on my piano sound I do not push the volume at all. I just play louder with a higher velocity.
But of course: This doesn’t fit most of the sounds.

BTW: +6db means almost doubling the loudness! So this sounds way too much to me. If I need to boost a sound, than its about 2-4db.

@FantomXR: 100% agree; my piano solo boost is usually just some 2 dB - just playing harder is difficult in a rock context, where backings are already banging quite a bit ;-); but a piano sound has a pretty brilliant overtone spectrum (at least my rock piano sound does), so it doesn’t need so much of a boost.

But when I play a hammond solo in a low register (not high up where it screams your ears off), then a healthy 4dB boost (combined with a reasonable anti-scream EQ dip around 2 kHz) is warranted…