Keep It Calibrated! Learn How and Why You Should Calibrate Your Studio Monitors for Video Game Audio

Keep It Calibrated! Learn How and Why You Should Calibrate Your Studio Monitors for Video Game Audio

An important skill to learn is how to calibrate the levels of your studio monitors. Most of the pros and professional studios have their systems properly calibrated.

If you haven’t taken the time to learn how, or why you should calibrate your studio monitors then you have found the right article! The good news is that calibrating your system is actually a very simple process.

This article is written for people in video games, tv, and film. None of this is intended for mixing music since the loudness wars destroyed that medium’s dynamic range already…

BEFORE WE GET STARTED

I think it’s important to mention that calibrated systems are only best for checking sounds at mix level and mixing. Once your system is calibrated, sounds that hit 0dBFS will be REALLY LOUD!!!

When working on individual assets, doing sound design, or other tasks it’s important to save your hearing and turn down the volume from where it will be calibrated. Don’t worry though, you’ll have the properly calibrated levels marked so you can return to the right levels 🙂

Ok, let’s get started.

WHY: THE BENEFITS OF CALIBRATING YOUR SYSTEM

#1 Headroom

By calibrating your system you will give yourself headroom in your mixes. This forces you to add more dynamic range in your mixes!

#2 Standardization

By mixing in a calibrated room it makes it easier to transition to other rooms that are calibrated to the same level! It also helps other people adjust to your room.

#3 Better Mixes

Once your room is calibrated dialogue levels are typically mixed at normal speaking level. This makes it easier to mix by ear. By mixing with headroom you will ensure better video game mixes that don’t require ducking for the dialogue to poke through. LOUD sounds will appear louder because they will have more contrast to the quieter sounds.

THINK OF IT LIKE THIS. IF I TYPE IN ALL CAPS THEN ALL OF THE WORDS ALL SEEM TO BLEND TOGETHER AND THEY LOSE THEIR IMPORTANCE.

However, if you have mostly lower case and then type in only ONE bold capital word it helps it to stand out.

 

WHY VIDEO GAMES SHOULD USE A CALIBRATED STANDARD:

flashback-maxhearoom_betterMixes

Film and TV all have very standardized mixing levels. However, video games haven’t yet set such an industry standard or level requirements. Game Audio is such a diverse medium that it is much more difficult to standardize levels. Despite this, I, and many colleagues of mine, believe that we should have a set of video game industry monitoring standards. Let me tell you why!

More and more games are using cinematic style levels for mixing. Games such as Uncharted 3 and The Last Of Us both have mixes with around 30dB of dynamic range. Their teams take a very cinematic approach to their mixes. Dynamic range must be important considering The Last Of Us seemed to win, oh I don’t know, pretty much EVERY audio award out there 😉 I learned A LOT working on Uncharted 3, not least of which is that mixing around the natural levels of spoken dialogue leads to better sounding games.

The large amount of dynamic range also allows big moments to seem bigger because of the contrast with the quieter ambient moments. This prevents bad mix practices like extreme ducking when dialogue plays so the dialogue can be heard in mixes or overly compressing and limiting a bunch of dialogue files to get them to poke out in the mix. Sound familiar?? Perhaps you didn’t start your project with a properly calibrated room and mix!

My favorite sounding mixes in games have room to breathe in the mix. It’s easy to fill games with sound and use ducking to fix things later, but I’ve tried that before and trust me… a proper mix with headroom from the beginning of the project is a MUCH better way to go!!!!!

Also, many games are played by people for long periods of time and don’t have commercial interruptions or other media to compete with level wise. Games like this are lucky because the players will generally set their levels once and not adjust them unless the dialogue isn’t audible or something is played back way too loud.

Early on in my career I made the mistake of mixing with too little dynamic range, and I think the fact I didn’t have a calibrated system is a big part of why that occurred.

Another benefit to adopting a soft standard for game audio is we can tell producers and other game industry people about them. This will help give us ammo in the fight to keep more headroom in our mixes instead of competing in our own loudness war. We’ve seen how that’s gone for music levels… Square Wave Central! ha

 

WHAT YOU NEED IN ORDER TO CALIBRATE PROPERLY

#1 SPL METER

SPLnFFT_79dB

I use SPLnFFT on the iPhone which is highly accurate! LogSPL is good as well. Some apps aren’t accurate and I found these based on some research. You can also use a radioshack SPL meter 🙂

#2 SPEAKERS 

Yes… you will need speakers… shocking I’m sure 😉 Many times you’ll have to adjust individual speaker volumes so it’s best if you have studio monitors with their own individual volume pots.

#3 MONITOR CONTROLLER OR MIXER TO ADJUST SPEAKER LEVELS

That’s it! Let’s get started.

 

LEARNING TO CALIBRATE YOUR SYSTEM

OK, so you’re probably sold on calibrating your system at this point. Let’s go over the details.

To calibrate, you will be playing -20dBfs RMS pink noise out of your system. You can either do this with a signal generator or with these pink noise files I uploaded for you here.

The -20dBfs pink noise is chosen because it matches normal conversational dialogue levels. By calibrating and setting “Normal Dialogue Levels” at -20dBfs this will give you 20dB of headroom in your mixes. Now your average dialogue can sit around -20dBfs and big moments like epic explosions and gigantic cinematic moments can be up to 20dB louder!

Your calibration levels will depend on what kind of audio mixes you are doing. These are typically 79dB SPL for broadcast and games facilities that use smaller edit suites or 85dB SPL for large edit suites when working on a Film. Some game people I know leave their systems at 75dB SPL, but I recommend this only for designing sounds and not for final mixes.

The higher the calibration number, the more headroom above the dialogue level as well as the overall quieter mix you will get because of the larger amount of dynamic range. For example, calibrating your system to an 85dB SPL calibration level will lead to quieter overall mixes with more headroom than a 75dB SPL calibration level will. This is because 85dB is so much louder than 75dB that you will naturally mix things quieter in the mix, dialogue will still sit at a level that seems conversational in your mix, which will in turn give you more dynamic range between dialogue and the louder sounds.

 

STEPS TO CALIBRATE YOUR DAW

Step 1: Open your DAW

Step 2: Play -20dBfs rms pink noise through one speaker at a time

You can use a signal generator or this -20dB pink noise file I uploaded to soundcloud for you 🙂

Step 3: Use SPL meter at mix position set to C weighting, and slow response time

Step 4: Turn up or down the first speaker until it measures 79dB SPL (Small Edit Suite typically for Broadcast or Games) or 85dB SPL ( Large Edit Suite for Film) on the SPL meter

Step 5: Continue this process with EACH individual speaker one at a time, muting all other speakers, until they all measure 79dB SPL(Broadcast or Games) or 85dB SPL ( Film) on the SPL meter

Step 6: Mark the output level on your mixer, monitor controller, and whatever else effects your overall volume

 

That’s it! You’ve calibrated your DAW!

Now, you can optionally adjust your PC to match the same output volume.

CALIBRATE YOUR COMPUTER OUTPUT TO MATCH

Step 1: Open a browser

Step 2: Play -20dBfs rms pink noise

Either use this Youtube Video or use the SoundCloud player below.

Step 3: Use SPL meter at mix position set to C weighting, and slow response time

Step 4: Turn up or down the PC or MAC volume until it measures 79dB SPL (Broadcast or Games) or 85dB SPL ( Film) on the SPL meter.

Since you’ve already calibrated the other speakers you only have to measure the first speaker.

Step 5: Mark the output level on your PC or MAC volume.

 

 

That’s all folks

If you have made it this far CONGRATULATIONS! You now understand why it’s so important to have a calibrated audio system! Headroom is a beautiful thing in mixes and a calibrated system helps you achieve better levels for dialogue and a nice dynamic range in your mix.

If you followed directions, as long as they made sense, you should also have you’re very own calibrated system of your own. Give yourself a pat on the back 🙂

I hope this article proved to you why it is so important to have a calibrated system. I also hope it will get more video game audio people talking about calibration and adopting a standard, or set of standards, so we can ensure our mixes continue to contain lots of headroom!

If anything didn’t make sense, please don’t hesitate to make a comment with questions or concerns about this.

Thanks for visiting PlayDotSound! Your best resource for learning about video game sound!
Come back soon for more posts about game audio, sound design, composition, integration using engines like Unreal and Unity, and much more.
 
Play Dot Sound is created by multiple award winning sound designers and composers in the video game audio industry. Our purpose is to educate, connect and inspire both beginners and professionals to make better sounds for their games.
 
Matt Piersall – http://www.Gl33k.com

 

  • Roddrick King

    Great tutorial.

    • Aaron Brown

      Thanks Roddrick 🙂 Always good to hear the content is useful!

  • Jackson Iavaroni

    Good article BUT, this is where I get confused…after you calibrate your system, and you are playing a semi-finished mix through you DAW, what then? Somehow the practicality of doing this escapes me…do you continue to take measurements to ensure you are mixing at 79 db? Please can someone kinda walk me through their process when they are actually mixing?

    -Thanks!

    • Aaron Brown

      Hey Jackson,
      This calibration allows you to mix in any calibrated room and know when loud is loud and quiet is quiet. It keeps things equal in calibrated spaces. This way, you don’t turn dialogue WAY UP in a room because they have their monitors much quieter.
      So, once you are used to mixing on a calibrated set up, it’s more of a set it and forget it kind of thing. You move the knob that controls your speaker volume to the “75dB reference notch” and suddenly you have a baseline for overall volume.

      Also, 75dB is fine for small rooms 🙂
      Without this, you may turn things VERY loud (when monitors are quiet in a room), or turn things to be very quiet (when monitors are quiet in a room).
      Imagine having speakers at a very low level. You’ll end up turning EVERYTHING WAY UP to compensate. This prevents that!
      Hope that helps.

  • Dave Percy

    You almost have it, Step 6 is a little off ”

    Step 6: Mark the output level on your mixer, monitor controller, and whatever else effects your overall volume”

    This should be step 1 and you actually want to set this level to unity gain or 0dB or 0 dBFS if your on a digital system

    As well you should clarify that this process should be done 1 speaker at a time with the other speaker being muted or turned off etc

    Another point to make is that in rooms that are less adequately treated acoustically
    Room modes will start to become excited at around 83 dB so If your room isn’t very well treated best to stay under 80 dB for medium size rooms and 75 dB and under for small rooms

    • Aaron Brown

      Oh geez, did I not mention to do it one speaker at a time? Whoops! Thanks for mentioning that.
      Good note about acoustic treatment, but I find it quite likely that anyone going over 80dB will be working in a properly treated environment for film mixing 🙂
      Thanks for typing this up Dave!

    • melloj1

      Agreed. Was going to mention that. The difference between 79dB and 85dB is more to do with room size than program content. 85dB is good but only if you’ve a decent sized room. 79dB is for a small edit suite.

      • Aaron Brown

        Thanks for the note. It really helps make these articles more accurate 🙂

  • Gauthier

    Hi,
    Great tuto.
    Why do we use db(c) and not db(a) for measurement at mixing position? Are we measuring peaks instead of average level?
    Tx

    • LGC

      A and C are different weighting, different frequency response, A weighting filters low frequencies much more than C weighting

  • Rhythmic Ricence

    When using an interface, what should the monitor knob on the interface be set to?

    • Aaron Brown

      It all depends on the interface and monitoring options. Do you have a separate monitor device for your speakers?
      Generally, you set your levels internally and then put a small mark on the monitor controller or interface at the spot that hits your target levels 🙂 You could even put marks at different levels so you have one for film mixing and another for tracking and mixing CDs if you wanted.

      • Rhythmic Ricence

        Thanks for responding! I’m using the saffire pro 40…the monitor knob doesn’t have unity on it, just 1-10. Are u saying I set it at say, the number 7, and then adjust my monitors to hit around 80db, left then right, (or however?)

        • Aaron Brown

          If your speakers have no calibration then yes. You output the sound from your daw until your speakers hit the target output then mark that number, whatever it is, as your 80dB output level! Hopefully your speakers can be adjusted a few dB just in case they aren’t equal in output or level.

          • Rhythmic Ricence

            So in other words, I could put my monitor knob on the number 5 and calibrate that for 80 DB? Do I have that correct?

  • Eri Farley

    Hello!
    This was a great article.
    I was wondering how you would calibrate if you are using fmod as your middleware.
    Since FMODS db meters are kind of wonky, how would I translate from protools to fmod?
    I am using Arturia Interface and KRK VTX 8 on a fairly small mixing room (7×10)

    • Aaron Brown

      Thanks 🙂 Calibrating from an application or platform is a similar process. For FMod you are really just using your computer output so if you put a -20dB pink noise tone into FMod and play it through your speakers you can calibrate it by calibrating your PC output level. If your target platform is a system like the PS4 you’d have to calibrate your receiver levels to output at that level, commonly by either playing a calibration tone through the system then adjusting receiver levels until they are calibrated or by putting your entire system through protools and monitoring through protools.
      So, basically follow the process but instead of using your DAW interface calibrate your PC to those levels. Side note, ORBAN makes a free LUFS meter that can monitor your PC output or FMOD output for much better metering 🙂 https://www.orban.com/free-orban-loudness-meter/

      • Eri Farley

        That’s great! This is awesome info! One more question though. Is it still going through PC Audio output even though I’m using an interface?

        • Aaron Brown

          It is indeed. The computer volume level (0-100) directly affects your levels so you’ll have to know what PC output level you have things set to, then you’ll have to know the levels on your volume knob (whatever controls levels to speakers) so that the combination hits your target level. Commonly, you adjust your DAW first then adjust the PC levels and receiver levels so they match. That way, you can always quickly set those levels to hit your target reference levels. Sometimes you’ll have to turn down while designing or doing other tasks so it’s good to mark them or write down the settings so you don’t have to worry about getting them back 🙂

          • Eri Farley

            Awesome!
            Thank you so much Aaron!!!

  • Christos Chris

    Hey Aaron,

    Thank you very much for writing this long and informative article.
    I have a quick question that I hope you wouldn’t mind answering.
    I have already tried a few times to calibrate my monitor speakers but somehow I’ve got different db values. Therefore I need always to change the monitor knob of my interface. For example, when my spl meter reaches 79dB I have to set my monitor’s knob on -13dB and if I try again I have to change it a few db higher..
    Any thoughts?

    Best,
    Christos

    • Aaron Brown

      That’s odd. Are you doing it from your DAW or PC? If DAW ensure all settings are the same, then that all monitor knobs are marked. If from the PC be aware the pc volume slider will affect it. In theory this shouldn’t occur so it sounds like something else in the system is being adjusted between calibrations or that the microphone is being moved or shifted when getting levels. Good luck!

      • Christos Chris

        Thank you vey much for the prompt reply.
        I figured out!! I had to calibrate the spl meter’s mic.
        Cheers!!! Thanks!!

  • Kenneth Cullens

    Hey Aaron, thank you for the time to help on this topic. My confusion is, after individually turning up each speaker’s volume to hit 79dB SPL, when I un mute all speakers, I get the combined reading of 84dB SPL. Obviously because all speakers are now combined. Am I then suppose to bring down the over all volume back to 79dB SPL?

  • EinSine Tesla

    on SPLnFFT how do you change from A to C weight???