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