LEVELS by Mastering The Mix and 29 Palms (£69, free trial available) is an unusual metering plugin which is designed to give you the information needed to fix a mix or a master as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Albert Einstein said that a theory should be as simple as possible, but no simpler, and that is sort of the idea here – not that the plugin itself should be as simple as possible, but that using it should be. It’s a 32-bit and 64-bit plugin for both Windows and Mac platforms.
Green Light, Red Light
There are lots of great, sophisticated metering plugins which will be happy to take up your entire screen and provide you with hundreds of pieces of information to analyze. LEVELS attempts to do something completely different – minimize the amount of analysis required, and instead just inform you about potential mix problems in a way that will allow you to take quick action to fix them.
The interface is quite small for 2016 plugin, not resizable, and features a central scope surrounded by four mode buttons. They are: Headroom, Dynamic Range, Stereo Field and Bass Space. No matter which mode you are currently in, if LEVELS detects an issue with another mode, the button will change from green to red. In other words, it’s the logic of that little red light showing clipping on a mixer, expanded into other areas. Pressing it once you think you’ve fixed the issue resets it back to green. The main view also has buttons to set the signal to mono or enable the left or right channel only.
Bass Space is the only mode which has to be used in a more active way – it’s designed to check whether there’s low end space for the bass which isn’t possible while the bass is present. So, this means that you need to mute your kick and bass instruments, then switch to this mode and let it know that the bass and kick are muted, thus allowing the plugin to check whether all the other sounds that are present leave enough room for kick and bass or not.
The other modes can basically be just left alone unless they turn red, in which case they’ll require some investigation, however they do also provide useful information and have a few options which can be clicked. Headroom can monitor peak levels in dB or perceived loudness using the LUFS standard, which is basically an European broadcasting standard for measuring loudness. If you need to produce a piece of audio for broadcast, it might need to meet the loudness standards measured using LUFS. But even if you don’t, it’s still the best current standard for measuring how loud something sounds to a typical person.
Dynamic Range basically shows the average difference between the peak and LUFS. Stereo Field shows whether the track is centered, and whether the sides are well correlated with each other (which can be very useful for spotting phase issues), and also has a low-pass switch for checking if bass frequencies are in mono.
Each mode also displays different information – Headroom shows levels (obviously enough), Dynamic Range displays an oscilloscope, Stereo Field a stereo image vectorscope, and Bass Space a spectrum analysis of the low end.
So, how does LEVELS know when something should turn red? The thresholds for all its red lights can be set on the options page. This page contains two presets – one for mixing and one for mastering. The manual and online help provides some helpful hints for how these might be tweaked for different purposes, as well as possible actions to take in order to find and fix what is causing a red light.
The CPU usage is tiny, seemingly no more than 1% on my machine. And although the user interface is not large, it’s big enough that it can be easily used on a touch screen. Only the options and help buttons are a bit too small, however you normally won’t need to click on those a lot while mixing a track. But does LEVELS really do everything it needs to do, or are there certain areas where it does need to do more?
Working on a mixing project, the only thing I had to use another metering plugin for was full spectrum analysis in order to check the overall frequency balance or inspect more closely for frequency clashes. It’s worth pointing out, though, that adding a full-range spectrum analyzer to LEVELS (or extending the Bass Space spectrum upwards) wouldn’t work too well. A full spectrum display is more useful when it takes up a big chunk of your screen, so it does seem like a job best left to another plugin.
Other than that, LEVELS does seem to give me all the information I care about while mixing a track, with little to no thinking required on my part. About the only thing I would like it to have is the ability to store a larger number of presets, as I mix very different types of music for very different artists, and having only one mixing setting and one mastering setting means having to set all parameters manually when switching styles. That’s the biggest nit I can pick, though.
Can Metering Be Fun?
LEVELS tries to make metering your audio fun, or at least as quick and painless as possible. It doesn’t just do the work of a metering plugin, though. It also does some of the important decision making on your part, as in analyzing the metering results and letting you know whether something needs to be changed in the mix. It’s a brilliant concept, and works out remarkably well in practice.
More info: Levels ($99)
LEVELS does some of the important decision making on your part, as in analyzing the metering results and letting you know whether something needs to be changed in the mix. It's a brilliant concept, and works out remarkably well in practice.