Unlocking the Secret to Perfect Audio: Demystifying Gain Staging in Audio
Updated: May 3
Do you ever wonder how music producers and sound engineers can make a song sound so good?
One important factor is gain staging. Gain staging is the process of setting the levels of each element in a mix to ensure that they all work together harmoniously. It's a crucial step in the production process that can make a significant difference in the final product.
The Difference Between Gain and Volume
Gain and volume are two terms that are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. Volume refers to the loudness of a sound, while gain refers to the amount of amplification applied to a signal. In other words, volume is the output level, while gain is the input level. Gain staging is about setting the input levels of each track in a mix so that the output levels are consistent and not distorted. Gain is typically measured in decibels (dB), while volume is measured in units like "dB SPL" (sound pressure level) or "LUFS" (loudness units relative to full scale).
Gain staging can be a bit intimidating for beginners, but it's not as complicated as it may seem. By understanding the difference between gain and volume and how they relate to each other, you can start to grasp the basics of gain staging. In this article, we'll break down gain staging in simple terms that anyone can understand, so you can start applying it to your own music productions.
What is Gain Staging in Audio?
Gain staging is the process of optimizing the levels of audio signals throughout the recording and mixing process.
It involves setting the correct gain levels at each stage of the signal chain, from the input source to the final output. The goal of gain staging is to ensure that each audio signal is at the optimal level, neither too low nor too high. If the levels are too low, the signal will be lost in the noise floor, resulting in a weak and indistinct sound. If the levels are too high, the signal will clip and distort, resulting in a harsh and unpleasant sound.
It is really important to utilize the input/output of audio plugins when you're mixing. If you set your levels, begin applying processing with plugins, and stop paying attention to the input and output within the plugin(s), it is possible that you can begin to distort the signal or even begin to raise the noise floor if levels get out of control over the course multiple plugins running on a single track. If you don't pay attention to this and have multiple tracks with incorrect gain staging through your plugins, you can begin to raise the noise floor. When this happens you'll typically hear an annoying hissing noise.
How to Achieve Proper Gain Staging
Setting Levels at the Source
Start by setting appropriate levels at the source, such as with a microphone or instrument. It's important to avoid clipping, which occurs when the signal level exceeds the maximum level that can be recorded or processed. To avoid clipping, adjust the gain so that the loudest parts of the signal are just below the maximum level. in my experience, its best to make sure that the loudest parts of a recording go no higher than -3 or -4 dB.
Adjusting Gain on the Preamp or Interface
After setting levels at the source, adjust the gain on the preamp or interface to match the signal level to the input level of the recording device. This helps to ensure that the signal is not too weak or too strong, which can result in noise or distortion.
Using Faders and Volume Controls
Finally, use faders and volume controls to adjust the overall level of the mix. This should be done after all other gain adjustments have been made. It's important to avoid boosting the level too much, as this can lead to clipping and distortion. Instead, aim for a balanced mix with appropriate levels at each stage of the signal chain.
Adjusting Levels Using Clip Gain
clip gain can be thought of as a way to adjust the input level of individual audio clips before they are processed by other plugins or effects in the signal chain. By adjusting the clip gain, you can ensure that the audio signal is neither too quiet nor too loud, and that it is hitting the subsequent plugins at an appropriate level. I personally use Logic Pro X for mixing and mastering and found that the clip gain feature was in a less obvious place than in other DAW's like Cubase or Protools. Below is a picture of where you can find the feature in Logic.
Difference Between Gain and Volume
Definition of Gain
Gain is an audio term that refers to the amount of amplification applied to an audio signal. It is usually measured in decibels (dB) and can be adjusted on an audio device like a mixer or amplifier. Gain is used to boost the level of a weak audio signal to a usable level without causing distortion or noise. It is also used to match the levels of different audio sources so that they can be mixed together seamlessly.
Definition of Volume
Volume, on the other hand, is a measure of how loud or soft an audio signal is. It is usually measured in decibels (dB) as well and can be adjusted on an audio device like a speaker or amplifier. Volume is used to control the overall loudness of an audio signal and can be adjusted to suit personal preferences or to match the requirements of a particular application.
How They are Different
The main difference between gain and volume is that gain is used to adjust the level of an audio signal before it is processed, while volume is used to adjust the level of an audio signal after it has been processed. In other words, gain is used to adjust the input level of an audio signal, while volume is used to adjust the output level of an audio signal.
Another difference is that gain affects the quality of an audio signal, while volume does not. Increasing the gain too much can cause distortion and noise, which can degrade the quality of the audio signal. Volume, on the other hand, can be increased or decreased without affecting the quality of the audio signal.
It is important to understand the difference between gain and volume because they are often used interchangeably, which can lead to confusion. For example, increasing the volume on a mixer does not necessarily increase the gain of an audio signal, and vice versa.
Why is Gain Staging Important?
Gain staging is an important concept in audio engineering that involves setting the gain levels for each component in the audio signal chain. This includes microphones, preamps, EQs, compressors, and other processors. The goal of gain staging is to ensure that each component in the signal chain is operating at its optimal level, without introducing unwanted noise or distortion.
When setting the gain levels for each component in the signal chain, it's important to avoid clipping, which occurs when the signal exceeds the maximum level that the component can handle. Clipping can introduce unwanted distortion and can damage the equipment. On the other hand, setting the gain levels too low can result in a weak, noisy signal that requires excessive processing to bring it up to a usable level.
Proper gain staging can also help to minimize noise and interference in the signal. This is particularly important in recording situations where the signal is being amplified multiple times before being recorded to a digital audio workstation (DAW) or other recording device. By ensuring that each component in the signal chain is operating at its optimal level, you can minimize the amount of noise and interference that is introduced into the signal.
Overall, gain staging is an essential concept in audio engineering that can help to ensure that your recordings and mixes sound their best. By understanding the difference between gain and volume and setting the gain levels for each component in the signal chain appropriately, you can minimize distortion, noise, and interference, and achieve a clean, clear sound that is free from unwanted artifacts.