How to set gain staging

Illustration: DaRaun Crawford

One of the toughest milestones to reach with any mix is finding the right amount of clarity in a big sounding mix. It’s a difficult balance to strike, but with the right techniques and careful attention to your gain staging, you’ll be able to get even better sounding mixes that jump out of your speakers. In this article, we’ll explore how to set gain staging properly to get better mixes.

Understanding the Basicsgain-staging-meter

You’ve probably heard terms like headroom, clipping, and gain staging before. To make sure we’re on the same page – here are the definitions as they relate to mixing:

Headroom is the difference between the level of your mix and the maximum level allowed for your mix by your gear / DAW. In other words, it’s the amount of gain left over until your output peaks and clips.

Clipping is when your meters turn red and the gain level exceeds the maximum output. It usually results in a distorted, generally undesirable sound. In the digital domain, this is deadly for your mix. In some analog pieces of gear, though, this can produce a nice sounding warmth.

Gain Staging is the practice of making sure that audio is being passed through all of your gear at the optimal level in order to minimize noise, avoid clipping, and increase clarity.

Now that you know these key terms, let’s discuss techniques to use in order to get proper gain staging during tracking / recording and mixing.

How to Ensure Proper Gain Staging

During Tracking / Recording

This is the most important time to have good gain staging because if clipping happens during this phase, there’s almost no hope for a great sounding mix (of course there are tools like iZotope’s RX which allow us to “fix” the audio afterward, but it’s never as good as getting it right at the source).

In order to make sure you have good gain staging, follow your signal all the way through your chain and into your recorder. Check the input and output gain at each step along the way. In a typical vocal chain, you are running your microphone into a preamp. Make sure that the preamp output is not clipping. At the same time, make sure that there is enough level so as not to introduce noise. I like to set my preamp to be about 60 – 70% of the meter.

If you’re running your preamp into a compressor, make sure that the input and output levels generally match. Most compressors have a “gain” knob, sometimes referred to as “makeup gain,” in order to allow you to adjust for any loss in gain due to the applied compression.

Finally, check to make sure that your recorder / DAW is not clipping. Again, recording in the 60 – 70% range on the meter is a good place to start. This usually means you won’t clip if there’s a sudden peak in the signal, and you also won’t introduce too much noise during the quiet parts.

Making sure you capture a clean signal is half the battle. Now it’s time to mix it.

During Mixing

It’s easier to make sure you have proper gain staging during the mixing phase because you can always adjust the levels throughout the process. If you start clipping on the master bus, simply pull everything down a bit until you’re in the clear.

The most important thing to remember during mixing is to leave enough headroom. This will give your mixes the clarity and big sound that you’re looking for. Without it, your mix will begin to sound small and like it’s being suffocated. This is because there’s no room for the most important ingredient: dynamics.

Dynamics, or the differences in volume in music, are what make great mixes so great. They add depth to the track and make everything more interesting. They make the kick drum and 808 hit harder, and they make the vocal sound like it’s got tons of air around it.

Beyond watching your master fader for clipping, it’s important to make sure that you practice good gain staging with the individual tracks and plugins you’re using. If you aren’t careful, you could be introducing a lot of noise by ignoring the gain, making your recordings much less clear.

The same rule applies as with tracking: the level going in should be the level coming out. If it’s way quieter or way louder, you’re probably going to run into some trouble. Use your meters!

Hear the Difference

If you need the proof for yourself, open up any mix you’ve done recently. Save a copy of it and play around with the level of the master fader. Keep the overall volume the same by turning down your speakers as you turn up the master fader. Turn it up until your mix is clipping. Hear as the mix gets smaller and smaller and sounds more and more distorted.

Then, turn down the master fader (and turn up the speaker volume) and hear as the mix gets clearer and clearer. Adjust the volume of your speakers to keep the overall output level the same, and hear your mix get even bigger.

While proper gain staging is much more than the level of your master fader, this is just a simple way to demonstrate the importance of gain staging on your mix. So keep an eye on your meters and have fun mixing!

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February 2, 2018

PALA PALA is a pop songwriter and producer with over a decade of experience. He has worked with many of the top organizations in music including the GRAMMY Foundation.