Using the proper gain throughout your mix project offers you the best end quality. In this article, I will explain what gain staging is, and how you can implement it on your next project!
What is ‘Gain’?
If you ever took a look at a mixing desk, you probably found a knob at the top labeled ‘gain.’ A particular effect with a pre/post -gain parameter, or a knob called ‘make-up gain.’ All these parameters increase or decrease the level of the signal you are processing. Turning up the gain knob on a mixer will increase the level of the signal going into that mixer channel, for example. Pretty handy, right? That way, you can increase the overall level or loudness of the sound.
Clipping is terrible, right?
When you add a couple of audio signals, the mixer in your music software or hardware will add them up. That also adds gain, as you might imagine.
So by adding a lot of loud signals, you run the chance of clipping. You can see this on your meters as they light up red. Or you might hear this as a distorted sound.
In today’s music software, you might not hear this until it’s too late. Your music software adds signals together by using something called a ‘floating-point mixing engine.’ The result is no clipping when you playback your project even if you turn everything up all the way. That is until you export your project to a file. At that moment, it will no longer be a floating-point file, and the clipping will be back with a vengeance!
So, clipping in your music software’s mixer is pretty bad, keep an eye on your master channel and make sure it’s not in the red.
Why Stage the gain?
To help, we use gain-staging! You use the gain knob to adjust your sound sources, so the master channel where they all get added up won’t clip. Also, a lot of analog hardware effects like compressors, EQ’s are calibrated to a particular gain. The emulations of those hardware units in plugins also use that level to work best. So how do we set this up?
How to set up your project
It’s essential to change the gain of the audio before the effects and fader of your channel. You can do this by changing the level or gain of an audio clip, add a gain plugin as the first effect. If you are using a virtual instrument, you can turn down the output volume. Use the meter on your channel and aim for around -18dB. Increase your speaker level if it’s a bit to quiet for you. Once you have ‘staged the gain’ of all your elements, you can mix as usual by using effects and your faders. Keep an eye on the master channel. It’s always a good idea to keep around 6dB of headroom between where the meter is and the red clipping part. Using this will help you export perfect mixes, ready for mastering!
Almost all DAW have a tool or gain plugin that lets you alter the gain, if not check out these: