Gain Staging is a widely debated topic throughout the online world of music production. Most of the reason behind the debate is that this is a process that was super important in the analogue days because it dealt mostly with noise from analogue tape machines, and since we are in the digital age and noise is less of a problem, is it really critical to gain stage?
Gain staging today means adjusting the gain for each input to make sure you have an optimal level where signals are not being clipped on playback. Clipping will lead to distortion in the sound, and it’s important to avoid this at all costs if you want high-quality audio output from your mixing session.
Therefore, gain staging should be done before starting any mixing session because it ensures that everything sounds right from the start.
So What Is Gain Staging?
Gain staging levels enable you to easily control the overall quality and consistency throughout all parts of your sound by managing the input at every stage in the signal chain. Historically, it was about controlling the signal-to-noise ratio. Analogue gear produces noise inherently, so gain staging was an effort to try to get the signal coming in to basically drown out the noise, without clipping the signal.
Today in the digital world, noise is not an issue so gain staging is used to ensure optimal playback. Use gain staging to get all the tracks coming into their channels at a good level so that the plugins will work well and you don’t have any clipping.
If you want to get technical about it, use a VU meter to make sure all the tracks are averaging at 0db. A VU meter is a tool that is used to determine the audio level of a recording. It measures the sound pressure in decibels. You can use a VU meter plugin to make sure the average input level is around 0db. This will make sure that there is no clipping in a track and you have optimum levels for plugins.
There are plenty of free VU meter plugins online, but here is one from PreSonus that is really great.
The goal of gain staging in the digital world is to keep your master bus free of clipping while giving yourself enough headroom for working with processing and ultimately leaving enough room for mastering.
Why Do You Need to Gain Stage?
There are 2 main reasons why you would want to gain stage. You want to manage your analogue inputs and gain stage for your plugin performance.
Manage your Analogue Inputs
It is crucial that you manage your analogue inputs, like vocals or instruments recorded in. You need to manage them from the source and all the way along the signal chain. The signal chain is each stage that the source travels through during processing, for example, a vocal will travel from the singer to the microphone to the audio interface, then to the hard drive and to the DAW.
Do this by keeping your fader on your track at 0db when recording the signal. Make sure your audio coming into the interface is not clipping. Nothing sounds worse than digital distortion from clipping. Give yourself a lot of headroom so that the sounds that you record and process don’t clip your master bus.
If your master bus is already clipping, then grab all the faders and just bring them down until the master is not clipping and you have some headroom.
Gain Stage for Plugins
Gain staging is a process that helps us use our favourite plugins so their performance isn’t limited by the input level. Many of the plugins in your DAW or third-party plugins are modelled after analogue plugins. They are coded to respond like analogue effects and therefore they have a sweet spot where the plugin functions best.
This process allows for maximum efficiency in your plugin, making it sound perfect on your recording! A standard practice among audio engineers is to set peak input levels at 0db or -18dbfs. This is a ballpark figure to aim for but if you want to be specific then use a VU meter like said earlier.
One thing to note is the volume coming out of your plugin. You don’t want to have all the effects adding to the volume of the track. If so, in a short time you will be clipping the master bus. To remedy this, just bypass the effect and check if the volume changes if it does then bring down the output level until you don’t hear a change in the volume when bypassed.
If you gain staged properly you will be on the right track for having a great mix. Set the right foundation for the mix by setting your levels for input properly.
The sound quality is going to be better because you are not clipping any of it out, and so all that hard work goes into a great track with no having to go back and re-record parts.
Not only that, getting good gain staging will help you take full advantage of your DAW’s and third-party plugins.