Gain Staging is a topic that can sound complicated and I’m sure many people have been left very confused trying to read about it when they have come across overly complicated articles online. However I am writing this article to explain gain staging in a simple way so all can understand and use the basic principles to their advantage.
I went many years having no clue of the term gain staging but still doing it properly without knowing. This because in its most simplest definition is volume management. Of course entire books are written about gain staging and certainly you could dive into a rabbit hole of complicated details however in this day and age of digital production it is not mandatory.
In the first recording studios one needed a scientist in a white coat to help with the recordings of sounds and the machinery was a lot more complicated. Now with Ableton making music feels more like using a computer game. The analog world of the olden days was a different world but still there are principles which remain foundation.
In the journey of an audio signal there will be different stages at which the gain can be adjusted. When you make appropriate adjustments to the gain at these stages it is thus called gain staging. In the picture below we have a practical example in Ableton of the different gain stages. In this example I have everything in the green and all is swell and clean.
If I am recording my guitar the signal journey may be as follows; the input gain of the guitar, a gain level for any audio effects, a channel level and the master channel. Here is a little picture of the example. At each stage of the guitars input signal there is a gain knob of which can be adjusted. The idea is to get a nice green signal at its source and keep it green throughout all its stages.
Gain vs Volume?
An important difference to understand is between gain and volume. Gain is the adjustment parameter for signal coming in and volume is the adjustment parameter for signal going out. A rule for my own productions is that whenever something is too loud and in the red I need to find the “source volume” and turn it down from there. For example, if I am using Operator in Ableton, I have heaps of effects in an audio chain and I notice its in the red I am not going to just turn the channel level down. The problem with this is that the signal is still coming in hot and will be distorting and lowering the quality of the sound. This is why I need to find the “source volume” which in this example would simply be Operators volume control. That way the source signal is in the green and I am getting the clearer sound I can.
Here below is an example of bad gain staging. The Wavetable is way too loud and even though there is a compressor at the end of the chain and I have a green level in the both track and master channel the sound is distorted and of bad quality in general. To correct this issue I need to turn it down in the Wavetable synth. This way I have a clear and quality signal from the source.
At this point is a good moment to mention a term “unity gain”. I had never heard of this term for a long while but had been achieving it without realising. This because it is again common sense. Unity gain is where the output signal is the same as the input gain. With achieving unity gain you are not losing anything from having it too quiet and not burdened with the negative effects of clipping such as distortion or feedback. Your signal is in unity.
Of course to achieve unity gain you need to be sure your input gain is starting out at an appropriate level in the first place. To make sure you have an optimum input gain at source is to be in the green with lots of headroom to make room for any peaks that may appear. A guitar or vocal track may need more headroom as there are more spikes. A bass guitar or synth pad may need less headroom. Leaving more headroom in all cases is better so you can be sure you will always be in the green.
Tips and Extra Methods
In common practice, a track before it is sent too mastering should be sitting at -6db on the master channel without anything (compressors, limiters, etc) on the master channel. With this level the mastering engineer can be sure to have lots of headroom to blast volume and tone into your track without distorting anything. This is why its very important to make sure you have green at the source levels on all your channels of your song.
Something worth mentioning here also is a behavior tracks have on one another when played together. When playing lots of tracks together, although everything separately is in the green it maybe pushing the master channel into the red. We do not resolve this by turning the master down. The master should never be touched in my opinion (however there are no set rules and this is just my methodology which I am sharing as a teacher) Our solution is to start with the loudest part of the track which is usually the kick drum. It really depends from genre to genre though, but in my experience if I have my kick drum sitting at about -12db and then mix all the other source volumes appropriately from there it should leave the master sitting in the green at -6dp which is perfect for a premaster.
So my simple conclusion to the complicated world of gain staging is …..
Stay in the green and leave appropriate headroom whilst trying to achieve unity gain at all times.
I really hope this wee practical explanation of gain staging can help you enhance your mixes. This knowledge certainly is constantly on my mind at all times when composing music with Ableton and although appears simple can make all the difference when mastered.
I have many more useful blogs and a Youtube channel for music makers in Ableton Live. I am a music producer of more than ten years and a musician for twenty years. I teach privately one to one and have courses for all experience levels. You can read all about it here.
Thanks for reading.