How to Gain Stage Properly: Better Mixes in 10 Minutes! -

Gain Staging

Learning to gain stage sounds boring BUT…it’s VERY quick to learn (and super important!). It can get you better mixes in just a few minutes.

Spend a few minutes learning how to gain stage properly, and it will pay HUGE dividends in the quality of your productions.

And don’t worry…It’s simpler than it sounds:

Gain staging is simply controlling the volume of each audio track in your song, along the signal path.

e.g. You load a sample into a sampler. It then goes into an EQ, then a compressor, then a saturation plugin. It then goes to a synth buss, which then feeds into the master channel. Like streams into rivers into the ocean.

All gain staging is, is ensuring the audio signal is at it’s optimum level throughout this chain.

Why Bother Gain Staging? 3 Reasons:

1. To avoid clipping / unwanted distortion.
2. So we can A/B test effects fairly.
3. Analogue modelled plugins often have an optimum input level.

How do we do it?

Either using the output control of which ever instrument or plugin you’re using, or by using dedicated gain plugins. Let’s go through each point:

1. To avoid clipping / unwanted distortion.

Simple…you don’t want to add unwanted distortion, or clip your signal by having it exceed 0dBFS. Do this cumulatively over a whole song and it will sound horrible.

2. So we can A/B test effects fairly.

Our ears are very good at tricking us into thinking that stuff sounds better if it’s LOUDER. Adding effects (especially distortion, boosting EQ or saturation) will naturally make the audio signal louder. If you match the gain back to what it was BEFORE entering your effects chain, you can bypass the effects on and off to hear the colouration of the sound, rather than being distracted by the volume boost (or indeed reduction in the case of reductive EQ).

3. Analogue modelled plugins often have an optimum input level.

For gain staging in general, you just have to make sure you’re not clipping. However, when it comes to using analogue emulating plugins, many of them mimic the hardware originals and operate best when receiving a signal around 0 on a VU meter. This is the equivalent of -18dBFS, so if you gain stage your input signal to be about -18dBFS, you can often get a “sweeter” sound from the effects plugin. You will certainly have more control than running in a louder signal.

If you use a VU meter (here are a couple of free ones) you can measure this a bit more easily. Here’s a free one:

I use this:

I guarantee your DAW has a way of controlling the level before it reaches the channel faders, e.g. in Ableton Live it’s called the Utility plugin, and in Logic Pro it’s the Gain Plugin.

Check out the video for more in-depth info and examples. I also wrote another article on gain staging here that covers a few different points.

Have you found that gain-staging has improved your mixes? If so, in what way? Let me know in the comments!

Find out about The Ultimate EDM Mixing Course here.

About the Author

My name's Will Darling. I've been making and playing dance music for over 20 years, and share what I've learnt on EDMtips. Get in touch on Facebook.

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