The Ultimate Guide to Gain Staging

Many musical terms get thrown around frequently, and 90% of people don’t understand what they mean. Most terms are hard to decipher; I’ll give you that. And gain staging may be the hardest to understand on your own.

What is gain, and what is staging? And what do they have to do with recording or making sounds?

Well, to deliver the meaning in the simplest way possible, gain staging is combining all the channels you need together while making sure no clipping occurs. It’s kind of the same concept of fitting something in a bag.

You need to make sure the stuff you’re loading in the bag isn’t too heavy and won’t cause the straps to tear. Gain staging is pretty similar to that.

What Is Gain?

Before understanding what gain staging means, I’ll give you an overview of what the term gain means.

While many people refer to gain as the volume, the terminology isn’t entirely accurate. To write it simply, volume refers to how strong the device output is. Meanwhile, gain refers to how strong the signal coming into the device is. So, while they’re two sides to a coin, they aren’t the same thing. One is going out, and the other is going in.

Since the gain is the one going in, it makes it possible for you to raise the loudness of your device while keeping the signals accurate and healthy.

You may mistake the term gain for unity gain, but that’s a different term too. Unity gain is when the output is equal to the input. It occurs when your device, be it a level control or a fader, isn’t boosting or cutting the signal coming in. In this case, both sides are equal, and unity gain is achieved.

To know if you achieved unity gain or not, you can turn your devices on and turn them off again. If the output level changes, such as the volume decreasing, you know your track is at unity gain.

Unity gain is an essential principle to understand because it helps you improve your audio signal.

It’ll let you decide if the effect you’re adding is worsening or improving the signal of your audio, which is invaluable during recording.

What Is Gain Staging?

To give you a brief definition, the gain stage is the point in any mix where you control the volume level of your track or device. So, this means that gain staging is the process of leveling the volumes of a project to end up with a clear, accurate mix.

The final gain stage is the master channel. Consequently, this means you have to level all your devices and make sure they’re correctly adjusted before you send the track to the master channel of your DAW.

Managing to do gain staging properly ensures your final product won’t have any signs of clipping or unwanted noise.

Gain Staging Between the Past and Present

Before the digital era made itself known, analog equipment was the real deal. That’s including everything, starting from weight scales and up to gain staging.

In the past, musicians used analog equipment to make music, including compressors, tape machines, console desks, and many more non-digital tools. They’d have to level each piece of equipment perfectly so the signal chain doesn’t encounter any bleed or errors.

Of course, that means they had to master all the equipment, so they can adjust the chain properly. If they go for something quiet, they might encounter an audible hiss. And, if they go for something too hard, a distortion is prone to happen.

Needless to say, gain staging was a real pain back then. It included leveling each point of amplification, so the signal-to-noise ratio turns out alright without any distortion.

To do that, the musician needs to think across the whole signal chain. Mastering the combination of equipment was much harder back then.

How Gain Staging Is Done Now

Gain staging now is easier than it’s ever been. It’s all about improving the clarity of your mix sounds, and you can easily do it through your digital audio workstation, or DAW for short. You’ll only have to use the output level meters in your software without the need to level each piece of equipment separately.

The output level meter in any digital audio workstation is merely a graphical representation of the volume in your file. It’s often readily accessible from your DAW’s main screen, and it’s straightforward, so there’s no need to have past experience to use it.

In each track, you’ll see a peak level meter that’ll tell you how loud the volume is. Some DAWs also have meters between devices. This way, you can see what effect the leveling you’re doing has on your signal chain. If you’re pushing into the red zone, you’ll see it immediately without having to make a trial.

In the file of your project, you can control the levels through several places. There’s the master channel, track levels, and input and output gains within plugins. Gain staging includes achieving a good balance between these levels.

Why Is Gain Staging Important?

Okay, now that we understand what gain staging is, let’s see why it’s vital in the mixing process. Or in other words, can you mix or edit without gain staging?

For starters, gain staging is mainly essential to make sure nothing is clipping in your chain. Clipping occurs when you reach a decibel level of 0 or higher. When your audio is clipping, the output meter on your digital audio workstation will give you a red alert. On all DAWs, the meter will let you know, so it’s easier to solve the issue without performing a trial.

All that said, if you’re skimming the edge of 0 dB, the meter may not be sensitive enough to catch it. In this case, it’ll cause distortion, but it won’t turn red in an alert.

When you’re dealing with several audio sources, the decibel level of the different equipment will accumulate, even though the meter didn’t give you an alert. The distortion may also be non-noticeable on each level, making your mission harder in fixing the problem. It’ll appear at its most evident when you combine your levels into the master track.

When to Use Gain Staging

You may understand what gain staging is and why we do it, but learning when to use it is also essential for the quality of your audio.

Distortion can make or break your mix. If it adds us across different levels, it’ll be harder to pinpoint its initial source, and the audio won’t come out as good as you’d like it to be. 

That’s why the best thing to do is to gain stage right away, especially if you just made some changes and added elements to your file. This way, you save yourself the hassle of trying to look for the distortion source later on.

If you don’t do it from the start, the elements you’re adding may not have the effect you’re desiring. The signal may be clipping before it goes into your mixer, which means it’ll hit your effect plugins while it’s distorted. And, you won’t even find out till later.

What Decibel Levels Are Good for Gain Staging?

The good decibel levels depend on the style of your mix and the effects and elements you add. However, knowing the reasonable ranges can come in handy if you’re a beginner at recording and mixing.

Generally, as long as the decibel value is below 0, it doesn’t matter what its actual value is. If it’s free of distortion and it stays consistent to the end of your project, that means it’s good.

All that said, musicians commonly go for a range of -10 to -18 dB. That way, you have plenty of headroom when you combine all the decibel levels in the master track.

As for the master decibel level, you’ll want to aim at -3 or less. A -5 level would be perfect, and some musicians even dare to go as far as -10. In this case, they want to leave themselves enough space to master the track. Whether you need that kind of space or not depends on your preferences and skill level.

Digital Vs. Analog: How Do They Handle Clipping?

The most significant difference between digital and analog recording is how each system works. But the main difference between them is how each one handles clipping. Believe it or not, some clipping actually creates a pleasant sound.

In the analog domain, mixing engineers sometimes drive an analog circuit with the purpose of creating distortion. The distortion then causes the sound to get bolder and cut right through the mix, creating the desired effect.

On top of that, some engineers increase the input level higher than it should, causing a clip to occur in the signal. The distortion that results from this is harmonic, and it may improve the overall sound of the track.

On the other hand, in the digital domain, none of that happens. Clipping never sounds good. On the contrary, I’ll inevitably ruin the track because it’ll sound terrible.

You may think that won’t happen if you’re merely skimming the edge of 0 dB, but that’s not always the case. In the end, you’re introducing digital artifacts because the algorithms can’t replicate a signal when it reaches a specific point. In other words, the distortion will hardly go unnoticed.

Understanding the dBu Scale

If you want to properly assess the levels of your tracks in both digital and analog domains, you’ll need first to understand the dBu scale.

The dBu stands for decibel points, and they’re used to measure the amplitude of analog audio signals. The ideal decibel level for most equipment is +4, whether you’re leveling a tape machine’s record level, a preamp’s gain, or an analog compressor’s input. 

That’s because it’s the same decibel level as the nominal operating level of professional-grade equipment. It’s sometimes called 0 VU instead of +4 dBu.

Generally, analog equipment will start to show clipping when the decibel level reaches +24 dBu. This means that you’ll have to try hard if you want clipping to occur. Even kick and snare drums won’t reach that level to cause clipping.

Most tracks peak at +12 dBu, more or less, which means you have plenty of headroom of precisely 12 dB before distortion is introduced.

Moreover, the noise floor level of most analog equipment is around -95 dBu. This means the signal of your track needs to stay above that to remain audible.

Now that you have an idea of what a dBu scale is, let’s see what a dBFS scale is since both have a direct effect on gain staging.

Understanding the dBFS Scale

The dBFS scale, or the Decibel Full Scale, in other words, is the measurement of the amplitude of the audio signal in the digital domain. But it works somehow differently from the dBu scale.

For one, the clipping happens at the same point—0 dFBS—on all digital systems. If your signal exceeds that level, your DAW meter will fail to recreate the audio and immediately show you a red alert for clipping.

To avoid that, you’ll want to make sure all your tracks have enough headroom. 

While the nominal recording level is +4 dBu in the analog domains, it equals -20 dBFS in the digital domain. In addition to that, the average noise floor is -119 dBFS instead of the -24 dBu of the analog domain. 

This means the digital domain gives you more space to record low-level tracks without catching unnecessary noise.

Wrap Up

Poor gain staging can cause all your hard work to go to waste. If you can’t pinpoint the distortion or the noise that’s causing the track to sound odd, you may not be able to resurrect it. 

That’s why understanding gain staging and when it’s done is essential for the integrity of your mix. It’s not a fun task, I’ll give you that, but at least it’ll ensure your tracks turn out good and clear.