On the surface, gain and volume seem to perform the same function on your amp. After all, if you adjust either of these two controls, the result on the output sound seems to be the same. It increases or decreases.
However, this view misses an important distinction between the functions of the gain knob and the volume knob; they control different things! If you were unaware of this, there is nothing to worry about!
In this article, we will go over this very simple concept so that you can have a ‘sound’ understanding (pun intended) of how the complicated parts of the amp work. Moreover, this will help you make accurate mixing decisions when producing music!
What does an amp do?
The amp is a crucial component in your overall sound system. This piece of equipment controls loudness, distortion, and a plethora of other factors affecting overall sound quality.
Despite this important role, very few of us understand the nuts and bolts of the amplifier. Fortunately, to understand the difference between gain and volume, we first need to go over how amps work.
How does an amp work?
From the moment sounds leave your guitar to the moment when you hear them through your speakers, the signal is constantly moving between different stages of sound processing. During this journey, several things happen to the original audio signal which affects the nature of the final result.
The first thing to note is that after sound enters your microphone, it travels to a preamp stage in your device. From here it enters the power amp stage before finally exiting through the speaker. To understand the difference between gain and volume, we ought to be aware of how these two stages function.
The preamp’s job is to take original frequencies from the mic and process them before sending them onto the next component in your guitar amp. During this stage, the sound also gains its tone and timbre.
When you turn the gain knob on your amp, it impacts this stage of the process. Put simply, gain acts as the regulator for how loud the input signal entering your preamp will be. Thus, the higher or lower gain will impact the end tone of the sound leaving the preamp and entering the power amp.
The power amp affects the sound in a different way from preamps. This amp’s job is to amplify the sound signal and give it its final output volume. After the signal has been modified accordingly, it travels to the speaker and the to your ears!
When you turn the volume knob (also known as the master volume) it increases or decreases the final output volume of the sound.
Hence, when taken together, you can view gain as a control for the loudness of the input sound before processing. Whereas volume determines the final decibel level of the output.
Musical difference between gain and volume?
Now that you understand the distinction between these two controls, you may wonder, aren’t they the same thing?
Put simply, they are not. This is because the final characteristics of the sound will change depending on the ratio of gain to volume, even if the final dB level is the same.
When you increase gain, this results in more voltage being sent to the amp’s tubes or transistors. Due to this higher voltage, when the sound is processed this may result in more distortion and noise in the final music. Generally this effect becomes increasingly apparent as the gain is increased further and further closer to the tubes’ point of saturation.
You may have wondered how guitar distortion was created, well, this is it! To increase sound distortion, musicians would commonly resort to cranking the gain up to eleven!
When it comes to volume, the picture is a lot simpler. This setting impacts the amount of amplification the sound is put through at the power amplifier. Generally, this stage does not increase distortion in and of itself. However, you must remember to watch out for noise from the speakers if the volume is turned up to eleven.
How to sound consistent
As we have learned, gain controls tone as well as the loudness of the sound. On the other hand, the volume only impacts loudness. Due to this, your recording may be inconsistent if you adjust the gain and the volume differently between recordings; even if the end result is the same overall volume!
Fortunately, however, due to these two functions having separate knobs, you have a lot more control over the final music. By mixing these two components you can choose the amount of distortion in your track. Put simply, increasing gain control and adjusting the volume accordingly will produce a greater distortion effect.
Another technique to combat unwanted distortion is gain staging. A gain stage is any part of the audio process where the overall volume of the music can be adjusted. Examples of this include plugins and faders. Thus by managing these factors you can make ensure that no excess noise is introduced.
Moreover, if you would like to decrease the overall level of noise and produce clean sound, this can be done too! To do this, you simply need to turn up the volume control while turning down the gain control. In this way, you can produce the best sound for your track!
One thing to note is that some amplifiers, especially on the low end, tend to lack separate gain and volume controls. In these instances, you will typically adjust both settings together. Due to this fact, these amps lack some of the fine tone control of an amp where both settings are separate.
With the help of a ‘sound’ understanding of gain vs volume, you can now set your amp settings in their digital sweet spot. By adjusting the distortion level and volume level you will have a consistently good tone from your instrument. Moreover, you will also be able to make your audio louder without introducing unwanted noise through gain amplification.
We hope this article will help you use guitar amps optimally and create a ton of hard-hitting music with the help of your increased control over input gain and output signals!