What is gain-staging? | Basic Pro Audio Concepts

THE GIST

Gain-staging is the practice of optimizing audio levels throughout a signal chain. With proper gain staging, every device in a chain receives an optimal input level and sends an optimal output level to the next piece, minimizing noise, distortion, and signal loss while achieving the best possible tone.

Every piece of audio equipment has an operational sweet spot, a range of levels where it performs the best. An input signal that’s too strong will result in distortion, but start with too weak of a signal and you’ll have to boost the output, raising the noise level along with it.

When audio signals go through multiple devices such as guitar pedalboards or recording signal chains, signal strength and tone can be degraded along the way as each unit adds a bit of noise or takes away a bit of tone. This is why “straight into the amp” guitar tones or simple mic+preamp recording setups often sound much more full and robust than expansive pedalboards and chains of outboard gear. However, with thoughtful gain staging, any chain can sound its best.

How to Optimize Gain-Staging

The basic principle behind gain-staging is to make sure each piece of equipment is receiving the optimal input level and sending the optimal output level to the next piece.

The easiest way to dial in your gain-staging is to start at the beginning of the signal chain and go down the line, adjusting gain levels and output controls one by one. Below are some tips for specific types of setups:

Effects Pedalboards

Great tone starts with your pickups and your playing, and these two variables can make a huge difference in level. If you’re fingerpicking on an acoustic-electric you may need a boost pedal first. But with active pickups and a heavy hand, you may want to dial back the volume a bit.

Not all guitar pedals have input and output controls (and even fewer have meters), so you may have to fine tune by ear, switching each pedal on and off to make sure the level stays consistent. If you still find yourself losing tone after a long chain, invest in a buffer or compressor to keep the signal healthy. Finally, adjust the preamp and master levels to get a good balance of input overdrive and overall volume.

Remember: don’t neglect that effects loop—it’s there for a reason! Many multi-effects units and rack gear will function better between the preamp and power amp stages because of the higher level.

Recording Chains

Engineers probably obsess the most over gain-staging, and with good reason. Every combination of mic, preamp, compressor, and console is a delicate balancing act of sweet spots in the quest for a great sound. In this case, microphone choice and placement are the most critical choices you can make.

Experiment a little until you find a mic that can comfortably handle the volume of the source, then make sure it’s in the right spot. If your preamp is distorting, engage a pad for a more comfortable level before dialing in the right amount of gain.

Any time you add a compressor, EQ, or effect, adjust the makeup gain or output trim afterward. In most cases, it’s best to maintain line level throughout a signal chain, but certain pieces of gear shine when overdriven a bit and others need plenty of headroom.

DAWs and Plugins

Yes, gain-staging is critical in the box as well. Assuming you followed the advice above when recording, you should be looking at some nice, healthy waveforms on screen.

Ableton Live 10 Standard

If your tracks are starting off weak, however, start by boosting the regions themselves with clip gain until the peaks take up almost the width of the track.

Then, with each plugin you add, adjust the input and output controls to keep a consistent relative level. Software is a little more forgiving than hardware, but getting your levels right can still save you big headaches.

Finally, keep an eye on the faders themselves. If every track is close to line level, they’ll surely clip the master when they’re all mixed together. Start with the faders at about -6dB and build your mix from there, always keeping an eye on the master meter.

Listening and Monitoring

Whether you’re a mastering engineer with a finely-tuned room, an audiophile who’s invested in a top-notch setup, or just someone who likes to put a record on once in a while, gain-staging is the last step in the chain and can make the difference between a flat, noisy sound and a transcendent listening experience. Depending on your method(s) of playback, you may have several different challenges to deal with.

If you’re plugging a laptop or phone into a receiver, start with the volume all the way up. That way, you can use less gain afterward and avoid adding noise. When setting up a turntable, make sure you’re plugging into the “phono” inputs or a special phono amp (the weak analog signal from a stylus needs more amplification than an iPod).

If you’re using powered monitors with an audio interface, spend a little time finding the right level on your speaker’s volume control, leave it there, and use the output knob on your interface for fine adjustment.

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