Gain Staging: The Definitive A-Z Guide

by ReverbLxnd in Mixing

If you are struggling to understand gain staging, wondering what it is, or trying to figure out how to gain stage, this is what you need.

There seems to be a lot of confusion on what gain staging is, I’ve had a lot of messages and I’ve seen a lot of people in online forums quite confused.

This is a very hotly debated subject.

Today we are going to look at what gain staging is, the 3 rules of gain staging, and a few pitfalls or mistakes you need to watch out for with gain staging.

If you are struggling to understand gain staging, this article is what you need.

This article builds on the concepts introduced in what is gain such as distortion, clipping, and gain vs. volume. You might want to have a look at that first if you haven’t already.

Let’s jump right in.

What is Gain Staging?

Gain staging is the process of managing the relative levels in each step of an audio signal flow to prevent clipping and distortion, to make your plugins work better, and to make mixing easier, when feeding the inserts such as equalizers and compressors.

Quite simply, gain staging is having the right signal levels at all points in your production, whether you’re working in analog or digital.

We want to make sure the signal is optimized at the appropriate level at each step of the process.

For the digital world — where most of us are working these days, you want to make sure what is coming into your plugins is an optimal signal with adequate headroom.

Digital is a wonderful world to be mixing in now. We have so much dynamic range, so much ability to create dynamic mixes.

This headroom leaves you room for processing without clipping and distortion. You are primarily concerned with digital distortion here.

You don’t need to slam everything super hard.

The Benefits of Gain Staging

There are three main benefits to gain staging.

Benefit #1 — You’ll Eliminate Unwanted Clipping, Distortion, and Noise

The first benefit that you will eliminate unwanted clipping, distortion, and all sorts of ugly noises things you don’t want in your mix.

Benefit #2 — Your Plugins Will Work Better

The second benefit is that your plugins (not all of them, but some of them) will sound better when you gain stage properly.

A lot of plugins, especially the one’s that were designed to emulate analog gear are designed to be fed signal at a certain level.

If you optimize the signal going into those plugins, you’re going to get better performance, the plugins are going to sound better, and overall, your mixes are probably going to sound better too.

Benefit #3 — Mixing Gets Easier

It’s easier to mix when you gain stage properly.

The faders in your DAW are designed to give you the most control and flexibility when they are parked right around 0. You might remember that in measuring gain, we said that anything above 0 introduces clipping in a digital signal.

On the flip side, as soon as you drag them to maybe -20 and -30, it’s much harder to make fine adjustments when that fader is pulled down.

If you can optimize your fader to sit around zero through gain staging, then you’re going to get the most control over the tracks in your mix.

It’s going to be much easier to adjust your gain levels without having to use fancy key combinations or trying to move the mouse a tiny bit.

The 3 Essential Rules of Gain Staging

Let’s now look at the three rules to observe when approaching gain staging in a real session.

Rule #1 — Don’t Clip the Mix Bus

When you load tracks to a project, you’ll likely be completely slammed. The mix bus will be clipping (all the up to and above 0, sometimes).

This is a crappy place to start, but what a lot of people do is they don’t take the time to get it right.

They’ll start creating a balance, adding processing, without taking the time to make sure there is enough headroom on the mix bus.

As we said, the problem with this is that you can’t go above 0 with digital signals.

When you start mixing, right off the bat, you want to make sure you have a lot of headroom, that you’re well below 0. That way, when you start to add plugins, you’re not going to be hitting 0 at any point during the mix.

The way to do this is to select all the tracks in your mix, ad bring them all down. This what Pro Tools calls clip gain.

Clip gain, allows you to do is turn down all tracks right at the beginning of the line. This is different from turning down the tracks using the faders on each track.

The way that this is different is that using the fader, you’re turning them down post inserts — the signal isn’t changing going into the plugins. It’s changing when it comes out of the plugins.

The fader is turning the tracks down after the plugins, whereas if we use clip gain, we’re turning the tracks down before they hit the plugin.

The advantage is that the tracks are too loud, to begin with if we turn them down using the faders, that’s going to solve our mix bus problem but the tracks will still be too loud going into the plugin.

That will end up clipping a lot of our plugins.

If your DAW doesn’t have clip gain, or it’s equivalent, you can add a gain or trim plugin and fix things from there. That should essentially achieve the same thing.

After you’ve turned everything down with clip gain, you shouldn’t be slamming the mix bus. Everything should sound much better too because you’re not getting any distortion.

I like to turn down everything a little bit more because I like a lot of headroom on the mix bus.

What is the right level to hit the mix bus at?

You’ll often hear people ask what the right level to hit the mix bus at is… is it -4 or -8…

The truth is it doesn’t matter all that much as long you’re not hitting 0. As long as you give yourself plenty of room, it doesn’t matter. You can always add volume later using a limiter but if you hit 0 you can never really go back.

I think people get way too obsessed trying to figure out what the right number is. I work with -10 to -15.

Rule #2 — Optimize the Level Feeding Each Plugin

The next step is to optimize the level going into each plugin.

Like I said before, it is important to realize that each of your plugins is fed at a certain level, especially the ones that model analog gear.

The level that each plugin is fed at varies but generally, most plugins are meant to be fed at around -18 dBFS.

Just like in the previous step, you can either use clip gain on an individual track or a trim/gain plugin, but this time you are optimizing a single track.

If you use a plugin, just like before, you’ll put the trim plugin before the track. Most trim plugins will come with some sort of trim indicator to allow you to set the level.

You also want to make sure you don’t pull the track down too quiet.

It a balance. You want to make sure we’re feeding enough level into the individual plugins but we don’t want to overload them.

Experiment with that.

Rule #1 — Optimize Your Fader Position for the Best Resolution

The last thing you need to do is use gain staging to optimize the place that the faders are in your mix.

When you’re mixing, you’ll find that as you’re moving faders, there are some tracks you have to turn down more than others. It isn’t uncommon to see a fader very low relative to the others.

The problem is that when a single fader is turned down too low, you won’t have a lot of what’s called resolution. Moving that fader by a hairline moves it by a whole dB, sometimes even more, whereas up, we’re looking at a quarter of a dB for a comparative move.

You don’t want that.

When your faders are closer to 0, you get a lot of finer control over the tracks.

It’s a good general rule of thumb to try to keep you faders as close to 0 as possible.

If you find you have a fader on your track where you find the fader needs to be pulled all the way down to, say -24 dBFS, what you can do is bring in a trim plugin and bring that down, to -24 dBFS in this case, and then pull the fader back to 0.

The advantage to this is that now the fader is back to 0, and so we have a lot finer control over the track.

In Conclusion

You should now have a pretty good idea of what gain staging is and why it’s beneficial and the three gain staging benefits. That should be enough to get you started with gain staging in your projects.

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That’s it for this article.

ReverbLxnd

I've been a musician and brought in my stuff for mixing and mastering, I've been my own producer where I wrote, recorded, mixed and sold my own stuff. Now, I'm *mostly* an audio engineer, where I only record and mix for clients. I'm currently based in Berlin, Germany, where I operate ReverbLand out of. Got a question? DM me on Instagram or Twitter @reverblxnd everywhere, or shoot me an email reverblxnd@reverbland.com. I'd love to hear from you.

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