Gain Staging – How To Do It The Proper Way

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Gain staging is the one of the easiest and most crucial tasks in your home recording studio adventure. It takes only 2 seconds to implement properly and it’s so easy that many people don’t really care about it.

The results of not caring about gain staging can make our lives harder during mixing, so let’s learn how to use gain staging properly (since it only takes 2 seconds to do it) and save ourselves time and effort.

Gain Staging Explanation

Gain staging is simply put the procedure of getting a healthy signal while recording into your DAW. But what do we really mean by healthy signal?

Assuming you’ve experimented with your microphones and mic positions in your home recording studio, you should record in a manner so that you can get as loud as it gets signal, taking into consideration the rules below.

If you’re working with MIDI the same principles apply. The difference is that instead of tweaking your Gain Input Knob of your audio interface to set the recording levels, you will tweak the output signal of your VST instrument.

A healthy input signal with proper gain staging consists of:

  • No clipping.
  • Minimum signal to noise ratio.
  • Enough headroom to play with dynamics during mixing.

I would add that the source sound – captured by a mic, sample or synth sound doesn’t matter, all of these are considered source sounds – should be as great as possible cause as we already know good sound in = good sound out. This isn’t a post dedicated on sound design, so I’ll leave it for a different post.

This is a post dedicated to how to import our already greatly created sounding signal to our recording software without reducing its quality on its way in. Assuming we have already created our sound (and it sounds great yeah!) now it’s the time to import it with proper gain staging.

Let’s start by explaining the noise to signal ratio.

Noise To Signal Ratio

When you record through a microphone you receive different volume stages of the signal. To better help you understand what I mean, I’ll use as an example an electric guitar recorded through a $50 cabinet.

Crank the gain up to maximum. Can you hear the noise? There’s a 99% chance you’ll hear hiss noise with the gain cranked up to death on a $50 guitar amp-cab combo.

Now hit some strings.

How louder is the actual sound from the noise when you mute the strings? Is the volume of the noise close to the actual music? Then the ratio is small. You should minimize or remove noise.

Is the noise almost not there when you’re playing? Then the ratio or difference in volume between the two is huge. Good job, proceed to recording or remove noise completely if you can and then hit the record button.

Why is this so important?

Because when you reach the mastering phase where you’ll bring up the whole track’s volume as a whole, if the volume difference between great sound and crappy noise is minimal, then noise will creep up to you and say “Hey! I sense a volume maximizer here. I’m in”.

Clipping

Clipping is fairly easy to comprehend. Back in the day, when analog consoles were the only consoles available, engineers used to drive the signal nuts so that they could give harmonics and grit to the sound. Nowadays, people still do the same trick and works wonderfully.

If you try to go past 0 db on our recording software to get the same saturation effect, I assure you you’re gonna punch your monitors for the sound they’ll deliver to you. It’s not going to work. Our digital consoles have a limit and we should never surpass it.

Does that mean that we, the digital users, can’t get the same analog console saturation effect?

Of course we can! But we do it with VST plugins instead that emulate the analog console sound and not by just increasing the volume.

Here’s how:

How To Maintain Proper Gain Staging No Matter What

Some people think that proper gain staging can be achieved only by setting the recording levels right. They’re right but that’s only half the battle.

We start by proper gain staging on our audio interfaces and then we should maintain it through our plugin chain too. Let me explain.

1) Setting up the recording levels

proper-gain-staging

In the image above you should notice something really important. The volume faders are the default stage. The volume is being tweaked by your input knob on your sound card or by the output volume of your VST MIDI instrument.

Assuming you created a great sound that you like, hit that record button and play with the gain knob to achieve the desired results.

I usually record at -10 allowing the loudest peaks to hit at -3db. If I’m using compression while recording I record at around -7 and I still never let my peaks surpass -3. Then, I just turn my tracks down in the mix if needed.

2) Maintaining our levels during mixing

How many times have we changed the actual volume of the track when we add a vst plugin? Lots of times!

I remember myself when I had first started 6 years ago, when I didn’t have enough volume on the track, I was just increasing the volume using the output of a random plugin. OK I’ll hide in a cave for doing that

If you’re also doing that, let me explain to you why there’s really an output fader in each and every plugin.

And it exists for 2 main reasons:

  • To prevent the plugins from clipping. Plugins clip the sound too if they add volume, a perfect example is the saturation type of plugins.
  • To have the exact same volume with and without the plugin. Our ears get tricked way too easily if the sound is louder. The only way to really understand if the sound is better and not just louder is to create the same volume between the bypass and active mode of the plugin.

So if you’re scratching your head trying to find where the clipped sound is coming from, look at one of your plugins!

Also if you feel there’s a volume difference when you’re bypassing a plugin, fix the output of the plugin! It’s critical to not forget that gain staging exists in our plugins too.

Headroom

I mentioned above that gain staging helps create headroom in your mix. It’s true that proper gain staging can be achieved by setting the recording levels right, but that’s only the 1st step to take care of.

Headroom can be achieved with multiple tricks and there are 6 – 7 major methods to get headroom without sacrificing the sound. In order to keep everything nice and tidy, visit the separate headroom post to learn about all the methods.

Hope I explained it to you as simple as possible. If you got any questions, please visit our forum and we’ll help you in no time.

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3 Responses

  1. Djordje

    July 15, 2015 5:11 pm

    I have focusrite scarlett 2i4 and even with the pad on and gain all the way down i hit -3dbfs. but i can turn the gain on interface a little around half way and still no cliping (ofc with pad on) but on my DAW its kinda clipping. So what is solution? Im confused my interface do not clip but DAW shows clipping.

    Thanks

    Reply
  2. Djordje

    July 16, 2015 11:04 am

    Its pad button on interface ( -20db) I have to guitars with passive and active pickups both seems pretty hot, but when i play EMGs its even worse, clipping on fader in DAW but no cliping on interface.

    Reply

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