Techno Tips & Tricks 03 - Gain Staging

Why lack of gain staging makes your tracks sound bad

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Gain staging is one of the most important aspects of a mix, yet it is often overlooked. If your mixes sound flat, lifeless or distorted, then you might want to take a look at your gain staging structure.

What is gain staging?

So what is gain staging? Or better yet, what is audio gain? Gain is basically the amount of amplification of an audio signal. This applies to the whole audio chain from microphone pre-amp, effects units like compressors and equalizers, all the way to the master output.

Every plugin has an input and output control. It’s purpose is to make sure that the level going out of a plugin is the same as the level coming in. Every time you boost some frequencies with an EQ, the level increases, so you have to compensate for that by turning down the output gain.

Input and output gain on a Waves SSL E-Channel plugin.

Not only does gain staging affect individual channels. The more tracks you add, the louder the total combined output will become! For every doubling of sound the sum increases by +3dB. So even if the individual tracks are not clipping the master can still go into the red!

The art of gain staging used to be very important in the days of analog tape recording. Recording too soft would lead to a lot of noise, while recording too loud would make your tracks distort all over the place.

Nowadays we don’t have to deal with noise that much and distortion isn’t that much of a problem either. There is one place where distortion matters though. And that’s at the master output bus. Digital clipping is an unforgiving, harsh, sound that you want to avoid at all times.

Well, that’s easily solved! Just slap a limiter on the master bus, right? FL-Studio does this by default! Yes, it’s true that a limiter will prevent clipping. But limiting will lead to a whole other range of problems. If you limit too much your mix will sound lifeless. All dynamic range is lost and you’re tracks will sound pretty dull. Check out the end of the video above to listen to an example.

So how do we fix this?

A simple way to prevent clipping is to simply turn down the faders. The difference between the peak level and the limit of 0dB is called headroom. You want to keep at least 6dB of headroom at all times. Not only does this make your mixes sound a lot better, your mastering engineer will also have a lot more room to work with.

Master Ouput Headroom
Keep atleast 6dB of headroom at the master bus.

Just make sure your plugin levels are not clipping either. Especially plugins that model vintage analog gear as these plugins work best at an average level of -18dBFS, which is roughly the same as 0dBVU in the analog domain. Sending signals into these plugins too loud will make them saturate and distort, which may or or may not be what you want.

Turning down the faders is not an option if you’re applying level automation. A simple workaround in Ableton is to insert an ‘utility’ plugin at the start of your effect chain. This is simply a plugin which allows you to turn down the gain. Turning it down by around 10dB should be enough for most projects.

Make sure the output of your synth vst plugins isn’t too loud either. Most of these plugins have an output control that you can turn down without comprising on sound quality. Also lower the level of all the samples you import as these are most of the times normalized to 0dB.

No more lifeless mixes

Gain staging is an important tool that will make your mixes sound a lot better. And all you need to do is to check your level meters from time to time. Happy mixing!

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