Gain staging is such a prominent aspect of mixing, and you are probably doing all the time without realising. First and foremost, let’s look at what gain staging is. To put it simply, gain staging is the process of managing the volume levels of tracks and plug-ins inside your project to obtain the cleanest sound possible. Even simpler, it is setting appropriate input and output levels.
We want to be doing this practice so ultimately we’re giving ourselves enough headroom to work with. As ultimately, we want plenty of options during any mixing and want to avoid any unwanted clipping or distortion.
How to Gain Stage:
The first step to do is look at your session in your DAW. Play the song or project and have a look at what is going on. A lot of the time, the master out or stereo out will be fully illuminated and clipping. What we want to achieve is no clipping and everything sitting comfortably around -18dB, so you have plenty of headroom for everything.
A crucial step in gain staging is to leave all the faders in your DAW on 0dB. It may be tempting to pull the fader down but what this does is makes the fader harder to control. As tiny movements when the fader is lower down make higher adjustments to the volume compared to if the fader was kept at the 0dB area. At the 0dB area, the margins for volume changes are significantly less. So that is one of the reasons why we gain stage, to allow ultimate control over the faders when mixing.
Choose the tracks that are the loudest and peaking around 0dB on the meter and add a gain plug-in to the start of the effects channel. Simply pull the gain back on the plug-in until the volume on the channel is sitting around the -18dB mark. You don’t need to be meticulous and obsess for hours over this, it’s a quick process and shouldn’t take too long and adjust it visually. Even apply this to the stereo output channel and any buses in your project if you have to. What we want is to create an even pallet to work with.
Worth noting is that once you’ve added other plug-ins to a channel like compression and EQ for example, what you want to do is add another gain plug-in at the end of the chain. Repeat the same process you followed with the gain input at the start of the chain. Pull back the gain so that the channel volume is again comfortably sitting at -18dB.
Gain staging is such a crucial aspect of the mixing process. By following these steps, you’ll be taking ultimate control over any project you are working in. Gain staging effectively creates an even pallet for you to start mixing and ultimately have better control over everything in your session. By taking the small amount of time to gain stage, you’ll be putting your best foot forward and not fighting any volume battles later on.
For more articles on everything recording and mixing, visit the ProAudioBlog.