I have been wanting to write about gain staging for a while.
It’s such an integral part of good recording/mixing, yet it’s something that a lot of people get wrong. Today, we’re going to clear all the confusion.
Plus, we’re going to go over my “secret sauce” technique to get improve the sound you get from gain staging by tenfold.
But before we continue, I’m guessing you’re here because your goal is to make music that sounds professional. Probably in a home studio of some sort.
If so, you need to go about this the right way.
It takes years of hard work for most people. But that’s because they focus on all the wrong things.
There is a better way. In reality, there are only 7 steps you need to go through if you want your mixes to sound professional.
I outline those exact steps in this free workshop:
- What Gain Staging Mistakes Are You Making?
- Why Is Gain Staging So Important?
- How To Apply Gain Staging To Your Mixes
- Top 6 Gain Staging Mistakes
- Clip Gain Automation: Gain Staging On Steroids
- How To Apply Clip Gain Automation
- Action Steps
What Gain Staging Mistakes Are You Making?
Why Is Gain Staging So Important?
First, let’s go over what gain staging is and why it’s so important.
In the analogue days, it was common practice to record at high levels to prevent the hardware from adding noise to the recording.
For some reason, this practice seems to have stuck around and many people still think you need to record at high levels…
But this is COMPLETELY wrong.
Digital audio is very different. Thanks to modern equipment, there is no need to record at high levels to avoid noise.
In fact, recording and mixing at high levels is just plain BAD for your mixes.
Pre-amps don’t perform as well when the levels start approaching 0dBFS. Plugins don’t work as they should, your headroom disappears, and everything starts to sound mushy and undefined.
Recording and mixing at high levels will also make your final mixer QUIETER due to the lack of headroom when it comes to mastering and applying a limiter to your stereo buss.
So what levels should you record and mix at?
Aim for an average of -18dBFS with the peaks around -10dBFS (and never higher than -6dBFS).
Why -18dBFS? That’s the equivalent of 0dBVU on analogue equipment. That’s the level that every engineer would aim for when recording.
In old analog equipment, 0dBVU was the “sweet spot” where the consoles, EQs, and Compressors sounded best. And since most plugins are based on that old analog equipment, the sweet spot is still around that area.
On the other hand, 0dBFS is the point at which audio distorts. You never want to be anywhere near 0dBFS when mixing (only when mastering).
The meter in your DAW will have numbers next to it. That’s how loud the channel is in dBFS.
What’s headroom? The amount of gain you have between your audio and that 0dBFS limit.
The nearer you are to 0dBFS, the less headroom you have.
Less headroom means you can’t bring up an instrument if it sounds too quiet. Less headroom means no room for your mix to breathe. Less headroom means less dynamic range in your music.
It’s not always easy to hit this exact sweet spot when recording, so you have to re-adjust the gain for every channel at the start of every mix.
How To Apply Gain Staging To Your Mixes
The usual way of gain staging is to use a trim or gain plugin right at the beginning of the plugin chain. Simply adjust the gain until the track is hitting that sweet spot. Then repeat for every single channel.
Follow these steps to gain stage all of your tracks:
Once you’ve got your tracks to sit around -18dBFS, your mix will start to sound even better. But there’s another step to the process.
Every time you apply a plugin, you need to check that you aren’t increasing or decreasing the volume of the channel. If you are, use the gain control on the plugin to adjust accordingly.
For example, applying lots of EQ cuts will decrease the volume of the channel. To compensate, you must raise the output gain.
This is also important for referencing . If something is louder, it sounds better. To make sure you’re actually improving the sound with a plugin (not just making it louder) it needs to be the same volume when you bypass it to check.
Get Specific With Your Metering
One of the best ways to quickly see if something is hitting the digital sweet spot is to actually use a VU meter.
These are the meters that engineers used on analogue equipment before the digital age. They’re different from your standard peak meter because they’re much slower – they measure the average level, rather than each tiny individual peak.
The digital sweet spot is based on these meters, so what better way to make sure you’re gain staging well than to use one of these!
Most DAWs don’t have these as stock plugins, but TBProAudio actually has a good one you can download for free.
(Just make sure you change the plugin mode to VU, otherwise it’s just a fancy-looking peak meter.)
With the meter on the stereo output, I can pretty quickly get an idea of how loud each channel needs to be.
Top 6 Gain Staging Mistakes
Here are the top 6 things that people get wrong about gain staging.
Mistake #1: Not understand what gain staging even is.
You’d be surprised how many musicians, producers, and engineers don’t really understand this concept. Hopefully, this article has helped to fix that for you!
Mistake #2: Obsessing over gain staging.
Here’s the thing: gain staging is important. It’s something that, if not done, can keep your mixes from ever sounding professional.
But it’s not a magic wand!
Making sure your tracks have the right amount of headroom is more like leveling the playing field. It’s making sure you have every opportunity to make your mix sound incredible.
But it itself is not going to make your mix sound incredible.
This process doesn’t need to take more than 2 or 3 minutes if you’re eyeballing it, or 5 or 10 if you’re getting a little more specific.
Not every track needs to be perfectly set to an average of -18dBFS. Just making sure it’s around that area (and not peaking higher than -6dB) is all you need. Set it and forget it so you can move on to more important things.
Mistake #3: Not fixing the gain staging of the busses.
Just because you gain staged your individual tracks doesn’t mean you get to leave out the busses.
If it has plugins on it, it needs to be gain staged.
The busses are just as simple, though. If the signal’s coming in too hot, just add a gain plugin at the beginning of the plugin chain and turn it down. That’s all you need to do.
Make sure to do this for the stereo output as well.
Mistake #4: Not level matching your plugins.
Almost all plugins affect the level of the sound in someway. Depending on what the effect is doing, it’s either turning it down or turning it up.
Keeping a consistent level of volume through your entire plugin chain is essential! Otherwise you’re not going to be staying in the sweet spot.
This is something you’ll be doing as you’re mixing. Anytime you add a plugin and make your tweaks, turn that plugin off.
Does it sound louder, or quieter?
If so, use the output level on the plugin to make keep the volume the same.
The trick is that you should be able to turn the plugin on and off repeatedly without hearing a drop in volume.
If the plugin doesn’t have an output fader, just add another gain plugin after it. Simple as that.
Mistake #5: Spending your hard earned money on gain staging.
Sometimes you see cash grab schemes from plugin companies trying to sell their customers gain plugins.
Don’t fall for it. You don’t need it.
All you need is a gain plugin (which comes stock with every DAW) and maybe an extra RMS/VU meter (which either come stock with your DAW or can be downloaded for free).
Remember, doing this process right isn’t going to make your mixes sound better. It’s just going to get rid of a stumbling block that can make your mixes sound worse.
Buying fancy plugins won’t improve any quality. So don’t do it!
Mistake #6: Keeping your faders extra low.
After balancing your mix, you may realize that some faders are really low.
Maybe a percussion part or a pad. Something that’s just supposed to be barely audible.
The problem is that the closer you get to the bottom of the fader, the less resolution you have. One tiny movement could change the gain by 10dB!
You should aim for your faders to be around 0dB to keep that resolution high for the mix.
If you’re coming across this as a problem, add a gain plugin to the end of your chain, and cut the volume there. That way you still have access to the full resolution of your faders.
If you fix these 6 mistakes, you should be gain staging your mixes just fine!
But there’s one technique that the pros use that will take your gain staging to the next level…
Clip Gain Automation: Gain Staging On Steroids
This is the advanced class of gain staging. It’s something the pros use to get a more consistent sound throughout a song.
Instead of simply applying gain to the whole channel (by using a plugin) you can in fact automate the gain.
This gives you a lot more control and is a great way to make a vocal or instrument more consistent in volume.
The technique is called clip gain automation.
Imagine you have a song to mix where the vocal has an average volume of -20dBFS in the verse but -14dBFS in the chorus.
If you apply gain staging by simply adding a gain/trim plugin during the chorus, your verse will now be too quiet. If you applied gain staging during the verse, the chorus would be too loud.
Instead, why not cut each section of the song and apply gain directly to the clip or region?
You could add 2dB in the verse and cut 4dB in the chorus. Now the vocal is always in that -18dBFS sweet spot.
Using this technique, gain staging is no longer just a way to put your audio in that -18dBFS sweet spot… it’s also a way to control dynamics.
Instead of applying clip gain to entire sections, you can apply clip gain to individual phrases, words or even syllables.
This is perfect for something that needs to be ridiculously consistent (like vocals).
In the words of Chris Lord-Alge, “With the vocals you’re chasing the faders to get them really in your face. It’s all about automation”.
Automating clip gain rather than volume means that the vocal/instrument is dynamically consistent BEFORE it hits your compressor – not after. Before the vocal/instrument touches ANYTHING else, it’s already consistent.
This takes a lot of stress off your compressors and limiters. It helps all of your plugins to perform better because the vocal will always be around that -18dBFS sweet spot.
By automating early on, you also make it a lot easier to mix. You can be more subtle with compression. Big wins early on will increase your confidence, too, which means better mixes.
It’s too time-consuming to do this for every single channel. You need to combine this technique with straight forward gain staging using a gain/trim plugin.
But clip gain automation is like gain staging on steroids. Use it on lead vocals, lead guitars and anything else that needs to be at the forefront of the mix.
How To Apply Clip Gain Automation
The exact process varies from DAW to DAW.
In Pro Tools, you can separate clips using the keyboard shortcut ‘Cmd/Ctrl’ + ‘E’. Once you’ve done that, adjust the gain:
Here’s a video showing the each step:
In most DAWs, it’s easier to use volume automation and then add compression on an aux channel instead. Here’s how:
Now that your tracks are all around -18dBFS, how do you make your mix loud once you’ve finished?
If you’re getting the track mastered, there’s no need. Send them a stereo mix that averages around -18dBFS (they’ll love you for it).
If you’re mastering your own track, apply a gain/trim plugin and a limiter as your final two plugins. This is where you bring the gain back up to average around -8dBFS or lower. The limiter will stop the audio from clipping above 0dBFS.
- Load up your DAW of choice.
- Open a recent mix or load up this template.
- Check the levels of your channels. Are you in the gain sweet spot?
- Chose the main focus of the song (lead vocal or lead instrument).
- Separate the track so that each section has it’s own clip/region and adjust the gain until each section is in the gain sweet spot.
- Chose one section and separate the clips/regions by phrase. Apply clip gain automation. Listen to how dynamically consistent the vocal or instrument sounds.
- Go through and apply basic gain staging to every other channel using a gain/trim plugin at the beginning of every channel.
- Notice how much headroom you now have on your stereo buss or master output.
Now, we covered a lot here…
But gain staging is only one aspect of a good mix. There is a LOT of other stuff you need to get right if you want your music to sound radio-ready.
So, if you ever feel overwhelmed with the recording and mixing process…
And struggle to find the time to learn and apply all of this…
You need to watch this free workshop:
Audio professional, musician and founder of Musician on a Mission.