What Is Gain Staging?: an Audio Producer’s Guide

Audio Producer at a DAW practicing gain staging

Gain staging is creates clarity in any recording process. Quality recording and mixing is commonplace and expected. When this process is not done correctly, a listener notices. The final product should have clearly defined tracks that blend together well without distortion. For this reason, this process cannot be overstated. One piece of this is quite technical and especially important: gain staging.

What is Gain Staging?

To begin with, a gain stage is the point within the audio signal flow. Specifically, this is where an audio producer or engineer controls the volume level on a track or device. This prevents any noise and distortion from coming across in the finished track. Gain can often be confused with volume. In contrast, gain refers to the strength of a signal coming into a device. Volume refers to the strength of that signal leaving the device.

Gain Staging Definitions

There are many different definitions that will help you understand gain staging. With these definitions, you will better understand and utilize gain staging.

Clipping – refers to a track’s audio output being too high for the track. This results in the sound being cut out. The only way to avoid clipping is to prevent the audio signal from overloading the gain stages.

Headroom – the difference between the nominal operation level and the clipping. Accurate gain staging will provide the perfect balance between audio loudness and headroom.Noise – any unwanted sound. Every gain stage introduces noise and can amplify noise in the signal path. Gain staging will allow the audio producer to minimize noise by eliminating many gain stages.

Noise Floor – the level of the gain stage where the noise is louder than the actual audio signal. The more the sound is amplified across gain stages, the more the noise is amplified, raising the noise floor.

Peak/RMS – peak volume and root mean square (RMS) are two ways to measure the audio signal strength. The RMS is the average level of an audio signal. Peak volume is the loudest parts of the audio signal.

Signal Chain/Flow – the order in which sound flows throughout the track. A signal chain can result in many different gain stages. A good gain structure occurs when the appropriate levels are set at each stage.

Signal-to-Noise Ratio – the proportional number of decibels between the normal operation level and the noise floor. The higher the signal-to-noise ratio the lower the noise is.

How Much Gain is Necessary?

The amount of gain stages to control depends on the audio system that is in use. The audio channel contributes to the overall master level, and needs to be controlled individually to avoid clipping. For reference, clipping refers to a track’s output being too high for the project. This results in the sound being cut out. Likewise, if gain is set too low, the tracks will be quiet. In contrast, when the volume increases, the level noise increases too.   

The Steps of Gain Staging

The ultimate goal behind gain staging is to get the utmost clarity from the mix. Whether recording live instruments or vocals with microphones, or using digital instruments, each channel still needs proper gain staging. Audio producers and engineers will start to achieve this clarity by using the output level meters on the digital audio workstation. They’re the most accessible tool for gain stagingon the DAW and also give a great graphic representation of the levels of volume in the file.

Level Monitors

The level monitor will show the output as the track plays, and as loudness peaks the level will turn yellow, and will show red if it is clipping. It is important to consider the source volume and the sensitivity of the microphone or device being used. Each track should have a gain level set so that it is loud enough to come across clearly, but with enough room left to avoid clipping when the mix is completed.

Channel EQ

The next step is to set the channel EQ on the mixing console to better hone the source audio. This step requires that precise attention is paid to the bands on those EQ channels that will be most important to that track. The audio producer or engineer will adjust the main channels and faders to unity, then bring in the main mix. They will also adjust to let the frequencies for the other parts of the mix blend in as they add them.

Finding Balance

After this is done, the final step of gain staging is to find the right balance between the main output and the speakers. Engineers will know to make these adjustments so that the overall decibel meter level is below 0 dB so that the indicator light doesn’t come on. If it does, it represents overloading and there will be distortion present. Audio producers and engineers will then check the way the main mix sounds again, and adjust levels if they notice an issue.

Some Last Words on Gain Staging

Successful gain staging depends on the studio equipment, as well as the audio professional that operates it. Gain staging requires a great deal of trial and error There’s a lot of trial and error to get the right settings for the entire signal chain. Even more, this can be complicated through programs and devices involved like compressors. But once gain staging is complete, the results will be clear and ready for a final mix.

Want to Learn More?

Gain staging is an integral part of audio production. The individuals who set out to work in recording studios take the time to learn about the intricacies of this part of the musical creation process and gain greater satisfaction in comprehending this part of making music. If working in the music industry as a producer or engineer interests you, take a moment to check out IPR’s Audio Production Program and the training that they provide.

Contact us today to learn more about the audio production and engineering program and starting a rewarding career in the music industry.