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Gain staging explained

Gain staging explained.

Gain Staging is a topic that can bring up a lot of confusion for new producers.

This happens because the term Gain Staging was first introduced in the analog days and things have changed a bit since then.

It's good to know the full story, so let's talk about Gain Staging back in the day at first.

Table of Contents:

The Analog Days

In the past, a lot of analog equipment was required to record and mix songs. All the gear we have right now in the digital form was analog back then, meaning actual physical machines. From EQs to compressors to tape machines.

All of them needed to be leveled properly to make sure no distortion or noise-flooring would appear.

The noise floor is the measure of the signal created from the sum of all the noise sources and unwanted signals.

So you really had to make every piece of gear leveled perfectly to avoid having noise floor but on the other hand to make sure you leave enough headroom.

So here is a definition for Gain Staging in the analog days:

Gain Staging is the process of managing the relative levels in each step of an audio signal flow to prevent the introduction of noise and distortion, feeding the inserts, such as equalizers and compressors with the right amount of signal, particularly in the analog realm. All these inserts were built to work the best around a particular point, the sweet spot. The sweet spot is around 0dBVU.

Enough about the history lesson, let's talk about gain staging nowadays. In the digital days, with our beautiful plugins!

Gain staging process.

Gain Staging Today

The biggest mistake a lot of people make is thinking that gain staging is just volume balancing.

Gain and volume are two different things.

The gain is at the start of a mixing chain, so before any processing is made.

The volume describes the loudness level after all the processing.

Gain = Input Level

Volume = Output Level

How gain staging works.

How To Change Gain?

For gain staging, you can use a gain plugin. In FL Studio you can use Fruity Balance for example.

It's just important that you put that plugin on the very first mixer channel.

There are different ways to do it in different DAWs so just do some research for your own DAW. That's how you can change the gain! Usually you can also already change the gain on the audio clip or within the synthesizer.

How to change gain.

Where to change the gain to?

We've discussed the sweet spot before.

The sweet spot is the point that brings the best results.

The sweet spot where plugins work the best is 0dBVU or -18dBFS.

That's why we gain stage, to get the best results from plugins.

dBVU is traced back to a VU meter, which was used to find the sweet spot.

This is the spot where plugins work the best. That's why I gave you that little history lesson in the beginning.

I can recommend using a VU Meter VST for gain staging, but you don't have to.

If you use a VU Meter:

  1. Load up your VU Meter VST on the final output channel.

  2. Adjust the gain from every single instrument till it hits around 0dBVU on your VU Meter.

It doesn't have to be at the 0dBVU all the time. It just should be on average. It will go above and underneath. That is completely normal.

If you don't use VU Meter:

  1. Adjust the gain from every single instrument till it hits around -18dBFS.

  2. You can use a plugin like SPAN to get a closer look at the output.

But as I said, it's recommended that you use a VU Meter for this.

Using a VU Meter in gain staging.

When to use Gain Staging?

Gain Staging is a technique that is used before the mixing process.

Gain Staging will set up all the different elements to be ready for the mixing process.

Another thing to mention is that you don't have to gain stage all your tracks.

In the beginning, you might take some more time but if you get a bit used to it, Gain Staging won't take longer than 15 minutes.

Remember, you don't have to make things perfect in the Gain Staging part. It's just preparing for the mixing process.

Also, a lot of plugins have an input and output gain. This can be a helpful tool to use to make sure the plugins work the best. You can use the output gain to match the level in bypass to better understand what the plugin is doing.

When to use gain staging.

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