Gain Stage 101
In audio engineering, the term Gain Stage refers to a point during the audio signal flow where an audio engineer can make adjustments to the level of the audio signal. The parameters for this kind of modifications are usually gain faders. You can find them on the analog mixing console. Additionally, virtual gain faders can be found in DAW`s. In other words, gain staging can be observed as a process which we use to manage audio levels in each part of the audio signal flow, to avoid unwanted noise or distortion. The ideal gain stage occurs when each element in the audio signal flow is receiving and transmitting the signal in the optimal region of its dynamic range.
Now and Then
In the early days of audio recording, the signal was recorded in high gain values in order to prevent the hardware gear to create unwanted noise. For some reason, this is still done today but it is completely unnecessary. Digital audio behaves very differently from the analog. Therefore, there is no need to record on high levels in order to avoid noise. There are several disadvantages that you might experience while recording on high levels. Some of them are lack of headroom, less accurate performance of the preamps when they are approaching 0dB and so on. The mentioned lack of headroom can be one of the worst disadvantages. You might get a quieter final mix when applying a limiter on your master bus.
The Digital World and DAW’s
In the digital world, a value of 0dB is considered as a ruined or disabled recording. Therefore, you want to have your recording at -12dB up to -6dB to have plenty of headroom for further processing. This means that the maximum level that you see on your DAW`s input meter should not exceed the mentioned level range. If we are talking about DAW`s, one of the way to introduce a proper gain staging to your mixes is to use a trim or a gain plugin. You should place it right at the beginning of the plugin chain. By doing this, you can adjust the gain of the instrument or a vocal just about to a point when it starts hitting the so-called “sweet spot”. You can do this to every single channel moving forward.
Gain Stage Advice
The loudness of the recording does not determine a loud final mix. It is a treatment of the audio signal by applying compression, EQ, limiting, etc. in the further process. Some advice for a proper gain staging would be :
- Try to accurately capture the performance with the good signal level and avoid clipping.
- Apply volume adjustments, effects, eq, compression and limiting to shape the sound of individual tracks. The goal is to fit them well (sonically) with the other tracks.
- Balance all the elements of the recording (tracks) in relation to one another to get the best possible complete picture.
- Apply adjustments to the final mix (stereo or surround sound) including eq compression and limiting to maximize the recordings’ overall volume, and ability to play well on a variety of sound systems (car stereo, home stereo etc.).
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