Gain Staging: The 3 Rules You Need To Know


Does your mix bus look like this?

If so, keep watching to learn 3 simple rules that will supercharge your tracks and make mixing a whole lot easier.

Hey this is Jason Moss from BehindTheSpeakers.com, and today we’re going to talk all about gain staging. So if you’re struggling to understand gain staging, wondering what it is, or how to implement it in your DAW, I’m going to show you exactly how to do this, step by step.

So first of all, what is gain staging?

Imagine you have water flowing down a mountain. It starts as a little stream. Several of those streams converge into a river and then several of those rivers converge into a lake and then several lakes converge into a river and so you have this process that starts with a little trickle and ends with the Atlantic Ocean.

You can think of the way that signal or sound flows through your DAW in the same way. We have those little trickles of sound, maybe the tracks in the session, and then you can send those tracks into several buses, like you have your drum bus or your vocal bus and those are like your lakes or your rivers, and then at the end of the mix you have the mix bus, which is where all the tracks come together. And that’s like your ocean.

Gain staging is the process of managing the level—literally how loud that signal is—at various points in the process. We want to make sure that at each stage in that process, whether we start at the individual tracks or then go to the bus and then go to the mix bus, we want to make sure that the signal is optimized for the appropriate level at each part in the process.

So there are 3 main benefits to gain staging.

Number one is you’re going to eliminate unwanted clipping and distortion and all sorts of ugly artifacts and stuff that you don’t want in your mix.

The second benefit is that your plugins (not all of them, but a lot of them) will actually sound better when you gain stage properly. A lot of plugins, specifically the ones that were designed to emulate analog gear, are actually designed to be fed signal at a certain level. So if you optimize the signal going into those plugins, you’re going to get better performance, the plugins are going to sound better, and overall your mixes are going to sound better too.

And the third benefit is that it’s actually easier to mix when you gain stage properly. Basically the faders in your DAW are designed to give you the most control and flexibility when they’re parked right around 0, and as soon as you drag them down to around -20 or -30, it’s much harder to really make fine movements when that fader is pulled all the way down. So optimize your faders to sit right around 0, and you can do this through gain staging, then you’re going to get the most control over the tracks in your mix and it’s going to be much easier to adjust the volume levels of different tracks without, you know, having to use any fancy key combinations or move the mouse just a little bit to make sure you don’t push it too far.

So let me show you exactly how I approach gain staging on a real session.

Okay so we’re here in Pro Tools and I have a track called “Falling Down the Rabbit Hole” by Megan Cavallari. Now this is pretty identical to what I received before I started mixing. So, she produced the track, she finished it up, bounced out all the individual audio files and sent them over to me. And I basically imported them into a new session just like this and added my mix template here.

So I have a couple of different buses, and a mix bus where I have two plugins that I added, and then I got to work. So, let me go ahead and play you this just right from the beginning. Now, this is without any gain staging whatsoever. And I want you to just take a look at the metering here on the mix bus.

So right off the bat we can see we’re completely slammed. The mix bus is clipping, we’re all the way up to 0, and above 0 really. And this is, you know, a really crappy place to start a mix. But what a lot of people do is they don’t really take the time to get this right. So they’ll start adding processing or they’ll start creating a balance, and they won’t take the time to make sure there’s enough headroom on the mix bus.

Now the problem with this is that you can’t go above 0 in the digital domain. So if you hit 0, the mix bus is going to start clipping, you’re going to get distortion, it’s not going to sound so great. So you want to make sure when you’re mixing, right off the bat, you want to make sure you have a lot of headroom. So you’re well below 0. That way, when you start to add plug-ins and processing, you have plenty of room. You’re not going to be hitting zero at any point during the mix.

So, the way I’m going to solve this is I’m going to go ahead and select all of the tracks in this session. And in Pro Tools, you can hold down shift and control, and I’m going to scroll down. And you can see right here this number right on the left of the track coming down. So this is what Pro Tools calls clip gain. And basically what clip gain allows you to do is turn down each track right at the beginning of the line.

Now this is actually different then turning down the track by using the faders on each track. And the way that this is different is that when you turn things down in the faders, you’re turning them down post-inserts. So if there’s a plugin on here, the signal isn’t changing going into the plugins. It’s changing when it comes out of the plugins. So we’re turning down the track after those plugins, whereas if we use clip gain and turn down the tracks using clip gain like I just showed you, we’re actually turning them down before they hit the plugins.

Now the advantage to this is that if the tracks are too loud to begin with, we turn them down using these faders right here, it’s going to solve our mix bus problem, but if the tracks are too loud, they’re still going to be too loud going into the plugins. So we’re still going to end up clipping a lot of our plugins. If we turn things down using clip gain, the benefit to that is that we’re turning them down before any plugins, right at the beginning of the line. And that way the signal going into the plugins on all the individual tracks and the mix bus gets optimized.

Now if your DAW doesn’t have clip gain, another thing that you can do is just add a gain plugin or a trim plugin, Pro Tools calls it trim but on other DAWs it may be called gain, to each individual track. And just turn each track down by 10 dB or 15 dB or so, and then just duplicate this to each track. And that’s a similar way to do it. So don’t worry if your DAW doesn’t have clip gain. That’s essentially the same thing.

Okay so now we’ve turned everything down by 10 dB, and I’m just going to go ahead and play the track again and I want you to take a look at the metering on the mix bus once again.

Cool, so it looks much better. We’re not slamming the mix bus—it sounds much better too because we’re not getting that distortion.

Now I’m going to go ahead and turn down everything just a little bit more because I like a lot of headroom on the mix bus. And a lot of people ask “What’s the right level to hit the mix bus at? Should it be at -5 or -7 or whatever.” The truth is it doesn’t matter all that much as long as you’re not hitting 0. So as long as you give yourself plenty of room, it doesn’t matter. And I think people get too obsessed trying to figure out what the right number is. Make sure you give yourself plenty of room, but you know I like -10, -15. And you can always add volume later using a limiter. But if you hit 0, and there is no above 0, so if you hit 0 you can never really go back. So I would say air on the side of too quiet rather than too loud.

Okay, so now let me play it one more time. We’re down -15 on each of the tracks.

Cool, so now we have plenty of headroom to work with on the mix bus.

The next thing I want to show you is how to optimize the level going into each individual plugin. So to do this, I’m just going to go ahead and restore the level of this snare track to where it was before. And we’ll pretend that we didn’t just clip gain that track. And I’m going to solo it and add a plugin to this track. Now it’s important to realize that, like I said before, all of your plugins are actually, most of them are designed to be fed certain levels. Specifically the ones that model analog gear. Now the level that these plugins are designed to be fed at varies, but in general it’s around -18 dB. So I’m going to go ahead and switch this into input mode and just play this track. And I want you to look at the metering and we also have a clip light here, so when that light turns on it means that this plugin is actually distorting. So, we can see this meter is totally being slammed and we’re seeing that red light come on which means that this plugin is actually distorting. Now, plugins model analog gear, so the distortion might not be as aggressive as the clipping we might here on our mix bus, but we still want to avoid it. And in general, you want to make sure that your plugins are being fed at the right level.

So we can use clip gain and turn this track down, you can also use a trim plugin before this plugin. So maybe we want to turn it down using this trim plugin and pull this down 6 dB before. So now, when we do that obviously it’s quieter but we’re not seeing that clip light. So we’re hitting this plugin at a better level. Now you want to make sure you also don’t hit the plugin too quiet. So it’s this balance, right. We want to make sure we’re feeding enough level into the individual plugins. But we don’t want to overload them. So, again, experiment with that. You can use the input metering on these plugins to help you. And in general, around -18 dB is usually a good spot to be on most of these plugins that model analog equipment.

Now the last thing I want to show you is how you can use gain staging to optimize the place that your faders are in your mix. So I have a track here, I guess it’s a trumpet track, and you can see the fader is all the way down at -24. Now, often times when you’re mixing you’ll find as you’re moving faders there are some tracks that you have to turn down more than others. So this isn’t uncommon to see a fader this low. But the problem with this is that when your fader is turned down this low you don’t have a lot of what’s called resolution. So if I grab this fader and just move my mouse just a little bit, it turns down by 1 dB or 2 dB or 3 dB even. Whereas if I’m all the way up at 0, if I move my mouse a little bit, it’ll only come down by a quarter dB or half a dB. So when your faders are closer to 0, you get a lot finer control over the tracks and so it’s a good general rule of thumb to try and keep your faders as close to 0 as possible. So if you find you have a track in your mix where the fader needs to be pulled all the way down to -24, what you can do is add a trim plugin to maybe the first insert in that track and turn that down by -24. And then I can pull this fader up to 0 and the track is still at -24, it’s just been turned down via a trim plugin or gain plugin. But the advantage to this is that now the fader is back at 0, so we have a lot finer control over this track and so again by keeping your faders as close as possible to 0, it’s going to be much easier to mix because you’re going to have much finer control and not going to have to focus on moving your mouse the slightest bit as you would when your faders are down here.

So, again, three gain staging rules: Make sure that the level into your mix bus is giving you lots of headroom. That’s probably the most important. Second, make sure your level into your plugins is appropriate. Not too loud and not too quiet. And third, try to make sure that your faders are as close to zero as possible.

Now I know a lot of this gain staging stuff can be easy to forget, so I put together a free PDF with the 3 rules that we talked about today as well as some tips and tricks so that you can always make sure that you’re gain staging properly and getting the most out of your tracks.

So to download this free cheatsheet, click on the link in the description below or in the video and you’ll get free instant access. For more mixing tips like these you can check out BehindTheSpeakers.com. Thanks so much.

Video features music by Megan Cavallari.