Levels Demystified – Gain Staging (Part 2)

Gain StagingOK.  So.  How exactly do you go about setting the right levels for recording and why does gain staging even matter?  Well it all starts in the mysterious world of ‘gain-staging’ and ends with a magic number.  See I told you this was going to be fun!

What Exactly Is Gain Staging?

‘Proper Gain Staging‘ is basically a fancy term for setting the level of a signal at each ‘stage’ the signal passes through.  So…

  • When you plug a bass into an amp and adjust the volume you are gain-staging
  • When you feed your newly amped signal into a recording console, preamp or DAW, and adjust the trim level you are gain-staging
  • When you turn up the input on your favorite plugin or adjust the level of a fader you are…you guessed it – gain staging.

So if the signal chain for your bass looks something like this:  Bass –>  Neve 1073  –> 1176 Compressor –> Studer A800 Tape Machine, your original bass signal will have passed through 3 stages (Neve, 1176, & Studer) and its level will need to be adjusted at each stage.

Now the reason gain-staging is important is this: all analog gear has a sweet spot.  Yes that’s right – a sweet spot or range in which, if fed the right level, it will put on its best shiny suit and sing for you!  Once you know a piece of gear’s sweet spot, you’re well on your way to getting a great sounding recording.  So what is the sweet spot of your favorite analog console I hear you say?

Analog Sweet Spots

In the analog world most professional equipment is designed to operate in a sweet spot range of around 1.23volts, 4+ dBU or 0dBVU RMS.  What does this mean?  Simply put it means if you plug your bass into a recording console and the needle on the console VU meter hits 0dBVU (or 0VU to its friends), you are an engineering Jedi and can look forward to multiple Grammy nominations!  Well not quite…but you get the idea.

0dBVU marks the device’s ‘sweet spot’ range.  That’s why many consoles and outboard compressors have those fancy VU Meters.  Hit them at 0dBVU and everything will sound amazing.  Cool huh!?

But what happens if you don’t have a VU meter at your disposal? And what if you are making music on a laptop sandwiched between a wardrobe and bedside cabinet, and not some high-end studio with racks of analog gear and a gorgeous sounding vintage Neve desk?

I thought you’d never ask! I’ll continue this in the next post about Gain Staging.

Until then, a question or two…

When you are mixing, do you think about Gain Staging? Do you use any metering plugins?

Check out Gain Staging (levels Demystified Part 1 here)

Full Course on Gain Staging

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