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

6 comments

  1. Thanks for this Stone. So, is it better to use a plugin meter rather than, say, the meter in Pro Tools? Anyway, I’m on the edge of my seat for the rest of the story.
    Take care, Jim.

  2. You’re welcome Jim. Without giving too much away the too soon the short answer is ‘Yes’, ‘No’ and ‘It depends’! 😉 Pro Tools channel meters (or any DAW’s meters for that matter) are really useful for some things, but not others. The main thing they are useful for is avoiding clipping. However if you want to measure anything else, i.e. how loud your signal actually is, you’d be better served reaching for a plugin meter. But don’t worry…all will be revealed!

  3. I started a mix last night where I set, using clip gain in
    PT, all the audio files to -18dbfs RMS and it just started to come
    together so much quicker. My mix buss also wasn’t be blown to
    pieces by some extra low end I was adding. I think the Kick was
    averaging -10dbfs on the PT meter after processing, a number I got
    from another great vid on here, and there was just a lot more
    clarity and definition to the sounds. They sounded less crushed. I
    never smashed the meters but was averaging -6dbfs in PT and always
    struggled with levels and compression on two buss. Happy to report
    this is no longer a problem.

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