Gain Staging Before Mixing

In this article I want to discuss gain staging . Gain staging is probably one of the more boring processes of mixing but a very important one. I find once I have my gain staging in order I usually worry less about sound fidelity and can focus more on shaping my mix.

We’re living in a world where mixes are louder than they ever have been so most home mix engineers (even paid ones) think that they need to push things as hot as hell to get that loudness that the commercial CD’s have. Speaking from experience I used to carry that mentality and practised that exact theory. I now know that nothing is farther from the truth. My mixes have actually become bigger and better by keeping my meters at a lower level. Creating a big sound is about audible perception and NOT about what the meters say. If you want to slam it hot, leave it to the very end or leave it to the mastering engineer.

What is Gain Staging?

Well Gain taging is the process of setting all of the gain controls inside of the mix, to get the cleanest signal possible.

I set all of my project faders to hit -6dbfs at their peaks (not too anal, just approximately) and then when I create my initial blend I make sure that my master fader reads -10 to -12dbfs. Now the reason everything is set to -6dbfs is because most plugin companies set their products to work best at a max (or average) level of -6dbfs.

Some plugins I’ve seen are set to work best at 0db but these ones are rare. The reason why I set my master fader to -10 to -12dbfs is because as I’m layering and refining my mix I find it usually always comes up a bit in volume and almost always hits the holy grail of -6dbfs. So instead of starting at -6dbfs and then having to pull faders back later, I start off a bit lower and allow myself some room to breathe. It helps me stay focused on the creative aspects of the mix as opposed to always having to get my levels adjusted. If it happens that my mix doesn’t end up louder at the end than that is okay too. Volume can always be added later to the overall mix. I just don’t like having to pullback, I find it usually somehow changes the sound of my mixes and gets me out of the zone.

So Why Don’t We Want to Run Everything Hot During Mixing?

Well the basic reason is because once your audio hit’s your D/A converters it will start to introduce clipping and artefacts that will skew the sound of your mix. This makes it hard to create a mix that translates in the real world. I don’t know about you but I like my mixes to be clean and open. If I want to make it sound closed and distorted then I will do that based on my own merit and not that of ignorance.

Now that I have that out of the way, I’m going to contradict myself a bit. I still do clip things in the mixing process (not always) just to get a little something I couldn’t otherwise. The best example would be the drums, they might be clipping extremely hot but the rest of the sounds are set to a reasonable level. The reason is that sometimes clipping your drums can get you a pop that wouldn’t exist if you weren’t clipping them. However, just because my drums are clipping that doesn’t mean that my master fader is. I always keep my master fader far away from 0dbfs or from clipping. This gives me enough head room and allows me to create that height, depth and width that I love so much. I will post some video examples of this.

So How Can We Go About Gain Staging Throughout Our Mixes?

Well since a lot of DAW’s now a days are running what’s called a 32bit or 64 bit floating point mixer, headroom in the digital world is not a problem.  So who cares about gain staging? Well the problem occurs when the signal hits your plugins or when it hits your master fader – The levels going to you D/A. The meters are set up to show you what would happen if you sent it out to a 24bit D/A convertor. So if your master fader in the digital domain shows it is clipping it really means that your D/A convertors are clipping. So let’s see how we can get as clean a sound as possible in a few simple steps. If you follow these regularly and do at least the first two steps when starting a session than you will see your mixes improve immediately

Step 1 – Setting Your Trims

The first thing to do is set the input trims for all tracks in the mix. Pull all the faders down and then pull up each one separately, to unity gain (0db). Then use the trim setting on each channel to either increase the volume of the track or decrease the volume of the track. This way every track reads -6dbfs by the time you are done. If your DAW does not have a trim setting then you can either insert a trim plugin or insert any plugin with an input and output setting. Once you have finished all the tracks in the session and you insert a plugin on a track, you know that you are at or around that optimum signal level. It is also good to do this from a visual perspective. You can see your background tracks will have the faders pulled back a lot more (in the mix) than say the drums or the vocals – sounds with more transients. I say visual because sometimes I look for fader levels when I am looking for a sound as opposed to the actual name of the track.

Step 2 – Overall Song Balance/Master Fader Levels

The next thing to do is get the tracks all levelled up to get a general balance of where you think everything seems to fit together. At this point you want to keep your eye on the master fader levels and as you bring up each fader try to make sure the signal doesn’t reach over -10 to -12dbfs. If it starts to get hot just pull back the faders (not the master) until the master reads the level you want. An occasional odd peak here or there is not that important because that will be corrected in the mixing process. This is just to get an average peak level.

Step 3 – Processing and Effects

Once the last two steps are complete you are ready to add your processing and effects (usually after your pan settings). Every time you add a plugin to your insert channel, try to keep the input and the output at or around -6dbfs. This way you know that you are not overloading your plugins circuitry.
These are the three basic rules that I follow with gain staging throughout my mixes but I tend to break them sometimes. The one that remains constant is the master fader remaining at the -10dbfs level that I like. Remember that these are just guidelines and not rules. If you send your drums to an EQ and pushing it past 0db adds character, then do it. Just remember to correct your output volume so when it’s summed to the Master Fader it’s not peaking at 0 db.