Gain staging has been an integral pre-mixing technique used by mix engineers through the years. Even in the digital world, gain staging is becoming popular regarding how efficiently it makes the whole mixing process.
Primarily, this technique is used in professional studios where work revolves around hardware gear and studio equipment.
However, it is safe to say that with the rise in analog and digital VSTs, you can also take advantage of this technique in your DAW.
This article will discuss gain staging, its importance, and how you can gain stage in the box while you mix.
what is gain staging in mixing?
Gain staging is an extremely important technique used before the mixing process. It focuses on changing the gain level of audio tracks to make them sit at similar levels.
Moreover, it is a standard setup done before mixing to ensure no clipping or distortion.
Gain Staging in Analog World
In the analog hardware studio world, staging the gain levels is extremely important to ensure that the transformers of a mixing console, EQ, compressor, or hardware units do not generate noise.
Additionally, if there is noise coming out of studio gear, it will get amplified at each mixing phase. Hence, cluttering the whole mix with noise and possibly distortion.
The concept of noise floor comes into the picture when you are mixing with live hardware gear. So, for example, if the EQ strip is inducing noise, it will get amplified by the compressor, increasing the noise levels, which will get more noticeable as more processing is applied.
Similarly, a lot of hiss, distortion, tape noise and console hum are avoidable using gain staging.
Therefore, it is more of a necessity than a choice when discussing gain staging in the retro mixing style. Limited headroom is another reason gain staging is so popular and widely used.
To tackle this problem and to keep the mixing process clean and distortion-free, each track is kept at a standard peak gain level of 0 dB VU. This means that the peak gain of the track should hit 0 dB VU.
Gain staging in DAW
Gain staging in a DAW or digital environment relies on the principles of traditional gain staging.
While mixing in a DAW, ensure the audio tracks are peaking at a maximum level of -18 FS on the volume fader.
Here, 0 dBVU equals -18 FS. The volume faders represent the volume levels in FS unit.
Mixing in DAW is far more flexibile than traditional mixing. So, do not focus or exaggerate on getting the exact match values during the gain staging process on your VU Meters or volume faders. Remember that you are allowed to take a few liberties in a digital environment.Extra tip from vasu samnotra
Why is gain staging Important?
There are three main reasons why staging the gain levels before mixing is essential.
Firstly, it helps the mix buss and audio tracks stay free from clipping and keeps the gain level at an optimal value.
Secondly, the plugins behave normally as they are not pushed too hard beyond their standard working capacity.
Lastly, it saves enough headroom for the mastering phase. Hence, allowing you to create louder mixes without clipping and distortion.
How to properly Gain Stage before mixing?
Now that we have seen the basics and importance of gain stage in analog and digital world, let us see few simple steps to setup a mix with proper gain staging.
Plugins required for gain staging:
- VU Meter,
- Gain utility plugin.
Steps to gain stage audio tracks before mixing
Here are a few steps to properly gain stage audio tracks before mixing.
1) Setup a VU Meter on Individual Tracks
The first step in gain staging is to setup a VU Meter on all the individual track channels.
A VU Meter allows us to hit the proper levels to avoid clipping and distortion. In this step, we monitor the gain levels using a VU meter.
Ensure no plugin in your signal chain other than the VU meter. If there are plugins on the audio chain, put the VU meter after all the processing plugins.
VU meters are inherently available in professional mixing consoles. Since most DAWs lack a VU meter, you must download one beforehand.
It will enable us to measure gain levels in dB VU.
In these demonstration images, I am using a paid VST VU meter by waves.
However, you can download and use the free MVmeter2 by TBPRO audio.
2) Setup Gain Utility on individual tracks
After you have set up the VU Meter on each track, repeat the same step for the Gain Utility plugin.
Make sure you place the gain plugin before processing is done and on the single chain.
Most of the DAWs come with an inbuilt gain utility plugin. In logic Pro X, the gain is located under the Utility folder.
3) Hit the Right Levels
This step is the real essence of this article. Make sure you understand what we are doing here in this step.
Now, as you have both the plugins set up in your audio channel, use the gain plugin to ensure that the needle in the VU Meter is hitting Zero at the highest audio peak.
In simple words, do not let the needle go above 0 dB VU.
If a signal crosses the 0 in the VU meter, reduce the gain. On the other hand, increase the gain value if the signal is lacking behind 0.
4) Alternate Technique
Suppose you do not want to use a VU Meter, no worries! We have another technique for you to follow that does not require any VU meter plugin.
The Volume Faders in your DAW use Full Scale(FS).
In this method, we convert 0 dB VU to FS.
After converting 0 dB VU to FS, we get -18 FS as the value. -18 FS is the value your audio signal needs to reach the highest.
5) Avoid Clipping on the Master Buss
These were the steps involved in setting the gain stage before mixing. Setting up the proper gain level will eliminate the chances of audio signal clipping or distorting.
Since we are in the digital world, you don’t need to stick to the above mentioned values strictly.
The most crucial tip is ensuring you have enough headroom available for mixing and mastering all the time for hassle-free audio processing.
6) Leave enough Headroom for Mastering Engineer
Using these steps, you can set up the audio tracks for adequate mixing.
Furthermore, doing so will allow you to leave enough headroom for the mastering engineer for further audio processing.
However, in rare situations, if the mastering guy needs more headroom, pull down the gain by a dB or two.
Is it necessary to gain stage each individual track?
When it comes to mixing on real analog hardware gear, gain staging each individual track in a mix is one of the best practices to avoid any abnormal behaviour such as noise, distortion or clipping. However, when it comes to mixing in the box, rules can be altered and mixers can get creative with the process of gain staging.
Remember the basic principles of gain staging to avoid clipping and leaving headroom for mastering when you are setting your new gain staging rules.
Gain staging is a crucial technique to make the mixing process smoother and more efficient. And we saw how to implement it in a digital environment.
It considers the gain level of individual tracks and keeps them at optimal levels for mixing audio tracks.
Therefore, if you seldom struggle with keeping audio from clipping, this pro mixing technique is a straightforward technique that will save you from the headache of clipping and low headroom issues.