How to Gain Stage Your Tracks

Gain staging is often considered to be an important aspect within music production. That may have been true in the past, but it’s not the case anymore.

Within modern software-based music production, gain staging is very simple. Anyone can easily master it, resulting in a more organized and more streamlined mixing process.

Simplified By Technology

Gain staging is the process of ensuring adequate signal levels throughout your song’s tracks and mix busses. Proper gain staging prevents signals from being too loud or too quiet, both of which can create unnecessary challenges in mixing and mastering

When recording and producing was primarily done with dedicated hardware, gain staging was very important. Gain staging prevented unwanted signal noise from interfering with the music. It also helped songs progressively achieve an adequate volume level without causing distortion.

In software environments, these issues are not nearly as challenging to overcome. Signal noise is non-existent, and unlimited DAW headroom means that clipping is only an issue when it’s time to bounce your song. 

The purpose of gain staging today boils down to organization and convenience. Apply gain staging, and the mixing process will be more organized and efficient. Skip gain staging, and things might get a little messy. 

Luckily, gain staging is really easy to implement. It is comprised of three simple tasks: adjusting your track’s input gain, gain matching your plugins, and compensating for clipping on the master bus.

Task #1: Adjusting Input Gain

Every track in a song comes from an initial source file, such as a sample, a virtual instrument, or a live recording. These source files will have different signal levels, and some of them may be much louder or quieter than others.

To make level balancing and signal processing easier, it’s best to ensure that all of your tracks are within an optimal signal level range. With no effects active and your track’s volume fader at 0 dB, look at your track meters to determine how loud they are peaking. 

If your tracks are peaking between -16 dB and -6 dB, then there is no need to adjust the gain of these tracks. If any of your tracks are outside of this range, then it is a good practice to adjust their gains to peak within that range.

These are NOT strict figures – just a nice range that isn’t too loud or too quiet. Peak levels of -16.1 dB or -5.9 dB will not kill your mix.

Every DAW has a method for adjusting the input gain, often as a built in function called clip gain or trim gain. If your DAW doesn’t have one of these features, it most likely has a gain plugin. All options work great.

These tools simply raise or lower the input gain of your tracks. If a track’s peak level is -20 dB and you raise the gain by 5 dB, the new peak level will be -15 dB. If a track’s peak level is -2 dB and you lower the gain by 10 dB, the peak level will now be -12 dB.

When I’m mixing a new song, one of the first things I do is check the input gains of my tracks. I play the song once through and look for tracks that are too loud or too quiet (Figure 1). When I notice this  happening, I simply turn up or turn down the gain (Figure 2). After that, I’m good to go! (Figure 3)

Mixer Track Peak Levels In Logic Pro X
Figure 1: Initial track peak levels in green font. The snare is too loud (-4.7 dB) and melodies 1-3 are too quiet (-20.4 dB, -27.8 dB, and -25.9 dB)  
Adjusting the Input Gain In Logic Pro X
Gain Plugin In Logic Pro X

Figure 2: Two ways to modify gain in Logic Pro – file gain (left) and the Gain plugin (right). In both cases, I am reducing the snare’s volume by 4 dB.

Mixing Levels In Logic Pro X
Figure 3: The updated track levels with the snare and the melodies peaking at more optimal levels 

Task #2: Gain Matching Plugins

In addition to their main purposes, many plugins can also change the signal level of a track. This isn’t a bad thing in moderation, but too large of a change will ruin any level balancing you have already done and potentially push your master bus closer to clipping. 

Gain matching is the process of adjusting the output gain of an effect to match the original input gain. This capability is usually built-in to these effects and is called either output gain or make up gain. Once you’ve gotten your effect programmed in, use make up gain to match the output level to the input level. It doesn’t have to be identical, just similar. 

For example, in Figure 4 I have added compression to a track. It has naturally lowered the output gain, so to match it I used the Make Up Gain dial to get a more comparable output gain (Figure 5).

Compressor in Logic Pro X Without Gain Matching Applied
Figure 4: Aggressive compression leads to a naturally lower output signal level: -9.5 dB in, -16 dB out.
Compressor in Logic Pro X With Gain Matching Applied
Figure 5: Output gain adjusted to compensate for the compression using the “Make Up” dial.

Task #3: Avoid Master Bus Clipping 

Clipping, like gain staging, is not nearly as important as it once was with modern DAWs. Clipping only matters when it’s time to bounce your songs. If your master bus is clipping, this will result in a distorted song file.

To avoid clipping, it’s important to keep the master bus signal level under 0 dB. If you properly gain stage, issues with clipping will usually be minimal or non-existent. 

If your song is still clipping when it is ready for bouncing (Figure 6, left), I prefer to select all of my individual track faders and turn them down. You can select them all at once and lower their volumes by an equal amount with a single motion. This will allow you to avoid clipping while maintaining the balance of all of your tracks (Figure 6, right).

Clipping Track In Logic Pro X
Non-Clipping Track In Logic Pro X

Figure 6: Master bus peak level clipping (left) and not clipping (right) after lowering all of the track volume faders equally.

Keep It Simple

If gain staging becomes complicated, that means something is probably wrong. If you follow the gain staging checklist, this should be the easiest part of mixing:

1) Adjust your input gain levels when you start mixing

2) Gain match your plugins as you add them to your tracks

3) Check the master bus for clipping and lower the volume faders if necessary

The best thing is, these strategies are quick and easy to use! No practice or ear training required.

Gain staging may be a simple topic, but making an entire song can be a bit more challenging.

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