Gain staging and volume management are the solid foundation every mix sits upon, and yet it’s often glanced over by people first learning the ropes. The impulse to turn tracks up is almost impossible to deny, and we end up raising levels and raising levels until everything sounds like a big, loud mess. When a session is properly gain staged, things sound balanced whether it’s a banger or a ballad, and that is what we’re ultimately going for. In this piece, we talk about setting up your mix for success by properly managing volume levels, and the underlying theory behind gain staging.
If you’re interested in more technical information and specific tips on how to employ gain staging in your next mix, head to this guide.
Gain staging is the technical term for managing the volumes of multiple sound sources through one or more shared outputs. A gain stage is any point in the signal flow where volume can be adjusted and includes the level of an input on your audio interface, the fader on each DAW or mixer channel, the Master output, as well as many other potential points in the signal flow.
Conceptually, it might not seem like the most difficult thing to accomplish, especially relative to other mixing techniques, but it often prevents people from creating a solid mix. In order to successfully gain stage, we need to understand the interplay between frequency and amplitude and the importance of managing the levels of all the tracks in our session.
Frequency and amplitude
Our ears work in a very specific way and as a result, we have an easier time hearing certain things as opposed to others. High-frequency and brighter sounds cut right through a mix without much effort, while low-frequency elements are harder for us to hear in general.
Imagine you’re inside some sort of factory building with an industrial hum; that hum has a very low frequency and a high amplitude. There’s lots of energy in that vibration, but it’s not hurting our ears. In fact, we tend to feel that energy more in our bodies than our ears. Now imagine the sound of a fire alarm going off in that same building; that wail is a high-frequency sound at a high amplitude, and sends us running out of the room with our hands over our ears.
In the context of our mixes, we’re looking for tonal and dynamic balance, meaning that there’s an even representation of frequencies with the proper relative volumes, all summed together at the right level of loudness. In order for us to hear low-frequency elements well enough, they need enough amplitude to stand out. High frequencies, on the other hand, don’t need as much energy to cut through a mix.
This correlation between our perception of the energy—or amplitude—of a sound source and its general frequency range will inform our approach to setting the levels of our gain stages. At overly high amplitudes, high frequencies pierce and low frequencies shake. At the right amplitude levels, high frequencies tell us a story and low frequencies hold us while we listen.
Relative versus absolute
If something is relative, it’s dependent on other things similar to it. If you look at a tree and think to yourself, that’s a big tree, what you’re saying is that it's big relative to other trees around it, or to other trees you’ve seen before. Big is a relative term. If something is absolute, it is what it is regardless of anything else. If you measured that same tree you’d have an absolute number on your hands, like 20 feet 5 inches. That’s the height of the tree regardless of any other factors.
When we’re mixing, we want the levels of our tracks to be at the right level relative to each other. We want the bass to be at the right level relative to the drums, and for the drums and bass to be at the right level relative to the other tracks in the session, so on and so forth. Setting those levels comes down to critical listening. On the other hand, the level coming out of the master needs to comply with an absolute loudness standard, depending on your final delivery method (e.g. streaming, CD, etc.).
When gain staging, it’s our job to make sure that all the relative track volumes are at the proper level relative to one another while maintaining a specific master output level. In a general sense, loud sounds good, but once your output crosses a certain threshold it begins to distort. Distortion for the wrong reasons sounds bad, and it’s our goal to get the overall mix to be nice and loud without crossing the line.
We started from the bottom now we’re here
Now that we’ve gotten some of the more sciency aspects of this out of the way, let’s talk about ways to set the levels of our gain stages. Since low frequencies require the most amplitude, it’s a good idea to start from the bottom of the frequency spectrum and work your way to the top.
Here’s an exercise you can do at any point in your mix, whether you’re at the beginning stages or the end. Note that this may become more challenging if your session contains a lot of volume automation.
Gain staging in practice
Pull all the faders on your tracks down to zero so that when you press play no sound is coming through the master output. Starting with the low-frequency elements, such as bass and kick, pull them up until they’re somewhere around -12 dB on the master output and sound like they’re at appropriate relative levels. Then move on to set the proper relative levels for the mid and high-range frequencies.
At this point you should still be well under 0 dB, which will allow you to grab all the faders and pull them up until you’re approaching the absolute level you’re looking for. For many people, this process completely changes the way their mix presents and opens up a lot of space.
When a session is properly gain staged, it makes the rest of the mixing process doable. It gives you room to compress your dynamic sound sources, it lets you properly sculpt and carve your sounds because you’re hearing what you need to, and it lessens many of the frustrations that come with trying to wrestle any mix into submission.
The levels we set at each gain stage matters a whole lot, and if we really use our ears and set them well, we can set ourselves up for success at the onset.