A lot of the time, beginner musicians can often mistake gain with volume, mainly because a lot of young players’ first approach to amps, pedals, and DAWs, shows a knob with “gain” written on it and they realize things get louder, however, this is not a volume knob we are talking about.
So, is there a difference between gain and volume? Yes, and while it does get louder, there are a few things that you need to understand in order to get a better tone and a better sound overall, so once you are done reading this article, you will be able to control volume and gain with a level of proficiency that you wish you had before.
First, we have to define what is volume and what is gain, from there it will become a lot easier to realize the differences between the two and the consequences it has on mixing and the overall tone of your instruments.
What is Volume?
This may sound like a question that has a very obvious answer, however, more often than not we assume we know things but we don’t know how to actually explain them, so let’s explain it.
If you want a simple definition, then you could say that volume is the power of sound or degree of loudness, in other words, the decibel (dB) output of an amp, a PC, a phone, or any sound system.
The volume will only affect how loud a sound is, and this applies to both natural vibrations that produce sound as well as sound waves on your computer.
That’s volume, it’s a very simple concept and it’s a parameter that is often available on anything that produces sound, letting you control how loud you want the sound to be.
What is Gain?
Gain is a different story because this is not just about loudness, even if it may affect it.
In order to understand exactly what gain does to sound, let’s touch on three different aspects of it.
Gain Affects Volume
Yes, this is the part that may confuse a lot of people, since you can get to a DAW, plug in a guitar, a mic, or whatever you want to use and if you turn up the gain, you will get more dBs so obviously it’s going to be louder.
You may even find that in some plugins there is “makeup gain” on compressors, which is just another way of calling the output volume.
Now, while gain does change the decibel and in turn affects how loud a sound is, there is a difference in how it affects it in comparison to volume. The easiest way to understand this is that gain controls the loudness before any processing, and this makes the sound get affected in terms of tone and more.
Let’s talk a bit more about this and what it’s all about.
Ever since the analog days before it all went digital, or at least most of it, the gain has always been about the input level of the audio signal, and as stated earlier, it happens before any processing.
When this happens it has clear consequences on the tone of the signal.
One of the most common reasons to tweak the gain is to control the microphone preamp, if you change the gain level the audio interface you are using will react differently, and once you have the desired input level, you can then change the volume to get the output level you want.
Gain is also a very common knob on guitar amplifiers, which takes us to our third popular and important aspect of gain, distortion.
Gain is the Origin of Distortion
If you ever wondered where all that amazing distortion comes from, the one that makes you want to shake your head and scream at a live show, or just have your morning blues up and running, it’s all gain.
While distortion was discovered as something that shouldn’t happen, it became unavoidable when the first amps offered low fidelity quality, which in turn allowed for some distortion to happen when the gain was increased beyond the designed limit. As a result blues, artists saw an opportunity and the exploration of overdrive and distortion eventually transformed into pedals and preamps that would allow for more possibilities including fuzz, overdrives, and even amps with a focus on slight distortion.
Back then there were only tube amps and When too much current goes through the tube, it reaches its maximum capacity and spits a compressed version of what came in. The compressed signal is what we hear on the other end when we listen to the distorted guitars.
Nowadays it’s a more controlled effect where you can send a lot of gain into the amp but then change the volume so it doesn’t have to sound as loud
Now that the concept of gain is clear enough, there is one more thing that you might need to understand, as it’s something that is often talked about, gain staging.
What is Gain Staging?
This is a term that often confuses beginners, and it’s useful to know what it means in order to truly know more about the difference between volume and gain.
This applies to music production and while it has been around since the analog music days, we will try to sum it up so you can apply it to your mixes in digital music production.
You will always face this phase of the recording and mixing production, and the reason why we go through gain staging is that we can maintain the dB below 0, to avoid any clipping.
This is a process that focuses on setting the audio to the best level for the next processor so that noise and distortion are minimized.
The idea is to make the dB level consistent so that the level coming into the channel is actually the same as the one that is coming out.
If you are using a DAW and you are using several plug-ins, this means there are several processes, and you have to check each one in order to match the level of input with the level of output.
This will make it a lot easier to have a polished more controlled sound and be able to know exactly what each plug-in is doing.
If you want to follow a good step-by-step tutorial we recommend you check out this brief guide from Warp Academy on YouTube.
So, What is the Difference Between Volume and Gain?
As you can already tell, there are a few clear differences between the two concepts, largely defined by how ones have an effect on tone while the other doesn’t and the fact that gain only changes the input level and not the overall volume after any sound processing.
A volume knob is very straightforward, you just turn it up and down whether you want a louder sound or quieter sound, but it won’t change the tone or quality of the sound.
If you tweak the gain knob, however, you will get a difference in the quality and tone of the sound.
By doing this you will change the ratio of the amplitude of the output divided by the input amplitude.
In other words, if you are a beginner and you are only starting to understand these concepts which are as important in recording and mixing as they are if you are just finding a good sound for your guitar, remember these few things and you will know what to do.
- The volume will control the loudness of the output of a sound system, and will not affect the quality or tone. You will control how loud the output of the channel or the amp is after the input signal is sent.
- The gain will let you increase or decrease the input of a sound. It will only change how loud the input is and this will have an effect on tone and quality.
- Gain has been used for many years to achieve new sounds including the iconic distortion or overdriven guitar.
- While recording music, you need to remember to gain staging, as it will allow you to avoid clipping and have a clear leveled sound for your mix.
To get you ready for any unforeseen issues and help you prevent a lot of problems during your process, let’s make it very clear, which are the most common mistakes surrounding that little knob that controls the gain.
If you want to review these concepts in a very simple way Scott Guitarist on YouTube offers a lighthearted explanation that will help you understand the difference between volume and gain and how these two work together.
Most Common Gain Mistakes
Ignoring The Colors
This might seem obvious but beginners tend to overlook the fact that only by taking a look at the small bars on each channel as well as the master, you will see that every DAW has four colors, green, yellow, orange, and red, and if you see any red then it will clip.
Even if you don’t hear any digital clipping while still in the (32-bit) DAW when you do the final step to Disk, that floating-point pitch will disappear and the final audio file will be clipped, making it necessary for you to go back and redo some of the work concerning gain and volume
Not Checking Every Plug-In’s Gain
While sometimes you may not need to modify the gain, you’ll probably need to check if the incoming signal is at the right level, because the plug-ins may change that level due to their specific processing qualities.
So keep in mind if you are using a lot of plug-ins that you may need to check each one so that each part of the processing chain is optimized and will not give you any unwanted clipping or distortion.
Thinking of Gain as Distortion (Mostly for Guitar Players)
Many beginner guitarists and even some who have been playing for years, often make the mistake of thinking of gain and distortion as if they are the same thing but, it’s important to know that both overdrive and distortion are not synonyms with gain, these are a consequence of gain.
As we talked about before gain works in the preamp stage and if you get enough high levels of gain you will get distortion.
So how should you approach all the different pedals and amps with all these options like gain, tone, drive, and volume? well, one of the most important things to know is that a lot of pedals use a knob that says “drive”, well think of this as your “gain” knob, you already know what this will do. “Level”, will work as your standard volume, and the rest will be things like tone or color so that you can have more control over your sound.
If you want to know more about gain and distortion check out this YouTube video that offers a simple yet clear explanation.
Conclusion & Takeaway
That should clarify most of the doubts surrounding the differences between volume and gain when it comes to music, whether it’s during recording and mixing or while finding the sound and tone of your guitar, there is a lot of value in understanding what is actually going on and how to use this knowledge to your advantage as a musician
Keep looking for more tools and knowledge to expand your abilities as a musician and remember that every small detail counts, as you can see with a small misconception of gain and volume, even something that seems like a little thing, can make a big difference in the sound that you want to create, so keep learn and continue looking for answers!