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Gain Staging: How to Set Levels Properly in Your DAW

Welcome to today's blog post where I'll be talking about gain staging and how to set the levels properly in your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation).

For everyone who’s working in the digital domain, clipping is not an option. You have to avoid digital clipping by all means. This is why gain staging is very important.

Unlike working in the analog domain where clipping gives you a smooth and "musical" sounding distortion which retains punch or thump. It is still distorted though.

On the other hand, digital clipping gives you the most distortion and the biggest loss of low bass. ​You'll lose punch because digital clipping ruins the transients of low bass sounds such as kick, bass, floor toms etc.

Even though gain staging is something that should be simple and straight forward, there’s a lot of people who still get it wrong, while some just complicate it for no reason.

So, with this blog post we’re going to clear all the confusion.

How to Set Levels Properly in Your DAW

Gain Staging in Recording & Sound Design

There’s a difference between gain staging in the digital domain as compared to analog.

Back in the days, every piece of gear had to be leveled properly for the next piece of the chain, in order to achieve a good result.

If you record too loud you clip the signal (unwanted distortion), if you record too soft you end up with a lot of noise-floor in your signal. The end goal was to get more signal and less noise, in confusing terms it’s called signal-to-noise ratio.

So, the key was to record a hot signal but at the same time leaving headroom without taming down the transients with distortion or clipping. This way you’ll be able to print a good signal that’s ready for mixing.

That’s the simplified version, of course.

When it comes to recording in the digital world, there’s no need to worry about noise floor. So, you can record your tracks at soft or hot levels. Just make sure that you’re not hitting the red lights or clipping the signal.

With digital, you have the possibilities of recording at high resolutions such as 32-bit or 64-bit floating point which was unimaginable in the analog era. This means you can push the signal above 0dBFS and not harm it or add unwanted distortion.

At those high floating-points you can make a mistake by recording the signal too hot then push the pre-fader or clip gain down and it won’t distort. This is if you haven’t exported the signal or sent it through a D/A converter.

Now, that’s freedom.

Let’s look at how gain staging is applied during the mixing stage.

Manual Gain Riding

The advantages of mixing ITB (in the box) is that you have a visual representation of the wave-forms. So, you will be able to see the loud parts vs the soft parts of an audio signal.

That means you can go into your wave-forms and adjust them manually to decrease parts that are too loud. Be careful not to ruin the performance of the track when you do manual gain riding.

This will make sure that you have healthy levels before you start mixing a song.

Some may argue that this is part of audio editing and not gain staging but I thought I should add it to this blog post because it’s crucial to keep a consistent volume in your tracks.

This also makes sure that your compressors don’t overwork or add distortion to your signal.

Bounce your signal after doing this and if you manually cut the wave-form then make sure that you use cross-fades to avoid clicks.

Why Gain Staging is Important

It is important to make sure that you get healthy levels in your mix and avoid clipping the signal. This also gives the mastering engineer more headroom to work with.

Another reason is that if you don’t gain stage you end up having to use the post faders in your DAW. This causes a problem when you have to go way below -12dB (full scale) on the fader.

The fader loses resolution and minor adjustments will create a big decrease or increase in volume. Which will also become a big problem when you have to do automation using the post fader.

If you’re using analog emulation plugins then avoiding gain staging becomes a big problem because all plugins that emulate old analog gear have a sweet spot. Without proper gain staging you’ll clip the plugin and it won’t sound good.

If any sound in a mix is too quiet then you’ll need to push the compressors too hard which won’t sound pleasant and end up causing compressors to distort. So, you need to find a good balance between too loud and too quiet.

VU Meters make it easy to find that good balance. Most of these plugins have a sweet spot of -18dBFS, which is 0dB on a VU meter. We’ll talk about VU meters later on.

This is why it’s very important to open and read the manual of each and every plugin that you use.

In this tutorial you'll learn a step-by-step process for doing gain staging and how to set levels properly in your DAW to avoid clipping and unwanted distortion.

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How to Get the Right Levels in a Mix

This is a very crucial step and it’s also easy.

One thing you have to know is that this step is done before you can start working on the balance of instruments and other sounds such as vocals. Don’t confuse gain staging with the mix balance, these are 2 different things.

What you need to do is to leave your post fader at 0dB (full scale). Then decrease the clip gain of all the sounds till you’re peaking at around -12dB to -15dB on the mix buss (2Buss or whatever name you prefer).

This way, after adding all your processing your mix will be peaking around -8dB to -6dB.

Easy right?

Don’t complicate this process it’s that simple and straight forward.

Just make sure that you’re decreasing the volume using clip gain or pre gain don’t touch the post fader, leave it at 0dB so that you have good resolution when you start working on your balance.

Now, let’s look at how to use a VU meter to get healthy mix levels.

Using VU Meters

VU simply stands for “volume unit”. This is a great tool for getting good headroom and clear mixes. A VU meter forces you to mix at softer levels, that is why it is highly recommended for gain staging.

I’m not going to bore you with the history and information that you can find on Wikipedia, I’m just going to give you the steps on how to use a VU Meter for gain staging.

The first thing that you need to do is to group your individual sounds into busses. Meaning, you’ll have a group channel for your drums, percussion, bass, vocals, keys, guitars etc.

Next step will be to insert a VU Meter plugin in all the individual sounds. There are a lot of VU Meter plugins out there, some are paid and some are totally free.

You can find one with a simple Google search, this shouldn’t be an issue at all.

Play all the sounds in solo then make sure that there’s no sound that is peaking above 0dB on the VU Meter. From -3dB to 0dB on the VU is the sweet spot.

Use clip gain or pre-fader to control the level of each individual sound to get it to hit the sweet spot. Don't touch the post-fader, as explained above.

Once you have all the sounds peaking at the right level then insert another VU in the mix buss or master channel.

Play all the sounds in your project then decrease all the faders on your buss or group channels to make sure that the entire mix as a whole is peaking between -3dB to 0dB on the VU meter.

Don’t touch the faders of your individual sounds to do this.

That’s how you use VU Meters to do gain staging. You’ll get healthy levels this way and it will force you to mix softer without overloading the master channel.

Oh, make sure that the VU Meter is calibrated at -18dB.

Conclusion

As you can see, gain staging on your DAW shouldn't be complicated at all.

There's 2 ways to do it.

  • You can do it the easy way by using clip gain or pre-faders. ​
  • The time consuming recommended way by using VU Meters.

I trust that you found value in this post, you now know what gain staging is and how you're going to do it. If you still have doubts then check out the video above to get a visual presentation of the entire process step-by-step.

Leave a comment below if you have any questions or if you would like to add to the discussion. Share the content if you found it useful, that will really help the blog.

We'll talk again soon.

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