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4 Tips for Better Gain Staging

Maintaining proper levels throughout your signal chain is important for achieving great tone. This is an important discussion for guitarists and engineers. I think pretty hard about my gain staging when I’m tracking. It has great effect on your sound.

But, why and how does gain affect sound? Let’s investigate.

1. Digital Wall

There are many reasons to love the analog medium.

One, so old guys can sit around the coffee machine and reflect on the golden days of recording. (yawn).

The second? Analog takes change well. It’s forgiving. That means if you hit it with a hot signal, it’s not going to sound horrible. Disclaimer: that’s not guaranteed. I mean, fire is great, but if you leave something on the stove too long it burns, right? Not that I would know as my form of cooking is local delivery here in NYC. But, I do read things.

Analog distortion is considered flattering by many, including myself. Digital clipping is harsh and rarely desirable. Although, I got a cool snare drum sound once by clipping digital converters. (To which my mixer asked “why ya’ gotta like be such a rebel all the time”). I think he may have been afraid I would fray the fragile woven fabric that is our conscious being. Woah, deep right?

When running digital gear, you have to be very aware of the signals running before it. If your signal is too hot before a digital reverb or delay, it’s going to clip in a harsh way.

Digital clipping can sneak up on you too. I’ve had experiences where I didn’t really notice it. I took for granted my gain staging was good.

2. Analog Barbells

Hot analog signals can be swell. Those that have spent time messing with tubes have discovered the joy in hitting tubes with a little gain.

A secret trick of guitarists is to use a preamp before their guitar amp. It’s usually the last piece in the chain. A popular choice is the preamp from an Echoplex.

What does it sound like? It livens up the sound. I always make sure the preamp is pushing a few dB hotter than when it’s in bypass. The idea here is that you leave it on all the time.

Nowadays everyone is in on the secret. There are pedal manufactures that make boosters or Echoplex preamps in small boxes. I use a Fulltone Tube Tape Echo for this trick with the delay off.

It kisses the front end of my tweeds nicely. We’re not talking a porn kiss here, but a romantic long embrace. Ah, who am I kidding… They’re getting it on.

3.  Hearing Aid

A common problem with gain staging is when there isn’t enough signal coming from effects.

Sometimes guitarists will come in for sessions and turn their various pedals on. The volume becomes lower than when in bypass mode. They may not notice when playing by themselves in a room, but by the time the band kicks in, the difference is very noticeable. It’s as if their sound disappears when the pedals are kicked on.

The reason is overdrive pedals compress the sound. They bring up the overall sound but limit the peaks. The overall sound might seem the same, but the transients may still be louder on the clean sound.

This is going to be important if you’re recording bands live in the studio. You don’t want the quality of sound jumping all over the place from poor gain staging.

Hitting an amp with too little signal (unless you’re rolling off with your volume knob) usually results in a sound that is muddy and has less character. There is something dead about it. It does take a while to get a feel for matching signals. Your ears will play tricks on you.

Always check your meters from when an effect is on and off. Take consideration into whether your signal path is analog or digital.

4. Piggy Back

Effects can do some unpredictable things when you mess with gain. Try sending a hot signal to some analog effects and see what happens.

Fuzz pedals can do some weird ring modulation type effects when given too little gain. Again, you have to be aware of what is digital in your signal chain (keep saying that over and over). You may even have to move effects around to keep the digital effects out of the line of fire.

Old analog phasers can sound cool overdriven. Using two compressors in a series can be awesome too. Who doesn’t like some compressor on compressor action? Don’t tell me you audio geeks haven’t thought about it!

Use the first compressor mostly as a gain device. Slam the output of Comp 1 into the input of Comp 2. This is how they got the guitar sound on “Black Dog” by Led Zeppelin. They used two 1176 compressors in series. No guitar amps used.

You can use these principles with any effects. Spring Reverbs? Analog delays? Analog chorus? Just remember, it’s rare when you want the signal lower than when going in. Only for a special effect.

Now, go get freaky with signal flow.

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Mark Marshall

Mark Marshall

Mark Marshall is a producer, songwriter, session musician and instructor based in NYC. More at guitaristmarkmarshall.com

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  • Beethovenboy

    I can’t believe “Black Dog” was recorded that way!

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