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Gain Staging 101

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Gain Staging 101
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Hey folks, Matthew Weiss here — weiss-sound.com, theproaudiofiles.com.

This video is coming to you by popular demand. It is about gain staging, but before I get started, don’t forget to check out the description below, there’s some links to some really great in depth full length tutorials that you’re going to want to click, check out, and buy.

Alright, let’s get started, what is gain staging? Well, gain staging is the management of levels at each step in a signal chain in order to stay above a noise floor, and stay below clipping and distortion. What does that mean?

Well, in the analog world, every piece of componentry that we have is going to produce a little bit of noise, notably tape machines will produce a certain degree of hiss, but every component along the way is going to produce a little something of something.

Now, on the flip side of things, if we push our levels too loud, we’re going to get into the world of distortion, because there’s only so much voltage that any piece of componentry can take. So when we’re managing our levels, we’re making sure that we stay well above the noise floor, but below our distortion.

This is an analog concept, mainly because there’s just a lot of places along a fully analog chain where we can get noise, or we can get distortion, so for example, if I was recording this through a tape machine, and then re-recording back to tape for the mix down, I would be hitting a microphone preamp, compressor, EQs along the channel strip of the console, back into the tape machine, from the tape machine back into the console, whatever other EQs, various faders along the way that I might hit, and then back to a tape machine again. That’s a lot of componentry.

However, because my setup is primarily a simple signal chain, it’s just a microphone going into a preamp going into an interface, there’s really not a lot of risk of hitting distortion or noise, as long as I stay anywhere within the reasonable realm of recording.

So when we get into the digital world, this is even less the case, because digital doesn’t necessarily have componentry. It has some analog modeling maybe at certain points, but overall, we don’t really have components, and so gain staging in the digital world is a really very different concept. It’s almost not technically correct, although we use it so much that we might as well colloquially assume that there is something called digital gain staging.

Well, what does that mean? It means that we still have to manage our levels, it’s just that that management is a much wider concept, and much easier to deal with. Yeah, there is sort of a noise floor in the digital world, it’s called quantization error, and it happens when we reduce the bits that are being read on a signal so low, that the actual rounding of where the amplitude should be becomes skewed, and we get all sorts of weird frequency abnormalities.

That happens way, way down. You really have to knock your signal down like, 70 decibels to even really begin to notice that kind of a thing happening, but on the flip side, we have very, very significant clipping that can occur in the digital world. In the digital world, we have a ceiling. It’s an absolute level in which we can no longer pass, and that’s called zero decibels Full Scale. It’s called Full Scale because there’s a cap, and once we go above that cap in amplitude, any signal above that just becomes distortion, and so we have to be wary not to go into that realm unless we’re very specifically trying to get that sound for some particular reason, which spoiler alert, we’re usually not. That’s pretty rare.

So how does that apply to our regular workflow? Well, our regular workflow, we just have to know that we need room to work. The biggest mistake that I see especially of producers who are just starting out who aren’t wary of these things is they just load in their sampler, and they go for it. And why wouldn’t you? You would think that everything would work correctly, but unfortunately, that is not really the case.

We start running into ceiling problems very fast, and for that, I’m going to flip over to Studio One, and I have Native Instruments Battery pulled up.

Now, Native Instruments Battery does subscribe to the volume reduction that happens when you load a sample into a sampler for MIDI purposes, but you’ll quickly see that having loaded this sample in and having not turned up the level in any way, if I simply click it…

[kick]

Any hard click sets off this little red light. That means that I’m clipping the sample, and all I’m doing is pressing it.

[kick]

Well, okay, how do we work around this? How do we avoid setting things off? The answer to that is we have to manually adjust the level of every sample that we load up, which kind of sucks, and I wish that there was a way around it, because it would certainly keep people who don’t know this stuff from accidentally clipping, but in order to preserve our space, we need to turn this down, and I recommend turning it down 10 to 12dB. So now when I hit this…

[kick]

Even when I tap as hard as possible, if I had a velocity sensor and I was really hitting it as hard as possible, I’ve still left myself with plenty of room before I start clipping.

Now, I know a lot of people want this stuff to be as loud as possible. Don’t worry, at the end of everything that we do, we can always turn things back up, it’s not going to make a difference. What we don’t want to do is accidentally clip and distort our sounds and mess with things in a way that’s unintended.

Now, I’m going to flip over to Fruity Loops here.

Fruity Loops is going to give us the same thing with the sampler. It’s going to naturally lower the volume, but because we’re not doing any velocity work inherently, then we’re not going to clip right away, but here, I’ve taken my pattern and I’ve made it so that this first hit is at maximum velocity, and these subsequent hits are at the default velocity.

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[kick]

And you can see that on that first hit, we are just touching into the red. It’s getting right up there.

So we are already just naturally clipping by loading the sample in and turning the velocity all the way up. Even if we have the velocity down, this is still a little problematic, because if we go over here into our mixer window and we play this…

[kick]

We see that we don’t really have any room to work, so even if we weren’t clipping, even if everything was at our regular velocity, as soon as we start trying to turn something up, we run into a problem.

[kick]

All I’ve done is given my kick a little bit more bass, and suddenly I’m clipping again, and now clipping on one element, not the worst thing in the world, not preferable, but you know, it’s fairly unnoticeable to the untrained ear at least. The problem is that when we have everything coming together, that clipping on that one element is going to hit our master channel, and it’s going to clip all elements. So we are going to get harmonic distortion across everything that’s happening, and that’s going to make things sound cheap, to be honest.

It also kind of messes with our dynamics a little bit, and so things are going to lose punch, so the solution to getting our gain staging right is actually very simple. All we have to do when we load up our samples is make sure that the volume is turned down enough that we can work, and here’s the beautiful thing about the digital world.

We can really turn the volume down quite a bit. If at the end of the day, our volume is coming through really low…

[kick]

We can just turn up the master channel before clipping, or we can turn up our individual channels and put a limiter on our master channel to make sure that we don’t clip.

[kick]

So the bottom line is we don’t have to overthink the idea of gain staging. Gain staging is just where the levels are showing up at various points, whether it’s at our inserts, like our EQs, or our sends, or whatever they may be, or at the master channel, or at the source itself, but the solution to all of it comes down to one thing and one thing only, and that is just turn your primary signals down. Whatever you’re starting with, just turn it down 10 to 12dB.

Here, I’m working on a mix. I’ve got everything from it’s initial point turned down 7dB, and I’ve done some additional gain staging here to get some of these vocals to be up a little bit louder, and so when I play this…

[mix]

I have plenty of room to work, and at the end of the day, I can always just grab a limiter and turn the signal up.

[music]

And it gets plenty loud.

Alright guys, that’s pretty much all you need to know about gain staging, maybe we’ll have a slightly more technical conversation in the comments below, but I really don’t want to make this overwhelmingly jargon-y or technical, I just want to get the message across — turn your initial sounds down so that you can turn things up when you’re working. You have that flexibility without clipping.

That’s pretty much it. So if you liked this video, hit that thumbs up, if you want to check out more videos from this channel, hit the subscribe button, click that bell so that you get notifications, and don’t forget to check the description below where I get really involved in a lot of different subjects and some full lengths, and I will catch you next time.

Take care.

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Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss is the recordist and mixer for multi-platinum artist Akon, and boasts a Grammy nomination for Jazz & Spellemann Award for Best Rock album. Matthew has mixed for a host of star musicians including Akon, SisQo, Ozuna, Sonny Digital, Uri Caine, Dizzee Rascal, Arrested Development and 9th Wonder. Get in touch: Weiss-Sound.com

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