What is gain staging?
A gain stage refers to a point in a signal path where you can alter the signal’s level. Gain staging is the term used to describe the task of managing each of these levels.
When it comes to modern digital recording, proper gain staging is an important but commonly overlooked practice. With digital recording, managing the gain at each stage of the signal path is vital. That’s because it ensures that there is enough headroom to prevent the occurrence of digital clipping. Whilst the risk of clipping is reduced in some areas due to the 32 bit floating point processing that takes place in modern DAWs, there are still times when clipping can occur. This article will break down three steps to effective gain staging.
1. Don’t record too hot:
Many articles start explaining this process from a point when the audio has already been recorded. I think it’s important to include the recording itself as part of this 3 step process. That’s because many people are still recording levels unnecessarily loud. This makes proper gain staging difficult.
Unlike with analogue recording, you won’t achieve things like desirable tape saturation with a hot signal. What’s more, with the low noise floor levels of modern day 24 bit recording, you can achieve a high signal to noise ratio at conservative levels. Recording at more conservative levels introduces headroom. This massively lowers the risk of the signal clipping. For these reasons, it makes sense to achieve appropriate gain levels right from the recording stage.
2. Trim your signals:
The next thing to do is to manage the level of your signals once they’re recorded. Adding a trim plugin to the first insert point of every audio signal gives you the ability to set that signal’s gain level to an optimal value. If you’ve recorded at appropriate levels, then your tracks should already be in a really good position. But carrying out this process in addition gives you the opportunity to free up further headroom if it’s required. It also ensures that your tracks are fed to the first plugin of the signal chain at an appropriate level.
3. Gain stage your plugins:
Finally, to achieve proper gain staging, you need to manage the input and output levels of all of your plugins. Whilst this is less of a problem with the stock plugins in modern DAWs which will operate at 32 bit floating point, this remains vital for any older third party plugins that you use. Levels can change as signals travel from one plugin to the next. As you make EQ boosts or turn up the overall level of a compressor the output levels can quickly rise. This means that your signals may increase in volume and reach the next plugin too loud.
What’s more, many plugins have a ‘sweet spot’ that you should be aiming for to make them sound their best. This is done by feeding the plugin its signal at an optimal level. To achieve this, simply manage the input and output level of each plugin in your signal chain.
As you can see, if you want to perform great gain staging throughout your sessions, then just follow these three steps. Record at levels that are more appropriate to begin with. Trim your audio signals before you start mixing. Then monitor your plugins input and output levels. That way, you should ensure that your signals won’t clip, and you’ll maintain plenty of headroom. Without following each of these three steps, its almost certain that you’ll experience clipping at some point over the course of your session.
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