Kim Lajoie's blog

The most powerful tool

by Kim Lajoie on January 13, 2014

Gain (volume) is the most important and powerful tool available to the mix engineer. Each audio track is processed through a mixer channel and there are generally two points at the mixer channel where the gain can be adjusted:

  • Input gain – before any effects or other processing is
    applied. Usually this is controlled using ‘input gain’ at the top
    of the mixer channel.
  • Channel fader – after effects or other processing is applied.
  • Usually this is controlled using the channel fader at the bottom of the mixer channel.

Adjusting the input gain is important because it sets the level of the audio going into the effects chain. When working with analogue equipment, this is crucially important – too much level will result in distorted sound, too little level will result in too much noise. This is somewhat less important when working with digital equipment (especially when mixing entirely within a modern DAW) because they have a much wider dynamic range.

Regardless of whether you’re working with analogue or digital equipment (or a combination of both), it’s important to set the input gain of all channels so that the audio levels going into all the mixer channels is roughly similar. This makes it easier to balance the levels of the channels against each other and makes sure your effects further downstream behave consistently from track to track. The correct audio level depends on the mixer itself. For a lot of analogue mixers, an audio level somewhere between -12dB and 0dB is usually a good place to start. For digital mixers, around -24dB or -18dB is more appropriate. Set the input gain so that the audio is around that level when the channel fader is at its default position (also called ‘unity’) of 0dB.

The channel fader adjusts the final level of the audio after it has been processed. This is the control that the mix engineer uses to determine which audio tracks will be heard louder than others. While the input gain is largely a technical setting, the channel fader is a much more creative setting. This is where the focus of the mix (and the listener’s ear) is determined. It the biggest factor that determines whether a sound is in the foreground and background. The important thing to understand here is that not everything can be loud, not everything can be in the foreground.

-Kim.

4 thoughts on “The most powerful tool

  1. Frank Nitsch says:

    Hi Kim,

    thanx for this post. I’ve seen a tutorial video from Dezz Asante about this topic recently: http://www.techmuzeacademy.com/a-simple-trick-to-maintain-headroom-in-your-mixes/
    It makes sense to do this first step while preparing for the actual mixing phase.
    As you can see in the comments to Dezz’ recommendation there is some confusion about the best way to achieve the standard level. Dezz does it track by track after listening to the whole song and reading the peak values, others use the normalize function on the waves. Being a fan of non destructive editing I wouldn’t want to normalize any files as long as there’s another way to achieve the same. If I decide later to add a track or to do some overdub in a track, normalizing would make things more complicated than necessary.
    However I’m not sure, how to handle multiple takes recorded in multiple tracks. Usually I would put such take tracks into a folder for that instrument. Btw: I’m using Reaper…
    Effects would rather be added to the folder track. Wouldn’t it be enough to use the gain of the folder track instead of adjusting each individual contained tracks?
    Would you like to share with us, how you do it in detail?

    Thanx for another great advice.

    Take care

    Frank

  2. Kim Lajoie says:

    Thanks for the link, Frank. Maybe I should write a post about my approach to gain staging. The short answer is: I never move my mix bus fader from 0dBfs. My monitoring gain (post mix-bus) is fixed at -18dBfs for recording and mixing, and -36dBfs for mastering. This lets me work at a comfortable listening level while maintaining predictable headroom.

    When individual tracks are too loud or too quiet, I simply use the channel gain control (not the fader) to bring them to a manageable level.

    -Kim.

  3. Halma says:

    Hey Kim,

    gainstaging indeed is pretty important concept for me too. So to make it easier for other people to grab this concept too would you it be possible to correct your initial post with proper scales?
    I think you meant dBFS for the digital domain and iirc dBVU for the anlog one. And I am not quite sure but maybe people should check out if they have to offset the Meter inside their DAW. Most DAWs I tried had the good old +6dbVU analog overshot as default and I am not sure if that actually affects the metering (-12dBVU = -18dBFS so -18dbVU=-24dBFS if you would use a -18dBFS setting on a VU meter).

    Other than that some nice postings on your blog. 🙂

    Regards
    Sebastian

  4. Kim Lajoie says:

    Hi Sebastian, thanks for reading the post and commenting. This post is not meant to be a specific instruction – it’s a guide and a starting point for thinking about gain staging. There are so many variables that are dependent on people’s specific equipment and workflow.

    -kim.

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